How Thomas Alva Edison

Invented the Modern World

By Randall Stross

Crown; 376pp; $24.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating
Star Rating

The Good A perceptive account of the inventors' life--and surprisingly limited achievements.

The Bad With dozens of Edison biographies, did we really need another one?

The Bottom Line Noteworthy, especially for its debunking of Edison mythology.

Consolidated Edison, Commonwealth Edison, Southern California Edison: From the large number of corporate entities bearing the legendary inventor's name, one might deduce that Thomas Alva Edison became fabulously wealthy. Not so. In spite of his unrivaled fame, he was such a business failure that he once contemplated giving up inventing and came to depend on large loans from his friend Henry Ford. A son, Thomas Jr., was provoked to bitter complaint: "You should have been... a millionaire 10 times over if you knew how to handle your own achievements."

The lack of monetary success was strongly linked to two Edison habits: First, he repeatedly refocused on new projects before older ones reached commercial fruition. Then, relentlessly pursued by admirers, the Dean of Inventors proved easily distracted by celebrity. "He was glad to hold forth on any topic, such as the relationship of diet to national destiny," writes biographer Randall Stross. "Pontificating on demand...came to supplant the actual work of inventing."

Edison's fame and how he managed it is a primary theme in Stross' The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. The inventor has inspired dozens of biographies, including Neil Baldwin's much lauded 1995 Edison: Inventing the Century. But the new book, written by a columnist for The New York Times, is both enjoyable and perceptive. Especially noteworthy is its debunking of Edison mythology and its focus on the inventor's true—and surprisingly limited—achievements and failure to capitalize fully on even those.

Stross passes quickly over Edison's youth, including his early work as a telegraph operator. A decision in 1869 at age 22 to become a full-time inventor led him to seek to improve Alexander Graham Bell's rudimentary telephone. And in 1877, while tinkering with the phone, Edison had the idea for one of his greatest inventions: the phonograph, initially little more than a needle soldered to a phone diaphragm and set up to transfer voice vibrations onto wax paper.

That year, a demonstration of an early version of the apparatus to the editors of Scientific American ignited a frenzy. "This was stop-the-presses news," says Stross, describing how the journal delayed publication so it could squeeze in an illustrated story on the gizmo. "Edison would never again enjoy the sweetness of anonymous obscurity." Before long, he was transformed into a "mythic inventor hero."

However, in what would become a pattern, the publicity created consumer demand that went unmet. "Edison simply could not muster the focus to complete [the phonograph's] development," and he allowed the effort to lie fallow for 10 years. He flitted from project to project, promising a revolutionary hearing aid, a giant megaphone, and finally, in 1878, a reliable, long-burning incandescent lightbulb. (Several designs for such lights already existed, but none worked well.) Once more employing a coup de théâtre, Edison wowed members of the press with what Stross terms "sham demonstrations," briefly exhibiting far-from-perfect bulbs. The displays proved valuable as investor bait. In fact, Edison and his staff were a year away from developing a truly durable filament and three years away from commercial introduction of an electric light.

Over several years, his company labored to wire an entire Manhattan neighborhood. That project succeeded with a dramatic throwing of the switch in 1882. But there was no equally dramatic payoff: After a year, only 455 customers had signed up. Nor did Edison triumph with the phonograph, to which he returned in the late 1880s.

Edison's final noteworthy invention would be the kinetoscope, a motion picture machine he unveiled in 1891. It consisted of a wooden console with a peephole through which one viewed a very brief film. But the inventor saw little commercial potential. In Stross' view, the workaholic Edison persistently failed to see "the limitless business opportunities made possible by the commercialization of fun." In the end, a projection machine invented by others was marketed under his name, "the one asset that he possessed that remained valuable."

Edison applied for his final patent in 1931, the year of his death, bringing his personal total to 1,093. It was a seemingly vast accomplishment, even if most of the patents involved minor variations on previous ones. But his estate, first valued at $12 million, was ultimately determined to be worth only $1.5 million. (In contrast, Ford's net worth was estimated some years earlier at $2 billion.) It wasn't chicken feed—but hardly the riches that might have been won by the Man Who Defeated Darkness.

By Hardy Green

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