by Edmund Morris. U.S.A.: Random House, 2019, 800 pp.
Reviewed by Eric P. Wenaas
Edison, by author Edmund Morris, is the latest of a number of biographies penned on inventor Thomas Alva Edison that date back to 1910, when Frank L. Dyer, Thomas C. Martin, and William Meadowcroft teamed up to write the first authorized biography of Edison, Edison: His Life and Inventions, with collaboration, approval, and some text written by Edison himself.1 Ever since that time, many biographies on Edison have been written—with no fewer than five serious biographies published since 1995. This recent publishing activity is quite an evidence of a strong and continuing interest in Edison and his inventions that resulted in 1,093 U.S. patents—not to mention the 500–600 patent applications that were either abandoned or unsuccessful. It also begs the question, “What is new in Morris’s book, Edison ?”
The first thing you will note is that Morris has introduced a new literary device akin to the prolepsis, in which a scene temporarily jumps the narrative forward in time. Only Morris moves the whole book ahead in time so that the first chapter of the book (Morris uses the word “Part” in lieu of “Chapter”) covers the period from 1920 to 1929 when Thomas Alva Edison is an old man, and the last chapter of the book covers the period from 1860 to 1869 when Al Edison (the name used in his youth) is a young lad. Chronological order is finally restored in the Epilog, which addresses Edison’s death in 1931.
The order [of the book] is hopelessly confusing.
The order is hopelessly confusing because many inventions from Edison’s early days are mentioned early in the book, which covers events later in his life, but they are not defined and discussed until later in the book, which covers events earlier in his life. Confused? For example, we learn in the first chapter that Edison believed “the ‘etheric force’ spark” was one of five genuine scientific discoveries he made during his lifetime. However, we have no idea what the etheric force was until the sixth chapter where it is finally explained.
To assist the reader in determining what year it is on any given page, Morris has placed the year at the top of the right-hand page (recto) in which the activities described on the two opposing pages occur. While this is helpful, the reader is also reminded just how disjointed the text is. The years are going forward in time within each chapter, but there is a huge discontinuity on the first page of the following chapter, which is situated backward in time by 20 years. For example, the year appearing on the recto at the end of Chapter 2 is 1919, but with a flip of the page, the reader is taken back to the year 1900, the year in which Chapter 3 begins.
“Well,” you say, “Why not read the book backward?” That may help, but it doesn’t always work. For example, if you read the last chapter first (when Edison was a child), you will encounter this as the very first sentence: “In his third year, Alva Edison’s memory began to retain the fragmentary impressions of the work that composes the blur of infancy.” Well, who was Alva Edison? Thomas’s father? Nowhere in this chapter does it say that Thomas was called Alva or Al as a child. That information appears in a footnote on the very first page of the preceding chapter, which would be the second chapter you would read by beginning with the last chapter: “At this stage in his life Edison was called ‘Alva’ by his parents and Al by friends. His earliest signed letter, dated 10 August 1862, is signed ‘Alva’.” This is not the only footnote that is out of place, temporally speaking, when one begins with the last chapter.
Another vexing problem with Morris’s organizational plan is that while he divided his chapters into eight equal periods of ten years each (except the first chapter, which covers a 13-year period), he has also assigned a technology name to each chapter that best characterizes Edison’s activity during that period—botany, chemistry, magnetism, light, sound, and telegraph, natural philosophy, etc. Unfortunately, Edison’s discoveries within the date range covered by each chapter do not always fit into the name of the discipline that Morris assigned to that chapter, with the result that the discussion of Edison’s inventions pops up in the most unlikely places. For example, the presentation of Edison’s wireless telegraphy concept for passengers to communicate with the outside world while on moving trains, which he developed in conjunction with his associate Gilliland, appears in the chapter titled “Light 1880–1889” rather than in the chapter titled “Telegraphy,” where you might expect to find it, based on the chapter title. Worse yet, it is tucked away in two paragraphs that are randomly inserted in the middle of a much longer discourse about Edison’s relationship with his new wife, Mina, a discourse subtitled with Edison’s pet names for Mina, “Billy, George, Tom, and Willie,” which have nothing to do with wireless telegraphy. It is painfully obvious that these two standalone paragraphs about wireless telegraphy have nothing to do with the surrounding text. Furthermore, Morris’s description of the wireless telegraphy for moving trains, known as the “grasshopper” concept, is muddled at best. He says the concept never flourished, but he fails to mention that the concept worked successfully on the Lehigh Valley Railroad for a period of five years.
Morris’s description of the wireless telegraphy for moving trains, known as the “grasshopper” concept, is muddled at best.
What else is new in Morris’s book? Clearly, he has addressed Edison’s personal relationships with his wives, children, and employees in more detail than most other biographers. However, based on the content found in five other noted Edison biographies, it is not obvious that there is anything really new and different in Morris’s book about Edison’s personality or the technologies he developed. Morris claims that previous Edison biographies have not “offered much coverage of the last decades of Edison’s life,” but it seemed to me that several previous biographies, such as the ones by Paul Israel (1998) and Matthew Josephson (1959), have adequately covered this period of Edison’s life.
The inside of the front dust cover boldly claims that “Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship.” What enmity? Morris presents only positive vignettes about their relationship as if there were no negative vignettes suggesting an enmity. In fact, I could find no mention of enmity between the two in any of the five existing biographies I searched. It seems to me if Morris wanted to sweep aside conspiratorial theories, he should at least identify the negative vignettes that spawned the conspiratorial theories, and then sweep them away. For example, as an indication that there was no enmity between the two, Morris cites a positive statement that Tesla made at his acceptance speech for the Edison Medal, but Morris fails to mention what Tesla said about Edison when B. A. Behrend, chairman of the Edison Medal committee first notified Tesla that he was to receive the award. Tesla’s Pulitzer biographer and long-time personal friend, John O’Neill, records Tesla’s diatribe delivered to Behrend:
“You propose, Tesla replied, to honor me with a medal which I could pin upon my coat and strut for a vain hour before the members and guests of your Institute. You would bestow an outward semblance of honoring me but you would decorate my body and continue to let starve, for failure to supply recognition, my mind and its creative products which have supplied the foundation upon which the major portion of your Institute exists. And when you would go through the vacuous pantomime of honoring Tesla you would not be honoring Tesla but Edison who has previously shared unearned glory from every previous recipient of this medal” [1, p. 231].
Tesla finally agreed to accept the Edison Award, but on the evening of the gala affair that he was to receive the medal, Tesla had second thoughts just before he was to give his acceptance speech. O’Neill writes that Tesla walked out of the building just before the ceremony was to begin, with every intention of embarrassing the committee by not accepting the medal. Behrend chased after Tesla and finally persuaded him to return to the building to accept the award, but only after much pleading. This vignette that took place later in Tesla’s life gives an entirely different view of what Tesla thought of Edison than Morris projects and clearly suggests that there was a lingering enmity between Tesla and Edison.
“[Tesla] received not a penny of compensation from the new designs and inventions, or for the tremendous amount of overtime.”
To further support his thesis, Morris also describes how well Tesla and Edison got along when Tesla was first employed by Edison, but he does not describe the vignette that took place when he quit in disgust. At one point, Tesla was promised a princely sum of $ 50,000 for solving a problem that had been vexing Edison. O’Neill describes what happened after Tesla solved the problem:
“Months later, when the task was finished, … Tesla asked for the $ 50,000. Edison replied, ‘Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor.’ Tesla was shocked to discover that what he thought was a specific promise was being tossed aside merely as a standard practical joke of the day. He received not a penny of compensation from the new designs and inventions, or for the tremendous amount of overtime …. He resigned his job immediately” [1, p. 64].
O’Neill goes on to write, “Now came the most unpleasant experience of Tesla’s life. He was without a source of income, and from the spring of 1866 to the spring of 1887 he was forced to work as a day laborer.” This seems like a basis for enmity to me. Clearly, Morris controlled the vignettes he put into his book to make it appear he swept away the conspiracy theories, but, in fact, he actually just swept them under the rug.
These vignettes are not the only omissions in Morris’s book. For example, he has completely ignored the subject of long-distance wireless telegraphy, which is described in Edison’s patent U.S. 465,971. This patent is an icon in the history of wireless telegraphy before Hertz. Among the 20 or so pages on wireless telegraphy in the Dyer biography, Edison described how he using two balloons raised to 100 feet to reached a distance of 21/2 miles, which was a record for the method of electric-field induction. The antenna configuration was essentially the same as that used by Marconi, who actually bought Edison’s patent to prevent it from falling into mischievous hands. None of this appears in Morris’s book.
Even more serious are Morris’s confusing descriptions of Tesla’s technologies, which are often incomplete, difficult to follow, or just plain wrong. For example, Morris writes, “In further irony, his [Edison’s] long-ago discovery of ‘etheric force’ was powering the radio boom.” The etheric force, which was synonymous with the electromagnetic radiation from spark sources that Hertz discovered in 1887, may have fueled the radiotelegraphy boom using Morse code in the late 1890s, but the radio boom of the early 1920s was fueled by the vacuum tube, which permitted the transmission of clear voice and music that was accessible to the general public. In sharp contrast, transmissions by spark sources were accessible only to the few who understood Morse code.
Morris’s book is difficult to read, not only because it is written in reverse chronological order, but because he does not understand the technology he is writing about.
Morris goes on to say that “the Radio Corporation of American, doubled its earnings to $ 55 million [from 1923 to 1924], and the nation’s broadcast frequencies filled with sounds and sweet airs …” However, the figure of $ 55 million that Morris cites as earning is actually RCA’s gross sales for 1924,not earnings. Furthermore, the gross sales of broadcast radios were only a fraction of the gross sales of the company. According to the RCA annual report for 1924, included in the gross sales of $ 55 million were revenues from point-to-point communications and the sales of many components other than broadcast radios, such as commercial equipment and replacement vacuum tubes.
In summary, Morris’s book is difficult to read, not only because it is written in reverse chronological order, but because he does not understand the technology he is writing about and his writing is often confused. There is very little new in this book, and there are many errors and omissions of important topics and information. I cannot recommend Morris’s biography of Edison. Much better and more accurate biographies already exist—for example, the three mentioned previously, which were authored by Israel (1998), Josephson (1959), and Dyer and Martin (1910 and 1929).
Edmund Morris was a distinguished biographer and is well known for his work, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1980. He is perhaps most famous for his Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. Morris used an unconventional literary device by inserting himself into the biography as a fictional Edmund Morris, who accompanies Reagan everywhere he goes but is not seen by him. Morris died at the age 78 in May 2019, several months before Edison was published.
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