Edison: What Made The Lightbulbs Go On?


Inventing the Century

By Neil Baldwin

Hyperion 531pp $27.95

Thomas Alva Edison was wrong--egregiously and lastingly wrong--so often that it seems as though dogged adherence to error was an unavoidable byproduct of his way of thinking. He was wrong about electricity, insisting on transmitting by direct current long after George Westinghouse's alternating-current networks had carried the day. He was wrong about the phonograph, favoring his original cylinder recordings over platters. He spent a dusty decade on a quixotic crusade to extract iron from crushed ore with magnets. Late in life, he refused to make radios, calling them a "fad" and a "craze."

Neil Baldwin's excellent biography, Edison: Inventing the Century, delves deeply into the thought processes of this exasperating genius, showing how the stubbornness that led to his mistakes also contributed to his epic successes. Although Edison's inventions ranged from infrared astronomy to making rubber from goldenrod, he was no dabbler: His favorite method for solving a problem was to try everything. In the search for a lightbulb filament, for instance, he and one of his lieutenants, Charles Batchelor, methodically tested dmzens of carbonized materials, including celluloid, cedar, coconut hair, fish line, and, finally, cotton thread.

Although he had only a grade-school education, Edison was endlessly sure of himself. This confidence enabled him to take fledgling notions or prototypes and--aided by a series of well-chosen assistants--turn them into fully functioning products and systems. The lightbulb. The carbon-button transmitter that improved Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. The phonograph. The motion picture. Even a better kiln for making Portland cement--not glamorous, but one of Edison's most profitably sustained inventions.

Baldwin is too nuanced a writer to attribute all of Edison's achievements to his thick stubborn streak. As he shows, Edison had a restless mind that tended to cast all experience into the framework of problems in need of solving. He couldn't watch the waves during a sea voyage without wondering how to harness their energy. And he was able to perceive fresh connections--as when he figured out that the gear from his failed iron ore separation project could be applied to his work in cement. Writes Baldwin: "Edison's ideas never seemed to die, but coexisted in tandem for decades, transmuting, growing, held in abeyance until the right moment for exploitation when a synapse fired and they became manifest."

Certainly he was no 1990s-style CEO. He never evinced much interest in profit. Although rich, he railed against wealth and declared that "interest is an invention of Satan." He disdained corporate life: After being named a director of General Electric Co. at the inaugural board meeting in 1892, he never attended another meeting. What's more, he was given to public musings about the supernatural. It's hard to imagine GE's Jack Welch speculating about human intelligence becoming affixed to things in nature, such as trees.

For all that, Edison was a powerful force for modernization. What set him apart from his inventive peers was his lifelong interest in building systems, not just devices. Electric lighting is the classic example. Not content with making a bulb, Edison built an entire infrastructure. Edison Electric Light Co., a predecessor of GE, manufactured and installed everything required to illuminate the night--from the bulbs to the huge coal-fired generators known as dynamos.

Baldwin describes this organic thinking as "refreshingly modern." It's no surprise that Henry Ford, the perfecter of the assembly line, was Edison's camping partner and greatest admirer. Baldwin, who has written biographies of the artist Man Ray and the poet William Carlos Williams, is especially strong in situating Edison in the intellectual context of his times. Henry Adams, he says, was thinking of masterful men such as Edison and Ford when he wrote that "the new American...must be a sort of God compared with any former creation of nature."

Of course, the "Napoleon of Invention," as the press dubbed him, also had a private life. And Edison the man was as maddening as Edison the inventor. He worked so late--frequently around the clock--that his three eldest children wound up starved for love. Widowed at 37, he later married a beautiful heiress and had three more children. But he continued his workaholic ways, jotting notes to his wife from a northern New Jersey iron mine, complaining about the malfunctioning ore elevator and wheedling: "I do not see why you can't stay for a week at a time."

Edison never eased up because he was convinced it was work, not braininess, that brought him success--hence his famous assertion that "genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration." The single most important quality for an executive, he contended, was "a fine memory." To Edison, Baldwin writes, memory "was the cornerstone for the ability to make a quick, correct decision, marshaling all the facts at one's disposal."

In an era when how-to titles on management and creativity seem to flood into bookstores, readers in search of inspiration could do worse than to read this richly detailed biography of the greatest inventor in American history.

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