Book Review: Edison by Edmund Morris

Thomas Alva Edison is almost inarguably the greatest inventor of all time. The first device for recording and playing back sound, the first large scale power distribution system, the first practical light bulb, and the first commercially successful video recording and playback device were just a few of his numerous inventions. His inventions span the gamut from mining, to electricity, to chemistry, to telecommunications, to optics, to mechanics, and even to botany. Edmund Morris’s Edison is an excellent book by a very experienced biographer that takes you through every one of Edison’s major inventions with enough context to help you understand how and why they came about. But Morris made a very strange structural decision that, while interesting, takes away from the book’s enjoyment.

Morris’s biography dispels two myths that I had heard about Edison (having only previously read a dime store biography of him and a book about his movie production company). The first is that Edison doesn’t deserve credit for his inventions because it was his workers who really came up with most of them. It’s clear from this meticulously sourced biography that Edison was not only the visionary behind his inventions, but that he also had a thorough scientific knowledge that allowed him to work hand-in-hand with his workers, directing them at every step. This is all the more amazing since he had no formal education and was thoroughly a self-made person. Edison was incredibly studious and consumed volumes and volumes of both scientific and non-scientific literature. Most of his major inventions really were his ideas. Some of them were improvements on the work of other inventors, and some of them were co-invented with his workforce, but he was the indispensable figure who created the first industrial research laboratory, making this all possible and directing it meticulously from his own mind.

The second myth I had heard about Edison is that he was a good scientist but a terrible businessman. It depends what you mean by “businessman.” Morris makes it clear that Edison was poor at managing his finances. But what is also clear from Morris’s account is that Edison was an amazing entrepreneur. He was able to see what inventions had practical commercial potential. He turned ideas into money. Did he then subsequently run those businesses well? Not generally. He was a great entrepreneur, but not a great manager.

Beyond invention, Edison’s life was filled with serendipity, interesting personal stories, and meetings with the greatest figures of his generation. Morris spends about three fourths of the biography on Edison’s inventions and business pursuits, and the remainder on the rest. He was perhaps the most famous person alive during his lifetime, and for good reason—his inventions utterly changed the every day lives of the masses. Reading the biography, you will get a sense of this, but it’s not delved into in any great detail. The majority of the pages are spent on the inventions.

The explanations of the inventions are clear enough that you do not need a scientific background to understand the gist of their purpose. You won’t understand them at a fundamental level, but you will understand why they were important and how they connected to the rest of the Gilded Age world. There’s not room, even in eight hundred pages, to go into all of Edison’s inventions, nor all of his personal life. His journey was just that amazing. But you get a sense that Morris chose the important highlights well.

So, Edison is a well-written and balanced biography about one of the most interesting figures of all time. What is not to like? The structure. Morris chose to bizarrely present Edison’s life in reverse chronological order. Each chapter covers a decade of his life. And the book starts with his last decade, and ends with his first. As we all know, lifetimes progress linearly. We’re used to hearing stories in order. It’s hard to keep track of characters, when we are abruptly and repeatedly thrown back ten years in their lives. The result is that it’s very hard to keep straight the lives of Edison’s associates and family members as you read Edison. It’s interesting in the last two chapters, knowing what you know about his life, to hear about how it started. It’s interesting, but I don’t think the trade off was worth making the rest of the book harder to read and keep track of. Morris died about five months before Edison was published. I wonder if he had lived longer, if he would have rethought the structure upon further reflection. Some reviewers have suggested reading the book backwards. I don’t think it would hurt you much to do this.

Thomas Edison was an amazing, interesting, and world-changing figure who deserves a thoroughly researched extensive biography by a great writer. In Edison, we have that. Its bizarre structure notwithstanding, if you are at all interested in technology, business, or even just history, you should give Edison a read.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.