The Seventh Volume of Thomas Edison’s Papers
By EDMUND MORRIS
Published: March 23, 2012
The tantalizing thing about electricity, that fundamental force that lights our nights and floods our nanocircuits, is that no one has ever been able to say just what it is. Easy enough to see and feel what it does — even taste it, as schoolboys do when they grab each other’s tongues and touch a battery. But when electricity isn’t going someplace, it has no color, no character.
THE PAPERS OF THOMAS A. EDISON
Volume 7: Losses and Loyalties,April 1883-December 1884
Edited by Paul B. Israel, Louis Carlat, Theresa M. Collins and David Hochfelder
811 pp. The Johns Hopkins University Press. $95.
Times Topic: Thomas A. Edison
Biographically speaking, the same might be said of Thomas Edison, the largely self-taught inventor who has done more to irradiate this planet than any other agent save the sun. Many books have been written about him, and a goodly portion of the five million pages of documents in his archive have been published in a series of wrist-cracking volumes. His big head and black brows and easy grin are as vivid in our historical mind’s eye as the features of Abraham Lincoln. His surname attaches to countless schools and institutions, and enrages New Yorkers every time they open their monthly power bill. The incandescent lamp he perfected may soon spiral out of existence, yet cartoonists will continue to draw it when they wish to convey the ignition of an idea.
Edison the man, however, remains elusive. He is legendary for what he did — among other things, patenting 1,093 inventions in such diverse disciplines as telegraphy, cinematography, sonics, metallurgy, chemistry and botany. What he was in person is harder, maybe impossible to say, because he put so much of himself into his work. There were times when his two wives and six children felt there was no self left over for them — loving though he could be on the occasional Sunday off. Even then, his jocular impenetrability precluded intimacy. The near-deafness that had shrouded him since puberty was a frustration for his friends, who got little out of shouting into his right ear. Edison quickened everything he touched, but could not be captured at source.
The scheduled 15-volume series of “The Papers of Thomas A. Edison,” now almost half complete, makes this elusiveness clear. This is not the fault of the team of editors, headed by Paul B. Israel, whose mission is to put much of Edison on paper and even more of his archive online. Their scholarship is admirable, right down to identifying which of the great man’s scribbles are canceled, circled or “obscured overwritten.” Even his changes of ink are noted. No complexity of electrical or chemical engineering goes unexplained, in language that honors Thomas Sprat’s famous admonition to Royal Society scientists in 1684: “Reject all the Amplifications, Digressions and Swellings of Style; . . . return back to the primitive Purity and Shortness, when Men deliver’d so many Things, almost in an equal Number of Words.” But the myriad technological and business records they have published so far, plus a small number of personal documents, do not coalesce, like the facets of a Chuck Close painting, into full-color portraiture.
Volume 7, subtitled “Losses and Loyalties, April 1883-December 1884,” is devoted to Edison’s attempt to reinvent himself in his mid-30s as a businessman in New York. At 811 extra-large pages, it may not sell as well as the equally hefty first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography, which tore so many Christmas stockings in 2010. Nevertheless, as Close has remarked, even an agnosiac can get breadth of perception from the scrutiny of minutiae. In its superabundance of detail — steely facts and figures, great plates of text riveted with nouns and graffitied with cryptic drawings (Edison was an untrained but natural draftsman) — the book has the same kind of physical impact as that which stuns you when you enter his laboratory in West Orange, N.J. (The 21-acre complex is now Thomas Edison National Historical Park.) How, you ask yourself, can any one man have dreamed up and fabricated so many devices, from the first phonograph and first movie studio (rolling and rotatable on rails) to poured-cement houses, fuel cells and an execution harness for elephants? Room after room, floor after floor displays the hard evidence of Edison’s genius. No exhibit is more eloquent than the “New Things” pigeonhole in his desk, still stuffed with ideas he meant to get around to when he had time.
The word “genius” is so overused today it has lost its meaning — witness the lavishness with which it has been applied to Steve Jobs. Tellingly, a eulogist in The New Yorker sought to go beyond it by calling Jobs “the 20th century’s Thomas Edison.” Leaving aside the fact that Edison survived until 1931, and patented his last invention 10 months before he died, there is an almost comical disproportion between the creative achievement of the two men. The science scholar Vaclav Smil has pointed out that for all the sleek efficiency of Apple products, their technology has been derivative, making them at best “second-order innovations.” As for the 313 patents that Jobs claimed, either alone or with others, take his star device, the iPad, download the list of Edison’s successful applications from About.com, and see how many swipes you need to scroll through. (In my case, 49.) You will register, passim, successful applications for automobiles, phonographs, rotary kilns, haulage systems, auditory telegraphs, magnetos, waterproof paint, stencil pens, railway signals, talking dolls and enough variations on the theme of incandescent light to give you photon fatigue.
But screen-stroking is a superficial exercise in more ways than one. “Losses and Loyalties” covers just 21 months of Edison’s life, and conveys his productivity during that period by printing on acid-free paper as much documentary evidence as can reasonably be put between covers.
By the spring of 1883, Edison had more or less closed down his famous laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., and headquartered himself in New York. He announced that he was going to take “a long vacation” from inventing. His design and construction of the world’s first central power station at Pearl Street, in Lower Manhattan (now considered to be his greatest achievement, eclipsing the phonograph and Edison lamp), had brought orders for similar systems from as far away as Italy and Chile. Enormous wealth stared him in the face. But to capitalize quickly on the most immediate of these opportunities — in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania — he wanted to free himself of the corporate drag of the Edison Electric Light Company. That already huge enterprise was, in his opinion, too timid about business risk. He decided to create his own construction department and finance it out of his own pocket.
Ever since his invention of the phonograph in 1877, he had made millions by manufacturing his own products. But the usual benefits of Mammon — luxury, social status, treasure — did not interest him. As fast as profits flowed from the factory, he rechanneled them into research and development. The success of Pearl Street persuaded him that he was as brilliant an entrepreneur as a scientist. “Losses and Loyalties” demonstrates the vanity of this notion. While by no means lacking in commercial or competitive smarts, Edison was overly confident of the technological excellence of his systems. In rushing to throw a necklace of miniature Pearls across the bosom of Eastern states, he did not anticipate the inability of local municipalities to operate them reliably. (Then, as now, the American economy suffered from a shortage of skilled electrical engineers.) Within a year, he found himself nearly bankrupted by the heavy expenses of building stations and coaxing them into profitable operation.
Meanwhile Edison’s creative side, as urgent as any poet’s, made him yearn for the laboratory. Consider the following stream of consciousness, jotted in one of his innumerable notebooks. One does not have to be a scientist to sense that this was, in Henry James’s phrase, a “laboratory brain”:
“Licorice seems to Carbonize without any Swelling large amount gas goes off — Might be used as binder or mixed with other things roled into sheets to Cut filiments from . . . paint filiment with Camel hair brush with acetate of mag also Lime, mag 1st= then get vac & gently bring up then b[rea]k vac & paint again etc several times then get life & Phenomenon.”
Edison wrote that in Florida in March 1884, on a river cruise necessitated by the ill health of his wife, Mary. Relieved for a while from business cares, he could happily conduct imaginary experiments. He was unable to look at flora ashore, or machinery in the fields, without conceiving new biochemical and mechanical processes.
Even the presence of a shark in the waters off St. Augustine had to be turned into a demonstration of applied electrophysics. Edison went after it with a mysterious basket stashed on the floor of a hired yacht. Unraveling a long wire insulated with gutta-percha, he dropped a lure of mock meat that, as the shark soon discovered, was entirely the wrong thing to chew. When the line jerked, Edison “worked like an organ-grinder” at a crank handle in the basket (presumably connected to a dynamo), and returned to land triumphant, with a 700-pound trophy to hang in the local museum.
It was the last leisurely moment in an otherwise terrible year. That summer, a lawsuit he had been obstinately fighting, in the face of two court judgments against him, climaxed in the seizure of his house at Menlo Park for a sheriff’s sale. He had no cash left to save it, and had to rely on the pre-emptive bid of a friend. At the same time, with shocking suddenness, Mary died. She was only 29.
Biographers have been incurious about Mary Stilwell, whom Edison married in a surge of sexual desire in 1871. The consensus is that she was the blue-collar girl he should have left behind. Certainly she did not compare intellectually or socially with her successor, Mina Miller, an inventor’s daughter unfazed at being proposed to in Morse code. Mary probably could not have handled the almost godlike celebrity Edison attained by the end of the century, nor the deterioration of his personality as he grew ever more autocratic. But unlike Mina, she could remember him when he was a young, little-known telegraph engineer.
An interview Mary gave shortly before her death, discovered and republished in “Losses and Loyalties,” corrects some of the misapprehensions about their marriage. “In the first place, I never worked in any factory. . . . All the stories about his passing along where I was at work Monday evening and proposing to me and setting the wedding for Tuesday morning hasn’t a word of truth in it.” She had been a schoolgirl, not yet 16, who ducked into his Newark laboratory one afternoon during a rainstorm. “I thought he had very handsome eyes,” yet “he was so dirty, all covered with machine oil, &c.” She allowed him to escort her home, though, and for the next five months received his suit as an old-fashioned “gentleman caller.” Thirteen years and three childbirths later, Mary voiced no regrets about becoming the wife of a smelly scientist whom she rarely saw by daylight. Edison was quite capable of experimenting for 95 hours at a stretch, neglecting food and sleep in his obsessive quest for “life & Phenomenon.”
At least he was home, having hurriedly returned from his laboratory in New York, the night she died in Menlo Park. His eldest daughter, Marion, recalled him “shaking with grief, weeping and sobbing” the next morning, hardly able to tell her what had happened. One suspects that Edison’s shock was mixed with guilt, for Mary, like Mina later on, was often cast into depression by his marital neglect.
The Edison Electric Light Company issued a terse statement explaining she was a victim of “congestion of the brain” — that vague ailment cited in so many 19th-century obituaries. Whoever signed Mary’s post-mortem certificate suspiciously left blank the cause-of-death box. Professor Israel and his researchers have, however, uncovered a plausible-sounding newspaper account of the catastrophe. It reports, on the authority of a family friend, that Mrs. Edison was killed by “an overdose of morphine swallowed in a moment of frenzy.”
Apparently she had become addicted to morphine as a relief from uterine pain after the birth of her third child. The article does not imply that she committed suicide. But there is this extraordinary paragraph about how her husband reacted when a physician said that Mary was beyond help: “Mr. Edison silently drew forth a cabinet and instantly a powerful current of electricity responded to his will. For two hours he kept life from fleeting, but at last he appreciated that his science, like that of the doctors, was powerless. Taking his children by the hand he led them into his study. There they remained for a long time and when he came out his blue eyes glistened and the lids were red and swollen.”
One hopes the “cabinet” was not the same one he went shark-fishing with in Florida.
By the end of September 1884, Edison was back at research and development, having resignedly given over his central-station business to the Edison Electric Company. A visit with Marion to the International Electrical Exhibition in Philadelphia (father and daughter hand in hand, gazing at a tower of more than 2,000 light bulbs that dazzlingly spelled out his name) convinced him that his real gift was for innovation. Nearly 600 further inventions, beginning with United States Patent No. 438304, “Electric Signaling Apparatus,” lay ahead of him; another wife, three more children and more millions of dollars than he would ever bother to count. He was not yet 38, and his thick hair was still brown. Beneath it, the laboratory brain was beating, musing new ways to improve the sonics of long-distance telephony: “The induction coil by its Extra Current knocks the talking down nearly 1/2 now if it could be Cut out when receiving it would be good thing. . . . ”