Thomas Edison’s Greatest Invention

It wasn’t the light bulb or the phonograph or the moving picture—or anything tangible. It was a way of thinking about technology.

Illustration: Arsh Raziuddin; LIbrary of Congress / Getty

Thomas Alva Edison listened with his teeth. The inventor of the phonograph was completely deaf in one ear and could barely hear in the other, the result of a mysterious affliction in his childhood. To appreciate a delicate tune emanating from a music player or piano, he would chomp into the wood and absorb the sound waves into his skull. From there they would pass through the cochlea and into the auditory nerve, which would ferry the melody to his prodigious brain. Edison’s approach to music consumption had curious side effects, beyond the visible bite marks all over his phonographs. He couldn’t hear at the highest frequencies, couldn’t stand vocal vibrato, and declared Mozart’s music an affront to melody. But his inner ear was so sensitive that he could dazzle sound engineers by pinpointing subtle flaws in their recordings, such as a squeaky flute key among the woodwinds.

A nearly deaf curmudgeon who birthed the recorded-music industry is just one of the extraordinary contradictions that define Edison, whose reputation has tended to oscillate wildly. Depending on whether you incline to a reverential or a revisionist perspective, Edison (1847–1931) was a genius or a thief, a hero of American capitalism or a monster of greed, history’s greatest technologist or a hall-of-famer in the competitive category of overrated American white guys. In a new effort to sum up the protean figure—a seven-year undertaking by the biographer Edmund Morris, who died in May—Edison emerges as a giant containing multitudes.

Random House

Morris’s baroquely detailed portrait presents an Edison motivated by money from his midwestern boyhood onward, who didn’t care for the trappings of wealth. He built the world’s first film studio, yet had little interest in movies as entertainment. He was a showboating maestro of public relations, but he often turned down invitations and celebrations that would force him to leave his laboratory. He was a workaholic whose final résumé boasted 1,093 patents and countless inventions—including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the alkaline battery, the X-ray fluoroscope, and the carbon-button microphone. Yet his most important idea wasn’t something anybody could patent or touch.

Morris’s book is not built as a revisionist biography—more on its strange architecture in a moment—but it usefully demolishes several myths that have accreted around Edison’s legacy in recent years. First, like various other men who share the “genius” epithet—see: Einstein, Picasso, Jobs—Edison is sometimes portrayed as a beautiful mind that emerged from the chrysalis of childhood awkwardness. He did bounce in and out of various schools in Ohio and Michigan, frustrating teachers in his early years. But under his mother’s tutelage, he read steadily and voraciously. By the age of 13, Edison had built a one-boy business selling fruits, groceries, and newspapers that netted $50 a week—the equivalent of an $80,000 annual salary today. Nearly all of this haul went to buying equipment for electric and chemical experiments. Barely pubescent, Edison was already combining the twin skills that would make him world-famous: a natural talent for earning money and an innate compulsion to invent.

A second myth that Morris swats away is the notion that Edison was a mere popularizer of other people’s work—a businessman who didn’t really invent anything. Most inventions adapt previous breakthroughs: From the steam engine to the iPhone, crucial advances have resulted from a tweak of a tweak of a tweak. To create something entirely new is practically impossible. And yet Edison seems to have done just that.

Early one morning in 1877, in his newly established lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he was playing with a diaphragm—a cup-shaped device with a thin metal bottom, which vibrated as Edison shouted into it. Edison thought if he attached a needle to that metal bottom, he could record his words’ vibrations on a soft surface. An assistant built a small cylindrical device to spin a scroll of wax paper beneath the tip of the needle. Edison bellowed “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into the mouthpiece, and the needle etched his utterances into the wax paper, creating a retraceable record of the poem. “On pulling the paper through the second time,” his assistant Charles Batchelor wrote, the vibrations passed back through the needle and out through the mouthpiece, and “we both of us recognized we had recorded the speech.”

As far as we know, this was the first time in history that a human being listened to a recorded sound. Morris describes the moment in Homeric tones:

Since the dawn of humanity, religions had asserted without proof that the human soul would live on after the body rotted away. The human voice was a thing almost as insubstantial as the soul, but it was a product of the body and therefore must die too—in fact, did die, evaporating like breath the moment each word, each phoneme was sounded. For that matter, even the notes of inanimate things—the tree falling in the wood, thunder rumbling, ice cracking—sounded once only, except if they were duplicated in echoes that themselves rapidly faded. But here now were echoes made hard.

The year after inventing the phonograph, Edison built a telephone that surpassed the devices made by its inventors, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, in an official contest of call clarity. The year after that, he achieved semidivine status with his incandescent light bulb. He did all this by the time he was 33, despite almost no prior experience in acoustics, telephony, or illumination technology. Such a feat is all but imponderable, like an athlete winning MVP awards in basketball, football, and baseball in consecutive years, having received barely any formal training in ball sports.

Even as he gives Edison’s accomplishments their due, Morris punctures a third myth—that of the solitary genius—and in the process usefully elbows Edison’s employee turned rival, Nikola Tesla, off the pedestal he’s come to occupy in the internet era. Soon after Edison hired Tesla to work at his New York City dynamo factory, in 1884, the young Serbian engineer left to pursue his own dreams of electricity. A contest to be the Prometheus of their era had begun. While Edison was the first man to bathe a neighborhood in electric light, he relied on direct-current, or DC, technology, which was expensive to run across long distances. Tesla was the godfather of alternating-current, or AC, technology, which uses a rotating magnetic field to more efficiently power a large area. The briefest summary of this rivalry, which is the subject of a new film this fall called The Current War, is that Edison won the battle of the bulbs, and Tesla’s tech won the war.

But comparing them reveals something deeper about the nature of innovation. Tesla died alone in 1943, drifting toward madness—a fate that is sometimes offered as proof of the ascetic purity of his genius. But to romanticize Tesla’s lonely death is to implicitly praise the very thing that held him back: his insistence on solitude. Innovation thrives under the opposite conditions, and it was Edison, not Tesla, who recognized that genius loves company.

The cooperative nature of science had been understood long before Edison wobbled a diaphragm. When Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” he was acknowledging that invention is a team sport, even if Newton’s team was mostly dead people. Edison, so proficient at improving existing ideas, made a useful tweak: If ghosts make good teammates, just imagine how helpful the living might be.

Inside the two-story shed he built in Menlo Park in 1876, Edison oversaw a factory of invention, with a team of “muckers”—his term for professional experimenters—who fleshed out his sketches and made him the most famous inventor in the world. For example, Edison might never have conceived his signature light bulb without Ludwig Böhm, a Bavarian glassblower, or his right-hand man, Batchelor, who carbonized the paper that glowed within the pear-shaped bulb.

From the start, Menlo Park was both unique and controversial. “It has never, is not now, and never will pay commercially, to keep an establishment of professional inventors,” T. D. Lockwood, the head of AT&T’s patent department, declared in 1885. But as Edison’s team-based success became too obvious to ignore, other companies built similar facilities—and saw similarly magical results.

In the early 20th century, AT&T abandoned Lockwood’s position and, after years of occupying aging labs in New York City, in 1941 opened a state-of-the-art research facility in Murray Hill, just 10 miles north of Menlo Park—Bell Labs. That unit went on to patent the transistor, the laser, and the first solar-energy cell. From 1930 to 1965, DuPont’s Experimental Station, in Wilmington, Delaware, developed synthetic rubber, nylon, and Kevlar. The following decade, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center helped design the modern personal computer. After Russia’s launch of the Sputnik rocket, the U.S. government got in on the act, establishing the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, which in 1969 laid the technical foundation of the internet. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that almost every important technological invention in the 20th century emerged from just the sort of R&D lab that Edison created.

Since the 1980s, several measures of innovation have mysteriously declined. Some researchers have suggested that today’s biggest challenges in science and technology, such as designing artificial intelligence that can mimic human thought, are just more challenging than the 19th-century problems of reproducing sound and light. But perhaps we’ve also lost sight of Edison’s most important invention: the cross-disciplinary invention factory.

In a 2019 paper, economists at Duke University and the University of East Anglia, in England, found that the number of ambitious corporate R&D labs akin to Menlo Park and Bell Labs has dropped in the past few decades, just as productivity rates have fallen. Research and development still happen, but the two processes have been decoupled in the past 40 years: Basic research is concentrated in universities, while large corporations handle product development. Teams like Edison’s—where scientists and abstract thinkers worked cheek by jowl with machinists and electricians and other hardware tinkerers—are harder to find (although exceptions do exist, such as X, the R&D factory at Google’s parent company, Alphabet).

Now I have to tell you something about Morris’s biography: It goes backwards. Thomas Edison dies in the prologue, and toward the end, a young boy called Alva reads a book about electricity and is inspired. Each chapter traces a full decade (Chapter 1 begins in 1920 and ends in 1929), and then, for no discernible reason, the story backflips 19 years to begin the previous decade (Chapter 2 begins in 1910).

If Morris perhaps felt his innovation would shed fresh light on a life marked by improvisatory creation rather than by structured, strictly cumulative accomplishments, he was mistaken. Nothing is gained by this approach, and much comprehension is lost. Edison’s inventive sprints don’t fit neatly within 10-year chunks. The electric illumination of Menlo Park, on New Year’s Eve 1879, caused a sensation in the first days of 1880. But because Morris’s crab-walk gives priority to the more recent decade, the lights of the New Jersey hamlet turn on more than 200 pages after the crowd cheers their illumination.

Within the chapters, however, Edison is vibrantly alive, and though Morris doesn’t step back to emphasize this, Edison’s conjuring powers make him a mascot and a microcosm of his turn-of-the-century era. In 1880, Manhattan had no subway, no cars, and no electric grid; its tallest building was a church. By 1915, New York had a subway system, thousands of cars, the Great White Way (an allusion to Broadway’s newly electric signs), and the world’s tallest skyscrapers, thanks to the development of steel-skeleton construction. That same period saw the invention of the airplane, the air conditioner, and the assembly line. Although today tech journalism is, often rightfully, suffused with cynicism, the age of Edison was marked by exuberant optimism, and individuals believed they could reshape the entire physical world—so they did.

But Edison was prescient about our world, too. Before he designed a working light bulb, he had already envisioned a wired city buzzing with electric elevators, sewing machines, and “any other mechanical contrivance.” After realizing the ecological costs of electricity, he suggested that energy companies “should utilize natural forces [like] sunshine … and the winds and the tides.” He might have made a brilliant media mogul. Even before the release of the kinetophone, a device that combined moving pictures with live-recorded sound, he urged President William Howard Taft to campaign for reelection by recording speeches that people might watch on screens, anticipating the future not just of entertainment but of democracy.

In a life overflowing with ideas both patented and unrealized, Edison himself gave fuel to his debunkers, insisting, “I never had an idea in my life.”

I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born. Everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment.

This can be read in several ways—as provocative overstatement, as an honest description of creativity’s mechanics, or as a paean to the inventor’s workaholism. To me, its ambiguity highlights Edison’s greatest contradiction. The man who created the team-based R&D lab had a habit of talking about his work in the first-person singular, referring to “my so-called inventions” and anointing himself “the industrious one.” Edison’s life should be a durable lesson in the power of creative teamwork. Instead his surname has become an eponym for individual genius, whether heroic or hyped. Edison reveres its subject, but Morris’s portrait also shows that while “the industrious one” can be a remarkable catalyst, inventiveness truly thrives thanks to the industrious many.

By Edmund Morris

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