Seminal or Famous – Edison’s Medicine

The idea for this post is A) an extension of my post on success yesterday and B) driven by a historical fact I used as a social media post today.

Today in 1931, Thomas Edison passed away. Edison is hailed as the “inventor” of such things as the light bulb, phonograph and kintescope just to name a few. However, it has been proven that Edison really didn’t invent these things – but piggy backed off the work of Nicola Tesla and took credit for much of what Tesla invented. There are those who say this is revisionist history and conspiratorial nonsense – but there is no denying that Tesla’s work and ideas are directly responsible for the invention of the items noted above. It’s also worth noting that while Edison was hailed as an American legend – Tesla ended up dying impoverished. In the late 80’s, the rock band Tesla perfectly captures this story in their song “Edison’s Medicine”.

The dichotomy between Tesla and Edison got me thinking about two concepts – seminal and famous. Seminal is defined as work that strongly defines future developments; while famous, as we all know, can be best defined by Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton. Famous can be a double-edged sword – sometimes you are famous for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons and sometimes for no reason at all – see the gif below.


Another example of seminal is the story of the band, Big Star. Formed in the early 70’s in Memphis, Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and Jody Stephens created what should have been an all-time great band. As things went, they never tasted success – but years later, bands that went onto become successful always cited Big Star as a major influence on their music. These bands included REM and The Replacements, plus such 90’s staples as the Lemonheads. If you are fan of TV, then you’ll surely know one Big Star song – the theme from “That 70’s Show”.

70's show.gif

So which is better – being seminal or famous? As I noted in my piece yesterday, famous always is tinged with the materialistic success. Edison profited off the brilliance of Tesla and is credited for ideas that were not his. The band mentioned above referenced Big Star as a major influence – but tasted material success. Yet Tesla and Big Star had a greater effect on future events through their brilliance and ideas – minus the material gains. Does this make them not successful?

In the opinion of this blogger, being seminal is a bigger accomplishment. If your work and ideas influence future generations and revolutionize the field you work in, even if you are not a huge material success – you are successful. Think about that for a moment. If some marketing firm in 20 years based much of their strategy on your ideas and profit from it – are they not profiting from your work. How is that not successful? To be seminal means to be, to borrow from Edison’s Medicine – to be a man out of time, but to be one of a kind.

Those like Edison, who benefited from the brilliance of others, are famous – but in my estimation not successful. Sure they profited off the idea – but the idea was not theirs. As the quote from the cover photo perfectly illustrates.. ” I don’t care that they stole my idea… I care that they don’t have any of their own.” It’s a lot like Paris Hilton. Financially a huge success – but is she really a success story? She’s more like a cautionary tale of what not to do to become famous.

In closing, I encourage all of you reading this blog to covet your ideas and their application as what defines success. We all want to make a few bucks of them – but it’s the purity of the idea that matters. And we should care that others who are considered famous – have no ideas of their own – and this negates any value to their contributions to society.


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