By Edmund Morris
This book portrays Thomas Alva Edison as a complex but childish and optimist man who, by sheer brute force and ambition, became one of the greatest inventors of History, up there with geniuses like Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo Galilei.
Edmund Morris is a great biographer and in his study of Edison he identified themes in Edison’s life that help explain his trajectory. This makes the read interesting even though at times—like most biographies—it can read as a long list of facts, one after the other. Interesting is the reverse chronology of the book. One starts reading about Edison’s later years and finishes reading about his childhood, a sort of Benjamin Button play.
From earliest youth he had half-starved himself, faithful to the dictum of the temperance philosopher Luigi Cornaro (1467-1566) that a man should rise from the table hungry.
Drink nothing except milk and flavored water.
“I have lived a long time. I have seen history repeat itself time and again. I have seen many depressions in business. Always America has come back stronger and more prosperous”.
Edison averaged one patent for every ten to twelve weeks of his adult life.
His lifelong policy (adopted at age fourteen) had been to create only what was practical and profitable.
“If there is life hereafter, or if there is none, it does not matter”
Thinking of an afterlife and believing in it gives us the option of being lazy in this life and have an excuse for why our lives are not good.
“Everything on earth depends on will. I never had an idea in my life. I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment; the drone lets it lies there while he goes off to the baseball game. The ‘genius’ hangs around his laboratory day and night. If anything happens he’s there to catch it; if he wasn’t, it might happen just the same, only it would never be his”.
Botany (1920 - 1929)#
He regarded exercise as a waste of time, and sleep even more so
He never wore a watch and made no distinction between day and night, nodding off when he felt like it and expecting his assistants to follow suit.
Like Leonardo and the other great inventors he always kept notebooks around to jot down his ideas, sketch a new invention, log his work, etc.
“Men who have gone through college I find to be amazingly ignorant”
“The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think” - Albert Einstein
On being deaf: “I consider it an advantage as it has preserved me from distractions of a noisy world.”
On rubber: The United States consumed more than three-fourths of the world’s entire output. What petroleum would one day be to developed nations, rubber presently was: a raw material essential enough to provoke armed conflict.
“The Book Of Natures never lies; in it may be found lessons concerning almost every fact of life, death, and perhaps immorality”
To eyes other than his own, his pocket notebooks for the period were a manic collage of disparate data: Latin plant names, lists of organic solvents, sizing of the pores in sponge rubber, mechanical drawings, geographical and climatological statistics, an acoustical analysis of the them of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, urinalysis results, and (since he could not shake his interest in defense technology) deception systems to deploy in warfare.
“The secret of staying afloat is to create something that people will pay for. I didn’t work at inventions unless I saw a market demand for them. I wasn’t interested in making money so much as in being the first to invent something that society needed. But if you do that, the money comes in” Startups
He typically regarded every failure as a step forward success.
Ford’s production line had been inspired by Edison’s “beltway” mining complex in the 1890s.
When asked what was his recipe for “a happy life”, he scrawled, “I am not acquainted with anyone who is happy”
On light: “by all its multiples uses it has lengthened the hours of our active lives, decreased our fears, replaced the dark with good cheer, increased our safety, decreased our toil, and enabled us to read the type in the telephone book. It has become the friend of man and child”.
“I would be embarrassed at the honors that are being heaped on me on this unforgettable night, were it not for the fact that in honoring me you are also honoring that vast army of thinkers and workers of the past and those who will carry on, without whom my work would have gone for nothing”
Defense (1910 - 1919)#
One reason for his business failures was, paradoxically, the characteristic that had made him triumph so often over rival entrepreneurs: an impatient willingness, compulsion even, to take enormous risks.
Edison had experimented with defense technology before, working on a dirigible torpedo with W. Scott Sims in 1899, fantasizing aerial-dropped torpedoes and “dynamite guns” during the Venezuela crisis of 1895, and inventing an explosive illuminant during the Spanish-American War.
“The time will come when a man with a bad kidney…will be able to go to the open market and purchase a good kidney of some one else who has a good one… and have it inserted in the place of his imperfect one.”
Edison’s solution to any problem was to pile experiment upon experiment (more than two thousand on the reproducer alone) until he dropped from fatigue
“Primary colors in a toilette are a sign of an undeveloped sense…” “Something is wrong with the German aesthetic lobe. They ice their brains with too much beer. The result is beer architecture”
“It will be three thousand years—at the shortest 2,500—before women are the intellectual equals of men”
A sign that even the smartest and greatest of men are prey of the times the live in. I wonder if we would think the same now that women have increasingly more opportunities and it is known that there are not real intellectual differences but only ones of opportunities for them to develop at the same level as men.
“An autocrat is the best kind of man to run an industry”
“War kills off the beset animals & leaves the degenerates to breed, a misapplication of Darwin’s law”
He saw warfare as a contest of technologies, not ideologies, and explored every notion that might help win it: a wireless telegraph message scrambler; a nocturnal telescope; cannon-fired steel mesh drapes to slow the momentum of enemy torpedoes; a turbine-headed shell that obviated the need for rifling; underwater coastal surveillance stations.
Chemistry (1900 - 1909)#
Edison’s Cortland Street notebook indicated a willingness to bet that gearless, nonpolluting electric power would win out—if not for automobiles, at least for delivery trucks and cabs.
“The public doesn’t seem to understand that it takes time to develop an invention.” Overnight Success isn’t
This scheme of combustion in order to get power make me sick to think of—it is so wasteful… We should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are a manifestation of energy. Do we use them? Oh no; we burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property. There must surely come a. time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen, for it cannot be destroyed"
Magnetism (1890 - 1899)#
(during his 40s): “I feel I am in my prime, and I suppose that I am a better man than I haver ever been”
When we’re young we have a lot of energy but no experience, later we have less energy but more experience. If we use that experience correctly we compensate for the lack of energy as Stephen Wolfram says. He’s in his sixties and still producing amazing research and he says that because of all the experience and intuition he has built he can save time by not exploring rabbit holes we know are fruitless.
Edison’s way of dealing with every procedural obstacle was to throw himself at it, body as well as mind, until something gave way.
The popular notion is that Edison will discover everything if he shall live long enough
“Hard work, nothing to divert my thought, clear air, simple food…very pleasant”
Light (1880 - 1889)#
For week after week, the two men [Upton and Edison] cut, planed, and carbonized filaments from every fibrous substance they could get.
Edison rejected more than six thousand specimens of varying integrity, as they all warped or split: “Somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop there is a vegetable growth with geometrically powerful fibers suitable to our use”
“If you pushed Edison in money matters, he was as stingy as hell, but if you left the matter to him, he was as generous as a prince”
Since everything about central station technology was so new, capable engineers were almost impossible to find. Edison therefore needed to establish a school at the Machine Works to train men for the job and persuade them that life in places like Canyon, Arkansas, was just as interesting as life in New York
“The effect that Edison produced on me was rather extraordinary. When I saw this wonderful man, who had no training at all, no advantages, and did it all himself, and [saw] the great results by virtues of his industry and application, I felt mortified that I had squandered my life… ruminating through libraries and reading all sorts of stuff.” - Nikola Tesla
Sound (1870 - 1879)#
“I have innumerable machines in my Mind.” Not wanting to lose any of them, he developed a lifelong habit of carrying pocket notebooks to record every inspiration.
Edison’s “Invention Factory” was a concept new to technology, and for that matter new to science too: communal, democratic, daring in the scope of its ambitions.
To Edison, failure itself was good. It was the fascinating obverse of success. If studied long enough, like a tintype image tilted this way and that, it would eventually display a positive picture.
Telegraphy (1860 - 1869)#
“There was no country like the US” for a young man who sought to better himself.
“I’ll never give up for I may have a stroke of Luck before I die”.