It's hard to choose which of Edison's inventions was most impressive. He had 1,093 US patents for products as varied as the light bulb (which became a symbol of innovation), phonograph, radio, and even something akin to a motion picture projector.
I think that his biggest invention, though, was something completely different. As it turns out, Edison did not "invent" all these things. His really big invention was the first industrial Research & Development lab. Edison did not share credit with his employees and lived in a time when people were more ready to attribute inventions to a single genius than a group of cooperative scientists and engineers. What we think of as Edison's inventions were sometimes his own and sometimes his employees.
The R&D lab was a social invention that allowed a plethora of technological inventions. And Edison's lab became a model for in-house R&D labs that sprung up within modern corporations and universities that were themselves social inventions. With the R&D lab, we institutionalized technological innovation.
Technological invention is a novel design that allows parts to do jointly what they could not do on their own.
A social invention is a novel design that allows people to do jointly what they could not do on their own.
Both social (banks and stock markets) and technological inventions (steam engines and trains) have the potential to enable.
Edison's lab was not the first social invention that spawned so many technological inventions, though. In 1623, England passed a law that granted monopoly powers to technological inventors, what we now call patent law. Within a century, in 1699, the steam engine had been invented and the industrial revolution began.
The result of the industrial revolution? The first per capita increase in income in about 6,000 years. Social invention is as important to progress as technological invention.
Edison's lab marked a huge shift, from merely encouraging invention (with patent law) to actually sponsoring invention (with R&D labs that made invention normal work).
In the West, we no longer violently resist social invention, as we did with the invention of new forms of church and government during the Protestant Revolution and democratic revolutions. We encourage social invention in the business world, encourage and reward entrepreneurs. What we don't do, though, is sponsor it. That is, in terms of social invention we are closer to the conditions for technological invention prior to Edison's R&D lab.
Given how much social invention can change and improve lives, perhaps it is time that we moved from merely tolerating or encouraging it to actually sponsoring it. And maybe the big social invention that could help with this is getting serious about turning our corporations into business incubators and changing the role of employee to something more akin to entrepreneur.
And yes, this is one of the big ideas behind The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization.