That Thomas Alva Edison was a genius and also quite an interesting character there is no doubt, and both of these impressions can be clearly drawn from this exhaustive biography of the famous inventor. Robert Conot, the author of many detailed histories of people, places, and events, puts his obvious talent for research to good use in A Streak of Luck.
Many other biographers have produced more or less complete pictures of Edison, and many of the more notable ones are discussed by Conot in fairly close detail at the end of this work. Conot compares them, in many cases point by point, with the notebooks, letters, and other original source materials which Conot used in writing and systematically strips away the nonsense, the tall tales, and the fictional qualities of character attributed to Edison over the years based on these “factual” accounts by Edison’s contemporaries and associates. That so much fictionalizing went on even in his lifetime reflects both the aura of the late nineteenth century business world in which so many fortunes were made and lost and the power of public opinion and a press that was ready to believe whatever myths the still young mass media cared to perpetrate.
Conot’s work is an exhaustive study built from innumerable notes recorded from the original sources in the Edison Archives at West Orange, New Jersey, and the family correspondence held by the Charles Edison Fund. Lamentably, a full appreciation of this enormous research effort can only be found in the later chapters of the work, where the author synthesizes his information into a well-rounded and carefully worded narrative, since in the first four chapters of the work, one has the distinct impression that he is reading the author’s notes in their unpolished form.
There is little doubt that Edison’s later years are better documented than the earlier, since he worked both his corporate and private secretaries to the point of exhaustion with great regularity and kept a log of his laboratory work to document his patent claims. Nevertheless, judicious editing of the initial chapters might have presented an equally usable account of the salient factors in his background without creating such a test for the reader’s endurance.
Nevertheless, Thomas Edison as he is presented in this work was a remarkable man. He was in the right place at the right time with the right skills, and he knew it; moreover, he was constantly telling other people about it. He recognized the power of the press early in his career, and he announced to the newspaper reporters such startling revelations about whichever inventions were in progress in such positive and emphatic language that he made good copy, and consequently always had their attention. One might speculate that had Edison been less of a showman, he would have interested far fewer speculators to invest in his schemes, would have had less money to run his laboratory than he did, and perhaps might not have brought forth as many inventions. While Conot’s extensive research shows that much of Edison’s public self dealt in exaggeration if not downright falsehoods, Conot’s inclusion of the myriad characters who joined, opposed, outdid, and recombined with Edison’s various business schemes reflects quite well the raucous business milieu in which Edison was struggling for success. He had no talent for business, and even though he became a millionaire by the age of thirty, he rarely had the courtesy to pay his creditors. He frequently allowed his own stubbornness to take precedence in making a business decision, and as a consequence he suffered some enormous losses.
Edison was an opportunist with a convenient memory who often ignored those of equal ability whom he did not perceive as being useful to him. He used his inventive genius as well as his erratic working hours to evade those who tried to see him (often to collect a debt), and he even refused to wear a hearing aid so that he could continue to hide behind his deafness when he did not choose to speak to an associate.
Much of Edison’s creative genius centered around his ability to grasp the...
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