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The Real Nature of Thomas Edison’s Genius, Hacker News

The Real Nature of Thomas Edison’s Genius, Hacker News

There were ideas long before there were light bulbs. But, of all the ideas that have ever turned into inventions, only the light bulb became a symbol of ideas. Earlier innovations had literalized the experience of “seeing the light,” but no one went around talking about torchlight moments or sketching candles into cartoon thought bubbles. What made the light bulb such an irresistible image for ideas was not just the invention but its inventor.

Thomas Edison was already well known by the time he perfected the long-burning incandescent light bulb, but he was photographed next to one of them so often that the public came to associate the bulbs with invention itself. That made sense, by a kind of transitive property of ingenuity: during his lifetime, Edison patented a record-setting one thousand and ninety-three different inventions. On a single day in 1888, he wrote down a hundred and twelve ideas; averaged across his adult life, he patented something roughly every eleven days. There was the light bulb and the phonograph, of course, but also the kinetoscope, the dictating machine, the alkaline battery, and the electric meter. Plus: a sap extractor, a talking doll, the world’s largest rock crusher, an electric pen, a fruit preserver, and a tornado-proof house.

Not all these inventions worked or made money. Edison never got anywhere with his ink for the blind, whatever that was meant to be; his concrete furniture, though durable, was doomed; and his failed innovations in mining lost him several fortunes. But he founded more than a hundred companies and employed thousands of assistants, engineers, machinists, and researchers. At the time of his death, according to one estimate, about fifteen billion dollars of the national economy derived from his inventions alone. His was a household name, not least because his name was in every household — plastered on the appliances, devices, and products that defined modernity for so many families.

Edison’s detractors insist that his greatest invention was his own fame, cultivated at the expense of collaborators and competitors alike. His defenders counter that his celebrity was commensurate with his brilliance. Even some of his admirers, though, have misunderstood his particular form of inventiveness, which was never about creating something out of nothing. The real nature of his genius is clarified in “Edison” (Random House), a new biography by Edmund Morris, a writer who famously struggled with just how inventive a biographer should be. Lauded for his trilogy of books about Theodore Roosevelt, Morris was scolded for his peculiar book about Ronald Reagan. Edison may have figured out how to illuminate the world, but Morris makes us wonder how best to illuminate a life.

Edison did not actually invent the light bulb, of course. People had been making wires incandesce since 1761, and plenty of other inventors had demonstrated and even patented various versions of incandescent lights by 1878, when Edison turned his attention to the problem of illumination. Edison’s gift, here and elsewhere, was not so much inventing as what he called perfecting — finding ways to make things better or cheaper or both. Edison did not look for problems in need of solutions; he looked for solutions in need of modification.

Born in 1847 in Ohio and raised in Michigan, Edison had been experimenting since childhood, when he built a chemistry laboratory in his family’s basement. That early endeavor only ever earned him the ire of his mother, who fretted about explosions, so, at thirteen, the young entrepreneur started selling snacks to passengers traveling on the local railroad line from Port Huron to Detroit. He also picked up copies of the DetroitFree Pressto hawk on the way home. In 1862, after the Battle of Shiloh, he bought a thousand copies, knowing he would sell them all, and marked up the price more and more the farther he got down the line. While still in his teens, he bought a portable letterpress and started printing his own newspaper aboard the moving train, filling two sides of a broadsheet with local sundries. Its circulation rose to four hundred a week, and Edison took over much of the baggage car. He built a small chemistry laboratory there, too.

One day, Edison saw a stationmaster’s young son playing on the tracks and pulled the boy to safety before an oncoming train crushed him; as a reward, the father taught Edison Morse code and showed him how to operate the telegraph machines. This came in handy that summer, when Edison’s lab caused a fire and the conductor kicked him off the train. Forced out of newspapering, Edison spent the next few years as a telegrapher for Western Union and other companies, taking jobs wherever he could find them — Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky. He had time to experiment on the side, and he patented his first invention in 1869: an electric vote recorder that eliminated the need for roll call by instantly tallying votes. It worked so well that no legislative body wanted it, because it left no time for lobbying amid the yeas and nays.

That failure cured Edison of any interest in invention for invention’s sake: from then on, he cultivated a taste for the practical and the profitable. Although legislators did not want their votes counted faster, everyone else wanted everything else to move as quickly as possible. Financial companies, for instance, wanted their stock information immediately, and communication companieswanted to speed up their telegram service. Edison’s first lucrative products were a stock-ticker device and a quadruplex telegraph, capable of sending four messages at once. Armed with those inventions, he found financial support for his telegraphy research, and used money from Western Union to buy an abandoned building in New Jersey to serve as a workshop.

In 1875, having outgrown that site, he bought thirty acres not far from Newark and began converting the property into what he liked to call his Invention Factory. It was organized around a two-story laboratory, with chemistry experiments on the top floor and a machine shop below. Workshops are at least as old as Hephaestus, but Edison’s was the world’s first research-and-development facility — a model that would later be adopted by governments, universities, and rival corporations. Menlo Park, as it came to be known, was arguably Edison’s most significant invention, since it facilitated so many others, by allowing for the division of problems into discrete chemical, electrical, and physical components, which teams of workers could solve through theory and then experimentation before moving directly into production.

Menlo Park also included a three-story house for Edison’s family. In 1871, when he was twenty-four, he married a sixteen-year-old girl named Mary Stilwell, who had taken refuge in his office during a rainstorm. They had three children, two of whom Edison nicknamed Dot and Dash. It is likely thanks to them that the first audio recording ever made, in November of 1877, features Papa Edison reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

The phonograph came about because Edison had been experimenting with telephones, trying to improve on Alexander Graham Bell’s transmitter to achieve better sound quality across longer distances. He first had in mind a kind of answering machine that would transcribe the contents of a call, but he quickly realized that it might be possible to record the voice itself. To test the idea, Edison spoke into a diaphragm with a needle attached; as he spoke, the needle vibrated against a piece of paraffin paper, carving into it the ups and downs of the sound waves. To everyone’s surprise, the design worked: when he added a second needle to retrace the marks in the paper, the vibrating diaphragm reproduced Edison’s voice.

So novel was the talking machine that many people refused to believe in its existence — understandably, since, up to that point in history, sound had been entirely ephemeral. But once they heard it with their own ears they all wanted one, and scores of new investors opened their pockets to help Edison meet the demand. With this infusion of cash, Edison was able to hire dozens of new “muckers,” as the men who worked with him would eventually become known. (The endearment may have taken hold during his ill-fated mining days: “muck” is a term for ore, which his men tried, and failed, to remove from mines more efficiently.)

This was the team that banished the darkness, or at least made it subject to a switch. By the eighteen-seventies, plenty of homes were lit with indoor gas lamps, but they produced terrible fumes and covered everything in soot. Arc lights, which buzzed like welders ’torches in a few cities around the world, were, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson,“ horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare. ”What Edison and his muckers did was figure out a way to regulate incandescent light, making the bulbs burn longer and more reliably, and at a more bearable brightness. The filament was the trickiest part, and he and his team tried hundreds of materials before settling on carbon, which they got to burn for fourteen and a half hours in the fall of 1879. (A year later, when they tried carbonized bamboo, it burned for more than a thousand hours.)

By the New Year, individual light bulbs had given way to a network of illumination around Menlo Park, which became known as the Village of Light. Gawkers came every night to see the apricot smudges of light through the windows of Edison’s house and along the streets, marveling at how the bulbs stayed lit through wind and rain, shining steadily and silently, and could be turned on and off with ease. The world was still measured in candlepower, and each bulb had the brightness of sixteen candles. Menlo Park had barely been a stop on the railway line when Edison first moved there. Now, in a single day, hundreds of passengers would empty from the trains to see the laboratory that made night look like noon.

Edison’s patent attorney worried about the publicity, especially when the likes of George Westinghouse and Edward Weston came calling. But, by February, 1880, Edison had executed Patent No. 223, 898, for the electric lamp , and No. 369, 280, for a system of electrical distribution. He put both to use in winning a contract to electrify part of New York City, and built a generating plant on Pearl Street that eventually served more than nine hundred customers. While supervising the construction of the plant, Edison moved his family to Gramercy Park; then, in August, 1884, Mary died suddenly, officially from “congestion of the brain,” though possibly of a morphine overdose. She was twenty-nine. After her death, Edison left Menlo Park for good.

One long season of grief and two years later, he married Mina Miller, the twenty-year-old daughter of one of thefounders of the Chautauqua Institution. She and Edison had three children of their own, and the family moved to West Orange, New Jersey, where Edison built another laboratory. This new complex improved on the already astounding pace of invention at Menlo Park and greatly expanded Edison’s manufacturing capacity. “I will have the best equipped & largest Laboratory extant,” he bragged in a letter, “and the facilities incomparably superior to any other for rapid & cheap development of an invention.” He wanted to be able to “build anything from a ladys watch to a Locomotive, ”and employees were soon working, in separate teams, on alkaline batteries, sound recordings, fluoroscopes for medical radiography, a device that measured infrared radiation, motion-picture cameras and projectors and the pictures themselves, and anything else that Edison thought he could market.

Like tech CEOs today, Edison attracted an enormous following, both because his inventions fundamentally altered the texture of daily life and because he nurtured a media scrum that fawned over every inch of his laboratory and fixated on every minute of his day . Newspapers covered his inventions months and sometimes years before they were functional, and journalist after journalist conspired with him for better coverage; one writer even arranged to co-author a sci-fi novel with him. A recent book by Jeff Guinn, “The Vagabonds” (Simon & Schuster), chronicles the publicity-seeking road trips that Edison took with Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford every summer from 1914 to 1924, driving a caravan of cars around the country, promoting themselves as much as the automobiles. Edison’s life had already been thoroughly documented for the public: the first authorized biography, two full volumes’ worth, appeared in 1910. All the way up to his death, twenty-one years later, at the age of eighty-four, Edison was still making headlines, even if, by then, his rate of perfecting had finally slowed.

How many biographers does it take to change a light bulb? Who knows, but it takes only one to change a narrative. Every decade or so, for a century now, a new book about Edison has appeared, promising to explain his genius or, more recently, to explain it away. In the earliest years after his death, those biographies expanded on Edison’s personality, revealing the complexities of his family life and his work habits. He adhered, readers learned, to the prescriptions of a sixteenth-century Venetian crank named Luigi Cornaro, drinking pints of warm milk every few hours and consuming no more than six ounces of solid food per meal. He worked fifty hours at a time, and sometimes longer — including one stretch of four consecutive days — taking irregular naps wherever he happened to be, including once in the presence of President Warren Harding. His eating was disordered; his moods disastrous. He was affectionate but absent-minded with both of his wives and emotionally abusive with his children — one of whom, Thomas, Jr., he sued in order to stop him from selling snake oil under the family name.

Edison left behind millions of pages of notes and diaries and reports, providing one biographer after another with new source material to draw on. Then, a dozen years ago, Randall Stross, who has written extensively about Silicon Valley, published “The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. ”Despite its admiring subtitle, Stross’s book sought to reveal the man behind the curtain — in his view, a humbug whose bigotry and bad business sense were salvaged only by the creativity, savvy, and cowardice of his munchkins, who toiled away on invention after invention for which their wizard took credit.

That kind of correction was surely inevitable, given Edison’s status and the culture’s increasing skepticism about great men and their ostensible genius. Although Stross’s book was not the first to consider Edison’s faults — Wyn Wachhorst probed his self-promotion in “Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth, ”from 1981, and Paul Israel cataloged his belief in racial stereotypes and phrenological theories in “Edison: A Life of Invention, ”from 1998 – Stross portrays Edison as a patent-hungry P. T. Barnum or, perhaps, a proto-Elizabeth Holmes. But that argument is not entirely convincing. Edison’s hype was not for its own sake; it was to raise capital, which he rarely held on to for long, partly because he never was much of a businessman, and partly because he only wanted more of it in order to keep working. Nor were his inventions fake, even if they were sometimes impractical or borrowed from other people. And he didn’t hide the borrowing: like Santa’s elves, the muckers were always a part of the mythology.

So, too, was the drudgery. Edison not only rhymed “perspiration” with “inspiration” —he also talked endlessly about his experiments and trials, emphasizing just how much work went into every discovery. Unlike his onetime employee and sometime rival Nikola Tesla, Edison insisted that answers came not from his mind but from his laboratory. “I never had an idea in my life,” he once said. “My so-called inventions already existed in the environment — I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. ”

In that conviction, Edison was, perhaps, ahead of his time. Three decades after Edison died, the sociologist Robert K. Merton put forward a theory concerning simultaneous invention, or what he called multiple discoveries: think of Newton and Leibniz coming up with calculus independently but concurrently; or Charles Darwinand Alfred Russel Wallace thinking their way to natural selection at nearly the same time; or inventors in Spain, Italy, and Britain sorting out steam engines within a few decades of one another. In Merton’s terms, “multiples” are more common than “singletons,” which is to say that discovery and invention are rarely the product of only one person. The problems of the age attract the problem solvers of the age, all of whom work more or less within the same constraints and avail themselves of the same existing theories and technologies.

Merton provides a useful context for Edison, who, as he himself knew, was never inventing ex nihilo; rather, he was nipping at the heels of other inventors while trying to stay ahead of the ones at his. It may be satisfying to talk of Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone, but Elisha Gray filed a patent for one on the same day, and Edison improved on both of their designs. Similarly, we may safely refer to Edison as the inventor of the phonograph, but his failure to recognize the demand for lower-quality, more affordable audio recordings meant that he quickly lost the market to the makers of the Victrola. Stross makes much of that failure in his biography, but consumer markets are hardly the only, and rarely the best, measure of genius — a point made clear, and painfully so, by Edison’s preference for and optimism about electric cars. It seems odd to judge Edison negatively for making fuel cells before their time, or for trying to find a viable domestic source for rubber, even if, on those fronts, he never succeeded.

The delight of Edmund Morris’s “Edison” is that, instead of arguing with earlier writers or debating the terms of genius, it focusses on the phenomenological impact of Edison’s work. He tries to return readers to the technological revolutions of the past, to capture how magical this wizard’s work really felt. He reminds us that there was a time when a five-second kinetoscopic record of a man sneezing was just about the most astonishing thing anyone had ever seen; people watched it over and over again, like a nineteenth-century TikTok. And he makes plain the cosmological significance of Edison’s phonograph — how, against all understandings of human impermanence, it allowed the dead to go on speaking forever. “Here now were echoes made hard,” Morris writes, “resounding as often as anyone wanted to hear them.”

Allowing the dead to speak is also what biographies do. And “Edison” does it doubly, because it is the last book that Morris finished before his death, earlier this year, at age seventy-eight. Morris’s first book, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize after it was published, in 1979, but it was his second book that really caused a stir. The success of Morris’s Roosevelt biography was shortly followed by the election of Ronald Reagan, and, after the Inauguration, the new Administration courted him to be the President’s official scribe.

Morris spent fourteen years working on a book that he ultimately published under the confused title of “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. ”Devoured by the public, scorned by the academy, debated by the Boswells of the world, the book featured a fictional narrator, who claimed to have known the fortieth President since they were teen-agers. To support that narrative voice, Morris created additional characters, staged scenes that never happened, and fabricated footnotes to corroborate the counterfeited material. It was easy to assume that the invented voice belonged to Morris himself, since the “I” of the book expresses frustration about holding off on a planned trilogy on Teddy Roosevelt in order to write about Dutch Reagan. But many of the details contradicted those of Morris’s own life. When critics assailed his approach, Morris defended himself on the ground that he had found Reagan too boring for a standard biography, then later claimed that his performative style had been mimetic of his subject, a performer whose entire Presidency, he suggested, had been an act.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with an artist of the court adding himself to the portrait, as Diego Velázquez did in “Las Meninas. ”Morris’s transgressions lay first in making things up and second in failing to disclose what he was doing. His critics found those actions disqualifying in a biography; his champions found “Dutch” formally innovative. Some argued that, to one extent or another, all biography is just historical fiction in more respectable packaging.

There is a faint echo of that formal tomfoolery in “Edison,” which begins with the inventor’s death and then takes a turn for the Benjamin Button. Morris moves backward through the decades of Edison’s life; like Merlin, this wizard ages in reverse. Life within each section is still lived forward — Part 1 starts in 1920 and runs until 1929, Part 2 goes from 1910 to 1919, and so on. The whole thing has the halting feel of two steps forward, one step back: Edison has a second wife before we ever learn what happened to the first; Menlo Park has already been disassembled and re-created as a museum in Michigan before we get the story of its founding, in New Jersey; the inventor is completely deaf in one ear and half deaf in the other for six hundred pages before we find out that he lost most of his hearing by age twelve froman unknown cause.

Reverse chronologies might work well in fictions like Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” or Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” where they are serving grander themes of the fragility of memory and the failures of fidelity, but they are an unsatisfying solution to the problem of how to structure a biography. Morris gestures toward a better one, by titling each section with a discipline in which Edison distinguished himself: each backward-marching decade is matched to botany, defense, chemistry, magnetism, light, sound, telegraphy, or natural philosophy. Tracing someone’s intellectual interests across a lifetime can be more meaningful than dragging the subject and the reader ever onward through calendrical time. But a backward biography, while certainly an invention, is, as Edison might have pointed out, neither practical nor profitable.

Even if you make your peace with this reverse narration — which, to be honest, I did, partly because Edison feels so much like a time traveler— “Edison” is still a frustrating book. It contains little new material, good prose but far too much of it, and no novel argument or fresh angle to motivate such an exhaustive return to an already storied life. If anything, Morris offers the same strange apologia for “Edison” that he did for “Dutch.” “Nobody around him understood him,” Morris said of Reagan. “Every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.’” In the same vein, Morris once compared Edison to electricity itself, an invisible force seen only when it acts on the world around it. “What he was in person is harder, maybe impossible to say,” Morris concluded, “because he put so much of himself into his work.”

And yet figuring people out is the fundamental task of the biographer. Every person is elusive in one way or another, sometimes even unto herself, but it is possible to confront those inner mysteries in a biography without resorting to fabrications or gimmicks. It’s a lesson Morris could have learned from Edison: sometimes, what’s called for isn’t invention but perfection. ♦ ****

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