Nearly 90 years after his death, the name Thomas Edison still stands as a synonym for invention and technical wizardry. Yet aside from a short list of his inventions, I couldn’t say that I knew all that much about him. So, when I saw that Edmund Morris had written a new biography—titled simply “Edison”—I couldn’t resist learning more. Morris is perhaps best known as the author of the magisterial three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, of which “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” won the Pulitzer Prize. While not as long as that combined output, at over 800 pages, “Edison” is still a bit daunting. But with a life as long and productive as Edison’s, the book never lagged, presenting a fascinating record of both disappointment and achievement.
Morris made a curious choice as a biographer. At the start of the work, we see Edison’s last race against time to come up with a substitute for rubber for tires. From there, each chapter covers a decade of his life, proceeding backwards. From his final years, we see him in the 1920s, then the 1910s, and so on. We move from his ill-fated adventures in mining, to his long effort to improve car batteries, to his work with sound and phonographs, to his triumphs with electric light in his early career. We end with his early years, where the young entrepreneur set up a printing press and chemical experiments in a moving train. Successful beyond what a young boy might hope, his train-based business ended when one of his experiments exploded. The conductor promptly ejected him.
A genius he was, but genius was only a small part of his success, as one of his most quoted aphorisms goes. There was far more perspiration to make the things work. Each triumph, and each failure, was the result of hundreds of experiments and tireless research. His work ethic, bordering on obsessive, brought wealth and prestige. Edison’s life was considered so essential to the economy that news of a bout of ill health was once suppressed to avoid causing a downturn on Wall Street. All the time in the lab didn’t leave much for family. The neglect took a toll on his children, of whom he mostly thought little.
The innovation of writing Edison’s biography in the style of Benjamin Button came at a cost, however. Some parts of the book near the end of his life would have been more moving had they come at the end of the book. The timeline of his life was also occasionally hard to follow.
Still, some images stayed with me well after the book was over. Morris’ biography is a reminder of how much Edison made the world we live in, even as we take much of it for granted. When Edison’s Menlo Park was lit up for the first time by electric lights, people came from miles around to see it. They arrived by the trainload and filled the workspace to capacity. For them, it was nothing short of magic.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant librarian at Schlow Centre Region Library.