Thomas Edison’s greatest invention? His own fame.
At the height of his fame Thomas Alva Edison was hailed as “the Napoleon of invention” and blazed in the public imagination as a virtual demigod. Starting with the first public demonstrations of the phonograph in 1878 and extending through the development of incandescent light and the first motion picture cameras, Edison’s name became emblematic of all the wonder and promise of the emerging age of technological marvels.
But as Randall Stross makes clear in this critical biography of the man who is arguably the most globally famous of all Americans, Thomas Edison’s greatest invention may have been his own celebrity. Edison was certainly a technical genius, but Stross excavates the man from layers of myth-making and separates his true achievements from his almost equally colossal failures. How much credit should Edison receive for the various inventions that have popularly been attributed to him—and how many of them resulted from both the inspiration and the perspiration of his rivals and even his own assistants?
This bold reassessment of Edison’s life and career answers this and many other important questions while telling the story of how he came upon his most famous inventions as a young man and spent the remainder of his long life trying to conjure similar success. We also meet his partners and competitors, presidents and entertainers, his close friend Henry Ford, the wives who competed with his work for his attention, and the children who tried to thrive in his shadow—all providing a fuller view of Edison’s life and times than has ever been offered before. The Wizard of Menlo Park reveals not only how Edison worked, but how he managed his own fame, becoming the first great celebrity of the modern age.
In this entertaining biography, Stross (eBoys: The First Inside Account of Venture Capitalists at Work) approaches the life of Edison from an atypical angle: where scores of other biographers have focused on the genius's technical career, Stross presents Edison as the first self-conscious celebrity, a man deeply aware of the media's power and who wasn't afraid to use "the press's hunger for more sensational discoveries for his own ends." Though branding is now second-nature for famous people (and their handlers), Stross asserts that Edison launched the first successful branding campaign-an achievement arguably further ahead of its time than much of his technical output-by embracing the title "Wizard of Menlo Park," which was coined by a reporter during Edison's brief stay in that New Jersey town. With preternatural skill in image-management, Edison became indistinguishable from his moniker, encapsulating perfectly the air of mystery and wisdom he cultivated throughout his life, for both himself and his "invention factory," which "seemed capable of mastering anything." Stross's clear-eyed biography will show readers why, even at the end of the 20th century, Edison remains, outside the U.S., the best-known American ever.
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Scratches the Surface
The writer neglects, I feel, to give a good historical context about what his rivals were doing at the same time in history. Yes, they're mentioned throughout, but only in passing. Rival inventors like Alexander Graham Bell are mentioned over and over, but Bell was hardly the only other inventor of the era, and the book would have benefited greatly - and a reader's enjoyment vastly enhanced - to give a context to the inventions of the day and the inventors themselves…with whom Edison was fiercely competitive. On the personal front, one can glean from this book that Edison was mercurial at best when it came to business, friendship and even the relationship with his first wife -- but the writer's wording is so consistently vague it's hard to draw a clear conclusion. Was he ultimately generous to his hardworking employees, or tightfisted? Almost nothing is mentioned of Edison's somewhat famous spat with Tesla, which would have made fascinating reading and given more insight to how Edison's mind worked. I would suggest looking elsewhere for a better understanding of Edison's life and work.
Enjoyed learning about the "back story" of Edison
After visiting Edison's estate/museum in Ft. Myers, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I walked away feeling Edison was Amazing! He invented everything!! And I wanted to learn more about him. Unfortunately, what I learned is that the estate/museum perpetuates the Edison myth which isn't quite aligned to the real story of Edison. And I shouldn't have been quite so naive but I was. Reading this book popped my school-boy image of Edison and replaced it with a grown-up, more human account of who Edison was and what his accomplishments were.
The book was a little dry in parts, sort of text-book-y, but really well researched and documented. This author took the time to (I assume) get the story as close to fact as possible while also proving his own interpretation of events.