I happened to visit the Thomas Edison Laboratories in West Orange this past weekend with my two young daughters. It was fantastic: if you'll pardon the light-bulb pun, a truly "illuminating" experience.
Even though I've studied Edison's life and even once produced a video about him, I was delighted to learn several new things about our state's most legendary innovator. For example, I never knew he was involved in making portable batteries for electric cars.
That's right. Over 100 years ago, our native genius wasn't just envisioning electric cars, he was wrestling with the same issues of weight, reliability and power that today's innovators are finally starting to overcome. (How remarkable to see the similarities between Edison and Elon Musk of Tesla — a company named after Edison's arch rival.)
Strikingly, Ford had worked for Edison as an engineer for the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company, and earned a patent for an innovative carburetor while still there. Early on, Edison evidently encouraged Ford's work on electric cars, and Ford hoped to use Edison's batteries. Edison came to denounce the idea of cars running on gasoline, arguing that electricity would be cleaner and quieter. Notwithstanding this, the two ultimately became fast friends, neighbors and camping buddies.
If all this seems reminiscent of the way technology "frenemies" compete and cooperate today, it certainly is. And if it all seems reminiscent of the way large technology organizations — such as Edison's — spin off unanticipated companies and entire industries, well, you'd be right about that, too.
Here in New Jersey, you needn't look far to see thriving technology ecosystems behaving much like Edison and Ford did. As one of many examples, consider the communities of innovators that sprung up around Marc Lore's Quidsi and later Jet.com — and those that may follow in the wake of Jet's exit.
As for cars, after a century-long detour, Edison's vision of the electric car is now being realized at scale — thanks to battery technology refined and improved by great companies like our own Newark-based Panasonic Corporation.
I look forward to showing my daughters many other great inventions hailing from our great state. We are, of course, the home of Einstein, of Sarnoff/RCA and of Bell Laboratories. But we're also the home of thousands more innovations being developed at our corporations and universities right now. Some of them will someday be spoken of with the same awe as Edison's.
That's a bold claim, but Edison's laboratories point to one reason I'm so confident about this. Edison well was well known for his "muckers": the wildly diverse teams of scientists, technicians, and others who came together to make his inventions happen. That's how it is here in New Jersey, where our technology companies bring together world-class innovators from everywhere. We're great at inventing partly because we're unusually good at diversity.
Not enough of us know New Jersey's extraordinary global impact on technology and biotech. We need to spread the word about the richness of our history, and the amazing talent of our people. That's why, as part of our 20th Anniversary year, the Tech Council has launched a brand-new Innovation Video Contest for students. It's also why we'll be honoring the contest winners as well as New Jersey's leading innovators on November 17, at our 20th Awards Celebration.