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Commencement Addresses

Hail the Innovators!

  • Date: 12/18/2004
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Now that you have graduated, a world of discoveries lies at your doorstep; a world of opportunities; a world of choices.

    But please understand that every choice involves an element of risk, and that it is education that enables you to weigh the risks inherent in opportunity. Indeed, the rational process of risk-taking is what drives contemporary society.
    (Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, October 1996)

    Playing it safe is not the answer. Playing it safe is what John F. Kennedy once called a "comfortable inaction."

    Indeed, the safe road is often the road to mediocrity; it means regression towards the mean; and an unwillingness to take a risk can be risky, because if you do not ask, if you do not try, the answer is always NO!

    Risk, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, taking risks and achieving success usually go together, because from risk comes innovation, and "Innovation," writes author Harold Evans, "is in (America's) DNA."
    (Evans, Harold, "From Steam Engine to Search Engine," The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2004)

    Typical of many innovators is the fact that "more of them were (and are) fired by an ambition to be remembered for achieving something worthwhile than for making money."
    (Evans, Ibid)

    So, let us hail the innovators - those risk-takers who are willing to venture forth, and "boldly go where no one has gone before."

    One such innovator was Thomas Edison - an Ohioan with many local connections including the fact that his in-laws lived in Akron.

    This year marks the 125th anniversary of Edison's incandescent light bulb, which still is considered among the greatest innovations of all times.

    The idea of electric light had been around for 50 years before Edison succeeded in making it work. However, to achieve success in finding the right filament, Edison went through more than 3,000 failed experiments without giving up. In fact, he often told his critics that each failure actually was a success, because he was moving closer to the solution by a process of elimination.

    But his work on the incandescent lamp only scratched the surface of his genius.

    As Harold Evans recently noted, being an innovator requires more than good ideas. "The innovator," he tells us, "has to bring the brainwave to market, and that, more than invention, is the distinctive characteristic of America."
    (Evans, Harold, "From Steam Engine to Search Engine," The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2004)

    Edison, the innovator, accomplished that...and so much more.

    "In less than three years (after inventing his light bulb, Edison)...built a central power station in a dilapidated warehouse he found (on)...Pearl Street and illuminated 85 premises in lower Manhattan."
    (Evans, Ibid)

    "That means (he had) installed the labor and machinery to produce vacuum bulbs in quantity; designed and manufactured his own dynamos economically to convert steam power to electrical energy; ensured an even flow of current; connected a 14-mile network of underground wiring; insulated the wiring against moisture and electrical shocks; designed commercially efficient motors to use electricity in daylight hours for elevators, printing presses, lathes, fans and the like; designed and installed meters to measure individual consumptions; and invented and manufactured switches, sockets, fuses, distributing boxes and lamp holders."
    (Evans, Ibid)

    "He put up most of the capital himself and marketed electricity against opposition from aggressive gas companies."

    "What enterprise! What courage!"
    (Evans, Ibid)

    What innovation!

    Edison not only lighted Manhattan, but he enlightened the world as we went.

    Another reason for Edison's success was his shrewd and aggressive marketing. He never took "no" for an answer.

    Even when he began losing market-share to industrialist George Westinghouse, whose development of Alternating Current eventually proved to be superior and cheaper than Edison's Direct Current, Edison's innovative spirit was not diminished.

    In fact, he decided to promote the competition ...well, sort of.

    By demonstrating that AC current was deadly, he sort of "lobbied" the New York legislature to designate an AC-powered electric chair as the state's method of execution, thereby making electrocution a common word.

    You see, Edison's marketing genius believed that most New Yorkers would not want the same type of electrical service in their homes and businesses, Alternating Current, as was being used in electrocutions.

    In the end, Alternating Current proved, for other reasons, to be the electricity of choice on America's power grid, but Edison's marketing success was evident in the fact that for many years, people "referred to (the electrocution)...as being 'Westinghoused.'"

    Without a doubt, Thomas Edison illustrated the power of innovation and the fact that opportunity uniquely favors the prepared mind.

    In all, Edison held nearly 1,100 patents. And while his success made him wealthy, he once stated that his "...main purpose in life (was) to make enough money to allow (him) to create even more inventions..."
    (Beals, Gerald, Thomas Edison Website, 1996)

    Indeed, there are thousands of other examples of the innovative spirit working around us. As Evans points out, "...the U.S. has been - and remains - the source of most of the innovations that created our modern world, and many of them have sprung from a desire to serve..."
    (Evans, Ibid)

    It was American innovation, for example, that enabled the agricultural and industrial revolutions in the late 19th Century. And during World War II, research, including the Northeast Ohio-based synthetic rubber initiative, was vital to the Allied war effort.

    It was American innovation that laid the groundwork for technological leaps in medicine, aviation, energy, and electronics - developments that today affect virtually every realm of our human endeavors.

    And with the development of transistors in 1947, the era of microelectronics began and sowed the first seeds of the Silicon Valley; and from such modest beginnings, we are now immersed in the information age.

    Our research related to the Space Race not only resulted in Americans walking on the moon, but also gave rise to the Space Industry and enabled new technologies in satellite communications, computer science, robotics and miniaturization.

    As recently as 1970, a single discovery in molecular biology initiated the new industry of biotechnology, an industry from which we are now seeing dramatic advances in medical science and the introduction of effective new technologies, such as the production of human insulin by factories of microorganisms.

    And here at The University of Akron, research provided the innovations that served to fuel and diversify the industrial base of Akron, transforming it from the rubber capital to the polymer capital of the world and helping to reinvent our region through its discoveries in polymer research.

    Many of these innovations seem patently obvious today, but we forget that they were once not so - whether the airplane, TV, or cell phone, to say nothing of today's search engine on the Internet.

    Yet so much of what we do today also is not seen in other ways, because "we forget the invisible innovations." For example, to think of what we wrought just here in Akron, "a day without rubber would be a day (when) nothing works. No shower, light, clean clothes; nothing unspoiled in the fridge; no shoes, cars, trains, planes; no TV, no radio, no computer, no phones; yet we owe this material (rubber) not to a research lab, still less (to) government, but to a Yankee tinkerer (Charles Goodyear) who hadn't the faintest idea of the organic chemistry he was meddling with to convert useless raw rubber to practical use."
    (Evans, Ibid)

    In his essay entitled Of Innovations, Francis Bacon wrote: "As the births of living creatures at first are ill-shapen, so are all innovations, which are the births of time."
    (Bacon, Francis, "Of Innovations" The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Oxford University Press, 1996, p.43)

    As University of Akron graduates, you have gained the knowledge necessary to mold the future by making informed decisions that create new and exciting opportunities.

    So, take the risk!


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