Thomas Edison: The Wizard Lives
Gerry, Tom, Queen's Quarterly
TOM GERRY teaches English at Laurentian University. He recently published Contemporary US and Canadian Women of Letters.
Edison in his day was a much larger-than-life figure than we now generally appreciate. His role as a reflector and magnifier of certain aspects of American culture far transcended the astonishing enough details of his career as an inventor and businessman. The Wizard of Menlo Park made predictions about the future and was consulted by newspapers and world leaders on all manner of problems. And while Bill Gates may be far richer than Edison ever was, the lightbulb's inventor changed our world more profoundly than perhaps any great mind in the modern age.
THE recent Interpreting Edison conference was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the achievements of Thomas Edison, and their place both in late nineteenth- and late twentieth-century history. With the worldwide web, computers, television, even space travel, we are still very much caught up in the electrically-powered revolution to which Edison contributed so much. Held as one of the celebrations of the Great Man's 150th birthday, the conference took place at Rutgers University's Newark campus. Newark is close to West Orange, site of the Edison phonograph works, laboratories, and film studio; these locations are now collectively designated as a National Historic Site.
And what would such a celebratory event be without some good old show biz? Brimming platefuls of all-American hype were dished up by reps of the chambers of commerce from Edison's birthplace (Milan, Ohio), his boyhood home (Port Huron, Michigan), and from the Edison-Ford Winter Estates (Fort Myers, Florida). Unbelievably, these folks concluded their slide and video extravaganzas with pleas for -- ahem -- financial support for their respective living monuments to one of America's great sons -- perhaps indeed her Greatest. One of Edison's great-grandchildren was there, a literature professor, everywhere snapping photos and making sure we all knew who he was. One evening he gave a slide show and after-dinner talk on the pedigree topic.
We also enjoyed a virtual tour of the reconstructed Menlo Park laboratory; in 1929 the "birthplace" of the phonograph and the incandescent lamp was moved from New Jersey to Greenfield Village, Michigan -- lock, stock, and barrel, mind you -- by Henry Ford, the Wizard of Menlo Park's pal and fellow magnate, to celebrate the light bulb's fiftieth anniversary. From Rutgers we all went interactive, applauding and posing questions to the video/audio images of two genial if not slapstick curators at Greenfield. Even more exciting to the numerous history buffs in attendance, we were treated to demonstrations of recording on early Edison phonographs. A guide at the West Orange lab recorded "Mary had a Little Lamb" (the first words Edison committed to the machine) using for his recording cylinder a piece of aluminum foil which he modestly tore from its Reynold's Wrap box. As part of the closing festivities, Loren Schoenberg's Scrap-Iron Jazzoreenos, playing actual instruments from the 1890s, recorded several ditties on an Edison equipped with a wax cylinder (provenance unknown), much to everyone's delight. Throughout the conference proceedings, it was somewhat comforting to notice how speakers bumbled with their mikes and overheads and slide projectors the way I do when I'm required to use them.
Not everyone at the conference was entirely caught up in exaltation mode. A character on whom so much acclaim has been lavished can certainly stand some problematizing, and from this aspect of the presentations we can learn most. In order to suggest what Edison can teach us about the present, I'll begin with some details about Edison himself and his times.
EDISON in his day was a much larger-than-life figure than we now generally appreciate. His role as a reflector and magnifier of certain aspects of American culture far transcended the astonishing enough details of his career as an inventor and businessman. …