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Thomas Edison: visionary, genius or fraud?

Thomas Alva Edison played a starring role in the 1998 Simpsons episode, The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace. Homer Simpson, depressed at hitting 40 with little to show for it, decides to emulate the American inventor by doing some inventing of his own. He churns out a series of useless contraptions, is visited by Edison’s ghost and travels to the perfectly preserved laboratory in the Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey.

The Edison seen on screen follows a familiar narrative: an inventive genius and tireless worker, who singlemindedly generated some of the late 19th century’s most transformative technologies. Seen in this light, the phonograph, the light bulb, the kinetoscope and a host of other innovations were all the products of one heroically ingenious mind. It is a view that taps into the romance of the American dream, but also looks increasingly untenable.

Edison the publicist

Edison himself would have loved this image, as it was one that he himself worked hard at cultivating. After his invention of the phonograph in 1877, he became known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park”, and although he did not invent the title himself, it expressed very well the image he wished to project.

Thomas Edison’s many inventions ensured him a place in American folklore. shutterstock

A cartoon in a contemporary newspaper featured Edison holding a glowing incandescent lamp, and dressed in a pointed hat and flowing cape decorated with images of his iconic inventions. These representations were not only tailormade to promote Edison the individual, but crafted to reflect prevailing ideals of American individualism, ingenuity and self-reliance.

Edison’s success partly depended on this symbiotic relationship with the media. He knew he needed them to sell his inventions, and newspaper editors recognised that the Edison name sold copies. In 1898, journalist Garrett P. Serviss penned “Edison’s Conquest of Mars”, a novel serialised in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal that capitalised on the success of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. The narrative featured a future that very literally depended upon Edison and his inventions. Edison’s name sold the story and the newspaper, and the plot helped cement the myth that his inventions stemmed from the power of individual genius.

Going global: a Cambodian stamp commemorates Edison’s invention of the light bulb. shutterstock

Edison’s story is a good example of the way we tend to think about the future – as shaped by great individuals making giant steps forward. Ironically, it’s this myth that he helped foster that is now taking the edge off his reputation, and making his very real achievements look suspect.

Edison the businessman

There is a striking contrast between this image of individual ingenuity, and the historical reality of intensive, production-line invention that Edison pioneered. When he established his laboratory in Menlo Park, and later in West Orange, he created a new, collective approach to the business of invention.

The stream of patents that these laboratories produced came more from systematic experimentation than from “eureka” moments, and Edison always had one eye trained on how a prospective product might sell. The light bulb illustrates this perfectly: far from conjuring the design out of thin air, he had teams of experimenters rigorously testing sample after sample to figure out what material worked best for the filament.

Edison knew that inventions in isolation were of little use: they had to be sold as elements in a practical system. Inventing the light bulb and coming up with systems for electric power generation and transmission had to go together. It was this brand of “big picture” thinking that made Edison’s companies such an attractive proposition to big financial backers like J.P Morgan.

The kinetoscope – one of Edison’s first ever movie machines. shutterstock

Edison and others like him (Nikola Tesla, for example) worked hard to foster, and perhaps even invent the image of the inventor as an individual, iconoclastic and disruptive maker of the future. It remains a romantic and alluring vision, but the more historians study Edison, the clearer it becomes that the myth does not match the reality.

Reassessing an American icon

This mismatch between history and fantasy has led some to turn the conventional view of Edison on its head. If he cannot be cast as the hero of invention, he must be recast as its villain. Instead of the masterful inventor, we have Edison the dodgy dealer, the media manipulator, the appropriator of other people’s work.

It is perhaps ironic that Edison’s detractors, just like his supporters, seem to think that invention is a business for individuals. So if not Edison, then who? A more nuanced response might argue that what Edison’s history actually demonstrates is the ineluctably collective nature of all inventive work.

This matters now in particular – and this is perhaps one reason why Edison’s reputation is currently taking a battering. As we face up to existential challenges like climate change, the way we think about innovation and those with the skills to drive it, has rarely mattered more. The stories we once told about how to navigate the future safely and who we should trust with getting us there are starting to look less convincing. Does the responsibility for inventing (and reinventing) the future belong to certain heroic individuals, or does it fall upon us all?

The rejection of the Edison myth may be timely, but rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps it’s time to understand that invention might be at its most successful when it’s a collective endeavour.

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