Edison and Swan: Patents in the Real World

There are countless papers written about Thomas Edison and his lightbulb invention. Edison is hailed as a prodigious inventor, with over 1000 US patents. However, the story of the lightbulb has several interesting lessons to teach.

Having a Patent Does *NOT* Mean You Have a Monopoly. It Means You Have a Trading Card.

Contrary to the oversimplified myths of Edison and the lightbulb, Edison was the 20th person to get a patent on a lightbulb. There were many other people who had lightbulb patents before Edison.

The key to Edison’s patent was that he got a patent on the filament, not the general concept of the lightbulb.

It turns out that Edison’s filament worked great with a vacuum bulb, which is what Joseph Swan invented ahead of Edison.

Because Swan had a patent on the glass bulb with a vacuum – and Edison had a patent on a long-lasting filament – there was a stalemate. Joseph Swan could sell lightbulbs, but not with Edison’s filament. And Edison could not sell lightbulbs without Swan’s vacuum bulb.

Edison’s patent did not give him a monopoly. It gave him a trading card.

Because both inventors needed each other’s technologies, their patents gave them a way to join forces and create EdiSwan Corporation. EdiSwan has transformed itself over the years, and is now known as Siemens.

The Best Inventions do not come from a Flash of Inspiration, They Come From Hard Work.

Many inventors like to think that their ‘great’ ideas came in a flash of brilliance, but patents from the ‘flash of brilliance’ are often thin and ill-formed.

Edison’s lightbulb filament invention were the results of over 1000 tedious, time-consuming experiments. This was not a result of some flash of brilliance. It was the result of hard work.

It is easy to say “I want a patent on a self-driving car!” But it is another thing completely to put in the hundreds of thousands of hours of engineering effort to create one.

The good inventions – like Edison’s filament patent – come from hours of hard work and experimentation, not some “great idea” that popped into an inventor’s head.

Genrich Altshuller, a Soviet-era scientist, created TRIZ, a systematic method for inventing. TRIZ in Russian means “the theory of inventive problem solving.” Altshuller evaluated over 200,000 patents and classified each of them for novelty or “Levels of Inventiveness.” His “Levels of Inventiveness” is a measure of novelty and importance:

Level 1 patents took less than 10 experiments to find a solution, and account for 32% of all patents. These are very basic solutions to common problems.

Level 2 patents took up to 100 experiments to find a solution, and account for 45% of all patents. These inventions are not well known in the industry, but do not take knowledge from another industry or technology to solve.

Level 3 patents took up to 1000 experiments and account for 18% of all patents. These inventions take engineering knowledge from other fields to find a solution.

Level 4 patents take up to 10,000 experiments and account for a mere 4% of all patents. These inventions use science that is new to a technology or industry, usually involving a radical new principle of operation.

Level 5 patents take up to 10,000,000 experiments and account for less than 1% of all patents. These inventions are extraordinarily rare and involve discoveries of new scientific phenomena.

Edison’s lightbulb filament patent is a workman-like Level 3 patent, taking about 1000 experiments to find a solution.

In my book, “Investing in Patents,” I have a checklist that uses these parameters to score an invention, and I used Altschuller’s Levels of Inventiveness as one of the parameters. You can download the checklist here.