Review of Reviews,  8 (1893), 598–607.

Character Sketch. Thomas Alva Edison

Charles D Lanier


Regular Feature, Biography

Relevant illustrations:

photo. [5]


Nationalism, Machinery, Invention, Steam-power, Electricity, Genius, Reading, Mathematics, Chemistry, Education, Telegraphy, Railways, Patents, Discovery, Laboratories, Light, Commerce, Libraries, Specialization, Colleges, Professionalization, Sound, Music, National Efficiency, Measurement, Energy, Futurism, Transport, Aeronautics, War, Neurology

People mentioned:

Edward H Johnson

    Asserts that America is 'a nation of mechanics and inventors', and that Thomas A Edison 'sums up in his personality and achievements this genius of the American race'. Details how Edison educated himself after his Dutch émigré family fell into poverty, including his attempt to 'read through the entire Free Library of Detroit' and, at the age of eleven, his 'reading Newton's "Principia", with the entirely logical result of becoming deeply and permanently disgusted with pure mathematics'. (599) After showing an early interest in chemistry and telegraphy, Edison became a railway telegraph operator and then made his fortune in New York, as well as 'a national reputation', after patenting 'an improved stock printer'. In an interview with Lanier, Edison discusses his working methods and experimental procedures, as well as the fact that, although he enjoys the process of inventing, when an invention 'is all done and is a success, I can't bear the sight of it. I haven't used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light'. (601) Relates Edison's struggles against the 'race of professional sharks' (602) who make it impossible for an inventor to make sufficient money from patents alone and have forced him into 'the stern régime of the business world', even though 'the inventor has an intolerance of forms in business, as in society' (603) and this 'natural disregard for the forms and minutiae of business affairs has led to anything but a path of roses for Mr. Edison in his financial operations'. Nevertheless, Edison's 'achievements cannot be separated from commerce [....] He is not so much a seeker after truth as he is a mighty engine for the application of scientific truths, through unexpected and marvellous channels [....] One might call him the Democrat of Science'. His workshop at West Orange, New Jersey contains 'one of the most costly and well-equipped scientific libraries in the world', which allows this 'self-taught and self-made scientist' to avoid being 'only a gigantic specialist', while his 'topsy-turvy laboratory' is staffed by 'assistants and skilful workmen who follow his behest with something nearly akin to reverence'. (604) Among the challenges of the future is the 'direct production of electricity from oxygen and coal (carbon)' which Edison has 'worked on [...] and confidently predicts that the discovery will come' (606). This will revolutionise not only several different modes of transport (including air travel), but will also allow 'seeing and hearing by electricity' as well as the possibility of 'thought-transference by the same means' (607).

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