Famous inventor Thomas Edison is probably the most experienced note-taker in the world. His diary which is still maintained as an important part of the United States historical record contains five million (5,000,000) pages. Important developments such as his work on perfecting the light bulb and electric lighting systems are captured in great detail. He never met a sheet of paper he didn’t like.
What lessons can we take from his work today, a century later? How did his note-taking help him to become the world’s most famous inventor with over a thousand (1093) U.S. patents in his name for a wide range of technologies from movie cameras and phonographs to cement making and electric lighting? In short, what made his note-taking and filing system so great?
Edison’s system was developed to support his life work and was very successful in doing so. The main elements of his system are as follows:
- Any useful or important development was recorded so that no effort was wasted in repeating experiments or efforts unnecessarily. Edison’s method was once described as an “empirical dragnet” by Nikola Tesla, another famous inventor who worked for Edison for some time. Combining Edison’s hard working and hard thinking methods with an effective record creation and retention system was a very important aspect of his work.
- Forward-looking. Edison’s notes included the forward-looking things we tend to incorporate in many of our modern personal planners. Things like lists of contacts, appointments, “to do” lists, and actionable items for follow up or later review were all contained within his comprehensive system.
- Rearward-looking. The ability to go back and check his written record was useful in several ways. He was able to use his records in various lawsuits filed against him and by him against others as evidence and to substantiate his claims. His competitors were often unable to compete with his records so he often came out victorious in these legal battles. He was always able to review past work and avoid repeatedly going down dead-end roads. He could always review whatever he had said or was told. He never had to remember most things as long as he could remember how to look it up later.
- The record system was searchable. Sometimes, from among millions of pages, there would be a key document that would prove invaluable. Unfortunately, with his manual system, he often spent considerable time searching through these records looking for the key item. He did however have a fairly good system of archiving his records by a combination of chronological and subject matter based systems. He created numerous groupings, files, folders, etc. which helped him to get to the right part of his records in a reasonably short time.
- Who, what, where, when and how much. These details could be fairly easily retrieved from Edison’s system in relation to any aspect of whatever he was involved with. These included financial records and they formed an important part of his note-taking system. He kept all his incoming as well as copies of all his outgoing correspondence. This was not necessarily easy to do before the invention of the modern office copier.
- How and why. Edison’s research laboratory work was a focal point for much of his record system. Patent applications and reviews were based in large part on his notes that needed to include the how and why aspects in sufficient detail so that the patents themselves would be complete and able to withstand any legal challenges. Edison often used his records to defend his position from competitors in his day when patents and technologies were becoming very fashionable and important as they remain today. His system of experimentation and related record keeping has become the basis of the modern industrial research institution – which he is widely credited with having invented.
- Extremely powerful memory aid. Edison had an amazing memory. He was well informed on a wide range of topics and always seemed to be able to recall what he told someone or what he was told. Much of this is due to his system of notes. By writing everything down that he thought was worth writing, he was able to free himself of the burden of having to remember it. A strange and almost unexpected thing occurs. The process of writing things down aids in the mental memory retention. The combination of having the confidence in knowing the information is on record and easily retrievable combined with the improved retention from the process of writing it down, creates a winning combination when it comes to memory.
How can we improve upon Edison’s system using today’s technologies? Obviously, we have invented the ball point pen to replace his messy quill and ink bottle so that notes can be written in real time. In his day, he perfected the typewriter. Today, we are no longer committed to getting stuff onto paper as the final form of record retention. Vast portions of Edison’s original archives have recently been digitized and can be viewed online. This eliminates the need for mothballs and maintaining rooms full of old papers that can only be studied by someone showing up and going through them one page at a time.
How does your system compare to Edison’s? His was comprehensive and scalable to wherever his interests lay. Is your system similarly scalable? What about the content? How much of the information in your system has objectively measurable value? Edison kept everything and it all went up in value as his overall fame and power grew. How valuable has the information in your system become (or is becoming)? How scalable is your system as your interests change (whether expanding of shifting to other areas)? Edison always used the best available technology to maintain his records as efficiently as he thought they could be maintained. Have you similarly employed sound technologies for taking and keeping your notes?
Edison certainly subscribed to the philosophy that if life is worth living, it is worth writing about. At five million pages, he was at the extreme end of this. He did live a long, prosperous life. And he lived it quite fully since he always seemed to have something to write about.