Thomas Edison: Measuring the days of an extraordinary life
Guest post by Louis Carlat
“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day,” said American essayist Alexander Woollcott. Anything might happen. But of course, some days turn out to be more important than others. With the publication of its eighth volume, the Thomas Edison papers project has gone through the record of nearly 15,000 of the famous inventor’s days on Earth, some 50,000 documents. Having covered close to half the man’s life, we’ve published 3,127 of those records and crossed the halfway point in the planned series of volumes of his papers. What have we learned?
Anyone who’s followed the paper trail—letters, photos, clippings—of a parent or grandparent has mused on the connections between the stuff in hand and the breathing life that created it all. In the case of Edison, the amount of stuff accumulated over his eighty-four years is enormous. His life was exceptional not only for its ambitions and accomplishments but also for the detail in which he (and others) recorded it. There are shelves full of letters, telegrams, and notebooks, of course, but also grocery lists, receipts, contracts, architectural drawings, and the odd party invitation; in short, nearly anything you can imagine putting on paper. We’ve seen the drafts written in blinding haste, furious crossouts, meandering doodles, snatches of Shakespearean verse, and the phonetic spelling of a highly literate man who sometimes wrote the words as he heard them pulsing through his head.
The documents open a window onto American life. As unusual and privileged as Edison’s life was, they reveal him not simply as a lionized (or reviled) inventor but as a man fitting as best he could into the world of his day. He was a node in the networks of countless less famous people whose paths he crossed, whose lives we can glimpse through his. There are the skilled immigrant craftsmen in his shops, the Irish servant girls in his home, the doctors who delivered his children and tended his first wife, the undertaker who buried her, and the florist who delivered flowers to her grave (until he remarried). Not to mention hundreds of aspiring inventors, advice-seekers, and would-be hangers-on wanting to ride Edison’s coattails. All named and described, as best we can, through painstaking research.
Not the isolated genius of storybooks, Edison had an ecology of relationships that defined his work and life. Long before anyone used the term emotional intelligence, he had the ability to form strong connections with men who could help him as assistants, colleagues, or mentors. A beguiling storyteller, he had warmth and something we would now call charisma—a quality that drew men to him with intense loyalty. He also had persistence and an infectious confidence that, by mid-life, were souring into obstinance and arrogance that drove some of them away. His legendary devotion to work came with a disregard for his family’s emotional needs that seems reckless, even by the standards of his day.
No one better embodied the American enthusiasm for inventiveness and entrepreneurship than Edison. The iconic incandescent light bulb is still a staple of children’s books and social studies curricula, even as that hot globe of glass becomes a museum piece. The phonograph was the first device for recording and playing back sound. Coming like the proverbial bolt from the blue, it launched Edison into worldwide fame as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” It promised a form of immortality to anyone able to impress his or her voice onto a small cylinder for the ages. The phonograph drew to his laboratory flocks of reporters whom Edison would welcome back to write up for insatiable readers his latest work in electric lighting or whatever he happened to be doing. Edison designed the things but depended on wide networks to elevate them to the status of “inventions.” He had model makers, draftsmen, and lawyers to get them through the Patent Office; financiers, agents, friendly reporters, more lawyers, and at least one notorious political fixer to bring them to buyers. He personified America beyond its shores, as he cultivated close business ties in Great Britain and continental Europe, especially, but also Asia and through the Americas.
The act of inventing is a close cousin to other forms of intellectual or artistic creativity, and it was a stream of ideas, more than anything else, that defined Edison’s restless days and filled his pages. He thought with his fingers in the act of drawing and writing. He had “innumerable machines in my mind,” as he put it, and he poured them onto paper. Browsing his notebooks now, a reader can imagine the mechanisms in motion, clattering in the head of the increasingly deaf inventor. Sometimes the stream became a torrent: dozens of ways to attain the same motion or effect, and long lists of materials to experiment with. There were lists even on the honeymoon with his second wife: experiments and things to make, from the practical (lamp filaments) to the fanciful (a “Larynaxial piano”). His mind was fecund, in the ornate language of his day; in the more clinical view of our time, he can seem manic.
As editors, we get to see it all with sometimes spine-tingling intimacy. But despite the sheer volume of information and our best research efforts, we have questions. Like where did all those ideas come from? Sometimes we can name a source, like the conversation that sparked Edison’s interest in electric lighting. Or a passage in Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches, which he re-read repeatedly. Oftentimes it’s not clear. Edison read widely and took dozens of technical and scientific journals. He had networks of business and scientific contacts, men (always men) willing to share information; one rival claimed that the Patent Office had “leaks” that flowed in his direction.
Even 50,000 documents can’t capture 15,000 days full of life. Sometimes we don’t even know what city Edison was in, much less what an assistant or rival might have told him, or the tone he used with his wife. In Edison’s days, as in our own, we expect the unexpected. No day is unimportant, and anything can happen.