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The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Losses and Loyalties, April 1883–December 1884 Edited by Paul B. Israel et al. (review)
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The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Losses and Loyalties, April 1883–December 1884. Edited by Paul B. Israel et al. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. xlix+811. $95.

I was hired in the summer of 1982 as an editorial assistant for the Edison Papers, one of a series of graduate students who have had the privilege of toiling in those vast documentary vineyards. I well remember the excitement of working on my own little piece of the puzzle—Edison’s work in the late 1860s to early 1870s when he designed a vote recorder (his first patent) and new stock tickers and fire alarms, and solved the problem of sending multiple telegraph signals simultaneously across the same line and in different directions. It was a marvel to watch as he mastered the entire palette of telegraphy and established himself as a successful inventor-entrepreneur by his early twenties. The energy and ingenuity of young Edison was astonishing.

When I began to read this, the recently published seventh volume, I naturally wondered: How would I find Edison faring now that he was in his “mature” mid-thirties? And where does this monumental project stand today, more than three decades later?

It is amazing how different I found Edison to be just a decade and a half after the heyday of his telegraphy work. In this twenty-one-month slice of Edison’s life, four years after the invention of the incandescent lamp and less than a year after the installation of the Pearl Street central station in New York’s financial district, we find Edison immersed in the nitty-gritty of running his businesses and trying to make a buck. One of his big challenges was making his power plants more affordable and easier to operate efficiently. With investment capital in short supply, he resolves to go it alone and be “a business man for a year” (p. 217). We observe him crisscrossing the country to villages like Sunbury, Pennsylvania, population 4,000, and a far cry from Wall Street. He oversaw construction there of the first three-wire electric-light power station, one of seventeen such economy-model [End Page 749] “village plants” that he worked on during this period, ranging from only 500 to 1,200 lamps in size. We see him creating the Edison Construction Company to build these plants, but then closing it down a year later due to personal and general economic challenges. And then his wife Mary died suddenly.

In general, this volume provides a fascinating picture of a great inventor trying to innovate, market, and cash in on his ideas, and of how he struggled with quotidian matters such as contracts, customer complaints, mergers, and bill collecting. September 12, 1883, must have been a particularly bad day, when he dashes off a terse note to a friend: “I am mentally constipated & overworked today. Hope to see you in December” (p. 262).

If Edison may be considered a founder of industrial research, his documentary corpus is appropriately industrial in scale, numbering an estimated five million items. Triage has thus been a herculean task for the editors, who for this volume winnowed 12,700 extant items down to only 353, or three percent. Edison’s increasing focus on business is mirrored in the fact that many of the documents were typed and that the editors could identify no significant artifacts to highlight for this volume. And with a full complement of headnotes, footnotes, and other ancillary interpretive material—all accomplished with a succinct and masterful touch—the final work amounts to a prodigious 800 pages. Volume 7 ends with document no. 2769, a request by Edison to update his life insurance policy in view of his wife’s death. This means that since the first letterpress volume appeared in 1989 we are less than halfway to a planned total of fifteen that will contain nearly 6,500 documents. Documenting an inventor-entrepreneur as prolific as Edison is itself an industrial enterprise.

To make editorial matters even more complex, just during the assembly of this volume the number of online digital historical resources has expanded enormously. As the editors note...