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
The Private Man

The Edison papers have brought to light another dimension of the inventor's success: the brilliant scientist was also a clever businessman, and capable of engineering literally dazzling public-relations stunts. In a bid to get New York City to allow its streets to be torn up for the laying of electrical cables, Edison invited the entire city council out to Menlo Park at dusk. He directed the aldermen up a narrow staircase in the dark, and as they grumbled and fumbled their way, he clapped his hands. On came a flood of lights, illuminating a lavishly set dining hall complete with a sumptuous feast catered by Delmonico's, then New York's premier restaurant.

Edison knew how to use the rumor mill to enhance his professional image. He portrayed his younger self as having been a guileless rube who didn't know what to do with a check for $40,000 that he received shortly after arriving in New York. The story--originally told by Edison is that after cashing the check, he stuffed the bills into the lining of his coat. Edison loved to tell this fabricated tale, possibly because it fit nicely with that era's image of the wild, enterprising Yankee.

Edison the private man is not nearly as scintillating as Edison the inventor and self-promoter. "He had few of the endearing eccentricities commonly associated with genius," Greg Field says, expressing an opinion also held by his colleagues. Edison was in many respects a typical Victorian man, with solid midwestern tastes. Like many of his contemporaries, he was sheltered from women in his youth, and he seems to have been genuinely chagrined to discover that his partner in marriage would not be his partner at the laboratory bench. Just over a month after marrying Mary Stilwell, the twenty-four-year-old Edison despaired in a notebook, "My wife Dearly Beloved Cannot invent worth a Damn!!" He also shared with Americans of his background stereotypical prejudices against Jews, Poles, Irishmen, and other newly arriving immigrant groups (though ethnic biases apparently never stopped him from hiring anyone he deemed talented).

As he advanced in years, he became increasingly protective of his discoveries. Lisa Gitelman, a project historian, recently uncovered an irate letter (circa 1916) from Edison to his manufacturing department. It had been prompted by the news that teenagers were turning up the speed of his cylinder phonograph to make the music faster. Instead of capitalizing on this trend, Edison complained, "This change of speed is far worse than any loss due to having dance records too slow. . . . They are absolutely right time but young folks of the family want this fast time & like stunts & I dont want it & wont have it." To make sure his will was obeyed, he ordered his machinists to make a governor for the motor.

Of course, next to Edison's accomplishments, his shortcomings seem puny. Even among other hallowed figures in the pantheon of inventors, Edison is Bunyanesque. What Henry Ford is to the automobile, George Eastman to photography, and Charles Goodyear to rubber, Edison is to not one but several of today's essential technologies.

Is the Edison Papers Project helping to demystify his genius? "His ability to reason by analogy and to learn from failure are certainly examples of traits that should be useful to people of all sorts of talents and occupations," Paul Israel says. "Nonetheless, when you see his mind at play in his notebooks, the sheer multitude and richness of his ideas makes you recognize that there is something that can't be understood easily that we may never be able to understand."

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