The Wizard of Menlo Park : How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World
E Randall Stross
The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World
Edison did not himself lack for self- confidence and held fast to the conviction that he could remove any technical obstacle that impeded his progress, no matter what field of invention he explored.
This conviction would lead him into blind alleys, but it also led to astonishing successes, planned and unplanned. More than anything else, the utterly fearless range of his experimental activities draws our attention today. Fearlessness was needed when he elected to become a full- time inventor at the tender age of twenty- two, a bold step for a young man without family money.
(He thought that) invention should not be pursued as an exercise in technical cleverness, but should be shaped by commercial needs; not by technical cleverness but by valie it brings to others
After a year in Boston, Edison took the big step and quit his day job, which happened to be a night job, resigning his position at Western Union to try to make his living as a full- time inventor and manufacturer in the field of telegraphic equipment.
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Edison was disinclined to drink with his fellows because it would pull him off track, interfering with the greater pleasures: tinkering, learning, problem solving. His outlook was secular and matter- of- fact. He once got in trouble when sacrilegiously transcribing “J.C.” whenever “Jesus Christ” came across the wire; he could not understand the fuss over his “J.C.” when “B.C.” for designating historical time was regarded as perfectly acceptable.
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Nor did he regard his partial deafness as an impediment. He claimed that the deafness was actually an advantage, freeing him from time- wasting small talk and giving him undisturbed time to “think out my problems.” Late in life he would say that he was fortunate to have been spared “all the foolish conversation and other meaningless sounds that normal people hear.”
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his utter indifference to the expectations of
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HAVING ONE’S OWN shop, working on projects of one’s own choosing, making enough money today so one could do the same tomorrow: These were the modest goals of Thomas Edison when he struck out on his own as full- time inventor and manufacturer. The grand goal was nothing other than enjoying the autonomy of entrepreneur and forestalling a return to the servitude of employee.
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Edison’s need for autonomy was primal and unvarying;
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In retrospect, one can see the need for an invention that permitted the enjoyment of music asynchronously, at a time of the listener’s own choosing. Edison came up with the first gadget that would eventually fill this need. The process that produced the invention could not be called careful planning, but it was something more than pure serendipity. It was the by- product of working on state- of- the- art communications technology, while remaining receptive to chance insight and recombining bits of recently secured experience. Bell invented the telephone while tinkering with acoustic telegraphy; Edison invented the phonograph while tinkering with the telephone.
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Years before, Edison had begun to systematically record all laboratory findings and the progress of his own thinking about the projects.
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The technique that Edison used most effectively in handling the press was the seemingly offhand disclosure about what he had discovered, leaving the impression that he was parting the curtain only enough to provide a glimpse of what he had actually achieved and withholding the remainder from public view. He left it to the reporters to draw their own conclusions.
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This was especially galling because Bell had come so close to inventing the phonograph himself. He had understood how sound waves could be recorded on paper, and he also knew that the motion of one’s hand could generate waves that produced similar sounds. Indenting a medium to save and then reproduce those waves had not occurred to him, however.
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Edison’s own point of view was unabashedly commercial, but by temperament, he tended to flit from project to project. Most were minor in ambition and were left in an incomplete state. This had been his pattern when he was working in the field of telegraphic equipment, and the phonograph’s own serendipitous invention came from a tangential observation that had led away from the original project. He did not impose upon himself limits to his inventive excursions. He would strike off from the main path, follow an interest, then branch off from that path, and then from that one, too. With the work on the main phonograph still incomplete, and with even the placeholder toys failing to work (the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company’s Gardiner Hubbard lamented, “We shall not sell any of them”), Edison decided to renew experimental work on a commercial hearing aid. He had not actually built a working model of a “lap megaphone,” but he was confident that he would be able to pick up a $ 10,000 prize offered by Joseph Medill, the editor of the Chicago Tribune, for the hearing aid that would best ameliorate Medill’s deafness (Edison never sustained interest in ameliorating his own). That project was itself pushed aside, still incomplete, while Edison chased the invention of a microphone that he thought would serve as a successor to the stethoscope. Nothing came of either diversion.
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He gave no indication that he had developed during his trip to the West an ability to designate some projects as more important than others, and the phonograph as the most important of all.
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Edison thought he saw the perfect opportunity: others had solved the problem of power, and he would add a solution for providing a reliable bulb, which he told the press soon after was “so simple that a bootblack might understand it.” A simple solution should have presented no serious problems to the great inventor. Once uttered, however, the announcement of a solution could not be retracted, not when a celebrity has spoken. Edison was not necessarily more careless about making empty claims than his contemporary inventors in the electric light field; he simply was more exposed. Many ideas, until practically realized, will seem grandiose; but the inventor’s own interest in a given idea often disappears as quickly as the inspiration arrived. Out of public view, these brief enthusiasms cause no embarrassment.
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Lowrey, that so few women have brains? Men of brains it is easy to find, but women—”
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as well as throughout the remainder of his life, favored new projects over near- term payoff of old ones. After countless performances of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the novelty of the phonograph had worn off, and he had failed to sustain his interest long enough to see the machine’s development through to commercial introduction of a model for the mass market. Still, as he and his laboratory staff brought the electric light into viable form, it is striking how Edison’s interest waned here, too. Despite his avowed near- term pragmatism, Edison got excited about another idea of his: electric trains.
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He was thirty- five years old, and the rest of his long life was devoted to attempts to make the inspiration that brought the phonograph and the electric light return.
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Professionally, Edison was drifting, without an all- consuming project to blot out everything but the work itself. The electric light no longer needed him, and he did not know what to do with himself. Mercifully, his floundering took place out of public view, as newspapers and magazines had swiftly lost interest in him.
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The investors in Edison’s Electric Light Company, however, did not feel rich. They were grumbling that the price of the company’s shares had tumbled to levels that were a fifth or a sixth their peak value, attained when Edison’s electric light existed only as an announcement and long before it was introduced as reality.
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Edison was the inventor, Mrs. Edison the household manager whose responsibility was to keep her husband insulated from distractions. Later, after almost forty years of marriage to the man whom a clever magazine editor referred to as “the most difficult husband in America,” Mina described her auxiliary role without a hint of complaint: “We have always put his work first, all of us. And we have tried to organize our home and our home life to give results just as much as the laboratory.”
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“the world’s greatest inventor and world’s worst businessman.”
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He, like others at the time, focused solely on voltage (the force that pushes electricity through a wire) without paying attention to amperage (the rate of flow of electricity), and thought it would be best to stay at 1,200 volts or less.
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Westinghouse’s alternating current was superior to Edison’s direct current if considered from a strictly business perspective. Alternating current could be distributed much more economically, and to greater distances from a generating plant, than could direct current. This gave Westinghouse’s company the ability to undercut Edison’s prices; by 1887, it was expanding quickly all over the map, as if no competition stood in its way.
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HOPPING INTO A new field and betting almost everything he owned, Thomas Edison set off in a quest to make a name for himself— in mining. The effort cost him five years of living apart from his family and ended without success. But he enjoyed the experience immensely and walked away without regrets. It was the one time in the fifty years he lived as a public figure when he ignored what was expected of him. It was also the one time when the man who seemed cold at his core recorded in letters his affectionate feelings for his wife.
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Only in folklore does the world beat a path to the inventor of the better mousetrap. In September 1895, the world simply shrugged when Armat and Jenkins publicly unveiled their new machine in a corner of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. A local paper gave it brief mention, but only a few visitors stopped by, and
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As time passed, his father subsequently did no better in the timing of his launch of new business ventures. He followed the debacle of his ore- milling venture with a new obsession, electric cars. In 1900, and ahead of Henry Ford, Edison articulated an ambition to make automobiles “the poor man’s vehicle.”
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Edison’s vision, however, centered upon using improved batteries to make electrically powered vehicles superior to gasoline- powered ones. Eking out greater range from batteries became his new, all- consuming preoccupation. By 1901, he had a prototype electric car that could reach seventy miles per hour, offering a ride Edison called “the sport of kings.” By 1902, he claimed his car had a range of eighty- five miles without recharging, and he expected to have a battery on the market within months, just as soon as final road tests were complete. He predicted, “It will be but a short time before demand for storage batteries will create one of the most enormous industries in the land.”
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His judgments and whims met no obstruction. One employee, A. E. Johnson, recalled the disillusionment that followed his being hired. He said of Edison, “I found out that he could make awful mistakes, and I also found it didn’t pay to tell him about his mistakes. Let him find them out himself, and if you did that cleverly you were all right.” Workers spread word daily about Edison’s mood. “The Old Man is feelin’ fine today” was welcome news. But if the word was “the Old Man’s on the rampage,” employees dove for cover, “as in a cyclone cellar, until the tempest was over.”
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He launched other projects, too, such as promoting the sale to the working class of all- concrete houses, designed by Edison (but not adopted as a replacement for his own house at Glenmont).
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For teaching the alphabet, Edison explained in an interview, “suppose, instead of the dull, solemn letters on a board or a card you have a little play going on that the littlest youngster can understand,” with actors carrying in letters, hopping, skipping, turning somersaults. “Nothing like action— drama— a play that fascinates the eye to keep the attention keyed up.” (A prospectus for Sesame Street could not have made a better case.)
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“Young man, that’s the thing!” Edison told him, pounding the table for emphasis. “Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do either, for they have a boiler and fire. Your car is self- contained— carries its own power plant— no fire, no boiler, no smoke, and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.” With encouragement from the man whom Ford regarded as “the greatest inventive genius in the world” ringing in his ears, Ford returned home with the conviction that he should persevere. He told his wife, “You are not going to see much of me until I am through with this car.”
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No major business figure detested Wall Street as much as Thomas Edison— except Henry Ford. The two men had this in common. “Wall Street” was less a geographic place than a shorthand for grasping Jews. The two men had lots of things to say about Jews, Ford doing so publicly and Edison, privately. If Jews “are as wise as they claim to be,” Ford wrote in his autobiography, “they will labor to make Jews American, instead of labouring to make America Jewish.” Edison sent Ford clippings to add to his file on “The Jewish Question.” “Please read this— it’s very funny,” Edison added as an annotation to the text of a speech delivered to a convention of the National Builder’s Supply Association that he sent Ford. Edison helpfully highlighted with pencil the two paragraphs at the beginning, which were the speaker’s opening jokes. As a self- identified Irishman, the speaker, one Herbert N. Casson, claimed to speak for all Irish, lamenting their willingness to fight someone else’s war and then lose whatever it was they were supposed to have gained. “I have generally found that after the fight some Jew has got what we started out to get.” The audience’s laughter was transcribed along with the punch line.
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Edison did not abandon his previous ambitions to make a success of an electric car; he simply made Henry Ford his new partner. In January 1914, Ford announced that he planned within the year to begin manufacturing an electric car using a lightweight battery that Edison had been preparing for some time.
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In the late evening, after the cameramen and interlopers had left, the men sat around the campfire and listened while Ford and Edison lectured the group about the nefarious deeds of Jews. Burroughs wrote in his diary of how Ford “attributes all evil to the Jews or the Jewish capitalists— the Jews caused the war, the Jews caused the outbreak of thieving and robbery all over the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the navy of which Edison talked last night.” Burroughs was the only voice present to counter the anti- Semitism. When Ford used Jay Gould as an example of how Jews controlled Wall Street, Burroughs, who had been a childhood playmate of Gould’s, took pleasure in telling Ford that Gould’s family was Presbyterian.
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He was young enough that when he began to search for ways to stanch employee absenteeism, he turned to his old prep school, Hotchkiss, for guidance on how to adapt the school’s system of demerits to the Edison factory. The two settings did not seem to him to be all that different. He wrote the head of Hotchkiss, “The average mentality of a collection of workers is about on the same plane of immaturity as the High School undergraduate.” From his personal experience, he knew the Hotchkiss system worked well. He still remembered “what healthy fear I stood of getting beyond the allotted number of cuts.”
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While Charles Edison sat mutely as the figurehead chief executive, his father put into place a “mental fitness” test that all college graduates who applied for work at Thomas A. Edison, Inc., were required to pass. Edison composed the test himself. It drew wide attention because of the audacity of Edison’s antimodern message: To him, the college degree was a meaningless credential; the subjects studied in college had no relevance to managerial decision making; and the prevailing ethos of the college education— that an educated person learned where to look for knowledge— was useless. All he cared about was what facts a management candidate could produce on command by answering 163 questions in ninety minutes. In its first two years of administration, only about 4 percent of applicants passed. The average college man, he drily commented, is “amazingly ignorant.”
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Ford had initiated a libel suit against the Chicago Tribune and testified at the trial that he did not read anything in the newspaper but headlines. Inadvertently contradicting the basic premise of the Edison questionnaire, Ford had said he was not concerned about his own lack of understanding a given topic because “I could find a man in five minutes who could tell me all about it.”
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Edison’s work was not merely his principal preoccupation; it was the organizing leitmotif of his entire waking existence. He also made it a defining characteristic of his public image. He made sure the press understood that no one worked longer hours than he did, no one needed less sleep than he did, no one was more passionately devoted to invention than he was. He was a prickly person who was used to getting his own way, insufferably opinionated and a carrier of the hateful prejudices of his day.
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Even the loquacious Johnson: Edward Johnson to Uriah Painter, 7 December 1877, PTAE, 3: 661. feeling quite well: Over one hundred years later, Steve Jobs borrowed the same parlor trick when he pulled the first Macintosh computer out of a bag and had it introduce itself on stage in January 1984: “Hello, I am Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag.” See Steven Levy, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything (New York: Viking, 1994), 182.