Collaborating on Progress

In June 1890, George Parsons Lathrop approached Edison with a proposal from Samuel Sidney McClure, proprietor of the first U.S. literary syndicate supplying fiction to newspapers.  The proposal was for a “story something after the style of Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’” with Edison supplying “ideas of the possibilities of the future” and Lathrop authoring the story. Lathrop and McClure considered Edison’s ideas to be “the backbone of the work.” 

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Lathrop’s interest in collaborating with Edison on a novel of the future seems to have been inspired by earlier interviews with the inventor. At the conclusion of his 1885 article and interview, Lathrop described Edison as able to “manipulate as at will and without interruption the mysterious forces and properties of nature. In meeting him I thought of him more as a poet or a musician than as a machinist and electrician. . . .perfecting man’s control over the elements that shape life.”

Tate Alfred 1890

The Story Emerges

Having “agreed with McClure to write the book by December 15th,” Lathrop found himself pleading with Edison's private secretary Alfred Tate to arrange a meeting with Edison. A series of letters between June and late August 1890 reveal Lathrop’s futile attempts to meet with Edison to work on the novel. By October, Edison’s frequent delays propelled Lathrop to express his frustration to Tate that the “collaborative story matter has been waiting, now, over three months since Mr. Edison gave it his sanction, & time passes.” This apparently prompted Edison to send Lathrop his first set of notes. After copying them Lathrop sent back the notes, which he called “immense,” and suggested that Edison provide him with “the phonograph cylinders, to which you dictate your further ideas for the novel.” 




On November 22 Lathrop sent Edison “the first division of the novel (five chapters)” and returned Edison’s notes with annotations in red on sections for which he wanted “fuller details.” These may be the surviving undated notes found in Edison’s papers. Seeing substantial progress, McClure expected the story to be ready in January and in early December announcements began to appear about the story to be written by Lathrop and “filled with drawings made by Mr. Edison to illustrate his predictions”. 

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As the new year opened, Tate reported to Lathrop that Edison had “tried to dictate the notes to the phonograph, but failed. He has, however, about 56 pages of notes ready.” Lathrop even managed to meet with Edison to receive these notes  However, Lathrops’s subsequent efforts to meet with Edison, including a visit with McClure, were stymied by the inventor’s busy schedule on more important inventive projects. Lathrop succeeded in writing new chapters, which he sent to Edison in mid-May, but the inventor failed to provide any feedback and, in late June, Lathrop had to beg Edison’s wife Mina to “gather together the chapters” and send them back.

The Collaboration Fails

By mid-August of 1891, Lathrop had ran out of patience and poured out his frustrations in a seventeen page letter to Edison. He detailed the history of their difficult collaboration and made it clear that he had been unable to complete the story due to his inability to meet with the inventor.  He explained that he could not write an entire book on vague and simple ideas, and needed further explanation of Edison’s notes. Edison had only detailed “two or three” of his ideas, which was not enough for Lathrop to complete the novel. He wrote frankly about his frustrations with their collaboration.

“I will ask you to try to realize what it is to me to be forced to hang around like a dog waiting for a bone — and not even getting the bone. I have never been placed in such a position before; never would have allowed myself to be placed in it, this time, if I could have forseen what was coming and shall take exceedingly good care never to be led into a similar predicament again.”

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Lathrop’s letter went unanswered, prompting him to write again on August 18: “I do not understand on what principle you can reconcile to so being one in the bunch, after promising your cooperation; nor why you should ignore my communications.” Perhaps prompted by  this letter, Tate finally sent Lathrop’s earlier letter to Edison. Edison finally read Latrhop’s letter and at the end of August Tate sent Edison’s notes back to the writer telling him that Edison had been spending all his time at the ore milling works “in order to get things in proper shape.”

Lathrop continued in his efforts to arrange a meeting with Edison but the inventor’s other projects kept him away from the laboratory. Although Edison subsequently provided Lathrop with another thirty pages at the end of January 1892, Lathrop again failed in his efforts to meet with Edison to discuss the story.  However, Lathrop did not give up and, at the end of 1896, he finally succeeded in publishing a version titled “In the Deep of Time.”