The Undiscovered World of Thomas Edison

Historians, sorting through a treasure trove of Edison's papers, are discovering revealing details that enrich our portrait of one of America's most accomplished inventors

When an associate asked Thomas Alva Edison about the secret to his talent for invention, the plainspoken Edison retorted, "Genius is hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense."

"There's still more!" his colleague said imploringly. "Although [the rest of us] know quite a lot . . . and worked hard, we couldn't invent . . . as you did."

What Edison never seemed to grasp was that his "common sense" was exceedingly uncommon--freakish, really. More patents were issued to him than have been issued to any other single person in U.S. history: 1,093. But Edison's towering status reflects more than his extraordinary productivity. He created things that transformed our world--among them the phonograph, the motion-picture camera, and the incandescent light bulb. And he made substantial contributions to numerous technologies, including telegraphy, telephone communications, and several business procedures.

Yet, in the six decades since the inventor's death, little serious writing has been done about Edison's remarkable genius for invention. In the words of the historian Keith Nier, "He is actually one of the least well known of all famous people, and much of what everybody thinks they know about him is no more reliable than a fairy tale."

Nier is one of eight historians at Rutgers University and at the Edison National Historic Site, in West Orange, New Jersey, who are now trying to set the record straight. The team, headed by Robert Rosenberg, is in the process of editing and publishing selected documents from the inventor's life's work. The scale of their endeavor is virtually unprecedented in the history of technology and science. What is now known as the Edison Papers Project started in 1978, when archivists estimated that the inventor's estate included just over a million pages of documents. Having been told that the contents had been "loosely organized" by previous archivists, the Edison Papers staff expected to have chosen the documents for a highly selective microfilm edition within a decade, after which a still more selective book edition would be completed.

Alas, organization, like beauty, turns out to be in the eye of the beholder. "It was a big mess," recalls the associate director of the project, Thomas Jeffrey, remembering his dismay at seeing for the first time the documents housed at the extensive industrial complex that makes up the Edison National Historic Site. Dusty stacks of papers--many seemingly untouched since Edison's death--sprouted as haphazardly as weeds across the space. Jeffrey, who had been hired to make the initial selection for the microfilm edition, instead found himself leading a scouting expedition. "We went from building to building, room to room, drawer to drawer," he recalls. "It took us more than a year just to get to the end of the paper trail, and when we added up the numbers in our inventory, we were shocked."

The collection turned out to include at least four million pages, and quite possibly as many as five million. According to Jeffrey's most recent estimate, publishing a representative sample of the inventor's work in both a microfilm edition and a printed edition of fifteen to twenty volumes could take until 2015. (To date the team has published more than 250,000 pages of documents on microfilm and three enormous printed volumes, and has begun preparing for electronic publication.)

Now, seventeen years into the project, the historians have become so intimately acquainted with their subject that, as Rosenberg half guiltily admits, "we've become spies inside his mind." All are acutely aware of their unique privilege. In many instances they are the first people since the inventor's death to gaze on laboratory records, early drafts of patent applications, letters, photos of models, and other telling memorabilia.

Luckily for posterity, the process by which Edison invented is documented in exquisite detail in a series of 3,500 notebooks. The researchers unabashedly compare his fecundity of ideas to Leonardo da Vinci's. The notebooks are filled with fascinating observations and insights--many pertaining to unrelated projects, in a seeming free flow of associations. Consecutive sketches--some rough and crude, others executed with the exactitude of a draftsman--traverse a vast spectrum of technologies.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In