Eugene S. Ferguson Prize

An image of the Ferguson prize

The Papers of Thomas A. Edison received a special retrospective Eugene S. Ferguson Prize from the Society for the History of Technology at its annual meeting in November 2005. The recently-inaugurated Ferguson Prize recognizes outstanding and original reference works that will support future scholarship in the history of technology. This unique retrospective award was given to the Edison Papers as a model work published since the founding of SHOT in 1958. We reproduce the complete annoucement below, courtesy of the Society for the History of Technology.

Citation

As noted in the January 2005 issue of the SHOT Newsletter, the Society for the History of Technology decided “to make a special, one-time retrospective award to a model work published or issued since the founding of the Society for the History of Technology (1958) that fits the criteria of the Ferguson Prize.” [1]  The winner of this special award is The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, including the microfilm edition and website that accompany them as edited by Reese V. Jenkins, Robert A. Rosenberg, and currently Paul B. Israel and their staffs at Rutgers University. 

To date, five of the projected fifteen volumes of The Edison Papers have been published.  Each volume consists of hundreds of documents drawn from Edison’s laboratory notebooks, correspondence, and patent and business records.  Most of these materials are housed at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey, though the editors and their staffs have done an excellent job of ferreting out Edison-related materials from other repositories like the Library of Congress and the Henry Ford Museum.  When completed, the print edition of the Edison Papers will bring together less than one per cent of the 5 million pages of archival material that exists at West Orange.  Another ten per cent is being published in the microfilm edition which, to date, covers the period from Edison’s birth through 1910.  Imagine a single researcher trying to navigate through the Edison collection at West Orange without the aid of these publications?  A daunting if not impossible task, to be sure!  The time consuming and laborious process of working through the collection, culling out essential nuggets, and making them accessible is itself a major scholarly accomplishment. 

But that’s only part of the story.  The papers themselves are masterfully edited and annotated.  In them one finds extremely revealing information about Edison, his associates, their ideas and deliberations, their drawings and calculations, the machinery and products they made, and business and patent details they arranged.  Document 1662 in volume five, for example, reproduces a letter to Edison from George Gouraud in London dated January 18, 1879 concerning the competitive and proprietary pressures they were encountering while introducing a telephone system equipped with Edison’s carbon transmitter in Great Britain.  [2]  The letter itself is a scant four paragraphs but the footnoted annotations are twice as long, not only explaining the technical details but also the larger context of the business itself.  

The Edison Papers deserve special recognition for other reasons.  Each volume contains a calendar of documents and a detailed chronology of events that are very helpful to readers. The editors are to be especially commended for the judicious introductions and headnotes that accompany major sections of the published volumes.  Without imposing an explicit interpretation on the documents, those selected nonetheless reveal an interpretative thrust that revises the longstanding popular myth that Edison was the “wizard of Menlo Park,” a solitary genius who spurned science for “cut-and-try” methods. Indeed, the Edison that emerges from these pages is an ambitious, complex, earthy, and, at times, flawed person who nonetheless accomplished great things, including the prototype industrial research laboratories he established at Menlo Park and, later, at West Orange, New Jersey. The many excellent drawings that accompany the text also reveal Edison as a quintessential visual and spatial thinker, someone whose mental approach to problem solving strongly reinforces the central theme of Eugene Ferguson’s little classic, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye. [3] The annotations, moreover, contain references to pertinent information in the accompanying microfilm edition of the Edison Papers and, beginning with volume 5 (published in 2004), references to more than 175,000 images which can be accessed through the project’s continually updated website (http://edison.rutgers.edu).  The website also provides readers with a complete list of Edison’s patents, a comprehensive bibliography and chronology, maps and images, and “a searchable database of 121,000 documents and 19,250 names.”  [4] 

All told, the Edison Papers are an exemplary work of historical scholarship and editing.  Provided with annotations that refer the reader to other pertinent sources in the Edison Collection at West Orange and elsewhere, they are the obligatory starting point for anyone interested in undertaking research on Thomas Edison, his many inventions, and business enterprises.  That they are effectively serving this purpose is well evidenced by the many books and articles that cite them, including Paul Israel’s recent Edelstein [Dexter] Prize-winning biography of Edison.  [5]  Equally important, the Edison Papers project, in its print, microfilm, and website editions, provides a rich set of primary sources to which non-specialists can turn for lecture material, illustrations, and primary documents for classroom and other uses.  To be sure, they shed a flood of light on America’s most famous inventor, the inventions he patented, the businesses he engaged in, and the times in which he lived.  We wholeheartedly agree that The Papers of Thomas Edison constitute a milestone in the historiography of technology and a model of the craft of historical editing.  Our hearty congratulations to the editors and their staffs for this singular accomplishment.  May their ongoing work continue to prosper and receive more recognitions like the honor SHOT is bestowing this evening. 

[Minneapolis, MN, November 5, 2005]

 1. Shot Newsletter (No. 106; Jan. 2005): 7.
 2. The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, eds. Paul B. Israel, Louis Carlat, David Hochfelder, and Keith A. Nier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 5:29-31.
 3. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).
 4. Papers of TAE,5:xli.  Also see the “Edison Papers Editions” on the project’s website.
 5. Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998).

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