You could say he invented the modern world. His incandescent lightbulb conquered darkness. His phonograph filled the air with recorded sound. He harnessed electricity, the wonder of his age, and put it to work in myriad other ways that transformed industry and everyday life. As the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth dawned, the name Thomas Alva Edison symbolized invention, innovation, progress.
It still does. The scale of his accomplishments is staggering. He patented almost 1,100 inventions, including his lightbulb and phonograph as well as a giant rock crusher, a stock ticker, an electric cigar lighter, a talking doll, non-stick candy wrappers and a process for waterproofing fabrics. He established scores of companies that produced everything from batteries and movies to cement. In a single day he scribbled more than one hundred ideas for “new things,” including artificial silk and a mechanical cotton picker. “His need to invent,” Edmund Morris notes in Edison, Morris’ impressive new biography, “was as compulsive as lust.”
Edison downplayed his great gift for conjuring up “new things.” When he saw a need for some useful device – a source of artificial light or a way to reproduce sound – it became his mission to find some means to supply it. “I’ve got no imagination. I never dream,” he once claimed. “There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside …. The ‘genius’ hangs around his laboratory day and night. If anything happens he’s there to catch it.” His breakthroughs were the culmination of trial-and-error and countless experiments, not eureka moments that came while staring into space. He was, after all, the man who famously defined genius as “one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
A figure this extraordinary and larger-than-life demands an accomplished and prolific biographer. Morris, a Pulitzer Prize winner who chronicled the lives of Beethoven and presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, was perfect for the task. He spent seven years combing through a five-million-page archive documenting Edison’s experiments and inventions, stacks of other records, and family papers previously off-limits to scholars. The single-word title is the only pared-down thing about the resulting book, which weighs in at just over 630 pages and is supported by another one hundred pages of endnotes. Tragically, Morris never held the finished product in his hands. He died in May at age 79.
Morris confounded critics and readers alike two decades ago when he created fictional characters, including a narrator, in Dutch, his Reagan biography. Edison too is innovative, but without taking liberties with the truth. The inventor’s story is told in reverse-chronology, reminiscent of the old age-to-childhood life of the title character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Edison dies in the prologue (in 1931, at age eighty-four), is brought back to life and becomes progressively younger until Morris records his birth, in 1840s Ohio, just seventeen pages before the end of the book. In between, a remarkable life is chronicled decade-by-decade, in eight sections with titles dictated by his major field of endeavour at the time. So Part Five, covering the 1880s, when his lightbulb was perfected and mass produced, is entitled Light, while the 1870s, when he invented the phonograph, is the decade of Sound.
Morris’ unconventional approach means readers first meet Edison at his worst, as his career was winding down in the 1920s. His glory days long past, he was fixated on what he considered “the most complicated problem I have ever tackled” – finding a variety of plant that would produce a domestic source of rubber, a material as vital to national defense as it was to keeping his friend Henry Ford’s cars on the road. His health was failing, he was almost totally deaf, and his patience – always in short supply – was wearing thin. Edison’s abusive temper tantrums – never in short supply – became super-charged. Morris depicts him in his laboratory, “roaring like a blast furnace whenever he heard – or misheard – something not to his liking.”
It’s all uphill from there as an increasingly younger, more vigorous and more likeable Edison emerges, along with his greatest achievements. The structure dictates that, at times, effects precede their cause, but Morris’s unorthodox narrative works, enticing readers to forge ahead and discover the backstory of this brilliant, driven man. Edison, he writes, was confident “any idea, no matter how revolutionary, was realizable through sheer doggedness” – witness the nine years he devoted to perfecting the alkaline battery. But this lust for invention came at a cost; absorbed in his work, he had little time for his family (he married twice and had six children) and he could be callous in his treatment of friends, associates and employees. Morris skillfully weaves this lesser-known personal history, replete with friction and domestic dramas, into his epic account of experiments, setbacks, triumphs, and corporate empire-building. The result is a fully formed, engrossing portrait of one of the world’s most important and influential figures.
Edison was the king of the analog world, the grandfather of the digital age. The phonograph is a relic of the past, remote from our modern lives, and the incandescent lightbulb, a notorious energy-waster, is being banned or phased out around the world. Yet Edison’s legacy lives on in the most fundamental of ways. He pioneered the electrical power distribution grid and devised one of the earliest forms of rechargeable battery. Next time you plug in one of your power-starved mobile devices, remember to be thankful for one man’s obsessive genius.
By Edmund Morris
Published October 22, 2019