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.
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.