Packaging the product

Edison's marathon sleepless session perfecting the phonograph, outlined in this project's introduction, remains only one of the inventor's many ingenius ploys for self-promotion. With his affable personality and low-brow sensibilities, Edison quickly befriended many in the press. And one could be sure that whenever Edison might be doing something important, the press would never be far away. While the myth was, in the end, America's to run with, throughout his career, the Yankee tinkerer carefully honed his image in the eyes of the people.

Unlike, for example, Robert Fulton's steamship, Edison's five-inch tall light bulb was not the kind of invention destined to be met with immediate awe. But this did not stop Edison, with his constant thirst for the sensational, from organizing one of the most widely covered campaigns in scientific history. In what might be the crowning achievment in promotional history, Edison had all of America talking about a carbon filament. After the frenzy surrounding the original invention died down, the Wizard searched for the ideal filament for his new light, and the public's attention further began to wane. Edison, never one to take inattention lightly, shortly thereafter announced a world-wide search for the "most perfect" vegetable fiber (qtd. in Wachhorst 42). In sending a number of explorers all over the world, Edison not only filled the public's desire for sensationalism, but waged his search as man against nature in a truly mythical fashion. The public waited with bated breath as "Edison's lieutenants" plunged into the depths of the Amazon (Wachhorst 42). Although the search resulted in almost nothing scientifically, the much-covered event did much for Edison's, and science's, popularity.

Wachhorst, however, traces the emergence of the self-propagated Edison myth to a time period almost two years before:

Edison arrived out of the blue at the offices of the Scientific American and pushed a quaint-looking contrivance across the editor's desk.
"Here you are," Edison said. Spying a crank the editor instinctively turned it.
"Good morning!" said the machine. "What do you think of the phonograph?" (16)

Edison's genius for self-promotion also embodied itself in his "performance" in the lab. Even when Edison donned tuxes at night to court the rich Mina Miller, he still smeared grease on his face and tattered cloths while working at the lab (Nye). As the myth grew, the real Edison faded away. The Old Man, in late life a full-fledged American hero, could tell the wildest of yarns about his youth. And, almost without exception the usually cynical reporters would print them as truth. "Heroes," Wecter states. "Became all things to all men" (10). Never did this axiom prove more true than with the Wizard. Throughout his life, Edison represented the technological and the natural, the refined and the innocent, the rich and the poor.

With his thorough knowledge of the public, Edison realized how important it was to "talk big." Even in down times, Edison's prophetic words could resell to Americans the myth of inevitable technological progress. Edison often would feed rumors to newspapers of imminent discoveries -- never mind that these events "had not yet gone through the formality of taking place" (qtd. in Boorstin 532). Wachhorst related another famous anecdote that occurred after Edison had talked with a member of his staff that obviously had made up news of his great progress. After the man left, Edison remarked to another colleague, "He hasn't got a damn thing. But that's the way to talk" (qtd. Wachhorst 218).

While Edison's knack for self-promotion served him immensely throughout his career, it could only get him so far. Edison's rise from man to Wizard to myth to god also reflected the needs of America at the time. Entering the technical age -- perhaps the most fundamental transformation in American history -- the public needed some way to come to terms with the "machine in the garden." In Edison, Americans found just this.

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