By mid-1888, the Wizard of Menlo Park appeared to have lost a bit of his magic. After Edison revolutionized the world with the phonograph in 1877 and played Prometheus in his invention of the incandescent light two years later, little had emerged from his New Jersey invention factory that really grabbed the attention of America. Worse yet, news just had come that a group including Alexander Bell stood poised to release a new and improved phonograph and top Edison's prized creation.
That May, Edison, who for the past 11 years had tinkered with the phonograph, resolved to best Bell's "graphophone." In what newspapers soon called the "phonograph vigil," Edison locked his team into his West Orange laboratory, not to emerge until the group could boast of the "perfect" phonograph. Three sleepless days (or what some newspapers exagerrated to a "sleepless, five-day orgy of toil") later, Edison's team burst forth from the labs not only with a better phonograph, but with America's imagination soon to be regained.
After the completion of the project, reporters crowded into Edison's lab. As other members of Edison's team scurried from reporter to reporter, discussing scientific details, the Wizard slumped back into a stiff-backed chair. An exhausted Edison struck a patently Napoleanic pose, staring not at his new phonograph in front of him but faraway, at some deeper mystery. Pools of photographers surrounded Edison, while throngs of reporters rapidly scribbled in their notepads -- no doubt choosing adjectives like "tireless," "hardworking," "superhuman." One of the prized photographs soon became a famous oil painting and reached millions as an advertisement for the Edison Phonograph Company. The picture, tabbed as the banner image for this project and featured above, shows the mythical Edison that America came to know and love as the inventor and America came of age (Wachhorst 45).
As Edison's former employee suggests in the epigraph to this project, the seemingly naive Midwester played a greater role in the making of his own myth. Edison's ever-tireless protestant work ethic and the anecdotal stories of his boyhood that he grew fonder of and more detailed in as he reached old age layed out an image of the great American to rival even Benjamin Franklin's (Wecter).
But even the world's greatest inventor can not be given all the credit for creating his giant myth. By the end of his life, the myth stood much greater than Edison himself; even newspapers as prestigious as the New York Times reported not what Edison did, but what the great Wizard should have been doing -- crediting an 80-year old man with 16-hour work days.
As Dixon Wecter states in the introduction to his prized book, The Hero in America, "hero worship answers an urgest American need" (1). So no less than Edison needed America's love to become a great inventor and great man, the country needed a hero to define its own national purpose. Using Wyn Wachhorst's definition of the hero that "as a form of myth, the culture hero functions to resolve mechanically contradictory values into a single paradoxical reality," this project will examine how Edison bridged the gap between nostalgia and progress, technology and nature, innocence and power, and what Leo Marx termed "the machine and the garden" (Wachhorst 3).
As Edison's life spanned the whole of the machine age, he, more than any other individual, ushered America into the greatest change of its existance. Becoming in many ways the archetypal American, Edison humanized the technological age, while helping to produce a radically different and more democratic America.
|Introduction||Edison's life and inventions||What myths are made of||Miraculous quality of inventions||Packaging the product||American tale||Conclusion|