Edison's life and inventions

Myth in America does not generally show up out of thin air. Hence, most of the Edison myths that we've all heard in school are true, more or less. As Wecter observes, myth tends to be a more subtle manipulation of the truth. A little twist here, a little exagerration there and there we have it -- a story rooted enough in truth that the slight changes make the fundamental idea of the myth clearer, but not inherently different. Nonetheless, Edison's life, like those of Franklin and Abraham Lincoln before him, lends itself quite easily to even the most uncreative biographers. For it does not take a Parson Weems or a Horatio Alger to show what an inspirational life Edison led. The Milan, Ohio, native really sported all the traits of which an Alger protagonist could beg. It is only the details where things get a little muddied.

Born on February 11, 1847, Edison later recalled his first memory of the wagons setting out for the California gold rush (Wachhorst 171). Edison came into the world, as pastoral, agricultural America gasped for its last breath. Growing up in the same age as Tom Sawyer did, early biographer's played upon the idyllic, innocent qualities of Edison's antebellum boyhood. But the machine age stood just around the corner, and before Edison turned eight, the infamous train horn would shock Henry David Thoreau out of his communion with nature (Walden).

Although biographers tend to exagerrate and romanticize the humbleness of Edison's birth, he did grow up in a distinctly working-class environment. His father, Samuel, worked a variety of jobs -- making the family income relatively unstable -- and Edison's mother taught school before his birth. In the great American, "apple pie" tradition, people came to see Edison's mother as the shaping, nurturing force in Edison's life. In reality, Nancy Edison spent more time beating young Tom with a birch swith than encouraging his creative genius (Wachhorst 71). Unfettered, though, biographers continued with the sweet, caring version of Edison's mother.

Framed in its lower-middle class station, Edison's boyhood presents a myriad number of Franklin-esque success myths. Early in school, one of Edison's teacher's pronounced the youth "addled," and he troubled a number of other adults with his propensity to ask unanswerable questions. Alhtough he remained a tireless reader over his entire life, Edison received very little formal schooling.

At 10, Edison constructed his own chemistry lab in his basement, and two years later he earned his first job. As a trainboy on the Grand Trunk Railway, he not only sold regular newspapers but created his own weekly. Edison held his job until a fire started in his self-constructed railway lab got him kicked off the train.

The defining moment in the Edison myth, if not in Edison's life, came when he was only 15 years old. Walking the train tracks, Edison spotted a small child playing just in front of the path of a moving train. Although biographers overdramatized such details as his heels just missing the oncoming train, Edison hurried to grab the boy before disaster could strike. Almost as if Alger had penned it, the boy's father turned out to be a telegrapher. Edison's reward, of course, was telegraphy lessons. The young "go-getter" was on his way.

Surrounded by technology, Edison began his life-long career as tinkerer. His constant experimentation, however, won him little favor with results-minded employers, and Edison roamed the country as an itinerant telegrapher for several years. Soon Edison invented a telegraphing machine that could send and receive multiple messages simultaneously. Its success encouraged him to become a full-time inventor. His first major invention, the stock ticker, established the life-long tie between Edison and business and garnered the young star a small fortune.

In 1876, Edison founded Menlo Park, his invention factory. Designed to produce "a minor invention every ten days and a big things every six month or so," Edison started the modern research factory (qtd. in Boorstin 528). Believing in teamwork and stressing the belief that invention came from hard work, not genius, Edison began an amazing run.

In 1877, Edison produced what he called a "talking machine." Edison received the patent for the phonograph in an amazingly short period of time, because the U.S. patent office simply had never seen anything like it (Boorstin 379). Two years later, Edison invented the electric light. Shortly thereafter, he made possible parallel wiring, a smaller dynamo, and even a power station. In 1878, a reporter from the New York Daily Graphic dubbed Edison the "Wizard of Menlo Park" (Wachhorst 20).

Edison's staff continued expanding and by 1887, he and his team moved to West Orange, New Jersey, and an even bigger invention factory. From this factory came such important creations of and improvements on the motion picture camera, movies, the storage battery, the copy machine, and the microphone. Although his efforts largely proved a failure, America turned to Edison more than any other figure as its scientific saviour in the first world war (Kevles).

Fifty years after Edison's invention of the light bulb, Americans gathered at Henry Ford's reconstructed version of Edison's invention factory in Dearborn, Michigan, to celebrate Light's Golden Jubilee. Edison, true to his roots, arrived in Michigan on a train, where he met Ford and President Herbert Hoover (Nye 119). In the climactic event, all the dignitaries gathered around Edison's original light bulb. In a nationwide radio broadcast, the announcer stated, "And Edison said, 'Let there be light'" and lights all over the nation sprung on (Wachhorst 167).

In his old age, Edison became more of a national celebrity. Now called the "Old Man," Edison represented not just the great inventor but the great American. When he passed away exactly 52 years after he invented the incandescent light, America mourned the parting of one of its greatest figures (Wachhorst 171). Whatever one might say about Edison the man or Edison the myth, the America he left behind in few ways resembled the one into which he entered. And Edison, more than any other man, helped catalyze the change.

Edison's most important role, however, concerned not fact, but myth, and not invention but imagination. For in spurning what Lewis Mumford called the neotechnic age (276), Edison also ushered in the new American myth of machine as salvation -- continuing John Wintrop's "city on the hill" tradition while spurning on a more democratic nation.

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