clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

SEARCH FOR THE INNER EDISON ENDS WITH AN ARTIFICIAL IMAGE

A classic 19th-century entrepreneur, George Westinghouse moved where the money was, from trains to the new wonder, electrical power. His success as the developer of alternating current for long-distance transmission was made possible both by his opportunism and the stubborn character of his chief rival, Thomas Edison.

Logically, the light-bulb wizard should have monopolized electricity the way Henry Clay Frick and partner Andrew Carnegie controlled steel. But, as biographer Neil Baldwin reveals, once Edison reached a certain level of success, his attention turned to something else. Direct current, despite its limitations, was good enough for him.While Edison's staff defended his decision to stage electrocutions of animals by alternating current as a public relations trick, Westinghouse was scooping up all the patents on the system as well as a brilliant Edison assistant, Nikola Tesla.

By 1889, Westinghouse had equipped 1,100 generating plants. Three years later, Edison's electrical works became General Electric, and the man who developed the light bulb was essentially removed from the business.

At that point, Edison was 45, a wealthy celebrity whose chief income was from the sale of his phonographs and recordings. His infant motion picture business was limited to hand-cranked peep-show machines and he was about to embark on a physically grueling project mining iron ore that would lose him millions.

His Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory, where the light bulb and phonograph were developed, was an abandoned pile of rubble, replaced by modern factories elsewhere. Edison had also abandoned his three children by his late first wife; his second wife, the capable Mina, provided a more loving and secure home for her three children fathered by the Wizard.

Edison did not look back. If something failed - as his first family did - or was no longer needed, he dropped it and moved on. Re-created with loving homage by his friend Henry Ford at his Greenfield Village, Menlo Park was forgotten by its unsentimental owner.

As Baldwin describes him, Edison was a classic 19th-century American who believed the frontier was endless and that success was always somewhere out there on the horizon.

His life was one of constant movement in search of new opportunities. He traveled around frequently as a young "tramp" telegrapher, then quit that field to open a factory in Boston, then New York, to make devices reporting stock-market transactions and improving the telegraph system.

Bored with the telegraph, Edison switched to recording devices, producing first an "electric pen," the forerunner of the copying machine, and then a primitive dictating machine, the first phonograph, by 1877.

Two years later, in 1879, still living and working in Menlo Park, Edison developed the first commercially successful electric light, trying and rejecting hundreds of approaches until one worked. Despite the fame and wealth the bulb brought him, Edison moved doggedly on to other fields, leaving the door open for the likes of Westinghouse.

Baldwin, whose earlier books profiled poet William Carlos Williams and artist Man Ray, searches in Edison's life for a way to make him a symbol for the unfettered energy of a younger, nobler America, which so many people today have idealized.

Certainly Edison's work-ethic image ("99 percent perspiration, 1 percent inspiration") and "rugged individualism" fit the anti-intellectual spirit of American culture. Frick, Carnegie, Westinghouse and others share that image as well.

Edison's work defined his life; his 18-hour days left little time for him to develop hobbies, spend time at home or in contemplation. Insulated from the world by deafness, he avoided social contacts or public speaking, preferring the company of laboratory cronies or other wealthy industrialists such as Ford, who worshiped him.

He indicated no self-doubts or second thoughts, showed scant interest in religion, literature, food, popular music, politics or recreation. Treated like a god, Edison was never contradicted. His quaint notions of economics, spiritualism and culture were accorded the importance of the Gospels.

In short, he was not a very interesting man. Baldwin wrestles with that difficulty in this book, writing a fast-moving history of Edison's America and trying to punch up his subject with anecdotes of dubious quality.

One example is Baldwin's description of a 79-year-old Edison's visit to the spring training of Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics near his Florida winter home. Drawing entirely on an account in a Florida newspaper, the biographer says the inventor took batting practice, facing the A's "star right-hander Kid Gleason." Edison "connected" with a "smoking low curve" for a hit.

The facts are that Gleason last pitched in the major leagues in 1896; in 1926, when he was said to have faced Edison, he was 59, one of Mack's coaches trying to live down the ignominy of managing the 1919 "Black Sox."

A photograph of the incident shows a bewildered Edison uncomfortably holding a huge bat with his hands spread wide apart. Probably the only smoke that day was from Edison's cigar. The whole scene as Baldwin wrote it never happened.

So the biographer's search for the inner Edison ends with an image of the man that's as artificial as any Hollywood film treatment.

Americans seem to like their history condensed, sweetened and behind museum ropes, either at Disney World, Williamsburg or Greenfield Village. Now, Baldwin installs Edison in a book version of those places.