Given that inventor Thomas Edison had a curious mind, maybe it’s fitting that with “Edison,” author Edmund Morris has given readers a curious kind of biography.
To begin with, Morris — he died this spring — scraps chronology as his pattern of tracing Edison’s life. Instead, Morris tells the tale by topic — light, for example, or sound, or botany, and so on, weaving back and forth in time.
Along the way, Morris tends to bewilder readers lacking advanced degrees in science or mechanics. Here’s a sample:
“He found that his laboratory work on a cheaper recording medium had already taught him much about the chemical properties of raw rubber. He knew how to vulcanize it by the Peachey process of double saturation with sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, and how to chlorinate it by predissolving crepe chunks in benzol. He could melt rubber in naphthalene and analyze it down to its most residual particles of manganese and copper. But how to produce it himself, and from what source of supply?”
That’s from early in the book, on Page 32. Things get more technical as the book plods along. (Although we recall Edison as a genius of light, “Edison” is anything but light, with its 700-plus pages.)
Also, Morris goes into intricate detail on Edison’s business dealings, even though those dealings seem of limited interest to general readers. An example:
“Alexander Graham Bell was involved with his brother Chichester and Sumner Tainter in the sense that all three of them comprised the newly formed American Graphophone Company of Washington, D.C. With increasing obstinacy, Edison rejected their repeated efforts to do business with him and, rather than reviving the Speaking Phonograph Company, decided to form a new one, the Edison Phonograph Company. He incorporated it on 10 October 1887, establishing its capital at $1.2 million and waving aside the anguished protests of Johnson and Painter that he was trampling on their rights as shareholders of the old firm. They declined to accept his offer of a 30 percent stake in Edison Phonograph as dishonorable and inadequate, since they would have profited to the extent of a half interest if he had accepted the Bell offer.”
Weighty prose, indeed. Still, readers will enjoy Morris’ depictions of Edison’s personality and his work habits, which the author sums up as “a torrent of hyperactivity.” He writes in a footnote that by the middle of 1910, Edison “had applied for 1,328 patents, or about one for every eleven days of his inventive career.”
Edison’s near-deafness gave him the last word — indeed, the only word — in his conversations. He ate little, slept less, dressed shabbily and went his own way. In Morris’ words:
“Affable to every stranger who waylaid him, generous with advice even to competitors, Edison was unaware of how often he hurt the feelings of intimates. He was at once gregarious and distant, willing to admit that ‘I live in a great, moving world of my own,’ like the flickering figures seen through the peephole of his Kinetoscope machine. Even when alerted to the pain, or loneliness, or shame, or other neuroses of people who were less successful than himself, he seemed puzzled that they did not cheer themselves up by embarking on some bold venture, as he was about to do.”
Morris also goes into detail on Edison’s failures — his effort to make talking movies, for example, or his hopes to dig iron ore from the Appalachians. Even so, we remember him for his grandest successes — the phonograph and, most important of all, the electric light.
This book shines some light on the man behind that bulb.
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.