The late, brilliant historian Edmund Morris has written the definitive biography of one of America’s most prolific inventors, Thomas Alva Edison. Morris immerses the reader in Edison’s historical context with exacting details, an arresting vocabulary and a narrative that pulsates with Edison’s life.
“Edison” is meticulously researched drawing on the five million documents of the Papers of Thomas A. Edison at Rutgers University. It is beautifully written, an outstanding portrayal of an American genius.
In an unusually structural device, Morris works backwards through Thomas Edison’s life. He begins the book with Edison’s death and leads the reader all the way back to when he appears as a boy in Milan, Ohio, selling newspapers on a train. Each chapter of this reverse chronology covers a decade of Thomas Edison’s life and work.
During the late 1880s, school dropout Edison masterminded inventions that altered civilization forever. One of his early culture-changing innovations was the incandescent light bulb which transformed the nightlife of cities. Edison tested 6000 substances in search of the right carbonized filament and finally settled on a strain of bamboo.
Edison’s other transformative inventions included viable phonographs, recordings and motion picture technology. “On a single day, when he was forty and full of innovative fire, he had jotted down 112 ideas for ‘new things,’ among them a mechanical cotton picker, a snow compressor, an electrical piano, artificial silk, a platinum-wire ice slicer, a system of penetrative photography (presaging radiology by 12 years), and a product unlikely to occur to anyone else, except perhaps Lewis Carroll: ‘Ink for the Blind.’”
Morris writes that from his early teenage years, Edison demonstrated “the traits that distinguish him as an inventor—contrary thinking, obstinate repetition, daydreaming, delight in difficulty.” Morris shows that Edison’s almost total deafness from the age of 12 made his persistence to master the ability to record and broadcast sound all the more moving. The obsessive, abstemious, ambitious braniac spent days without sleep and food in his quest to test, retest, perfect and market his ideas. His family members and workers were often ignored and paid a terrible price for his unrestrained drive and refusal to admit defeat.
The author explores Edison’s many inventions in detail. He also investigates every corporate merger, lawsuit and patent dispute, (Edison filed 1093 patent applications in his lifetime), that required Edison’s attention.
Morris’ narrative approach creates some challenges for the reader who meets Edison’s children as adults, for example, then retraces their childhood years and is introduced to his second wife before his first wife. While Morris emphasizes Edison’s impact on the world by beginning with the inventor’s accomplishments, I recommend reading the book from back to front. It is also a dense, heavy, “more is better” kind of book, which I enjoyed reading a chapter at a time.