When Thomas A. Edison was a young man in the late 1860s, he made the same mistake that many of today’s novice inventors make: he concentrated all of his efforts on developing and patenting an invention without first doing a thorough market study to see if it had a good chance of being a commercial success.
Edison’s first patented invention was a legislative vote recorder (US Patent No. 90,646). The device was surprisingly innovative, enabling legislators to cast their votes in record time. It made the entire voting process far more efficient than the system of roll call voting that was employed at the time. Edison had no doubt that it would be a commercial success. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want something that was efficient and saved time?
Pumped full of optimism, Edison took the embodiment of his invention to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate it before a congressional committee. He was shocked to find that no one on the committee was impressed with what he’d done. And to add insult to injury, the Chairman of the committee could not resist saying, “If there is any invention on Earth that we don’t want down here, that is it.” Swallowing his pride, Edison was forced to abandon his invention.
If Edison had taken the time to study the market prior to proceeding with his invention, he would have discovered that it would be a foolish waste of time and money to pursue development of the vote recorder past the preliminary concept phase. But the political process was not something he was familiar with, much less the slow pace of roll call voting that Congress employed. He was unaware that this political maneuvering enabled politicians to easily filibuster bills and make deals behind the scenes in order to sway votes. He would find out too late that his was a notion they did not care to support.
After his vote recorder demonstration crashed and burned, Edison vowed to only work on inventions that people actually wanted to buy. He ultimately created the world’s first industrial research laboratory that pumped out thousands of inventions that made him a millionaire and created a technological legacy that remains with us today.