A Tentative Idea for a Lamp

Tim Radford

  • Edison: A Life of Invention by Paul Israel
    Wiley, 552 pp, £19.50, November 1998, ISBN 0 471 52942 7

Thomas Edison invented himself, and then he invented the legend. He did the first in the usual, recognisably Victorian way, from scratch, with terrific self-confidence, huge energy, astute focus and ferocious determination. He did the second by exploiting a singular gift for self-publicity: introduce a journalist and Edison would produce a soundbite. Some of them slid straight into the dictionaries of quotations and stayed there, and are still daisy-fresh more than a century later. ‘From his neck down a man is worth a couple of dollars a day,’ he once said. ‘From his neck up, he is worth anything his brain can produce.’ He remarked of his friend Henry Ford: ‘This fellow Ford is like a postagestamp. He sticks to one thing until he gets there.’ He had a way of making his recipe for success seem dead simple: ‘I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.’

He chose words like ‘try’ because he meant them. ‘I have more respect for the fellow with a single idea who gets there than for the fellow with a thousand ideas who does nothing,’ he said, in a rebuke to those who were content to be clever, or even dazzling, rather than achievers. He also produced one of the few lines almost everybody in the world can recite: ‘Genius is 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.’

He meant that, too. His was a lifetime lesson in ingenuity and hard work crowned by success after success. By the time he died he held 1093 patents across an extraordinary range of endeavour, for telegraphy, telephony, electricity, acoustics, cement housing, artificial pearls, the forerunner of the mimeograph and a way of getting electricity from coal. He also left five million pages of papers and records. Paul Israel’s dense and sometimes exasperating book is a fine example of the ‘many worlds’ theory of biography: Edison was incontestably one of the great Victorians. The Victorian label, however, gets harder to append when it includes people who, like Edison, also seem very modern: a 20th-century transatlantic man trapped in the wrong century.

In fact the 19th century often seems like two different centuries: its own, and a rehearsal for this one, a kind of bifocal landscape in which one can blink from then to now and back again. Edison was born in 1847, in Milan, Ohio, the youngest of seven children. Most of his co-ordinates are firmly fixed in the cultural map of ‘then’. He was born in the year of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the year Balzac wrote Cousin Pons, Verdi wrote Macbeth, Berlioz composed The Damnation of Faust, James Simpson first successfully used chloroform, the German Gustav Kirchhoff spelled out the laws of electric currents in a network of wires and Carl Zeiss opened an optics factory in Jena, Switzerland. It was the year Alfred Krupp cast his first steel gun and an Italian called Ascanio Sobrero produced nitroglycerine; it was the year of the first double-decker bus, horse-drawn, of course, produced by Adams and Co. of Bow, London; it was also the year a Patent Mile Index was fitted to a London cab: the first taxi-meter. The Magnetic Telegraph Company, founded by Samuel Morse, was already two years old. Edison wasn’t the only American legend born in 1847; so was the outlaw Jesse James. The lawman Wyatt Earp was born in 1848: Earp and James and Edison might have inhabited different planets, but one of the ironies of this story is that the legends of Earp and James are essentially Hollywood creations, and one of the players in the creation of Hollywood was the Edison Motion Picture Company.

The many-worlds version of biography provides endless opportunities for games like these. Edison’s first patent was for an electrical vote-recorder, intended to sidestep that fusty Victorian business of queueing up to be counted, and to make democracy more instant and more available. Such things are now used in television shows, though not yet in Parliament. This patent was taken out in 1868; the year of The Ring and the Book, of Queen Victoria’s Leaves from a Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, of Little Women, of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, of the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Nobody wanted to use Edison’s electrical vote-counter: he took the lesson on board immediately and vowed that he would never again waste time making something that people would not buy. The year 1878 established Edison’s place in history for ever: he patented the phonograph (saying a little later, with that down-home flair that made reporters love him: ‘It’s my favourite baby. Once it grows up and becomes a big feller, it will support me in my old age’). In 1879 he went one better: he invented the incandescent electric light bulb. These two years were the years of H.M. Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent, of HMS ‘Pinafore’, of A Doll’s House, of Travels with a Donkey and The Brothers Karamazov, of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The year of the light bulb was the year Virgil Earp became marshal of Tombstone, Arizona. The notorious gunfight at the OK Corral was two years in the future. Jesse James was at this time hiding in Missouri, hoping for a bit of peace.

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