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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 605-606

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Book Review

Edison: A Life of Invention

Edison: A Life of Invention. By Paul Israel. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Pp. viii+552; illustrations, notes/references, index. $30.

I cannot think of anyone better qualified than Paul Israel to write a biography of Thomas Edison. An editor at the Edison Papers Project for twenty years, Israel has a deep knowledge of this vast archival collection and a great familiarity with the secondary literature on Edison and the electrical industry, including recent books based on this collection, such as Andre Millard's well-received Edison and the Business of Innovation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990). Israel himself has authored a good book on invention in the early telegraph industry, From Machine Shop to Industrial Laboratory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), which deals with Edison as a contract researcher for the Western Union company, and has coauthored, with Robert Friedel, Edison's Electric Light (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), a standard source. In Edison: A Life of Invention, Israel pulls all of this and more together into an excellent biography, based primarily on the Edison archives.

The book deals with several themes of interest to historians of technology: invention as a social process, the relationship between science and technology, laboratories and the business of innovation, gender and technology, and cultural mythology. The account of the shop culture and inventive practices in Edison's career, from the telegraph workshops of the 1870s to the mammoth West Orange laboratory of the early twentieth century, is outstanding. Israel problematizes any simple description of the relationship between science and technology in Edison's work by discussing in some detail Edison's desire to experiment on the "fundamental" aspects of many inventions, his reading of scientific and technical journals, his relationships with physicists and chemists inside and outside the laboratory, and the papers he gave before the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The account of Edison's inventive style, how he worked with associates on various simultaneous projects, how he clung to the ideal of the inventor-entrepreneur rather than becoming part of a corporate R&D organization (except in the 1890s)--all draw on Israel's exhaustive knowledge of the laboratory archives. He portrays the shop culture as masculine and devotes two chapters to Edison's family, but the treatment of gender is uneven, failing to draw on recent scholarship and missing an excellent opportunity to speculate on why Edison gave his daughter and his second wife masculine nicknames when they worked in the lab ("George" for daughter Marion and "Billy" for wife Mina).

The chapter on the Edison legend is the most disappointing to me because Israel does not analyze this legend, nor does he critique Wyn [End Page 605] Wachhorst's use of structuralist anthropology and cultural history to tie its development to broader trends in American history. Neither does he comment on the cognitive theories of invention put forward by Michael Gorman and W. Bernard Carlson in regard to Edison as well as Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray. This tendency not to consider how his own research confirms or revises the scholarship of others is evident throughout the book, probably because it is intended for an educated, lay audience. Israel does argue, however, that Edison's systems approach was more haphazard and evolutionary than Thomas Hughes has claimed it to have been. And in the footnotes he gently takes both Wachhorst and David Nye to task for emphasizing Edison's wizard image over that of a "man of the people" (p. 490). He also chides Gorman and Carlson for misunderstanding how Edison interpreted the work of Philip Reis, an early inventor of a telephone-like device. But Israel usually leaves comparisons with previous scholarship to the reader, as he does with comparisons of Edison's inventive career and public image to those of such prominent contemporaries as Nikola Tesla and Charles Steinmetz.

Edison: A Life of Invention is a magnificent undertaking by a major Edison scholar, and I...


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