Edison's Speculations on the Future
Besides appearing in and influencing early science fiction, Edison’s own visions of the future appeared in newspaper and magazine interviews. Edison’s earliest speculations concerned future applications off his phonograph inventions that appeared in 1878 and 1888. His first interviews in which he touched on future discoveries were the interviews conducted by George Parsons Lathrop discussed earlier in this exhibit. The earliest were his interviews with George Parsons Lathrop discussed earlier in this exhibit.
In the mid-1890s, Edison began speculating about the future of alternative energy sources. These speculations were spurred by growing concern over the long-term supply of coal. An 1896 interview appears to be the first time that Edison speculated on alternative energy sources, promoting the development of solar power technology such as John Ericsson’s sun engine. In another interview withthe New York correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph on the future of electric automobiles and storage batteries. In 1910, he further elaborated his views of future alternative energy sources in an interview with Elbert Hubbard, author of the 1910 book Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Men. “When we learn how to store electricity, we will cease being apes ourselves; until then we are tailless orangutans. You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and tides are manifestations of energy.”
One of Edison’s most oft-quote speculations appeared in an interview with a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published on January 1, 1903: “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and cause and prevention of diseases.” In this interview Edison expressed his expectation of “great advances in surgery, in the study of bacteria, in the knowledge of the cause and prevention of disease.” And in an era when patent medicines were still common, he noted, “Every new discovery in bacteria shows us all the more convincingly that we have been wrong and that the million tons of stuff we have taken was all useless.”
Machines and Labor
One of the great topics of Edison’s era, which remains a source of controversy today, is the role of machines in replacing labor. His most detailed discussion of this subject appeared in one of several interviews conducted by journalist Edward Marshall. In 1926, Marshall published two interviews with Edison in The Forum. The first of these bore the title “Machine-Made Freedom.” Edison believed that “Man will progress in intellectual things according to his release from the mere motor-tasks.” The value of replacing human with machine power, he argued, was illustrated by the history of slavery:
While slave labor was available, the brains of men in general were not stimulated to the creation of machinery. This was more disastrous in its general effects than was realized by the majority, even of those opposed to slavery. It meant that human beings all along the line, not only the enslaved but the enslavers, could not be released by machinery for efforts better and more elevating than those to which they had been habituated in the past. Progress of mind became impossible.
That is the reason why I call machinery the greatest of emancipators. I will go farther and say that human slavery will not have been fully abolished until every task now accomplished by human hands is turned out by some machine, if it can be done as well or better by a machine.
Edison thought that electrical appliances would also liberate women from housework, a subject he had addressed in a 1912 interview with Marshall that appeared in Good Housekeeping under the title “The Woman of the Future.”
“The housewife of the future will be neither a slave to servants nor herself a drudge. She will give less attention to the home, because the home will need less; she will be rather a domestic engineer than a domestic laborer, with the greatest of all handmaidens, electricity, at her service. This and other mechanical forces will so revolutionize the woman’s world that a large portion of the aggregate of woman’s energy will be conserved for use in broader, more constructive fields.”
Edison believed that electricity would fundamentally change the way we lived. His prediction, reported in the November 14, 1914 issue of the Literary Journal in an article titled “Edison’s Prophecy: A Duplex, Sleepless, Dinnerless World,” sounds eerily prophetic: “In the old days man went up and down with the sun. A million years from now we won’t go to bed at all. Really, sleep is an absurdity, a bad habit. We can’t suddenly throw off the thraldom of the habit, but we shall throw it off.”
Edison’s faith in science and technology to improve the human condition is apparent in another 1926 interview with Edward Marshall titled “The Scientific City of the Future.” In this interview Edison focuses on the same problem that would be the subject of General Motors Futurama exhibit designed by Norman Bel Geddes for the 1939 New York World’s Fair—automobile congestion. Edison thought that this problem could be solved by mathematicians and traffic engineering combined with the use of buses on streets and helicopters flying between skyscrapers. The city would be run by scientifically trained managers instead of politicians who would also ensure that the police were scientifically trained and managed. However, because Edison thought that his own deafness was an advantage. he dismissed concerns about noise pollution and suggested that “city dweller of the future… will be sufficiently deafened by Nature so that the noisest places will not be disagreeable to him.”