Thomas Edison Myths

Thomas Edison is celebrated as one of the greatest of modern inventors. For us Buzzkillers, Edison is interesting because the myths are more subtle than most other myths. He didn’t actually invent a lot of the stuff he’s given credit for. Sometimes he invented a better (or more mass-produce-able, or more sale-able) version. Sometimes his inventions were somewhat crude and had to be re-invented by others. But most often his inventions were part of a team effort.

Let’s start with what he did invent. 

Edison began his working life as a telegraph operator, and very quickly became a good one. While he was tap-tap-tapping away, he obviously had time to think creatively about telegraphy. He was so creative that he invented a telegraph machine that could send and receive multiple messages at the same time. This made sending and receiving telegrams much more affordable. His telegraph work led him to invent the stock ticker, which is based on similar technology but was a very important invention as a concept — the idea that a batch of information could be sent out to lots of different places more or less immediately. Young Buzzkillers may not know what a stock ticker was. They should check YouTube for old movies. You might see Wall Street financiers and bankers relaxing at their swanky clubs when with a ticker tape machine rattling away in a corner. One of them walks over and idly looks at the thin, white tape rolling out of the machine. “Holy Toledo,” he shouts, “Amalgamated Buzzkill has dropped 30 points!” They all jump up, grab their hats, and rush to their offices to put in urgent sell orders.

The Phonograph. Edison continued to tinker with improvements to the telegraph and to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The transmission of sound and information led him to think about recording sound. In 1877, he figured out a way to record sound on tinfoil-coated cylinders. He used one needle for recording and one needle for playback, which must have put a real damper on jitterbugging to the latest tunes. The tinfoil cylinders were not durable, though, and wore out after playing a couple of times. Alexander Graham Bell and a few others jumped at the chance to invent a phonograph that used longer-lasting wax cylinders.

Another biggie was the electrical distribution system that used Direct Current (DC). It was the first commercially successful distribution of electricity. DC became one of two competing systems (the other being Alternating Current – AC) and led to the famous and controversial Current Wars between Edison and George Westinghouse (the champion of AC). AC won out, of course, but DC is still used in batteries and solar cells and stuff like that (forgive the technical mumbo-jumbo, Buzzkillers).

Famous Inventions with others:

Motion picture camera. Edison designed the electromechanical aspects of the motion picture camera. This was no small feat. Creating a fast shutter that synchronized with moving film was immensely difficult. Edison’s employee, W.K.L. Dickson, a photographer, invented the photographic elements of the camera, as well as how to develop motion picture film. Most technological historians agree that the bulk of the credit for the invention should go to Dickson.

The electric light bulb. Edison is most famous for “inventing” the light bulb. But he didn’t really. Sir Humphry Davy invented the first electric lamp in 1800, and others improved on it over subsequent decades. But none of them were very long-lasting because the filaments used burned through pretty quickly. 

Edison’s contribution was that he experimented with hundreds (some stories say thousands) of filaments to try to create a long-lasting electric bulb. In 1879 he discovered that a special species of bamboo would work well as a long-lasting filament. It had a higher resistance to electricity and wouldn’t burn out as quickly. Edison was no financial dummy either. He monopolized that species of bamboo and the way to turn it into a light bulb filament. He became stinking rich from superior manufacturing and marketing of the bamboo. But within a generation, other inventors had developed better filaments and today’s light-bulbs don’t really resemble Edison’s bamboo filament bulbs.

Edison’s “greatest” inventions:

One of the big problems with all the Edison mythology is that covers up two of his greatest, although seemingly contradictory, inventions. First, Edison invented the idea of the popular inventor, toiling away in his little laboratory on his own. He cultivated this image and made sure the press presented him in this way. At the same time he invented and promoted this image of the individual popular inventor, he more or less invented the modern, industrial research lab with teams of researchers working on technological advancements. 

The Menlo Park Research Laboratory was perhaps his greatest achievement. It was the first “inventors factory,” so to speak. Its purpose was constant technological innovation, and improvements to existing technologies. Among the things that were invented or improved by the Menlo Park team were: the electrical railway, the iron ore separator (whatever that was), electrical lighting on a large scale (using DC current), and better telephone technology (that more or less lasted until the 1980s). There were hundreds of other minor and more technical inventions and innovations and thousands of patents issued.

So what do we think about Thomas Edison, Buzzkillers? Great inventor? Great improver? Great self-promoter? I think he was all these things. And the more we know about the subtleties and complexities of Edison, his inventions, and his times, the more carefully we may think about the idea of the lone genius, and, by extension, the problems with hero worship.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Edmund Morris, Edison

Although Thomas Alva Edison was the most famous American of his time, and remains an international name today, he is mostly remembered only for the gift of universal electric light. His invention of the first practical incandescent lamp 140 years ago so dazzled the world—already reeling from his invention of the phonograph and dozens of other revolutionary devices—that it cast a shadow over his later achievements. In all, this near-deaf genius (“I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old”) patented 1,093 inventions, not including others, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he left unlicensed for the benefit of medicine.

One of the achievements of this staggering new biography, the first major life of Edison in more than twenty years, is that it portrays the unknown Edison—the philosopher, the futurist, the chemist, the botanist, the wartime defense adviser, the founder of nearly 250 companies—as fully as it deconstructs the Edison of mythological memory. Edmund Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, brings to the task all the interpretive acuity and literary elegance that distinguished his previous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Ludwig van Beethoven. A trained musician, Morris is especially well equipped to recount Edison’s fifty-year obsession with recording technology and his pioneering advances in the synchronization of movies and sound. Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship.

Enlightened by seven years of research among the five million pages of original documents preserved in Edison’s huge laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, and privileged access to family papers still held in trust, Morris is also able to bring his subject to life on the page—the adored yet autocratic and often neglectful husband of two wives and father of six children. If the great man who emerges from it is less a sentimental hero than an overwhelming force of nature, driven onward by compulsive creativity, then Edison is, at last, getting his biographical due.

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