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This scheme of combustion in order to get power makes me sick to think of it — it is so wasteful…We should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh no; we burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property. There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen, for it cannot be destroyed.

Just one of many standout quotes in this new biography of “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” He doesn’t have much time left, but he’s considering how to make a solar cell.

Edison is a popular topic where I live: West Orange, New Jersey. This is where Edison spent the last decades of his life, what’s left of his factory is a National Park, and his home, Glenmont, in the Llewellyn Park neighborhood, is part of it. The lampposts on the main streets fly banners with an image of a light bulb. Some years back there was a civic project where local artists painted fiberglass light bulbs — each about five feet high — for display around town. My wife even did one, and you can see it at the entrance to Public Works.

The Edison Museum is our go-to spot for out-of-town guests. Seeing the first phonograph — not a replica, not one of a production run, but the actual first phonograph — is breathtaking. Even if we can’t go, it’s the first place, the indispensable place, visitors to West Orange have to see.

So yeah, we like Edison. He invented the 20th century.

Photo of Thomas Edison
Edmund Morris’ “Edison”
Anyway, this book is Edmund Morris’ last opus. His three-volume set on Teddy Roosevelt is deservedly admired. His bio of Ronald Reagan took a lot of flack for the liberties he took with the story of an enigmatic man who didn’t seem to have much of a documentable past and very few intimates.

This book is striking for its structure. It follows Edison’s life backwards through time. The first chapter, the prologue, concerns itself with the last year or so of his life.

The second chapter covers the 1920s, and his work on a domestic source of latex and the first rechargeable alkaline battery. Yup, he invented that. And electric cars. The second chapter covers the 1910s, the third the 1900s when he was developing much of what would become the Motion Picture Industry. He pretty much owned that industry for a while.

Also the light bulb. Also the phonograph. Also quadruplex telegraphy, the carbon button microphone (which was the standard for telephones for 75 years). And centralized electrical generation and municipal electric grids. And the idea of a high-tech R&D facility. He was “the wizard of Menlo Park” even before he invented the light bulb.

It’s often hard to get your mind around his influence. For example, why is your household electrical current 110 volts? Because Edison thought that was optimal.

The backwards-facing plot of the book forces you to look at characters and historical developments in a different way. Unlike in a conventional narrative, the people who are important throughout his life are introduced early on. His later work is seen on its own, independent of all his brilliant earlier work. By the time late in the book when — stunningly — he first records sound, he becomes an international celebrity. But you already knew that.

It’s a thrilling ride.


Here’s the only recording of a person born in the 18th century, TOH to Futility Closet.

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