Essaying Edison - Details

Edmund Morris's Edison

Having published both his controversial authorized biography of Ronald Reagan and the third and final volume of his award-winning biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris was casting about for another life to write. His first thought was to pen a bio of the reclusive J. D. Salinger, but his agent Scott Moyers wondered whether the reading public would be interested in someone who didn't really do much but live like a monk after he published A Catcher in the Rye. Moyers instead suggested Thomas Edison, in so many ways a polar opposite to Salinger. Edison was a lifelong man of action, a doer, whose interests and activities have proved too various and voluminous to conveniently squeeze into any one- or even two-volume biography.

Morris took up Moyer's suggestion and seven years later produced Edison (released by Random House in October 2019), the most comprehensive biography of the inventor in more than a decade. To accomplish this, Morris, who is known for his own Edisonian energy and curiosity as a researcher and writer, plunged with both feet into the more than five million documents in the archives at the Edison National Historic Park in West Orange and surveyed untold pages of previous writings on the inventor and his doings, including mountains of contemporaneous newspaper and magazine articles.

To foreground his research, Morris also visited the offices of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University on a number of occasions. He took the opportunity to pick the brains of the editors, discuss a few of his own ideas, and learn how best to navigate both the published volumes of Edison's papers and the digital database of documents. He also became a firm friend and supporter of the Edison Papers project, and in 2012 took the time and trouble to write an appreciative review of Volume 7 for the New York Times Book Review.

In Morris's Edison, we encounter the inventor much as we have come to know him at the Edison Papers. Here is a man whose life was made up of long stretches of manic genius driven not by money but by curiosity and pride, punctuated by short periods of exhaustion and collapse. His was a mind that reveled in learning new things, thinking them over, and applying them empirically. He wanted to see the result and feel it beneath his fingertips. He was never so alive as when sketching out new ideas in his notebook or seeing them realized on his workbench or in his machine shop. These were the arenas in which Edison excelled, and in the lab, factory or field, wherever a technological challenge presented itself, he proved a difficult, even if jovial taskmaster and an indefatigable worker. Other aspects of life seemed to bore him, and this explains his neglectful attitude towards family, his relative indifference to suffering, and even his marginal competence as a businessman. Morris allows us to see all of these aspects of Edison, but pays special attention to what made the man a titan in the eyes of his contemporaries and ought still to awe us today—his manifold contributions to modernity, which Edison himself saw as advancements—a path by which a greater number of people could lead better lives. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his approach to motion pictures, which he hoped against hope would be a boon to education rather than a simple mode of idle entertainment.

But it is the electric light, in all its soft incandescence, that did the most to change the world for the better, and Morris captures the scope and drama of one of the key moments in that history—lighting the First District in New York City—far more compellingly (not to mention accurately) than Hollywood did on film in the recent feature The Current War.

By May 27 [1881] Edison, working with manic energy, had started every project to complete the First District within (he hoped) six or seven months. As yet all the peripheral activity—administrative planning at "65," lamp production at Menlo Park, dynamo assembly at the Works, Kruesi casting miles of conductor pipes in a shop on Washington Street, Bergmann rattling out auxiliary appliances on Wooster—was ragged and unconnected, like the slow start of a storm system. But the momentum was building, and concentration would come, until everything converged on the switch he would throw—with luck, sometime in November—to begin the incandescent illumination of the world. [pp. 408-9]

As luck would have it, the successful denouement took a bit longer than Edison anticipated, but it did monumentally change the course of history when it did come, and Morris helps us to see and feel this giant step toward the future in the same elegant, sometimes colloquial prose (well-seasoned with wit and apt simile) that characterizes the whole book.

As Sylvia Jukes Morris recently told Jeff Glor of CBS News, her husband, like Edison, was an innovator. But while Edison's innovations issued from a laboratory, Edmund Morris's issued from a notepad on which he wrote out his sentences and paragraphs longhand at some three hundred "well-chosen" words a day. Morris's hope was to innovate new ways of writing biography, an effort he began with Dutch, his biography of Ronald Reagan. In that work, Morris created a fictional character—a projection of himself—who accompanied Reagan from boyhood on his journey through life. This innovation drew sharp and widespread criticism. And so has his novel approach with Edison, in which he narrates the life in reverse, from the inventor's death in West Orange, N.J., in 1931 to his birth in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. The question is why, beyond pure novelty, did Morris take such a tack.

Had he lived to see the publication of Edison, Morris might have given us his answer. But he died suddenly of a stroke in May 2019, soon after completing the manuscript. What we are left with are conjectures. One which suggests itself is that by writing the life backwards through time he is able to begin with a retrospective of the awe-inspiring (in the nineteenth century, at least), diverse, and world-transformative achievements of the "Wizard of Menlo Park." This is perhaps necessary today, oddly enough, when Edison's reputation is under heavy and rather ill-informed attack from all genres of popular media. As Morris reminds us, obituary writers at Edison's death in 1931 "lacked enough column inches to summarize the one thousand and ninety-three machines, systems, processes, and phenomena patented by Edison." Or perhaps the obit writers simply lacked Morris's own facility at summary and listing, as evidenced in the following:

he had invented two hundred and fifty sonic devices: diaphragms of varnished silk, mica, copper foil, or thin French glass, flexing in semifluid gaskets; dolls that talked and sang; a carbon telephone transmitter; paraphenylene cylinders of extraordinary fidelity; duplicators that molded and smoothed and swaged; a pointer-polisher for diamond splints; a centrifugal speed governor for disk players; a miniature loudspeaker utilizing a quartz cylinder and ultraviolet light; a dictating machine; audio mail; a violin amplifier; an acoustic clock; a radio-telephone receiver; a device that allowed him to listen to the eruption of sun-spots; a recording horn so long it had to be buttressed between two buildings; bone earbuds that could be shared by two or more listeners, and a voice-activated flywheel. [pp. 5-6]

And this list covers just the audio technology to which Edison contributed outside of the phonograph, in some ways his most remarkable and culturally transformative invention. Beyond this, he made important interventions in a number of other disparate fields, including iron-ore preparation; gold mining; batteries; electric power; x-ray technology; telegraphy; naval armaments; automation; and film.

But as Morris duly notes, "He was even more legendary for his creation of the long-burning incandescent lightbulb, accompanied by two hundred and sixty-three other patents in illuminating technology." The adjective "long-burning" is the operative term. There were some twenty-one incandescent light bulbs "invented" before Edison's. But each of them burned for less than a minute. Those of his closest competitors—Joseph Swan and Hiram Maxim—were the result either of imitating Edison's patent and claiming precedence (Swan) or industrial espionage (Maxim). Even the Sawyer-Man lamp, used in the Westinghouse AC electric-lighting system, was later judged to have infringed Edison's patent. The fact remains that Edison's discovery and improvement of the carbon filament in a vacuum bulb allowed him to create an incandescent lamp in the laboratory that burned for 2,450 hours and a bulb that burned with a soft glow for more than 600 hours that was economical enough in the market to compete with candles, whale-oil, and gas. The question is, then, when is something truly invented? Is a practically useless thing, such as a bulb that burns less than a minute, as innovative as it may be, an invention or a failure?

Beginning his story at the end in the way he does no doubt allows Morris to provide a needed refresher on Edison's true importance. But the reverse structure also seems to work in a few other ways, at least for the first couple of chapters. First, it gives a reader the sense of what it must have been like to be Edison in old and late middle age, experiencing worldwide celebrity and casting his mind back on past glories, and second, it allows Morris to focus attention on Edison's later career, to which other biographers have given less attention. And yet, as one plunges further into the book, the backwards presentation becomes clumsy and confusing, even for someone well-versed in Edisonian history. Morris himself at times seems to lose his way, so that he introduces some of the figures around Edison for the first time as if we should already know who they are, likely because they appeared early in Edison's life but not in the first few chapters of the biography. The reverse chronology also makes it difficult to trace the development of the various technologies the inventor worked on, which is particularly problematical in Edison's case because he worked on so many different things over such a long period of time.

Morris tried to mitigate some of the confusion his method might cause by making each chapter deal with a decade in Edison's life and then moving through the decade itself in regular chronological order. He also attempted to focus each chapter topically, centering it on what seemed to him Edison's primary interest during each ten-year span—Botany, Defense, Chemistry, Magnetism, Light, Sound, Telegraphy, and Natural Philosophy. But this arrangement is also problematical in that Edison's interests were not so easily compartmentalized. His innovations in electric lighting, for instance, begin in the 1870s, which is the decade Morris dedicates to sound, and they continued through the end of his life. Any number of his interests likewise spilled over from one decade to another. Because of this, Morris is not able to provide the topical approach the title of each chapter seems to promise.

But despite the difficulties it presents, it might be said that the reversed chronology has one further advantage. It is never possible in any biography to tell every detail of anyone's life, let alone one as rich and as richly documented as Edison's. Even if one could, it would be too tedious for anyone to read. A biographer must always, therefore, separate the gold from the gangue, and Morris's backwards chronology and essay-like treatment by decade allow him to do this quite effectively while honestly revealing just how selective such a biography is and must be.

Another way Morris narrows his focus is to concentrate on the elements of the story that make Edison one of the great personalities and influences in all of history. To do this, he gives short shrift to highly popular and largely specious narratives designed to cast Edison in a negative light. These include his so-called "antagonistic" relationship with fellow inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla and the electrocution of the circus elephant Topsy, both of which have been much discussed in popular media in the past decade or so. Morris demonstrates convincingly that Edison's relationship with Tesla was one of mutual respect, if not admiration, to the point where when Tesla's laboratory in New York burned down, Edison offered to foot the bill for rebuilding it. Although Morris doesn't say so, it seems likely that Edison respected Tesla because the younger inventor, much like Henry Ford, had his own ideas and pursued them honestly. He was not a "pirate" who stole the ideas of others as Edison considered George Westinghouse to be. Westinghouse, Edison's real antagonist in the Battle of the Currents, didn't invent his own electric-lighting components but merely bought other men's patents, or infringed on them, as in the case of the incandescent bulb, at least as far as Edison and the courts were concerned.

Morris dispatches the story of Topsy, the mistreated circus elephant from Coney Island, in a single paragraph with an extended footnote. As he accurately remarks, the film "Electrocuting an Elephant has given rise to an internet myth that Topsy was deliberately killed by Edison in order to demonstrate the lethal danger of alternating current as opposed to his own preferred direct current." In fact, as Morris notes, there is no evidence that Edison had anything personally to do with the snuffing of Topsy. After briefly debunking the myth, Morris simply provides an endnote that refers readers who desire a fuller discussion to the article on Topsy on the Edison Papers' website.

Dealing with popular prejudice and myth thus disdainfully, Morris is free to move on to what really interests him—Edison's mind and personality. And it is safe to say that no one has illuminated either more incandescently. On the first page of the first chapter, Morris observes that despite spending a lifetime bending the invisible force of electricity to his will, Edison was still a man to whom "Abstract thought did not come easily . . . He needed to feel things come together under his hands, see the filament glow, smell the carbolic acid . . ." This tactile need or way of understanding sometimes led more abstract thinkers such as Tesla to feel sorry for him. But Edison himself, who could employ mathematicians and scientists as needed, saw his empirical method as an advantage. After having proved (against the scientific consensus of the day) the infusibility of platinum, he told a reporter for the New York Herald, "Professor This or That will controvert you out of the books, and prove out of the books that it can't be so, though you have it right in the hollow of your hand and could break his spectacles with it."

In the early chapters, Morris presents Edison as a wise, if gruff, old man, but one who is thoroughly American—exhibiting marvelous stick-to-it-iveness and optimism, as well as a contrarian's scorn for authority. Over time, he had lost some of the affability that drew people to him. As Morris describes him, Edison had always been "a combination of twinkling charm and bruising imperiousness," but as he grew older and more deaf, the less attractive trait predominated. And, as Morris demonstrates, a good deal of that bruising imperiousness was directed towards his family, particularly his sons, whom he regarded largely as nuisances or incompetents. When he couldn't ignore them entirely, he often treated their ideas and aspirations with disdain. Edison's two daughters, each by a different marriage, were spared the disdain, but came in for a heavy dose of neglect, as did both of his wives. In Morris's portrayal, Edison is full of camaraderie for those who shared his workbenches and for fellow industrialists like Ford and Firestone who revered him but is devoid of love for even those closest to him. He simply "did not return affection," says Morris, and "Even when alerted to the pain, or loneliness, or shame, or other neuroses of people who were less successful than himself, he seemed puzzled that they did not cheer themselves up by embarking on some bold venture, as he was about to do."

Edison, though, was a passionate man. But his passion, as Morris makes clear, was reserved for satisfying his overweening curiosity and for creatively solving technical problems that proved daunting to others. When alone, the ideas poured out of him, one after another, in long notebook entries and patent caveats in which he often applied a single electrical, mechanical, or chemical concept to quite divergent technologies. At such times of inspiration, Edison was, says Morris, "swept up into a fever of excitement, careful script degenerating into a sprawl, as if his speculations were running ahead of the pencil in his hand." This was the man's special gift, his magic.

As is the case with any extended biographical account, Morris's treatment of Edison's life is not without flaws. The informed reader may quibble about omissions and misinterpretations. We don't learn, for instance, the outcome or lasting significance of Edison's late research aimed at providing the U.S. with an adequate domestic source of natural or synthetic rubber. Morris also reprises the old story that Edison was too short-sighted, at least until 1894, to envision the perfected phonograph as more than a business-oriented dictating machine, even though his laboratory had sent hundreds of cylinders devoted to musical recordings to Paris for the world's fair there in 1889. And then there is the occasional, though perhaps forgivable, overstatement. Morris says, for example, that Edison's "entire career had been a drive toward modernity," a claim belied by the inventor's tendency to get stuck in cul-de-sacs of his own devising, such as direct current, wax-cylinder recording, and the cultivation of a managerial style that was quaintly mid-nineteenth-century well into the twentieth.

And yet in spite of these hiccups and a formal structure that sometimes seems like looking into the wrong end of a telescope, Morris gets more right than not, which is all the more impressive when one considers that he had to gain some degree of mastery over technical concepts in such diverse fields as botany, electricity, magnetism, chemistry, telegraphy, and recorded sound in order to elucidate Edison's insights and innovations. In this regard, Morris seems to have been swept up by the same kind of insatiable curiosity that drove his subject. The result is an insightful and compelling account of Edison's fascinating and colossally influential life, carved out in sentences as smooth as Carrara marble, three hundred words at a time.

By Dr. Daniel Weeks