Why should humanists, scientists, engineers, policymakers, students, and lay people want to examine or study Edison's personal and business correspondence, legal agreements, laboratory notebook entries, and patent materials? Since he has been the subject of dozens of biographies, what more need be said about this inventive genius? Every American school child knows about him. He is among the small pantheon of national heroes that includes Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. While generations of historians have studied the writings of such august political figures and written profusely about them, only a small number of scholars have examined the creative thinking of one of the most heralded inventors in history1 or the activities of less prominent technical people who nevertheless are regarded as central to the emergence of the United States as a world industrial leader in the twentieth century. Few have passed through the doors of the Edison archives; fewer have probed its rich resources. Consequently, most people continue to harbor the simplistic views of Edison and invention that are perpetuated in popular biographies. Yet this is a time when an informed understanding of technical creativity and innovation is vital for technical and business leaders, policymakers, and the electorate, whose decisions will shape the world of the twenty-first century.
Unfortunately, misleading views of Edison and of technical creativity persist. How many think of the young Tom Edison as an addled youngster and a country bumpkin? How common is the view of him as an unsophisticated businessman who went to the big city not knowing how to cash a check or drive a good bargain with the sharks of Wall Street; as the lone inventor or wizard who single-handedly made miraculous inventions; as an uneducated tinkerer who used "cut-and-try" methods, mindlessly tested everything, bumbled onto technical breakthroughs, and, by a streak of luck, transformed the world; and as the white-haired, grandfatherly old gent who was at once miraculously prolific, personally affable, and a symbol of benign technology? How ingrained is the view of nineteenth-century invention as the product of the inspired insight of the isolated tinkerer?
In this first volume of Edison's papers, his own early documents challenge traditional interpretations of his epochal position in world history and suggest new ways of understanding technical creativity and innovation. These documents address such important issues as (1) the character and extent of Edison's education; (2) his relationship to the national and international technical and scientific communities; (3) his entrepreneurial instincts and business acumen; (4) the source of the problems he and his contemporaries sought to solve; (5) his inventive methods and style; (6) the role of his early technical and business experience in giving direction to his inventive career; and (7) the relationship of his work to that of other inventors.