An American tale


As powerful as the Edison myth might become throughout the world, the Wizard of Menlo Park's tale always maintains a uniquely American flair. On several levels, Edison's story slides nicely into the American mold. Even with only a superficial look, one can not fail to note the similarities between Edison and Franklin -- whose Poor Richard represents the national myth with which all others must compete. Edison also fits in neatly with a wide variety of views concerning the American people. Seen as Boorstin's patently non-ideological "go-getter," Edison comes sharply to focus. On the other side of the spectrum, the Edison myth closely resembles the intimately ideological search for the New World Eden that Marx described. The most accurate and probing treatment of Edison's role in the American myth, I believe, is accomplished by Wachhorst. He states that all heroes reflect opposing forces yet to be resolved by the culture and that "the mediation of this polar tension is the function not only of the Edidson image but of all modern culture heroes" (31).

Before turning to the bevy of critical interpretations of the effect of the Edison myth on the American psyche, one should return to Wecter's definitive study of the American hero. Wecter stresses the role of the cultural hero in America because of the Americans' lack of loyalty towards the soil and tendency to view his nation in abstract terms (2). Democracies, Wecter argues, give heroes especially important roles in the sense that the people, to a degree, always elect the hero (11). Furthermore, Americans place rather exacting upon their heroes. The hero always must project the aura of greatness, yet seem average and familiar. "There is a subconscious wish that the hero should not in every way appear to be strong, resourceful, lucky, and invincible. The crowd is thus able to achieve closer kinship between him and themselves" (Wecter 14). Edison, with dirt smudged over his faith and his constant proclamations that he knew little about math, fit this image like few Americans before, and hence became one of the greatest of American heroes.

After his years as a wandering itinerant telegrapher, Edison arrived in New York intent on finding a job. Lacking merely the loaves of bread under each arm, Edison entered the industrial mecca just as Franklin entered Philadelphia over a century before. Both arrived from the harbor, dressed in rags, and "very hungry" (Wachhorst 80). Entering their respective cities with America poised on the cusp of revolution, each poor and eager boy appeared destined for success. Edison's ingenuity and quips about "never watching the clock" also firmly place him in the Franklin archetype. Using an already very familiar image of cultural hero, America and Edison himself bestowed upon the inventor one of the culture's most cherished myths.

The overarching symbol of America as New World Garden shapes the myths of its most famous inhabitants. Seen as a refuge from the corrupt and tradition-laden Old World, America provides the individual a second chance at salvation, a rebirth. Never prizing art too highly, America turned early to the inventor as among its prominent national heroes. Franklin first filled this role and over the years the idea "clever Yankee tinkerer" became an increasingly important part of the national myth. To Marx, invention began to replace God at the heart of the national cultural. "Invention became to America what painting had been to Italy, or sculpture to Greece, and inventors were romanticized heroes of the age" (Wachhorst 108). To Boorstin, Edison then represents the shining example of the "go-getter." Rarely bogged down by philosophy, the "social inventor" merely saw a problem and began finding ways to solve it (528). Americans, founders of democracy and bold enough to talk about Manifest Destiny -- God's chosen people -- lived in the birthplace of inventors and of inventive genius. Even Wachhorst admitted Edison's "emphasis on utility," again identifying it as a top American trait (150).

Yet Boorstin's ever-pragmatic American never quite manages to reach mythic proportions. Something greater stands between a successful man and a legend, and Marx in his analysis describes why Edison proved such an important figure. As America moved from the steam age to the electrical age, the nation found in Edison a figure in which to mount its hopes and face its fears. In what Marx called "the myth of the machine," America, though it has lost its first chance at redemption, could regain the opportunity with the aid of technology. With the amazing, non-threatening technology, which Edison produced and represented, a new run at paradise seemed possible. At the turn of the century, Roosevelt and all Americans faced off against nature but no one seemed as able as Edison to defeat "the attempts of nature, as villian, to impose limits upon man" (Wachhorst 112). The limitless horizon that Walt Whitman romanticized in America's expansive mountain ranges again seemed recoverable through Edison's light and phonograph.

Wachhorst primary treatment of Edison as American hero places him on what he called the "mediation of [the] polar tensions" (31). Although I prefer Wachhorst's study, Nye also stresses the dualities of Edison through the use of a "semiotic square" (28). In dealing with these tensions, one of the fundamental tenets of the Edison myth becomes the belief that the inventor came of age with America. As Wachhorst shows, Edison's childhood represented the romantic, natural innocence of an antebellum past. Similarly, Edison's years as a wandering telegrapher mark the same time period where America, through Civil War, wandered to find itself. Edison's prized inventions came when America really started its guilded age industrial boom, and his popularity reached its highest peaks in the 1920s, when America, like Edison, seemed full of boundless potential. In 1922, a New York Times poll named him the greatest living American (Wachhorst 5). Toward the end of his life, Edison transcended his inventions to become a full-blown American hero. Questions reporters asked him in interviews no longer concerned filament lighting or scientific conundrums but instead, "Do you think democracy works?" and "Do you think we are to solving the mystery and meaning of life?" (qtd. in Wachhorst 136)

Although World War I proved a marked failure for Edison as far as inventing (Kevles), the public nonetheless clung to Edison as "the one intellect in the world which might conceivably be able to ablish war from the earth" (qtd. in Wachhorst 104). Despite a number of failed endeavors, Edison, and his purported 18 hour work days, kept America sure that science (even God) remained firmly behind the Allied cause. In the war, Edison moved from scientific hero to American hero. In his own way "keeping the world safe for democracy," Edison placed the machine (technology) firmly within the bounds of the garden (America) (Wilson). As technology and Edison became more tied up with the American mission, the idea of a New World paradise again seemed feasible. Behind the nostalgic tales of Edison's boyhood and his bold proclamation of a new future, Edison help reconcile the past and the future to a generation of Americans facing an enormous change.

Menlo Park, Edison's invention factory set in the rural countryside, examplified how Edison tied past to present and technology to nature. The quaint industrial buildings blended in effortlessly with the beautiful landscape -- creating a pastoral image to rival the best of Thomas Cole's and the rest of the Hudson River School's most idyllic work. Even while Edison had to call for stiffer regulations of workers, Menlo Park and the boarding house next door still maintained the feel of a village of artisans (Nye). As the neotechnic age dawned, the integration of nature with technology (which had failed, of course, with the steam engine) again seemed possible. Edison's "industrial village" to many showed just how nicely the machine could fit in the garden. Allowing man to conquer nature's limits while preserving nature's beauty, one can see how Edison's life intermingled progress with nostalgia and nature with machine.

As part of Light's Golden Jubillee, Edison's friend Henry Ford rebuilt the Menlo Park lab in Dearborn, Michigan. Going so far as to scour the New Jersey earth for the laboratory's remains, Ford stayed as true as he could to Edison's idyllic vision. But by the 50th anniversary of the light bulb, the even more pastoral creation of Ford's played more as nostalgia than as promise. It reflected back to a simpler time when the individual caused invention and when technology featured more potential than fear. Menlo Park and Edison also proved such an important myth, since the research lab appeared to blur the line between the individual and the collective. From Tocqueville's time living in a nation of individuals, Americans always have held a tenuous relation towards any collective effort. But in Menlo Park individual geniuses worked together to produce a collective product. Although always spurned on by the individual, Menlo Park came to represent the sort of democratic cooperation Americans envisioned but always struggled to grasp.

Behind his world-changing inventions, Edison promised to become one of the most powerful figures in modern history. Yet, as Wecter argues, Americans never wish a hero to be too strong, too powerful, too perfect (14). Hence, Edison, the destructive boy, and Edison, the frail old man, created a humanized Edison, which, ironically, allowed the myth to reach its greatest heights. Stories about the fires, explosions, and failed ventures of Edison's boyhood placed the hero in a more socially relevant context; perhaps, some Americans wondered, Edison stood only a little higher on the mobility ladder. As Edison aged, his hearing decreased and his pace slowed. The beaten old man, still talking in "ain't"s and covered with dirt, resembled little the Promethean God he was once fancied. Yet the image of Wizard loomed always over the head of Edison, and the public's acknowledgement of his humanity made him at once more man and more myth. Not only did Edison look like "a ditch digger" but his aversion to theoretical science and lack of schooling provided him a sort of intellectual innocence that Americans long identified with their greatest heros. Not bogged down in tradition like Europeans, Edison, the free thinker, the tinkerer, could sit down to solve the problem of the light bulb freely just as Thomas Jefferson gained from the New World soil unique insights into democracy. Reconciling a sort of American and Edenic innocence with the immense power of his inventions, Edison bundled together yet another American ideological paradox.

In a poll two decades ago, Edison garnered the honor of the sixth greatest American -- behind only Lincoln, FDR, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. Fifty years after his death, the inventor sits no less incongruously upon a list laden with individuals all directly responsible for prolonging the existence of the nation. Indeed, today, as the scientist seems more out of touch with popular culture, one wonders if America will ever see the likes of an Edison again. Reviewing the formation of the Edison myth in comparison to current conditions, I will see if the information age can offer its own profit of progress.


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