Thomas Edison is widely regarded as the greatest inventor of his time, accumulating over 1,000 U.S. patents to his name. Today, inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk is quickly working to have as much of an impact on the world as his hero did.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Edison's inventions forever changed the course of human history. His incandescent light bulb robbed the night of darkness worldwide and is today a staple of civilization. His phonograph and motion picture camera gave birth to recorded music, the film industry, and a new era of mass communications. He fathered the modern industrialized world by creating a system to bring electric power to homes and businesses. He changed our way of life.
Elon Musk, the 42-year-old American billionaire from South Africa, is hard at work to further improve the human condition. Musk's keen mind, like Edison's once was, is set on many different projects. After graduating with degrees in economics and physics, Musk set out to solve the "important problems that would most affect the future of humanity." Namely, he went for the Internet, clean and sustainable energy, and space. From this focus he created PayPal, SpaceX (which launches advanced rockets into space), Tesla Motors, Solar City, and the new Hyperloop concept which is "a solar-powered, city-to-city elevated transit system that could take passengers and cars from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes."
While one of his well-known companies is named for Nikola Tesla, another famous inventor, Musk has cited Edison to be his primary role model. What set Edison apart from many other inventors throughout history, including Tesla, is that he was also a shrewd businessman and energetic entrepreneur. He created the first industrial research laboratory, focusing on how to make his inventions work for the betterment of humanity. "Edison brought his stuff to market and made those inventions accessible to the world," said Musk, praising his hero. Edison would not have been as successful if he did not push his inventions to the public.
So far, Musk has set the stage for some major advancements in human technology. SpaceX is widely regarded as the most successful of the private space companies and will be one of the major factors in the future of space travel and, if Musk gets his way, space colonization as well. Tesla Motors is set to finally create electric cars as Musk rolls out his charger grid across the nation. SolarCity is busy at work providing Americans with easier access to clean energy.
This week saw Musk release plans for his proposed Hyperloop. He is releasing his plans without patents — the serial inventor thinks that patents restrict the ability of mankind to improve things and says he only supports patent claims when they are essential the existence of a company.
The Hyperloop might not come to fruition. SolarCity and Tesla may go bankrupt. SpaceX might be overcome by competition. The way things look, though, Musk is setting up himself, his inventions, and the human race for success. And, yes, "Failure is an option here," he said. "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."
Edison himself faced many failures in his life. Each time, he learned a lesson and kept on working his magic.
"Being able to talk to people over long distances, to transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data like an oracle. These are all things that would have been considered magic a few hundred years ago," says Musk. "So engineering is, for all intents and purposes, magic, and who wouldn't want to be a magician?"
Thomas Edison was called the Wizard of Menlo Park in his day. Musk is one of the greatest wizards of our day. It will be great to see what magic he is able to dazzle us with over the coming years.