Ronald Clark’s excellent biography, Einstein: The Life and Times, has raised expectations far beyond the level that has been attained in Clark’s study of Edison: The Man Who Made the Future. The latter, generously sprinkled with quotations, is a narrative account of Edison’s life with little attempt at sophisticated or critical analysis of the biographical activities and events and with only brief efforts at comprehending the real man as distinguished from the legend. Clark has constantly before himself the subtitle of his book, “The Man Who Made the Future,” and takes pains, often unconvincingly, to demonstrate the validity of this interpretation.
Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, to Samuel and Nancy Edison. Early in life, he exhibited considerable interest and skill in reading such works as R. G. Parker’s Natural and Experimental Philosophy, the writings of Thomas Paine, and Newton’s Principia, which convinced him that “I am not a mathematician.” Indeed, Edison proved to have much more interest in practical experiments than in theories. Clark contends that even as a boy, Edison manifested three characteristics that were to remain with him all of his life: “They were quickness at turning chance circumstance to his own benefit, a refusal to be deterred, and a relentlessness—some would say ruthlessness—in exacting as much payment for a job as traffic would stand.”
Edison’s early successes came as a result of opportunities presented to telegraph operators during the American Civil War. During this period, he moved from community to community filling one telegraphic position briefly before moving to the next. By 1865, he had worked in a half dozen towns and cities and in the next few years would continue to stay in a job only until he had learned what he could from it and then seek to expand his knowledge elsewhere.
Soon after he went to Boston in 1868, Edison invented the automatic vote recorder and an improved stock ticker. He then began to work on a multiplex telegraph to send multiple messages over a single telegraph wire. In 1869 he went to New York City and, in the view of Clark, turned his full attention to becoming a professional inventor, eventually setting up Pope, Edison and Company to provide inventions and instruments for “the application of electricity to the Arts and Sciences.”
Through this company Edison produced his Universal Stock Printer, brought out a new “gold printer,” and rented the latter to various agencies. The sale of this service to Western Union provided him with money to undertake additional experimentation. Moreover, General Marshall Lefferts of Western Union began financing some of Edison’s research. Money received from improvements to Western Union equipment permitted Edison to establish workshops and research laboratories in Newark, New Jersey, where he brought together a competent staff who became devoted to him. At this new facility Edison improved the automatic telegraph, which permitted high speed transmission, and invented the quadruplex telegraph, making possible the sending of multiple telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire. As a consequence of the quadruplex Edison was involved in his first legal suit. He had received financial and other support from Western Union and had promised the invention to them, but instead had deviously negotiated with and sold it to Jay Gould’s Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. A spectator at the trial recorded in his diary the observation that Edison “has a vacuum where his conscience ought to be.” Clark points out and then attempts to soften the charge of duplicity, but the case remains a blot which Edison himself recognized. Legally Edison was permitted to sell to whom he chose, but his negotiation with Gould was of questionable morality.
Also during this time in his career, Edison was hired to find ways around patents, which says much about the business practices in the mid-1870’s and the 1880’s. Businessmen who did not wish to pay for patents but who wished to profit from the ideas, sought out inventors such as Edison to evade patents. In his work of evading patents, Edison often provided excellent inventions and improvements, for the work required a thorough understanding of all aspects of the technologies and physical principles involved in the inventions.
In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and Edison began working on the apparatus to improve it. He undertook significant changes which revolutionized the device and made it practical as a popular means of communication. Constructing an effective carbon transmitter, Edison gave Western Union a communication system with which to challenge Bell. The fight between Western Union and Bell, in which Edison was directly involved, raged on both sides of the Atlantic, while both men provided inventions to give advantage first to one side and then to the other. Finally in England on June 8, 1880, the competing corporations merged into the United Telephone Company.
While the Edison-Bell feud was being fought, Edison was busily involved with other inventions such as the electric pen, which eventually led to the duplicating machine; he also improved the typewriter and made it into a working instrument. In 1876 Edison moved his workshops to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he assembled an outstanding staff of dedicated workers and inventors. The climate he generated at Menlo Park was intellectual, stimulating, and infused with a spirit of community and mutual support, and the result was a constant stream of inventions and patents in a wide variety of areas. Here Edison astonished his staff with the invention of the phonograph, and in 1878 he created the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. The phonograph caught...
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