- The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World
Given the number of Edison biographies already straining library shelves, a prospective biographer had better come armed with a novel thesis and a persuasive argument. In The Wizard of Menlo Park, Randall Stross, professor of business at San Jose State University, brandishes his thesis like a Saturday night special but then comes up shooting blanks—loud, but hardly effective.
Stross argues that modern society has been influenced less by Edison's technological contributions than by his supposed "discovery" that celebrity status can be usefully applied to business dealings. In effect, according to Stross, Edison has been overrated for his technological achievements and underappreciated for his contributions to our culture's obsession with celebrity. Stross intends to demythologize the public image of Edison, to rescue him from his hagiographers by chronicling his shortcomings and failures . . . personal, technological, managerial, and financial. The result of this zeal to demythologize the man is an Edison who seldom, apparently, did anything right, honest, or honorable.
The narrative is organized around the notion that Edison achieved worldwide fame by the age of thirty-five and then spent the rest of his life exploiting his public persona for business purposes while trying but failing to duplicate his success as an innovator. The book is divided into two roughly equal sections: "Success" and "Life After." The first section covers Edison's early career, then the development and abandonment of the phonograph, and ends with his introduction of electric lighting in New York City. By this time, he had come to understand the extent to which he was a public figure and subject to constant scrutiny and judgment. The second section concentrates on Edison's failure to win a place for direct-current electrical lighting, his responses to his public status, and his efforts to "make a name for himself" (p. 189), and on assessing his other entrepreneurial efforts. Stross concludes that Edison contributed little other than his name to the development of motion pictures and miscalculated the technical, marketing, and financial risks in his lighting, phonograph, mining, and electric car businesses. No other aspects of his work—not his influence on the very idea of corporate research and development, not his contributions to music and film as consumption of leisure time, not his impact on the entire first generation of professional electrical engineers—receive attention. It is somewhat ironic that Stross emphasizes Edison's lack of business acumen given that books such as Blaine McCormick's At Work with Thomas Edison (2001) provide business advice by relying on Edison's business innovations and insights. [End Page 478]
As for Edison's foibles, previous biographers have openly acknowledged that Edison was a distant husband and an indifferent father, that he manipulated the press, took credit for work performed by assistants, understood the power of his name as a prototype brand, was not all that interested in making money for its own sake, and was commonly more concerned with technological tinkering than managing a business. Stross provides new details relating to each of these topics, often giving examples or quotes from Edison or his close associates drawn from correspondence culled from the microfilm edition of The Papers of Thomas A. Edison. He certainly provides trenchant reminders of how difficult it was for Edison or his competitors to successfully achieve market penetration with their inventions, pointing out how often public acceptance was either delayed or never even achieved. But how these issues are related to Edison's supposed invention of "the modern world" is left unexplored.
Readers familiar with the literature on Edison and American inventors will find little that is new and much that is out of balance. General readers may, however, find themselves wondering why Edison ever gained any celebrity at all as a technological inventor or innovative entrepreneur. That would be a real crime. [End Page 479]
Dr. Pretzer is director of the Museum of Cultural and Natural History at...