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Reinventing Edison

The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, by Randall Stross
New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. Reviewed by Review by ED MASON


In our 21st century era of entrepreneurship, celebrity and financial boom and bust we may need to be reminded we aren’t the first generation to live in such interesting and challenging times. A new biography of a man who embodied his era better than most is particularly timely.

Randall Stross has approached the man who was Thomas Edison as much as he has examined the idea of Thomas Edison in this mid-sized biography of the great inventor. Indeed his most significant insights frame Edison as one of the earliest modern people to style himself as an ‘inventor’ by profession and his status as a celebrity whose name transcended his actual inventions.

Edison is particularly associated in the public mind with the light bulb and the phonograph but he was so much more to people worldwide in an era spanning the US Civil War to the Great Depression. He pioneered research and development and entrepreneurship deciding in his early 20s to devote his life to ‘invention’, discovering new and useful industrial and household goods with commercial applications. He did it himself early on while we struggle to fund and organise these activities to this day.

Stross doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the ‘Great Man’ theory of history. He goes out of his way to create a full picture of a man in particular period of history when a public was forming which needed celebrities and heroes who reflected its dominant interests in science and business.

Businessmen-inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford and of course Thomas Edison filled the bill. How Edison got any serious work done is beyond most people’s imagination when one considers the thousands of visitors who descended on Menlo Park New Jersey and various other laboratories to see the genius at work. You can imagine their almost demanding instant inventions so they could tell their friends. Happily, at least in a productivity sense, Edison was a workaholic who drove himself and his assistants through the night while most of the great American public were asleep.

The new mass media based in nearby New York and Edison’s willingness to go public with great promises before he had thought things through added greatly to the public’s insatiable need for more news. Ironically Edison was a diffident man who disliked public speaking but enjoyed the publicity his pronouncements brought.

Edison was largely underwhelming as a businessman because his fertile mind was distracted by his next great enthusiasm while he hadn’t fully the developed the current idea. His greatest claim (as his publisher says) to be the man ‘who invented the modern world’ lay in his work with the phonograph and the electric light bulb. Both projects were delayed by up to a decade and more by his inattention and enthusiasm for new ideas which did not pan out. He also failed to see how radio would come to dominate the entertainment world of the 1920s and 30s.
Although he registered over 1000 patents his assistants deserved much of the credit for refining the work. The new mass media, America’s worship of new industrial inventions and a growing celebrity culture drove the public to accord Edison a status he perhaps did not entirely deserve.

Stross makes a determined effort to link Edison’s discoveries and refinements in recorded sound to I-pods and celebrity media of our time. He largely succeeds. His writing style varies from the seriously stodgy to the quirky and personal. This betrays Stross’ background as a journalist working as a biographical historian. He has produced a worthwhile, well – documented backgrounder to the 19th century origins of our new technological, digital century and some of its discontents. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are worthy successors to Edison’s legacy in more than just their technical breakthroughs.