The stuff that myths are made of

With Edison so firmly enmeshed in the minds and dreams of millions of Americans, it is truly impossible to finally separate Edison, the man, from Edison, the myth. Nonetheless, several of the more apocryphal of the Edison myths can be studied to see how they reflect the inventor himself and what Wecter termed the "urgent needs" of Edison's contemporary America (1). From his lifetime until today, Edison's image, or myth, has remained a living entity, responding to the current needs of the public. While the early Wizard served as a prophet of impending technological progress, by his death many saw the Old Man as a nostalgic symbol of a simplier, more innocent time -- before technology's malevolent social implications reared their head (Wachhorst 220).

As outlined in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Edison's image has proven most resonant when cast in the mold of traditional American heroes. At times, Edison's boyhood and all its smiling opporunistic idealism make an Alger tale look life a rough and gritty study of the muckraking era. His humble beginnings parallel Lincoln's, as do the anecdotal (though false) stories of his mother's love. But it is in the mold of Franklin, Wecter's "Boy who Made Good," that America most powerfully thrusts Edison (50).

As Wachhorst illustrates, the myths of Edison's boyhood came to prominance during the same time period as Alger's tales began to fly off the shelves (63). Indeed, it hardly can seem coincidental that one of Alger's most frequent protagonist was named "tattered Tom" or that his most popular titles included The Telegraph Boy, The Erie Train Boy, and Mark Mason's Victory: The Trials and Triumphs of a Telegraph Boy. All of these titles came in the 20-year time period after Edison's invention of the phonograph.

The American boy long has enjoyed a special place in our national literature. Just a year after Mark Twain used a white-washed fence to define opportunism as the preeminent American virtue, Edison turned out his phonograph. Journalists and biographer quickly turned his boyhood into the stuff of legend.

The myth of Edison's enterprising spirit grew as stories of his newsboy days proliferated. Displaying the "go-getter," practical quality that Daniel Boorstin dubbed the defining American trait, Edison displayed the shrewd calculation of a grisled businessman in selling his newspapers. Famous stories include Edison always working hardest to get the people at the front of the car to buy, noting that others behind "were sure to follow" (qtd. in Wachhorst 55). Another tale that peaked in popularity during the age of Dale Carnegie's success books showed "what kind of a businessman he was" (qtd. in Wachhorts 56). After the Battle of Shiloh, Edison sold all his newspapers to an angry and rich Southerner, then sold the still irate gentleman the rest of his worthless items. The Southerner tossed all his items out the window, but Edison made a considerable sum (Wachhorst). Another favorite story involves Edison, dismissed from school, reading the entire Detroit Public Library (Wachhorst 51). Almost as if he followed the tenets of Franklin's guide to moral perfection or Jay Gatsby's scribblings inside of Hopalong Cassidy, Edison showed how "an honest, optimistic trainboy, without formal schooling, had risen to fame and fortune through perserverance and hard work" (Wachhorst 46). Another great American boy, Mickey Rooney from "Our Gang" fame, fittingly portrayed Edison in the 1940 film "Young Tom Edison" (MGM/UA). "Edison was the American boy's special hero," Wector states. "Every youth with a work-bench in the barn, or an evil-smelling chemical set in the cellar, adored him" (417).

Edison's story, just like the Alger tales, helped rejoin democracy and capitalism at an age where they seemed in danger of flying apart. Even at the Jubilee of Light, Edison, unlike the other dignitaries, arrived on a train -- reminding America of his humble origins and the great chances for mobility the industrialized nation still possessed (Nye). Edison's childhood also epitomized a sort of innocence that would follow the inventor through all his life. Never subjected to traditional schooling Edison embodied what Wachhorst called "the American Adam," seeking transcendance in the technological garden of Leo Marx.

Always ready to display a loud aversion to theoretical science, Edison, like all of Boorstin's Americans, preferred the "doing." No longer weighed down like Old World thinkers, the American Adam, Edison never realized that the "experts had come to the firm conclusion that incandescent lighting was both theoretically and practically impossible" (Boorstin 533). Hence, he invented the light bulb.

To a degree never seen before, Edison represented man's triumph over nature. Within two years he conquered darkness (with the light blulb) and time (with the phonograph). At an age when Theodore Roosevelt called for "manly boys," mountain climbing rapidly grew, historians debated Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis," and John Burroughs (Edison's friend) started a new naturalism, Edison, more than any other man, showed just how definitively man could overcome nature. As Marx shows, the emerging "myth of the machine" showed how America could get to the promised land with the help of the machine. Edison seemed just the man to lead America to this future of paradise.

Edison's research theory also offered a fundamentally democratic view of learning. Always ready to hire a hard-worker over a college graduate, Edison in his invention factory purported lower-class values. Referred to in a book and a play as The Wizard Who Spat on the Floor, Edison often wore grimy clothes and encouraged his employees to similarly dirty themselves. When asked the rules of his laboratory by a new worker, Edison quickly admonished the man. "Hell!" he yelled out. "There ain't no rules around here! We are trying to accomplish somep'n" (Nye 64). Edison's extremely vernacular style of speech, which he could quickly turn off around his genteel second wife Mina, identified him with the worker. As a common man -- certainly, he argued, not a genius -- Edison provided an inherently democratic and egalitarian path to even technical and scientific success. Edison met such great glory, not because of his amazing mind, but because he worked harder than everyone else. Famed for his twenty hour work days and brief naps on wooden benches, Edison's most famous hard-working myth involves him leaving his wife on their wedding night to improve his stock ticker.

Rooted in the heart of Edison's myths, of course, were his prized inventions. Reflecting back a century later, it becomes extremely difficult to realize just how dramatic an effect Edison's products had on the physical well-being and the psyche of America. When reporters referred to Edison as "Prometheus," it was not a clever platitude to sell more newspapers, he really was the bringer of light in ways more profound than the Greek god. And, as Wachhorst shows, it was the phonograph, not the light bulb, that truly caught the imagination of the nation (16).

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