Thomas Edison: inventor at work

Fires played a significant role in Thomas Edison’s life. When he was six he burned down his father’s barn. When the furious father asked the boy why he had done it, young Edison replied that he had wanted to see what would happen. When Edison was a teenager he accidentally started a fire on a train with his chemistry set. Many years later in 1914, when Edison was sixty-seven, a fire burnt down thirteen buildings in his laboratory.

The first two fires illustrate the core of Edison: experimentation and entrepreneurship. Burning a barn down to see what would happen is emblematic of his approach to science and invention. He has little to no formal education, and was not an accomplished theoretical scientist. In fact, academics and theoreticians were dismissive of Edison and disparaged him and his work. (It has always been sensible to think of the definition of expertise as more than simply what an expert tells you.)

The train fire happened because Edison had a job selling papers on the train to Detroit (they lived in Michigan). He started selling produce on the train. It was cheaper to buy the goods in Detroit, so he went to Detroit selling papers, bought up produce and sold it for a mark up on stalls in Michigan. He was, of course, not paying for the transportation. He bribed the station guards by selling berries and butter to their wives at wholesale prices.

This was during the Civil War and when the Battle of Shiloh was happening he realised that it was a big deal. He went and bought a thousand copies of the Detroit paper on credit and bribed the telegraph operators to send messages to the towns along the train route that there was news coming about the Battle of Shiloh on the evening train. Demand was so high he marked up the prices of the papers fivefold.

A few years later, he set up his own newspaper, which he printed on the train, becoming the first person to print a newspaper on a moving train. This paper sold four hundred copies a week. It was around this time that he set up a chemistry lab on the train, experiments with which started a fire. That fire got him kicked off the train, so he switched from newspapers and working as a merchant to working as a telegraph operator.

That resilience, the ability to move smoothly through set-backs, is deeply characteristic of Edison. When his laboratory caught fire in 1914, the other end of his life, he called his son over and told him: ‘Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.’ The fire was a huge set-back, but the factory was beginning to work again three weeks later. Edison didn’t suffer through his problems: he worked through them.

But so what? All we have so far are three anecdotes about a boy, a teenager, and an old man. None of them ended well. Is it enough for Edison to have borne his trials in this way if he didn’t actually achieve anything? I have deliberately left out anything about Edison’s immense record of accomplishments. The lesson I take from Edison is that if you are going to endure trials you need to do something you feel compelled to do. Edison’s aim wasn’t riches, status, or other things. Ultimately, what he wanted was to do the work.

And it was a method that produced. Edison didn’t just combine endurance, experimentation, and entrepreneurship. He worked like a drone. Think about this: the man who invented recorded sound had been largely deaf since he was twelve. That’s just as astonishing as finding out that Beethoven lost his hearing. His genius wasn’t about revelations. We love stories about flashes of insight, ‘Eureka!’ moments. But they tend to be myths. Edison invented recorded sound, the electric light, electricity grids, and so much more, because he was always working.

He talked about how you had to be there if you wanted to catch something — people who went to the baseball wouldn’t be there when whatever it was revealed itself. He denied that he was imaginative or creative. He was a worker, and when he came across something wonderful that already existed in nature he was there to see it, to catch it, rather than off at the baseball. It was midnight when he came up with the idea of how to record sound. And it wasn’t unusual for him and his men still to be working at that time, and later.

This is why his life looks like one long hot streak, like he was an inventor on fire. It wasn’t luck or genius. It was work. It’s not a very glamorous lesson, or one that we can lionise as a productive habit of successful people with quite the same sense of mystique as rising with the sun and listening to the wind. There’s no big secret here. Yes, Edison was born clever, had the advantage of being homeschooled by his mother who seemed to be the only person who could see he was a smart boy, and clearly had natural talents and abilities, gifts if you like. But he used what he had, and he used it a lot. He wasn’t an inventor on fire, on one big lucky streak. He was an inventor at work.

I’ve been wanting to read about Edison for a while, but it’s not currently feasible for me to devote myself to any of the excellent looking books about him that are available. Imagine my joy, therefore, when I discovered Benjamin Wilson’s exceptional podcast ‘How to Take Over the World’ which has three episodes dedicated to Edison, each of them excellent. Wilson has the narrator’s art. He provides a lot of information, and he has a high ratio of fact to theory. When he does speculate it’s compelling, closely based on evidence, and not just the usual stuff.

There really isn’t enough good biography about scientists, inventors, and business people for the common reader. Or, frankly, enough respect and admiration for those people in our culture. Podcasts are an obvious way to start filling that gap. Edison ought to be valorised more than he is. Right now, I have the lights on, am listening to music, and have most of my house running on the electric grid. Thank you, Edison — man of a thousand patents. Of course, the people most similar to Edison today, Bezos and Musk, are often abused. We don’t know how lucky we are to have people like this. Edison, by the way, as you probably know, founded General Electric.

I was hoping that Wilson’s podcast would relieve me of my desire to read about Edison for a while. It was so good all I want to do is spend the next month on an Edison binge. Do go and listen to him. What I most admire about him as a biographer is that he is not just trying to sell us Edison the Saint. (Wilson also gives Steve Jobs a very hard time for being such a bastard.) He is candid about Edison’s failures. Edison had a mixed record as a family man, was wrong about AC, created an electric chair that was a dismal failure and so on. But he never succumbs to letting personal failures diminish the work. Virginia Woolf was frequently what my dear late grandmother would have called a nasty bit of goods, which in no way changes the fact that she was a genius. You can be both, and wonderful people frequently are.

How to Take Over the World



Excellent article by Byrne Hobart about the similarities between the electric grid and Amazon Web Service (with yet another reading list of temptations at the bottom…)

I try not to link to execrable dross, but this sort of thing is all too easy to find on Google. If you succumb to temptation to read this one, you will see how I suffer for you all.

Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying The Common Reader, let your interesting friends know what you think. Or leave a comment at the bottom.

Leave a comment


If you don’t subscribe to The Common Reader, but you enjoy reading whatever’s interesting, whenever it was written, sign up now.