Field of Science

Book review: "Edison", by Edmund Morris

An erudite, impressively detailed and wide-ranging chronicle of Thomas Edison’s life by a master biographer running to almost 800 pages. Edmund Morris won the Pulitzer Prize for his splendid three-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt, and few people would be more qualified to write about another consequential American of similar stature. The book drives home what a towering genius and public personality of superior distinction Edison was. Edison’s fame surpasses that of pretty much any other American we may care to name; when he was alive presidents and senators used to come all the way to his house and laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ, newspaper and reporters used to cling to his every word, and when he died the lights in the White House and the torch on the Statue of Liberty were turned off for a full minute to symbolize the passing of the man who had expelled the darkness for good.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Edison the United States would not have become the technological powerhouse that it is today, not only because of his revolutionary inventions but because of his role as the founder of the modern industrial research laboratory. Pretty much every pioneering industrial lab that has come after him, including Bell Labs, IBM and Google, rests in one way or another on his shoulders; some of the companies that he founded himself such as GE also blazed the way. And his story is very much an American success story, that of a Midwestern boy born in poverty who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and by sheer grit and shrewd business acumen achieved unprecedented fame and success.

The book is best at weaving in and out of Edison’s technical accomplishments and his complicated family life. He was largely an absentee father who had a cheerful indifference to his children’s troubles; there were five of them from two wives. His wives had a rather thankless role, trying to revel in his shadow and fame and getting bored by themselves in their mansions and gardens. Morrison delves deeply – often too deeply – into Edison’s inventions which ranged across the entire mechanical, chemical and electrical universe. His intellectual oeuvre was astonishing, straddling inventions as disparate as nickel-iron batteries, carbonized lamp filaments, synthetic rubber, motion picture cameras, talking dolls, cement manufacture, automated telegraph machines and mining equipment. Three of his inventions – the phonograph, the light bulb and the first motion pictures – would be enough to enshrine him forever in history.

Morris’s technical descriptions of Edison’s work are sometimes overwhelming, since he casually tosses period-specific jargon around without the help of diagrams. But he does drive home the sheer range and the incessant torrent of Edison’s 1,093 patents that came out at an average rate of about fifty a year. And he communicates the sheer feeling of awe that the first mass lighting of a Manhattan block or the first words from the phonograph evoked: hearing someone’s voice – hitherto thought to be as ephemeral as the soul – captured permanently in a box was a scary, magical, otherworldly experience. Often Edison’s reactions to his inventions were terse and nonchalant; he left the rhapsodizing to more poetic souls and disdained the title the public had conferred on him – The Wizard of Menlo Park. Edison's real talent was not always in creating the first glimmer of an idea, and most of his famous inventions had at least precedents, but he was better than anyone else in exhaustively optimizing, implementing, industrializing and then marketing new technology. And a few innovations like the phonograph were startlingly original.

Morris is not averse to pointing out Edison’s considerable flaws. His ability to go without sleep or much food for days and work twenty-four hours was almost supernatural – the distinction between day and night essentially did not exist for him - but he expected nothing less from his workers, many of whom he worked mercilessly and at low wages. He had built up a first-rate team of mechanics, chemists and engineers, mostly German immigrants, who had to keep up with him, and those who dropped out were simply considered unequal to the task. In that sense Edison was a kind of social Darwinist who believed that people succeed and fail entirely on their own merits and defects and deserve little sympathy in case of failure; he seems to have applied this philosophy to his own children. He had no patience for intellectuals and academic scientists and seldom appreciated ideas that he hadn’t invented himself (it’s likely that his disdain for academic and European science cost him the Nobel Prize). He was merciless in squashing competing patent claims. And while he was an astute businessman, he was also a ruthless one who was not above using inhuman means to demonstrate the superiority of his ideas, such as his support of animal electrocution in the famous “war of the currents”. Edison's personal fortunes, while never waning to those of a pauper, fluctuated wildly as he sunk his own money into some spectacularly failed ventures, such as extracting oxygen from seawater and developing an alternative to rubber. The one thing he never did was cave in or become pessimistic, and no matter what the obstacles, whether technical or personal, he simply kept hammering at them and barreling through them until the end of his long life.

The book does a good job dispelling some Edison myths, most notably the myth almost purely borne of the Internet that Nikola Tesla was a greater intellect than Edison and somehow Edison had cheated the young immigrant from Serbia. As several chapters demonstrate, while the two were rivals and had different ideas regarding AC and DC, throughout their careers they retained a healthy, even warm respect for each other as indicated in their letters. Edison vs Tesla memes may warm the hearts of Internet underdogs, but they don't reflect reality. The book also dispels the myth that Edison hated mathematics; he had a good understanding of basic algebra related to electricity and for a long time employed a very talented mathematician named Francis Upton who worked out precise details of Edison’s contraptions (in a typical example of Edisonian pragmatic cheek, he asked Upton to calculate the volume of one of his new glass light bulbs, and while Upton was busy laboriously calculating the integral, he filled the bulb with mercury and measured its weight and therefore the volume).

Two problems mar this otherwise mammoth effort by Morris, who sadly died a few days before the book came out last month. For some curious reason, Morris writes the book in Benjamin-Button-like reverse chronology, starting with Edison’s death and ending with his poverty-ridden childhood in Michigan. Each decade is marked by a major achievement in some field such as chemistry or magnetism. This device seems to achieve no special purpose and often confuses the reader about chronology and names. Secondly, each chapter is arbitrarily divided into short sections that often jump from one topic to a completely unrelated one. The result is an unnecessarily fragmented reading experience.

Nevertheless, the book is a very considerable achievement, emerging as it did from Morris’s study of almost five million Edison documents in the archives. It convincingly presents Edison as a colossus of technology and entrepreneurship, a public celebrity without peer, a complicated but immensely interesting individual, and as one of the most important Americans of all time, a man who perhaps did more to lay the foundations of our modern world than anyone else.