Stross, Randall. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World.
With 1,093 U.S. patents to his credit, Thomas Alva Edison carved out a niche for himself as one of the truly prodigious and iconic figures in the annals of science and technology. As a leading Edison scholar, Paul Israel, director of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University, so aptly observed a decade ago: "In the United States, where few questioned the values of technological progress, Edison, the 'uncommon' common man, had become a revolutionary figure akin to the [F]ounding [F]athers. He did not just invent new and useful things but changed the way men and women lived." (1)
The life and work of Edison have been chronicled and scrutinized extensively through the years in numerous biographical studies, beginning with the 1910 two-volume official biography by Frank L. Dyer, Edison's corporate and legal advisor after 1897, and inventor Thomas C. Martin, entitled Edison: His Life and Inventions. Another significant early study published several years after his death was Thomas A. Edison: A Modern Olympian by Mary Childs Nerney (1934). In this work, Nerney, who had worked for Edison as an archivist, excelled in her psychological analysis of Edison's genius. More recent additions to this body of literature include the finely nuanced portrait by award-winning author Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (1959), and biographer Robert Conot's A Streak of Luck (1979), in which Conot deftly shows how throughout his life Edison engaged in many projects simultaneously. Finally, there is Israel's comprehensive and scholarly volume mentioned earlier, Edison: A Life of Invention (1998), which, among other things, sheds new light on Edison's early years (pp. 1-48) and on his later role as "inventor-philosopher" (pp. 440-62). Add to this the published memoirs of one of Edison's business managers, Alfred O. Tate (Edison's Open Door, 1938), and of Edison's laboratory assistant, Francis Jehl (Reminiscences of Menlo Park, 1939, 3 vols.), as well as The Papers of Thomas Alva Edison, the first five volumes of which have been published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and the amount of extant material now accumulated on the inventor is indeed staggering.
Drawing upon these and other sources, both primary and secondary, Randall Stross, a Stanford-trained historian and New York Times columnist, does a masterful job of recapitulating Edison's life, times, and inventive legacy. Combining impeccable scholarship with a flair for story-telling, Stross's account goes beyond a mere recitation of the already well-known story of Edison's inventions and technical career. In this radical reassessment, he shows how Edison's impact on public opinion gathered a momentum which obscured the actual facts about his many disappointments and failures. As Stross observes: "The public's interest in Thomas Edison's inventions rose and fell as announcements of coming wonders would pique interest and then delays in the delivery of these wonders would disappoint. Over time, however, his fame acquired an indestructible sheath and eclipsed the attention accorded to the individual inventions themselves. It was Thomas Edison, the person, to whom the public became attached during his lifetime. Edison realized this and worked unceasingly to protect the most distilled expression of his person: his name. 'Thomas A. Edison' was an estimable invention, too" (p. 211).
One of Stross's main tasks in The Wizard of Menlo Park is to penetrate this veneer and to distinguish between Edison the myth and Edison the man. The portrait of the inventor which emerges in Stross's narrative goes above and beyond the heroic representations seen especially in the early Edison studies and in screen portrayals by Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy. In The Wizard of Menlo Park, one finds an Edison of infinite complexity, with all the human failures, faults, and foibles. One sees, for instance, a side of Edison not generally known to the public, the Edison of 1884 (the year of his first wife's death), whom Stross describes as "...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." Stross goes on to relate how "a book about prominent New Yorkers which appeared that year (1884) noted how swiftly his public image had flipped, from that of a prodigy to a failure, an illustration of 'the fitfulness of the fever of fame'" (pp. 143-44).
Edison's eccentricities, prejudices, and often calamitous business decisions come to the fore in one of the more riveting sections of Stross's book dealing with the invention that first propelled him to celebrity status, the phonograph (pp. 29-75, 211-27). Here one learns that in spite of his profound deafness, Edison considered himself an authority on and arbiter of the public's taste in music, and, in fact, had personally selected waltzes to be recorded on his label. Furthermore, by virtue of a deep-seated prejudice against the superstars of classical music (and outfight contempt for purveyors of the popular variety), Edison allowed his competitors Columbia and Victor to gain a significant edge in signing celebrity artists. Although he had enlisted a few big classical names--Anna Case, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and, of course, his old friend Sarah Bernhardt--many stars at that time--Enrico Caruso, Amelita Galli-Curci, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, and, in popular music, Louis Armstrong, Fannie Brice, and Al Jolson--all signed with Victor. To this should be added the fact that the first recording ever to sell a million copies, a hillbilly tune by Vernon Dalhart called The Prisoner's Song appeared on the Victor, not the Edison, label. In a more technical vein, one also learns from Stross that because of Edison's reluctance to switch from cumbersome cylinder records to discs, he lagged behind Victor in terms of innovation. (The Edison cylinder played for only two minutes; the Victor disc played for four.)
Some of the other high points of Stross's excursus include accounts of Edison's relationship with Bernhardt, his friendship with Henry Ford, and the controversial "mental fitness" questionnaire devised by Edison in the 1920s. This test (which Edison's youngest son Theodore had failed as a sophomore at MIT) had to be passed by all college graduates seeking a position at Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
Overall, The Wizard of Menlo Park brings into sharp and dramatic focus the extent to which modern society and its patterns of mass leisure are indebted to the inventions of Thomas Alva Edison. It is destined to become the standard work on Edison and his era.
Harold M. Green
Liberty, New York
(1) Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998), 369.
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|Author:||Green, Harold M.|
|Publication:||International Social Science Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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