Inventor Thomas Edison employed several assistants to help him develop and construct many of his inventions. Edison hired people with little education because “smart people knew too many ways a thing won’t work”. Edison provided the core ideas but the assistants and proteges did the actual physical work of building the gadgets and devices.
Edison’s employees were subjected to overly long work days that frequently extended into the night. He was also very tight-fisted with payroll, his employees toiled for little compensation. Edison often told his workers he only wanted employees who wanted to work for him just for the experience of working with him. Edison made it clear that he was the one to do the thinking and they were to do exactly what he told them to do. Edison also had a mean streak that was often manifested through practical jokes. We can imagine that Edison had a very high employee turnover rate.
In order to maintain the numbers of employees in his laboratory, Edison sometimes held local contests in order to screen applicants for employment. One of the most noteworthy contests took place in West Orange County in New Jersey, on August 1, 1929. Edison needed 49 new proteges. His test included basic educational background questions about chemistry, geography, history, and science.
He also asked about the applicants’ ethical beliefs. For instance: Is it ever permissible to tell a lie? Would the applicant ever choose professional success at the expense of comfort, reputation, pride, honor, health, love, or happiness. This question should have been a warning to prospective employees.
Edison’s last question was, “What new discovery or invention do you believe would be of greatest benefit to mankind?”
Have you ever pondered the many manufactured things we take for granted? How about the ideas that have enabled those products. What about the major concepts that have made our world more humane and civilized?
This morning, I leaned back and fantasized that I was applying for one of Thomas Edison’s slave-like jobs. I asked myself what has humankind developed that is truly of greatest benefit to mankind?
We’ve thought up many concepts and ways that are ultimately harmful to mankind. Some obvious ones come to mind like warfare and weapons of death. There are borderline things like vice and propaganda. What has been developed that has done much more good than harm?
Right off the bat, I believe that tools are the basic things we have had to improve our odds of basic survival. Although other animals have discovered rudimentary tools, humans are far and away the main inventors of tools. Practically everything we need to survive in modern society came about because of tools or is a tool, itself.
Although fire happens all by itself, humans discovered how to contain and control fire in order to utilize it. We can use fire to refine metals, heat our living spaces, and provide light. Without fire or heat, we couldn’t have cooking, another discovery of great importance. Of course, fire can be used for good or ill. I think our controlled use of fire is a good thing overall.
A few ancient civilizations independently developed the concept of plumbing. Archaeologists have discovered ancient sewer systems in such places as China, Rome, and the Americas. Water has been brought into cities and buildings via aqueducts and pipes for centuries. It’s obvious how these have greatly contributed to our overall well-being.
Basic medicine along with anesthetics have been extremely important developments. When things go wrong with our bodies, we need to have repairs and healing. Obviously, the science of medicine is one of the best developments.
The most basic development and invention of all time is language. Without the ability to speak, there would be no way to pass along and work together to develop technology and civilization. First, we passed along information by way of word of mouth. Next, and more importantly, we came up with language and writing. If there were no communication skills and ways to preserve our thoughts, society and civilization, as we know it, would be absolutely impossible.
It was on these basics that further inventions were developed as refinements. For instance, the taming of electricity has been akin to our taming of fire. Electrical and electronic communication is a refinement of couriers, smoke signals, and jungle drums. Computers and the Internet are refinements of libraries and telephony.
Out of all of Edison’s ideas, he believed his greatest invention was the phonograph. Even that was a refinement of other inventors’ concepts. Edison liked the phonograph best, because it brought music and the spoken word into people’s homes. In other words, the phonograph unquestionably improved people’s lives.
So, what might we think of to incontestably improve the lot of humanity? What might we improve upon or conceive out of thin air that will greatly enhance all of our lives? Will it be a refinement of nanotechnology? Perhaps a quantum leap regarding the Internet? It will probably be a total surprise out of left field.
Who will be the next Thomas Edison? More importantly, who will be the next Nikola Tesla, who once worked for Edison?
Will there be another person who imagines unique, earth-shaking concepts, fully formed, ready for development? Will the next giant leap for humanity come from an advanced super computing robot?
Taking only the highest ethics into account, what do you think will be the next development that will be of greatest benefit to mankind?