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.
On New Year's Day, 1871, more than three decades before the Wright brothers' historic flight, Edison speculated that "a Paines engine can be so constructed of steel & with hollow magnets … and combined with suitable air propelling apparatus wings … as to produce a flying machine of extreme lightness and tremendous power." "Discovery," begins an entry dated May 26, 1877. "If you look very closely at any printed matter so that the print is greatly blurred and you see double images of the type … one of the double images is always blue or ultra violet=" "Glorious= Telephone perfected this morning 5 AM," he confidently proclaimed in a notebook entry two months later. "Articulation perfect."