Authors: Randall E. Stross
is the patron saint of electric light, electric power, and music-on-demand, the grandfather of the Wired World, great-grandfather of iPod Nation. He was the person who flipped the switch. Before Edison, darkness. After Edison, media-saturated modernity.
Well, not exactly. The heroic biography we were fed as schoolchildren does have its limitations, beginning with the omission of other inventors who played critical roles—not just Edison’s gifted assistants, but also his accomplished competitors. What’s most interesting about the standard Edison biography that we grew up with is not that it is heroic but that it is outsized, a projected image quite distinct from the man who stood five foot nine. Once brought into being, Edison’s image inhabited its own life and acted autonomously in ways that its namesake could not control. Edison is famously associated with the beginnings of movies, which is where the modern business of celebrity begins. But he deserves to be credited with another, no less important, discovery related to celebrity that he made early in his own public life, accidentally: the application of celebrity to business.
The celebrity is distinguished from the merely well known by the public’s bottomless desire for closeness, for learning anything and everything about the person. The first celebrities in American history were political and military figures, the Founders and Lincoln. Treating them as objects of fascination, the public experienced a feeling of personal, and wholly spurious, closeness. In the 1870s, Edison joined the ranks of larger-than-life demigods, making way for the civilian celebrity. Other nineteenth-century figures, like Mark Twain and P. T. Barnum, also gained fame on a scale impossible to imagine in an earlier time for those who worked outside of politics, but Edison’s celebrity exceeded everyone else’s. He achieved it well before he and others had created the technology to mass produce visual intimacy on a larger-than-life scale. When Edison initially became famous, the public could see him only with images conjured by newspaper text, supplemented with the occasional line drawing. During his lifetime, however, the technology for depicting images advanced rapidly. His face became so well known that an envelope mailed on a lark from North Carolina with nothing but his picture on it to serve as both name and address arrived in his hands in New Jersey a few weeks later.
No one of the time would have predicted that it would be an inventor, of all occupations, who would become the cynosure of the age. In retrospect, fame may appear to be a justly earned reward for the inventor of practical electric light—yet Edison’s fame came before light. It was conferred for an earlier invention: the phonograph. Who would have guessed that the announcement of the phonograph’s invention would be sufficient to propel him in a matter of a few days from obscurity into the firmament above? Any one of dozens of technical breakthroughs that had come before had much greater impact on the U.S. economy. Their creators were more likely candidates for the top rank of fame. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, or his muskets made with interchangeable parts, Robert Fulton’s steamboat, John Jethro Wood’s iron-tipped plough, Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, Charles Goodyear’s rubber-manufacturing process, Samuel Morse’s telegraph, Elisha Graves Otis’s elevator, Lucien Smith’s barbed wire, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, which appeared one year before the phonograph—these were prior inventions that fundamentally changed the U.S. economy. Why would the phonograph, of all things, have made its inventor famous beyond imagining? More mysterious is that it was not the phonograph itself—it would take two decades before the machine was ready to be actually commercialized on a mass scale—but the mere idea of the phonograph that instantly seized the imagination of everyone who heard of it, inspiring essayists to expect machines capable of thinking as well as speaking.
Edison’s admirers endowed him with fantastical powers that would permit him to invent anything he wished (one humorist suggested that he invent “a pocketbook that will always contain a dollar or two”). Edison did not himself lack for self-confidence and held fast to the conviction that he could remove any technical obstacle that impeded his progress, no matter what field of invention he explored. This conviction would lead him into blind alleys, but it also led to astonishing successes, planned and unplanned. More than anything else, the utterly fearless range of his experimental activities draws our attention today.
Fearlessness was needed when he elected to become a full-time inventor at the tender age of twenty-two, a bold step for a young man without family money. Both of the two previous generations of Edisons had been politically active and cursed with unfortunate luck, having to move permanently and far away to avoid the consequences that followed from backing a losing cause. Edison’s grandfather had been a Loyalist in New Jersey during the War for Independence and had moved the family to Canada at the end of the war. Two years before Edison was born, his Canadian father, Samuel, an innkeeper by trade and Thomas Paine–like firebrand by temperament, backed an insurrection against the Canadian provincial government. When the uprising failed, Samuel had to flee for his life without his wife and four children and headed south to the United States. He landed in a canal town, Milan, Ohio, eight miles south of Lake Erie, where his family rejoined him. He dabbled in shingle manufacturing, land speculation, and truck farming, prospering by small-town standards as regional trade grew, then losing his gains when railroads took canal traffic away.
Thomas Alva Edison—known as “Al” as a child—would be the last of the seven children born to his mother, Nancy. High infant and childhood mortality in the mid-nineteenth century is encapsulated in the family history: only three of his six siblings survived beyond the age of six. All three were in their teens when he arrived on 11 February 1847—his oldest sister was eighteen—so he was soon the only child left living at his parents’ house. When he was seven, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, a frontier town offering opportunities in lumbering and real estate speculation. His mother, a former schoolteacher, provided the homeschooling that constituted the entirety of his education, other than two brief stints at local schools. These circumstances, along with his progressive loss of hearing, nurtured the autodidact in Edison’s makeup.
His father introduced his son to the highly esteemed writings of Paine, but young Edison did not inherit his father’s interest in politics. He did, however, show an entrepreneurial bent that resembled his father’s. Before Edison, the inventor, made a precocious appearance, Edison, the boy tycoon, had emerged. The opportunities he discovered as a twelve-year-old wheeler-dealer were opened when he persuaded his mother to let his home studies end so that he could take a position as newsboy on a train that ran from Port Huron to Detroit. Once on board, he saw that he could buy goods cheaply in the big city and retail them in little Port Huron at a nice markup. He opened two stores—a newsstand and a fresh-produce stand—and hired two other boys to staff them and share in the profits. Loading a U.S. mail car with his baskets of vegetables, without charge, would likely have brought the disapproving attention of some authority figure on the railroad. But here, too, young Edison showed a gift for knowing how to enlist the cooperation of everyone: He offered to the wives of the engineers and trainmen the fresh blackberries, butter, and other delectables at the same low wholesale prices that he had paid.
At the age of fifteen, Edison expanded into newspaper publishing, using a galley-proof press and worn type he bought secondhand and set up in the baggage car of the train. When a British passenger happened to catch a glimpse of the adolescent publisher at work, he bought the entire run of Edison’s
as souvenirs, and Edison later heard he planted mention in the London
that it was the first newspaper in the world to be printed on a train in motion.
In his spare time, Edison spent time with a small chemistry laboratory that he set up in the baggage car. Flammable chemicals did not travel as well as the printing press. When a bottle of phosphorus fell and set the car on fire, the conductor ejected Edison, his chemical laboratory, and his printing press. The other diversion that occupied Edison every spare moment was telegraphy’s Morse code, which he tried to absorb on his own by osmosis, sitting close by the telegraph instruments in railroad offices, listening and watching. Edison fell into the good graces of James MacKenzie, a station agent, when he rescued MacKenzie’s young son, who was playing obliviously on the tracks when an uncoupled freight car rolled toward the tyke. Edison happened to be looking out the window just in time to dash out and swoop the child out of harm’s way—but not in time to prevent the child’s mother from catching sight of the near fatal miss and fainting. This was the tale that was told, and it invites being treated as apocryphal were it not for corroborating facts and MacKenzie’s palpable gratitude. He became Edison’s personal Morse code tutor, and Edison soon became proficient.
Edison’s own account of the rescue of the MacKenzie boy is matter-of-fact and free of heroic embellishment (“I luckily came out just in time”). It was told as the preamble to the main event, which was MacKenzie’s taking “considerable pains to teach me” and his own willingness to practice Morse code “about 18 hours a day.” (Edison’s capacity for extended bursts of work would be his principal vanity his entire life.) This intensive tutelage soon enabled him to become a professional telegraph operator.
At the same time he told the rescue story, he also told one in which his own role was anything but heroic. He had secured his first paid position as a telegraph operator in the local Western Union office, then, at the age of sixteen, gained a position with the Grand Trunk Railroad, which assigned him to the night shift in a station at Stratford Junction, Ontario. One night, he received instructions to hold a freight train that would soon arrive—on the other side, another train had already left the last station and was approaching from the opposite direction on the single track. When Edison headed out into the yard to find the signalman, the train that he was supposed to halt flew past, unaware. He ran back into the office and reported, “I couldn’t hold her.” The telegraphed reply was succinct: “Hell.” At this point, there was one remaining chance for Edison to reprise his role as the hero who averted catastrophe: If he could get to the place along the route where the daytime operator was presently sleeping, a signal could still be set to prevent the impending collision. The only way to reach it would be by racing in the darkness on foot. Edison set off but never made it in time: “I fell in a culvert and was knocked senseless.”
Carnage was avoided that night because the track was straight and the two engineers saw each other in time to avoid the collision. Afterward, Edison and his immediate supervisor were summoned to the main office in Toronto. The general superintendent was interested in knowing why the supervisor had given a sixteen-year-old a position of such grave life-and-death responsibility. As for Edison, the superintendent threatened to send him off to prison for his criminal negligence while on duty. Edison did not wish to test the seriousness of the superintendent’s threat, and when, in the midst of this dressing-down, three self-important visitors happened to arrive at the office (“English swells,” in Edison’s description) and created a momentary diversion, he made a hasty exit. He caught the first freight train that would take him to sanctuary, the United States.
The incident did not keep him from landing his next telegraph operator job, in Adrian, Michigan. For the next five years, he hopped from one post to the next—Fort Wayne; Indianapolis; Cincinnati; Memphis; Louisville; Cincinnati again—as a member of the fraternity of “tramp” operators. They were young, single men who were a peripatetic, but close-knit, fraternity. They came to know one another if not by meeting in person, then by their distinctive patterns of tapping when sending messages. They did not stay in one place long. One or the other would move to a new post, then, when their movements later brought them back together, they renewed acquaintance. In a rare surviving letter that Edison wrote home as a nineteen-year-old, he was conscious that he had matured since his parents had last seen him: “I have growed Considerably—I don’t look much like a Boy Now.”
Within the club, two talents were prized most highly: technical skill when operating the apparatus and creativity when devising practical jokes for the unaware. Edison was highly regarded by his peers on both counts. He had great prowess as a telegraph receiver (but not as a sender). He had diligently investigated how to write as fast as possible (by writing each letter extremely small, and separately, without wasting time with cursive connectors). When receiving, he could always stay ahead of transmissions from the speediest sender. He also came to be known for inventiveness in the good cause of fun. Batteries used for the telegraph apparatus were plentiful, and many of his pranks involved electric shock—these stunts gain interest in retrospect, knowing as we do of Edison’s future work on the ultimate instrument of shock, the electric chair. In Cincinnati in 1867, Edison purchased an induction coil that was sufficiently powerful to “twist the arms & clinch the hands of a man so he couldn’t let go of the electrodes.” He and a colleague connected one electrode to a washstand in the roundhouse and grounded the other, then climbed onto the roof and peered down through a hole they had drilled for the purpose. The first person came in, stepped on the wet floor while washing, closed the circuit—and up went his hands, without volition. A succession of unwary victims were similarly shocked, and all were confounded; no one guessed the cause. Edison commented about observing the events from his perch above: “We enjoyed the sport immensely.”