A New Look at Thomas Edison Through His Latest Biography

It took quite a few evenings to get through the massive new Edmund Morris book, Edison; but it sure was worth it! Morris, a Pulitzer Prize winner, brings Edison down from demigod status to a mortal who walks among us, with enticing tidbits of his relationships with family, friends, business partners, and the press.

Let me get this out of the way first, if you believe the false Internet stories about the Edison-Tesla animosities, this is the wrong book to try and find them. They were friends and cordial, just like many other close collaborators discussed in this book. Edison could concentrate and hyper-focus his attention on a problem at hand, often oblivious to what was going on around him. This always seemed to amaze those around him, almost as though he became entranced.

It was never about the money with Edison. Instead, his ego was driven by being the one to solve important problems first, or being the one to get to market first. He once said, “I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing.” It was not about getting rich like the New York City business titans who financed him. In fact, his most important invention was not the light bulb, which created meaningful profits, as many people suspect. It was the R&D lab concept, the team-based, very iterative and practical process that took raw ideas to finished products, which set the tone for America’s exploding technology based economy – the same process we teach children today in popular STEM or STEAM classes in school.

Edison took big risks and often failed, only to have to start over, usually converting a bag of newly acquired lemons into lemonade. He seemed to become super-charged when failure presented itself. His herculean work with the magnetic extraction of iron ore, the light bulb, and the alkaline storage battery showcase this. His failed efforts to extract iron ore out of rock led to a new way to make high quality cement and along the way revolutionized the cement making process as well, raising its productivity by a factor of four.

After reading this book, I was impressed at how so many of Edison’s inventions were handled concurrently. We tend to correlate specific dates with his inventions, but they were actually spans of time that overlapped other major efforts, often merging with and drawing sustenance from each other (“Synergy” is the fancy term for this). Edison was America’s premier project manager, often handling 30-40 inventive project teams at a time. He had to be able to shift gears as he moved between sometimes radically different technologies his team of “Muckers” were developing.

The book’s finale is luxuriously researched with massive footnoting for the academically inclined. Personally, I hated to see the Morris & Edison story end. I have been reading and studying Mr. Edison for a long time; and this was some very tasty fresh meat to chew upon and ponder. Get the book and be surprised. Edison was one amazing inventor and like a great leader “upped the bar” for everyone else, greatly improving the standards of living for everybody.

Thank you Edmund Morris!


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