Magazine | November 25, 2019, Issue

Thomas Edison’s Strange Genius

Thomas Edison with the Edison Business Phonograph (Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Edison, by Edmund Morris (Random House, 800 pp., $38)

Edmund Morris, who died in May at the age of 78, was a biographer highly praised for his 1979 book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award). And he was pilloried for his 1999 biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, because he (I quote from Morris’s New York Times obituary) “inserted himself as a fictional narrator.” Edison is Morris’s posthumous biography of one of American history’s most important and influential figures and, after the chastising he received for Dutch, what could go wrong? Surely he learned to leave the avant-garde tricks to fiction. Gentle reader, it turns out that Morris didn’t eschew the eccentric legerdemain this time either, and in due course I will count the ways.

Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931) is his nation’s greatest inventor — the phonograph (his “favorite invention”), incandescent electric light bulb, moving-picture camera, ad infinitum, 1,093 patents just in the United States — and during his life was revered as such by his compatriots (a 1922 New York Times poll named him the “greatest living American”). He was also a very strange man. It wasn’t just his peculiar personal habits: the shabby clothing; his penchant for sleeping on whatever free space presented itself in his laboratory or workshop; his “cheap Corona cigars, which . . . he liked . . . for their strong, coarse taste”; the fact that “from earliest youth he had half-starved himself, faithful to the dictum of the temperance philosopher Luigi Cornaro (1467–1566) that a man should rise from the table hungry.” He was also strange because his virtues — a remarkably intuitive, ingenious mind; self-assurance; demonic perseverance — could mutate into professional faults, and those faults, when accompanied by self-delusion and ruthlessness, had repercussions that extended into society at large.

The youngest of seven children, he was born in Milan, Ohio, although he spent much of his youth (such as it was) in Port Huron, Mich. His father, Samuel, sometimes prospered in lumbering and auctioning ventures, and when he didn’t he still did well at farming the land surrounding his Port Huron house. The intellectual influence on the youngster was his mother, Nancy. “My mother was the making of me,” he once said.

A good thing too. We don’t know how long Edison’s formal education lasted, but it was shockingly brief, and by the age of twelve he had left school for good to sell newspapers and food on railroads. But he read science books with Nancy, which engendered his delight in such subjects as electricity and magnetism, subjects that would fascinate him and guide his work for the rest of his life. The adult Edison might have seemed, in his apparel and behavior, to be a yokel, but he was a mind-boggling autodidact who devoured — and comprehended — complex tomes exploring all the sciences. How does one explain this, considering his background and rather flimsy schooling? Morris doesn’t, but I can’t blame him; I have no clue either.

One other momentous incident occurred when Edison was twelve: He lost 75 percent of his hearing. The reason is unknown. He would profess to see positive aspects in this, and it must be acknowledged that, as Morris notes, he “invented two hundred and fifty sonic devices.”

At the age of 14 or 15 Edison began learning telegraphy and became a superb “receiving telegrapher,” the telegraph operator who recorded incoming Morse-code signals. Moreover, the telegraph system inspired what was probably his first important invention, a telegraph double transmitter, which he created in 1867 and described this way: “By means of this ingenious [he wasn’t humble] arrangement, two communications may be transmitted in opposite directions at the same time on a single wire.” The Civil War had recently ended, and American businessmen were eager to capitalize on the American flair for applied science and technology. Edison was a virtuoso in both fields, and financiers took notice. In 1869 he moved to New York City (he subsequently relocated to New Jersey — Menlo Park and then West Orange), hung out his inventor’s shingle, and for the rest of his life, despite money problems, patent fights, sometimes-vicious rivalries, numerous lawsuits, family travails (Edison wasn’t the best husband to his two wives or father to his six sons and daughters; right after his second wedding ceremony, he went to his workshop), and his own intractableness, he invented and invented and . . .

Space constraints prevent me from appraising Edison’s inventions, but I want to make two brief general observations. First, his capacity for researching a technical problem until he found a solution was, depending on your point of view, astonishing, pathological, or both. No one, not even other great scientists and inventors, ever outworked Thomas Edison. His discovery of a feasible filament (it would require carbon) for his light bulb, for example, involved punctilious toil on minuscule particles. Withal, one regrettable feature of his monomaniacal experimentation was that he expended the same unceasing energy on projects — iron mining, rubber cultivation, concrete furniture, etc. — that turned out to be huge wastes of time, money, and effort. Such was his sublime self-regard and fortitude that even the admonitions of trusted colleagues failed to persuade him to abandon the duds.

My other observation is that Edison ultimately was not so much a creator of single inventions as a builder of systems. His compulsion to add to — to improve — his creations, his zest for fabricating networks to complement them, was of course driven by a desire to enthrall as many people as possible (and earn lots of money), but it was also — here I speculate — a manifestation of his ardor for systems for their own sake. An example is his zealous campaign to install electricity-distribution stations in New York City, the “provinces” (Morris’s word), and abroad. The stations brought his light bulbs to as many people as possible (or at least to those who could afford the service), but I can’t help feeling that he reveled in the thought of all those grids tangibly existing in landscapes everywhere.

Now for the bad news. Surely the point of reading a biography is to learn how the subject’s personality and behavior evolve from their antecedents, and this understanding is possible only when the book commences at the beginning of a life. Edison begins with its subject’s death and then moves backward, presenting segments of his life in reverse chronological order. What possessed the author to write his book this way? (And what could have possessed his editors to permit him to do so? They have a lot to answer for too.) Whatever his reasons, he never mentions them in his book, which is especially peeving. The result of Morris’s perverse gamesmanship was that I recurrently found Edison (and Edison) dismayingly confusing; I frequently lost track of who was who and even what was transpiring — and I was taking notes. Edison might have been a master of structure; his biographer wasn’t.

Edison’s 700-plus pages of text are replete with Morris’s research; he seems to have included everything his lucubrations uncovered. At times there are even day-to-day accounts of the lives of Edison and his circle. Regrettably, this obsessive massiveness too often renders the narrative tedious. The book’s density is particularly problematic in the technology descriptions. I suspect — I could be wrong — that Morris had a shaky grasp of the technology, so he overdid the minutiae and left the reader to fend for himself. Good luck, reader, if you’re not an engineer. There is just too much techno-turbidity such as this (about a storage battery):

He had done it by returning to flake technology, using nickel leaf this time, plating it so thin that it floated on the air like gossamer. Two hundred and fifty sheets would have to be patted flat to match the thickness of a visiting card. They were drawn off rotating drums that he dunked, alternately and rapidly, into baths of copper and nickel electrolyte. Each deposition was washed and dried, the accumulated layers building up hardly more substantially than crossed shadows. When they laminated out at .3969 of a millimeter, the sheet was stripped and cut into tiny squares, which were then soaked in a solution that ate away the copper. This left 120 nickel flakes, each about 1/25,000 inch thick.

It goes on for another half page.

Though Edison is crammed with data, there are pertinent topics that are treated in an oddly cursory fashion, such as the “war of the currents”: Edison versus the businessman and engineer George Westinghouse, over which electrical current — direct (Edison) or alternating (Westinghouse) — was safer and more effective. (Edison eventually lost that one.) Also too perfunctory is the account of Edison’s role in persuading New York State to use alternating current in its first electric chair. This grotesque episode says a lot about Edison’s ability to set aside his moral scruples (he opposed capital punishment) when he believed that his business interests were threatened. Morris describes the affair as “the most disagreeable controversy of [Edison’s] career,” which is putting it too mildly. Edison readers wanting to know more about the subject are fobbed off with some relevant books in an endnote.

One of the leitmotifs of Edison is its subject’s atheism, but according to an essay by the late Martin Gardner (who has consummate credibility with me), “Thomas Edison, Paranormalist” (reprinted in Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? Debunking Pseudoscience), in the decade before his death Edison had embraced the concept of an afterlife and dabbled in the occult to the extent that he attempted to create an apparatus to converse with the dead (another failure, presumably). The subject, uninvestigated in Edison, warranted some consideration by Morris.

I can recommend two other books for those interested in Edison (neither is mentioned in Edison’s bibliography): Thomas Hughes’s American Genesis: A History of the American Genius for Invention, which provides important historical and business context for the “Old Man”; and Randall Stross’s The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Edison Invented the Modern World, which is astute, sanely structured, and a lot shorter than Morris’s biography.

A final thought. I’d love to know what Edison would feel about Silicon Valley: pride in being its precursor, jealousy, or absolute confidence that he could do better?

This article appears as “A Strange Genius” in the November 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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