The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World
(By Randall Stross; Crown; 376 pages; $24.95)
A new ad for GM's latest effort to stave off automotive irrelevance promotes an electric car with the catchphrase "Thomas Edison was right." More than 125 years after he unleashed the phonograph on the world, Thomas Alva Edison remains the gold standard for all-American inventors. In this fast-paced biography, Randall Stross (who teaches history at SJSU and does the Digital Domain column in The New York Times) emphasizes the rapidity with which Edison became the first American celebrity outside of politics and the military. Once Edison's bona fides were established by reporters skilled in the art of puffery, he remained the go-to genius who could invent anything, even after he proved amazingly obtuse about the true value of some of his work. Perhaps because of his own partial deafness, Edison thought the phonograph's true calling was for taking dictation in offices; with his tin ear, he never understood that pop music was what the public craved. Edison pioneered a workable electric light, but never reaped the full profits. As for motion pictures: "It was clear to everyone but Edison that the kinetoscope ... would be a tremendous source of fun of all kinds—the silly, the spectacular and the ribald"; Edison preferred a high-brow model that included opera broadcasts. Restlessly, Edison squandered five years trying to use electricity in iron mining. As for that electric car GM is so excited about, in the early 1900s, Edison experimented on a battery-powered vehicle that never lived up to expectations. Stross serves up a number of telling anecdotes about Edison, from a visit by Sarah Bernhardt that got off on the wrong foot to an amusing list of early alternative names for the phonograph (my favorite: the Glottophone). Edison often went on show-and-tell tours with his phonograph and light bulbs, a harbinger of Steve Jobs' dog-and-pony shows with the latest fruits of Apple's labors. Ultimately, however, as Stross shows, Edison was almost just what Henry Ford famously once called him, "The world's greatest inventor and world's worst businessman."
Review by Michael S. Gant
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