Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wizard


If as I graduated from high school you had asked me who were the three greatest Americans, I would have probably said Washington, Lincoln and Thomas Edison. Yes, Thomas Alva Edison, the "Wizard of Menlo Park," the inventor of the modern world. Certainly our teachers put him in the highest pantheon of secular heroes.

I have just finished reading Randall Stross's 2007 biography of Edison, called, naturally, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. For someone who didn't know much about Edison but what I learned in school, it was a revelation. The sub-title should have been How Thomas Alva Edison Invented Thomas Alva Edison.

He was a master of self-promotion. His best selling product was his name.

Which is not to say that he wasn't clever, and a prolific inventor. But he was a rotten businessman, and made technical decisions that were colossally wrong. He invented the phonograph to spectacular acclaim, then stuck with cylinders rather than disks while Victor (and the Victrola) ran away with the market. He came up with a practical incandescent light bulb, then clung stubbornly to direct current as Westinghouse captured the future with alternating current. He doggedly pursued a battery-powered car while his friend Henry Ford correctly foresaw the advantages of internal combustion. The beat goes on.

If truth be told, Edison spent a very short part of his career in Menlo Park, having early moved his lab and factories to Orange, New Jersey. Many of his inventions had antecedents, and most were perfected by others. But for all that, he indelibly etched his name into our historical consciousness as the embodiment of the American genius for "Yankee" ingenuity. The consummate tinkerer. The inspiration of every boy like me who had a workbench in the basement. My father's patron saint.