Summary and book reviews of Edison by Edmund Morris

Edison

by Edmund Morris

Edison by Edmund Morris X
Edison by Edmund Morris
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  • Published:
    Oct 2019, 800 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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Book Summary

From Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris comes a revelatory new biography of Thomas Alva Edison, the most prolific genius in American history.

Although Thomas Alva Edison was the most famous American of his time, and remains an international name today, he is mostly remembered only for the gift of universal electric light. His invention of the first practical incandescent lamp 140 years ago so dazzled the world—already reeling from his invention of the phonograph and dozens of other revolutionary devices—that it cast a shadow over his later achievements. In all, this near-deaf genius ("I haven't heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old") patented 1,093 inventions, not including others, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he left unlicensed for the benefit of medicine.

One of the achievements of this staggering new biography, the first major life of Edison in more than twenty years, is that it portrays the unknown Edison—the philosopher, the futurist, the chemist, the botanist, the wartime defense adviser, the founder of nearly 250 companies—as fully as it deconstructs the Edison of mythological memory. Edmund Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, brings to the task all the interpretive acuity and literary elegance that distinguished his previous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Ludwig van Beethoven. A trained musician, Morris is especially well equipped to recount Edison's fifty-year obsession with recording technology and his pioneering advances in the synchronization of movies and sound. Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship. 

Enlightened by seven years of research among the five million pages of original documents preserved in Edison's huge laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, and privileged access to family papers still held in trust, Morris is also able to bring his subject to life on the page—the adored yet autocratic and often neglectful husband of two wives and father of six children. If the great man who emerges from it is less a sentimental hero than an overwhelming force of nature, driven onward by compulsive creativity, then Edison is at last getting his biographical due.

Chapter 1

At seventy-three, with his wartime career as president of the Naval Consulting Board behind him, Edison tried to make sense of a new intellectual order that challenged everything he had learned of Newtonian theory. Abstract thought did not come easily to him. "My line of sorrow," he wrote, "lies in the realm of technical science." He needed to feel things come together under his hands, see the filament glow, smell the carbolic acid, and—as far as possible for a near-deaf man—hear the "molecular concussions" of music.

Laws such as those of Faraday's electromagnetic induction and Ohm's relation of current, voltage, and resistance he understood, having applied them himself in the laboratory. But now, if only to slow as much as possible the entropy of his own particles (the fate of all systems, according to Lord Kelvin), Edison studied Einstein's general theory of relativity. The recent solar eclipse had persuaded him, along with the academic scientists he mocked as "...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The story of Edison and his inventions is ably told by Mr. Morris in authoritative, commanding prose, but it also is at times technically challenging and gimmicky. What stands out immediately is the author's bold decision to write Edison's life backward. The book begins with the inventor on his deathbed, having already attained fame. Each chapter then jumps back a decade and centers on the scientific problem that preoccupied Edison's attention at the time. This structure is bizarre, disorienting, and frustrating. Because of its sheer amount of detail, however, Edison will likely stand as the definitive biography on the inventor for many years to come...continued

Full Review Members Only (609 words).

(Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski).

Media Reviews

The Atlantic - Derek Thompson
Now I have to tell you something about Morris’s biography: It goes backwards... If Morris perhaps felt his innovation would shed fresh light on a life marked by improvisatory creation rather than by structured, strictly cumulative accomplishments, he was mistaken. Nothing is gained by this approach, and much comprehension is lost.

New York Times
What is missing at times is the discipline needed to keep the main themes of the story in focus. A prodigious researcher, Morris leans heavily toward the “more is better” school of biography...Few biographers, however, possess the narrative talents of Edmund Morris. His ability to set a scene, the words aligned in sweet rhythmic cadence, is damn near intoxicating

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Morris sets Edison's achievements against a colorful portrait of his splendid eccentricity...The result is an engrossing study of a larger-than-life figure who embodied a heroic age of technology.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison's inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research...Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Library Journal (starred review)
This biography is the new standard for scholarship on the Wizard of Menlo Park and is a work that will long sustain Morris's legacy.

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Beyond the Book

10 Important Inventions of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor. He held at least 1,093 patents and constantly invented new things at his famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Of the hundreds of ideas that sprung from his mind, here are 10 of his most important inventions: Edison

  • Electrical vote recorder: This device was Edison's first patent, received in 1869; it enabled legislative bodies to record votes accurately and instantaneously. The invention required each legislator to flip a switch to either a yes or a no position; then, a signal would be transmitted to a central recorder that listed the names of all legislators in two columns of metal type, labeled 'Yes' and 'No.'
  • Universal stock ticker: Developed in 1871 for the Gold ...

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