On Thomas Edison and Beatrix Potter

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

On Thomas Edison and Beatrix Potter


Byline: John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In 1922, 750,000 young Americans were asked to vote for the "greatest man in history." Thomas Alva Edison, who had registered more than a thousand patents in his long life, won hands down, beating out Theodore Roosevelt and Shakespeare.

In The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World (Crown, $24.95, 364 pages, illus.), technology writer Randall Stross gives Edison full credit for his creative genius, while noting his marketing failures and his many personal idiosyncrasies.

Edison grew up in Port Huron, Mich., where his father owned a prosperous shingles mill. Young Edison was home-schooled, but he was less interested in his studies than in scientific experimentation. Always a go-getter, at the age of 12 he worked on a railroad, selling snacks and reading matter to passengers and crew.

At some time in his childhood Edison became partially deaf, the effects of which the author might have considered more closely than he does. Edison never attended college, but his interest in telegraphy led him to spend four years as a roving telegrapher in the Midwest. An inveterate tinkerer, he invented an improved stock ticker in 1870 that generated the funds with which he set up a laboratory in Newark, N.J.

Six years later he moved to nearby Menlo Park where, in rapid succession, he invented the microphone, a device for measuring the sun's rays and the first practical phonograph. The inventor was slow to recognize the potential of the phonograph, viewing it more as a dictating machine than an entertainment medium. Mr. Stross details Edison's inept marketing, which allowed the Victor Company to become the leading manufacturer of phonographs.

Edison was, for the most part, an empiricist. He ignored the theoretical sciences, in which he was untrained, and instead sought to develop commercial products suitable for mass production. He thought nothing of putting in 12- to 16-hour work days, remarking late in life that "Work made the earth a paradise for me." But his isolation led him down some strange paths. A plan to manufacture concrete furniture for America's working families never caught on.

Edison inaugurated the world of electricity when, in 1879, he produced the first durable, commercially practical electric bulb. He and his team developed a variety of electrical components, crowning the campaign with construction of the world's first power plant in New York City. Three decades later Edison succeeded in synchronizing motion pictures and sound, thus paving the way for talking movies.

Something seemed quintessentially American about Edison's work ethic and his trial-and-error methodology. The taciturn inventor became a celebrity and was given credit for inventions with which he had little or no association. If Edison did not court this publicity, he did nothing to discourage it.

Always a workaholic, Edison died at the age of 84 after collapsing in his laboratory. Mr. Stross concludes, "Edison fortuitously lived at just the right time, close enough to the present to be associated with the origins of the modern entertainment business and also the basic electrical infrastructure . . . yet not too late to be able to get away with claiming sole authorship" of inventions that were in fact the products of a gifted team.

Edison's personality remains elusive, but Mr. Stross has provided a commendable account of the inventor's busy life.

* * *

Peter Rabbit's creator led enough lives for a half-dozen people, and in Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (St. Martin's Press, $30, 583 pages, illus.), Linda Lear, the prize-winning biographer of Rachel Carson, covers them all. …

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