Thomas Edison, the man who looked like the thing that was needed

I just finished a biography of Thomas Edison called The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall E. Stross. A biography is either going to improve or degrade your earlier opinion of its subject. Whenever I read about Washington or Lincoln, I always come away thinking, “Wow, that guy really is impressive.” With Stross’s treatment of Edison it’s the other way. Edison comes across as petulant, vain, willful in the extreme, and comically inept at business. His friend Henry Ford called him the world’s greatest inventor and the world’s worst businessman. And Ford was an admirer. Edison is not a sympathetic character when viewed from up close. He tolerated no dissent in his laboratory and hired only the docile and easily cowed. He took credit for the work of his staff. He never admitted to mistakes and clung dogmatically to ideas (like residential direct current electrical power) for far too long. He blamed his users for not knowing how to use his (in fact) slipshod products. He insisted on choosing the music to be sold for his phonographs in defiance of public taste.

But in many respects, his autocratic willfulness was not unusual among self-made 19th century men. A lot them were jerks. That’s not the interesting part of the story. The interesting part of the story is how Edison came along at exactly the moment when Americans needed someone to personify the rapid technological change that was reshaping the world. And he fit the bill marvelously. He had a flair for saying exactly what journalists wanted to hear, and they credulously wrote it all down. Edison’s true great invention was the phonograph, and though he was never able to make money with it, it cemented his reputation. He didn’t invent the electric bulb, but over time we had him invent it for us. As the technologies of modern life became more and more bewildering, it became easier and easier for people to credit them to this one man. Ultimately the only thing of value that remained was his name, which grew in stature out of all proportion to his actual inventions.

Sadly, he believed the flattery and came to think of himself as a gift to mankind. Stross quotes a letter he wrote to someone soliciting money for a local charity. Edison wrote something like this: “I’m not going to give you a donation, because I can put this money to better use for mankind by investing it my laboratory.” But he had long since ceased producing wonders and was in fact in a protracted money-sucking decline. By then his was the need not of a Prometheus, but of an addled and overstretched businessman. But in his vigorous youth, when we needed Prometheus, he was Prometheus, and so he will remain. Because that is the nature of gods.

One thought on “Thomas Edison, the man who looked like the thing that was needed”

  1. Really interesting – I’ve only read glowing/hero bios when I was in grade school. We happen to live very close to one of his failed copper mines when he was going through that phase…

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