Edison: A book review by Bob Morris

Edmund Morris
Random House (October 2019)

“Vision without execution is hallucination.”  Thomas Edison

Thomas Alva Edison is generally considered among the greatest inventors/innovators in modern history. He was awarded 1,073 patents. The list of what he created or improved includes the automatic telegraph, carbon telephone transmitter, the light bulb, phonograph, movie camera and viewer, and alkaline storage battery.

What we have in this biography is probably about all the information most people need in order to understand and appreciate an eccentric genius who may have had a wider and deeper impact on modern life than has any other person.

I commend Edmund Morris on his bold selection of a non-linear approach when presenting an abundance of information, insights, and evaluation. His narrative has what I view as bookends, with both Prologue and Epilogue focusing on events in 1931. In between, Parts One through Eight are in reverse chronological order from 1847-1859 back to 1920-1929. (I am among those who would have gratefully welcomed a chronological timeline.) Throughout, Edison is portrayed as someone who was (in Whitman’s words) “large” and “contained multitudes.” Quite true and yet Morris, ever prescient, also portrays him as an unbelievably simple person. He required only a few hours of sleep, ate almost nothing, and paradoxically, was almost totally deaf while creating/refining all manner of devices that have since revolutionized communication of word, sound, and image as well as illumination throughout the world.

It is important to note that Edison was seldom the first to think of a new device but is widely viewed as a creative genius who could make a device sufficiently durable (e.g. the filament of a light bulb) so that it could achieve commercial success.

Edmund Morris has probably created the definitive biography of one of the most complicated and uncomplicated people who ever lived.

Success has many parents but failure is usually an orphan. Thousands of the breakthrough inventions eventually succeeded because of the efforts of many people whose names are unknown. Edison is probably the best example of someone who completed the design and enabled the production of something that would then attract profitable acceptance.

In this context, I am again reminded of Steven Wright’s insight: “The early bird may get the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

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