In Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is a software design firm called Menlo Innovations. Rich Sheridan, the founder, has modeled his firm's operations after Thomas Edison's practices at his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory between 1876 and 1882; thus, the firm's name. Sheridan was inspired, he says, by visiting the installation of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. He has gained further insight by closely reading Working at Inventing: Thomas A. Edison and the Menlo Park Experience (Pretzer, 1989), a collection of essays on Edison's work practices. Sheridan walks around with copies of Edison biographies and excitedly points out where he has marked ideas, practices, events, or experiences that his firm shares with Edison's.
The firm is housed in a single-room storefront, with walls festooned with posters and insightful quotes from various inventors. A small library with comfortable chairs faces the street. Workers sit at long tables stretching the length of the room in full view and hearing of others. Pairs, sometimes trios, of young programmers share a single computer, batting ideas back and forth as quickly as a Pong machine. Students from the University of Michigan wander in and are invited to sit in on work sessions. Sometimes they show up repeatedly, taking advantage of the informal internship opportunity. More than one has been contacted months later and offered work. The three-year-old firm now does more than $3 million a year in business and is expanding from its one-room storefront space to a large, open loft that Sheridan calls his "West Orange" (Edison's second and much larger laboratory established in West Orange, New Jersey in 1886). Sheridan himself has been featured on the cover of Fortune magazine. Are there lessons in this Edison-inspired environment for today's technology educators?
Edison: An Inspirational Role Model
Reflecting back over a century ago to the small village of Menlo Park, New Jersey provides insight into a remarkable visionary and an exceptional role model for today's problem-solving and design-focused technology educator: Thomas A. Edison, inventor, innovator, and model technology educator. Since Edison could not simply apply existing knowledge to industrial ends, he was forced to develop a system for creating new knowledge, disseminating it amongst his team, and then discovering how to apply that new knowledge. His was not just a research and development operation, it was a learning community.
The key to capitalizing on Edison's success as an inventor and educator is to recognize that he pioneered a systematic, but flexible, team-based approach to inventing, designing, and problem-solving. Edison was famous for once commenting about his Menlo Park facility, "We don't have any rules here; we're trying to get something done." Edison nevertheless followed a general pattern in his work.
Choosing to tackle a technological project, Edison first determined that there was indeed public demand for a solution. Early in his career, he learned that there was no need to invent something that no one was willing to pay for. Market research was still unheard of, so Edison gauged interest from the public reactions to other inventors' activities and the level of support from investors.
He then researched what was known and previously attempted in addressing the issues at hand. Often this entailed sending a young associate to the library he maintained at Menlo Park to research a topic in technical literature and public media, with instructions to report directly to Edison everything the associate had learned about a topic in two weeks or so. Many technology educators today employ a similar, project-based system for directing student research.
Next, Edison determined a general research direction--a mental model--that seemed, based on his own and others' experience, to offer the most promise. Breaking the problem down into discrete pieces but never losing sight of the systemic character of technology, Edison's team members learned from each investigational experiment and narrowed their approach as they went. …