The miraculous quality of his inventions


It takes little reflection for an American today to see what an immense effect Edison's inventions have placed upon his material life. From a trip to the movies, to the driving of a car, to listening to a compact disk, even to working at night, the ghost of the Wizard of Menlo Park never seems to stray too far from the American landscape. Yet it becomes slightly more difficult to come to terms with the no less daunting psychological effect Edison has had upon the American mind. For his inventions could seem nothing short of miraculous for much of the American public. Suddenly, man had conquered night and voices could speak from the dead, all thanks to one humble inventor from Ohio. Some Americans envisioned Edison as a modern Prometheus, who for the sake of humanity, stole fire from the gods. Others viewed the inventor as a Faustian figure, whose great advances could only result through black magic and a pact with the devil. To fully grasp the religious implications of Edison's feats, it is fitting to see that extremist compared him not just to some obscure Greek god, but Satan himself. In 1890 the Catholic World "proved," through a mathematical analysis of Edison's name, that the inventor was, in fact, the devil incarnate. While most of Edison's contemporaries lauded the Wizard with markedly kinder titles, Edison's miraculous inventions blurred the line between man and superman.

Without living in the pre-Edison world of 12 hour days, it remains perhaps impossible to grasp how shocking constant light proved to a thrilled American populus. Quantitively equaling God's pronouncement of "Let there be light," Edison, like the creator, added another 12 hours to the day. While light in the form of gas-flames previously existed, Edison's incandescent bulb provided the world's first chance to distribute light to the masses while promoting a degree of safety. For even when Prometheus bestowed fire upon humanity, there still loomed the risk of disasterous, rampant fire. Edison placed all of this power within a tiny glass bulb. Even the generally rational Edison allowed a statement of absolute awe to escape his lips when describing man's new found potential. "In the old days man went up and down with the sun. A million years from now he won't go to bed at all. Really sleep is an absurdity, a bad habit ... we shall throw it off" (qtd. in Nye 146).

Although Edison early seized upon the enormous transformative power of the light bulb, few other Americans instantly stood in awe of the small bulb. Not until the electrification of America (primarily New York City, which Edison worked tirelessly on) did the average citizen begin to come to terms with just how radically the world had shifted. The cultural and social effects of electric lighting could be discussed for considerable periods of time, but the important part for this project is that the name Edison was emblazoned upon every early light bulb and the electric company itself. For people coming of age in the early 20th century, the world had become a drastically different, brighter place than the one from their childhoods, and the name "Edison" stood never far from the light itself. As Wachhorst states, the real sign of America's transformation by the 52th anniversary of Edison's discovery of the electric light was that when Hoover suggested the lights throughout the nation be dimmed, officials quickly turned against the idea for fear of an utter disaster (16).

When Edison produced the phonograph only two years later, the public again stood in complete wonder. After Edison finished playing for a group of reporters his singing of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the phonograph, the world would never be the same. While people could see Bell's primitive telephone as a mere extention of the telegraph, no one ever had seen anything like Edison's phonograph. To see what a surprise the invention of the phonograph proved to America, one needs to look at the drastic tests to which the device was subject. Accusations of ventriloquism flew, premier scientists laughed at Edison, and a bishop traveled to Edison's lab to see if the phonograph could accurately repeat his long list of obscure biblical names. But Edison's machine passed all the tests, and the world sat back in awe (Wachhorst 20).

Although not as easily recognizable as with the light bulb, the phonograph similarly turned Americans world upside down. Boorstin tabs the phonograph (as well as photography, on which Edison also worked) as revolutionarizing the way Americans viewed experience itself. With experience now repeatable, and people everywhere capable of "mass producing the moment," the way Americans saw the entire world drastically changed (Boorstin 359). In the end, the phonograph served a fittingly democratic effect -- allowing all Americans to "attend" the world's finest concerts. But the danger of the phonograph and of Edison's later work with motion pictures, Boorstin argues, is that more diffused experience tends to become more diluted experience. More came out of Edison's little Menlo Park lab than the busy inventor possibly could have imagined; new ideas about experience and community exited the lab, along with Edison's electrical pen.

With his seemingly endless stream of inventions, Edison ushered America into what Mumford called the "neotechnic age" (212) In Technics and Civilization, Mumford discusses America's late nineteenth century change from the paleotechnic age to the neotechnic age. While the paleotechnic age of Edison's youth, typified by the steam engine, featured large, powerful, often threatening inventions, the neotechnic age came with the advent of the dynamo that so caught the wonder of young Henry Adams( Capper & Hollinger 89-92). In the paleotechnic age, Mumford argues, machines could only enlarge human powers, but the neotechnic age boasted machines that could do what man could never imagine. The dynamo and Edison's phonograph, in their very smallness, showed the potentiality of man to conquer the environment (Mumford). Edison's crooning phonograph typified this new, friendlier stage of technological development. Unlike the loud horn that troubled Thoreau, the soft, beautiful sound of the phonograph made the machine and the garden again reconcilable (Marx).

To Edison and all Americans, the possibilities for progress seemed endless. Wachhorst provides an excellent anecdote that illustrates just how much Edison and the public had worked up his myth. Recently after the advent of the light bulb, the New York Daily Graphic ran on April Fool's Day gag headline which read, "Edison Invents a Machine that will Feed the Human Race -- manufacturing Biscuits, Meat, Vegetables, and Wine out of Air, Water, and Common Earth" (qtd in 21). A number of other national newspapers printed the story as if it were true; "no feat seemed beyond the power of a wizard who could make a machine that talked" (21). Another tale relays Edison toppling H.G. Wells' martians (Nye). And countries all throughout the world shuddered with the news that Edison had invented a "doomsday machine" during World War One (Wachhorst 101). Between experiments on the phonograph, Edison tinkered with a machine to read the people's minds (Nye 150-151).

New York World pundit Walter Lippman became one of the first to grasp the importance of Edison's inventions:

Thirty years ago when I was a schoolboy, the ancient conservatism of man was still the normal inheritance of every child. We began to have electric lights, and telephones, and to see horseless carriages, but our attitude was a mixture of wonder, fear, and doubt. Perhaps these things would work. Perhaps they would not explode. Perhaps it would be amusing to play with them. Today every schoolboy not only takes all the existing inventions as much for granted as we took horses and dogs for granted, but, also, he is entirely convinced that all other desirable things can and will be invented. ... No other person played so great a part as Edison in this change in human expectation (qtd. in Wachhorst 216)

While Edison's amazing inventions likely could have made a public hero out of the drabbest of laboratory henchmen, the Wizard's ability to grab attention for his product and himself made him the resonant figure he is in American culture today. Edison, the inventor, could only be surpassed by Edison, the self-publicist.


Introduction Edison's life and inventions What myths are made of Miraculous quality of inventions Packaging the product American tale Conclusion

Works Cited and
Suggested Reading


Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: May 10, 1998