David Gans (tnf) Sat 28 Aug 99 06:35
Please welcome Paul Israel, author of EDISON: A LIFE OF INVENTION. Paul, you have been working on Edison for years. Please begin by telling how you got started on this great American subject!
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Sat 28 Aug 99 07:13
I started working on Thomas Edison in 1980 without any idea that I would still be doing so twenty years later. I had just finished a masters program at UC Santa Barbara in a new discipline called Public History. The idea of that program had grown out of the job crisis in the humanities (which still exists and might now be called a permanent state)--there were not enough academic jobs for people being trained in history (and other humanities disciplines). So the folks at UCSB had set up the first program designed to train historians for positions outside of the academy. I had entered the program after graduating with a B.A, in history from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where I had worked with an Dan Krieger, an historian who had become concerned about this problem after working on a study about it for the American Historical Association. He had set up an internship program with the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument (better known as Hearst Castle) in which I was involved (I ended up working as a tour guide for a while) and even helped him teach the internship class after I had taken it. After graduation I had debated what to do, taking off a year, and applied at both library science schools (I had worked in the school library) and at my professor's urging the UCSB Public History Program. The UCSB Public History progam required students to take a paid internship. I ended up working with Carroll Pursell, an historian of technology who had received a grant from the California Department of Transportation and the Historic American Engineering Record (a federal program) to do a study of historic bridges on the state highway system. This was necessary as Cultural Impact Statements were being required before you could tear down old structures or disturb possible archaeological sites--these statements are comparable to Environmental Impact Statements. I ended up writing a Master's Thesis entitled "Spanning the Golden State: A History of the Highway Bridge in California. Having finished with the program, however, I had no idea what to do next. Carroll happened to be the secretary of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) at that time and across his desk came a notice of a job from a fellow named Robert Friedel. Robert had just gotten a grant from the National Park Service, which ran the Edison National Historic Site (Edison's West Orange Laboratory and his home Glenmont), to study Edison's invention of his electric lighting system--1979 was the 100th anniversary of the invention. Robert had applied for the grant because he had just finished up working on an exhibit called "Lighting a Revolution" at the Smithsonian and was looking for another job. As it turned out he got a teaching job just after receiving the grant and so needed someone who could work full-time doing research at ENHS in West Orange, New Jersey, for six months. So, never having been east of Utah, I arrived on a cold February morning in West Orange with my bag in one hand and my cat in the other and set to work on Thomas Edison. I ended up working for about eight months on the research and also became coauthor of the study and subsequent book, Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention. As I was finishing the research and wondering what I would do next, Reese Jenkins, the director of the Thomas A. Edison Papers, asked if I would be interested in working on the project, which was then a year old. I agreed and the rest, as they say, is history as I have now been working on the Edison Papers for twenty years. I ended up writing the biography after being approached by the humanities editor at John Wiley & Sons in 1990. After debating whether to do this--as editor I had a good idea of the enormity of the task--I agreed and spent the next eight years working on the biography.
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Sat 28 Aug 99 12:50
Paul, did your research give you any insight on the Edison-Tesla feud?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Sun 29 Aug 99 15:14
What my research led me to conclude was that there wasn't much of a feud for most of their working lives. The so-called feud largely seems to have been a product of Tesla's frustrations at the end of his life, which he came to lay at Edison's feet, and of Tesla's biographers who have searched for ways to turn their occasional disagreements into a vital feud that consumed both men. Tesla was certainly not the only one who thought that Edison got more credit than he deserved as an electrical inventor. I discuss at some length the issue of rivals and credit, but you will not find Tesla there. He was not a significant rival during the period of Edison's work on electric lighting. Rather men such as William Sawyer, Edward Weston, Elihu Thomson, George Westinghouse, and Frank Sprague are the names that matter. Thomson writing to Sprague in 1928 said, "Great as has been the work of Edison in various fields to which he has given attention, it seems to me that the attempt to spread his fame over fields in which he has done very little, and sometimes done the wrong thing, is to be sincerely deprecated." While I was interested in looking at the debates over credit and rivals during Edison's life I do not address the subsequent history of these. It is only since their deaths that Tesla has come to play a central role in popular mythology as Edison's great rival since but there was little real rivalry between them during Edison's lifetime. The most famous "rivalry" between Edison and Tesla according to modern myth is the controversy over the use of AC rather than DC for electrical systems. Edison was the principle proponent of DC current against those, especially George Westinghouse, who advocated AC but Tesla was a minor player whose most important work--the electric motor--as well as his other inventions were owned by Westinghouse. In the newspapers and journals of the time, as well as in correspondence, advertising and other records, it is Westinghouse who is Edison's great foe; Tesla's name only appears occasionally and almost always in connection with his motor. This was an extremely complex controversy, which I deal at length with in my book, but Tesla was certainly not seen by Edison nor anyone else at the time as his rival in this episode, rather it was Westinghouse. In the 1890s the New York tabloids sometimes juxtaposed their answers to questions or asked them about each other, but there was little real controversy. It is interesting that the most well-researched of the Tesla biographies (Marc Seifer's The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla) even has to resort to the assertion that because Edison told one interviewer in 1898 that he disagreed with Tesla's view that wireless telephony would soon supplant wireless telegraphy that Edison thereby was "leading the charge against his [Tesla's] credibility." In fact, most of those who thought about the issue at the time saw wireless telegraphy as the more promising commercial technology. It is notable that during the 1910s they seem to have had a very cordial professional relationship with Tesla speaking well of Edison in the autobiographical articles that he wrote for the journal Electrical Experimenter in 1919; this series was reprinted as Nikola Tesla, My Inventions (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1982). And in 1912 Edison wrote Tesla a nice note commiserating with Tesla over Westinghouse's suit against Tesla, which prompted Tesla to reply with a nice letter of his own. Edison was not noted for writing such letters to those he considered rivals. There certainly seems little evidence of a fierce rivalry or feud between them at this point. Even the event that supposedly set Tesla against Edison is more shrouded in myth than documentation. This concerns the brief period when Tesla worked for Edison at the Edison Machine Works in New York in 1884. Tesla gave differing accounts of this disagreement but the most authoritative appears to be the one that appeared in his autobiographical articles. Although the popular story has Edison himself personally cheating Tesla, in his account Tesla describes how it was the manager of the Machine Works, not Edison (whom he mentions favorably) who offered him $50,000 for redesigning the DC apparatus that the Edison Company was using and then reneged on the offer after he successfully altered the apparatus. I'm very dubious from what I know of the company and the manager that such an offer would have been made or at least in any serious way that would have led Tesla to believe that he would receive such an amount. Furthermore, no major change in the apparatus appeared at that time. Another historian of technology who is currently working on a biography of Tesla believes that what happened was that Tesla was asked to work on an arc-light system for the Edison Company, which did not have such a system. According to patent interference testimony that Tesla gave in 1901, the failure of the company to both adopt and pay him for this arc-light system was the actual reason he left Edison's employ. He apparently was then swindled by some other men who set up a company to exploit the system.
Steven Solomon (ssol) Mon 30 Aug 99 06:48
So, those stories of Tesla and/or Edison running across the countryside, publicly frying puppies with the supposed rival's "unsafe" AC or DC (pick one) technology are modern legend and nothing more? Or was the more mysterious Tesla substituted for the prosaic Westinghouse?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Mon 30 Aug 99 07:58
There were indeed electrocutions of animals, primarily dogs, that took place at Edison's West Orange Laboratory. This was a convergence of the interest of a newly formed New York State commission to investigate more humane methods of execution, Edison's own view that AC was highly dangerous, and the promotional activities of a fellow named Harold P. Brown, who actually led the attack on Westinghouse and convinced Edison to let him use his laboratory for the animal electrocution experiments. This battle of the systems was hardly Edison's finest hour and led to the development of the electric chair and Edison's testimony was probably crucial in the failed appeal by the first person to be electrocuted, something he later regretted. This is a relatively short answer to a much more complex event that I discuss at greater length in the book. As to the substitution of Tesla for Westinghouse, this seems to be more the result of a cult of Tesla that has built up since his death. A subject that is very interesting from a cultural standpoint and deserves serious academic examination. I find it remarkable that since writing the Edison biography questions about Tesla have been the most frequently asked.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 1 Sep 99 07:41
<scribbled by tnf Wed 1 Sep 99 07:41>
David Gans (tnf) Wed 1 Sep 99 07:41
(correcting for too many typos) Tell us about the Edison Papers project, Paul. Are you putting them on the Net, or what?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Wed 1 Sep 99 08:32
The Edison Papers is a rather massive undertaking. The main collection of Edison's papers are at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey, which is operated by the National Park Service (an organization that is ill-suited to run historical museums and archives). There are an estimated 5 million pages of material. When the Edison Papers was begun in 1979 the estimate was 1-1.5 million. After the Edison Papers completed the first ever inventory of the collection that was finally revised to the current figure. There are also materials in other archives and in personal collections. Most of these are relatively small collections but there are a few large ones. The most notable is the collection at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. The Edison Papers editing project has three main goals. We are producing a microfilm edition of the papers that will encompass about 10% of the collection at the Edison National Historic Site- about 500,000 pages. At the moment we have published three parts of the microfilm edition (covering the nineteenth century) and are about to publish a fourth (covering the first decade of the twentieth). The microfilm edition is massive and is really designed for purchase by research libraries, though one copy of the film circulates through interlibrary loans. While the microfilm edition has a limited market, we are planning on making this collection of material more widely accessible through our website (edison.rutgers.edu). The index and guide to the microfilm edition are online now and we are presently linking images scanned from the microfilm. We hope to have these available for viewing within the year. The online edition of the papers will also include images of documents that we have obtained from other collections, such as those at the Henry Ford Museum. The website currently has some other material such as a chronology of Edison's life, a list of his patents (which hopefully will soon have links to the patents themselves), short descriptions of the various Edison businesses, some maps and images, and the essays that accompany a microfilm edition of early motion picture catalogs, which the project published several years ago in conjunction with a leading film historian. Finally, there is the book edition of which I am the managing editor. We will publish between 15 and 20 volumes of transcribed and annotated documents that will provide both a biographical sketch of Edison's life and career and a gateway to the larger collection of materials. In the future this will become part of the website with links to the documents we publish and the many more that we cite in annotation. So far we have published four volumes, covering Edison's life through 1878, and are working on a fifth.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Wed 1 Sep 99 08:39
I might also mention that one of the interesting challenges that we faced in doing a book edition of Edison's papers was figuring out how to present the actual inventions. Things like stock tickers, phonographs, telephones, and electric lights. We are treating these like documents by providing virtual artifacts in the form of photographs and drawings combined with introductory essays that describe their development and use. We also provide some essays to discuss various kinds of technologies that Edison worked. And we have introductory essays to the chronological chapters (covering 1-3 months) into which we divide the documents in each volume. These essays give an overview of his life and work and when read together provide a biographical sketch.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 1 Sep 99 12:06
Possible stupid question alert: Who's gonna want to read those millions of pages? Less obnoxious question: What are we gonna learn from your Edison biography that counters the popular, mythologized image of T.A.E.?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Wed 1 Sep 99 13:33
The first question is actually a very good one, though it will "only" be about half a million pages that will be online. For the most part the Edison Papers online edition will be for people doing research. However, especially once the book edition is there as a gateway, we hope that this will be a place where school kids and others can come to learn about Edison and invention and business. The chapter introductions will provide a nice biographical sketch and particular sets of documents from the volumes can readily be put together for teaching purposes. We also have plans to work with secondary teachers to develop teaching materials using the papers. The second question, of course, goes to the heart of why I wrote this book It's interesting how strongly the myths about Edison persist. For example, in a very favorable review of the book that appeared in the journal Science, Bettyann Kevles still ended up describing Edison as a tinkerer and his laboratory as an overgrown workshop. Yet, in the book I discuss at some length how Edison combined a nineteenth-century tradition of machine shop invention with scientific laboratory research to construct a new institution - the industrial research laboratory. The first and best know of these laboratories, the Menlo Park laboratory that he built in 1876, was certainly seen as a new kind of site for invention by his contemporaries who tried to emulate his example. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century Edison continued to have the finest and best-equipped private research laboratories in the United States. And with them he pioneered the use of research teams that combined skilled mechanics able to construct and modify new technologies with laboratory researchers using the best electrical and chemical apparatus available to investigate and test the materials and mechanical and electrical elements that went into his inventions. The research that went on in Edison's laboratories was certainly much more than mere tinkering. Throughout the book I discuss at length how the research undertaken by Edison both drew on the best scientific knowledge of the day and often moved beyond that knowledge to provide new understanding of materials or electromagnetic effects that proved essential to his inventive work. Moreover, from 1874 until near the end of his career Edison periodically undertook basic research designed to discover unknown natural forces; while these might ultimately be useful to the development of new technologies, the creation of new knowledge was the primary goal. The laboratory records that I draw on extensively show us a very different Edison than the commonly held image of a self-taught tinkerer.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 4 Sep 99 10:14
>Edison and invention and business Can you talk to us about Edison the businessman, please? I grew up with the mythologized image of the tinkerer, but it's clear he was an industrialist as well. >from 1874 until near the end of his career Edison periodically undertook >basic research designed to discover unknown natural forces What did he come up with?
Phantom Engineer (jera) Mon 6 Sep 99 07:23
Are there myths other than the "Edison the tinkerer" figure that you talk about or debunk in the book?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 7 Sep 99 08:03
Let me begin by discussing Edison as a businessman. It is difficult to come to any single conclusion about Edison as a businessman. Much research still needs to be done about the operations of his various companies and of the industries in which they were situated. One of the key things that needs to be done in analyzing Edison's effectiveness as a businessman is to understand his goals. Peter Drucker, the dean of management gurus says of Edison: "His real ambition, however, was to be a business builder and to become a tycoon. Yet he so totally mismanaged the businesses he started that he had to be removed from every one of them to save it. Much, if not most high tech is still managed, or more accurately mismanaged Edison's way." In fact, Edison was little interested in the day to day management of a business. He wished to remain in the laboratory and his true business was the innovation of new products and at this he was highly successful. His businesses did thrive under other managers after Edison had managed them as startup companies. Edison saw his role primarily as that of inventor and entrepreneur. Once a company had passed the startup stage he was more than happy to let others manage the business, though his continued to be the primary voice on technical issues. However, he was not as successful at managing changing markets as at innovating new technology. For example, he opposed AC, adopted disk phonographs in place of cylinders very late, and had to go outside to acquire a projector for motion pictures. In each case he made his stand on strictly technical grounds when other issues were becoming more important in the marketplace. Edison was better suited to the producer economy that he grew up in than the consumer economy that he was helping to create. For example, when the phonograph was an exciting new technology just being introduced into the home the Edison company was dominant. But consumers were less interested in the best quality recordings and more interested in purchasing the recordings of stars in a format that was both more easily stored and that contained more minutes of music. The decline of the Edison phonograph business was marked by Edison's failure to quickly move to disk, to develop a disk that was incompatible with others, and perhaps most importantly by his decision (at a time he had retired from invention) to become the arbiter of recordings. It was Edison who chose the recording artists and much of the music that was recorded for the company at a time he was growing ever harder of hearing. Nonetheless, Edison was a moderately successful industrialist established companies that were leaders at least for a time in their industries. But his primary goal was innovation and thus he sunk much of the money that he made in one business into developing another technology and introducing it into the market.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 7 Sep 99 08:06
Edison's search for new forces was not unique in the nineteenth century. The first evidence of his interest in new forces occurred in April 1874 when he noticed what he called the "electromotograph" (a phenomenon in which electrochemical reactions reduced friction). The following November, having decided that the electromotograph was an interesting and potentially useful phenomenon but not a new force, he conducted a series of experiments specifically designed to find such a force. These experiments were apparently prompted by his reading a discussion of the "odic" force of German chemist Karl Reichenbach. In the 1860s, Reichenbach claimed he had discovered a heretofore unknown force that explained various spiritualist or occult phenomenon. Though Reichenbach's results were not generally accepted by the scientific community, the subject of spiritualist phenomenon did interest several prominent British scientists, some of whom also thought unknown forces might provide an answer. William Crookes, in particular, conducted experiments along this line in the hope of discovering a psychic force. Edison's most famous experiments related to new forces were his investigations of what he termed "etheric force." Edison had noticed a sparking phenomenon during experiments on acoustic telegraph experiments in November 1875 when he was using a rapidly vibrating levers to send different tones or frequencies over a line in order to send multiple telegraph messages. This involved him in a scientific controversy about the nature of his discovery. The consensus was that this was a form of induction rather than a new force, though Edison continued to believe that he had discovered a new force. In fact, it wasn't until Heinrich Hertz's experiments on radio waves that anyone had the theoretical framework to understand that Edison had in fact detected radio waves. Finally, in 1885 Edison began to search for "a new mode of motion or energy and also to the conversion of heat directly into electricity." He called this potential new force the "XYZ force." He told a newspaper repotrer at the time that "he does not pretend to know what it is. But he says that there are he says there are many phenomena which are not explained by any force yet recognized, and it is these which he is going to investigate." Edison continued to experiment to find the XYZ force well into the twentieth century.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 7 Sep 99 08:09
As to other myths that I address in one way or another I would have to say that what I've tried to do is show the ways in which Edison was typical as well as the ways in which he was exceptional. For example, most other Edison biographies, especially those written for kids, tend to treat him as an exceptional child - a rather strange notion if you're trying to use the biography to inspire children to see him as a role model. I've tried instead to place his boyhood in context so that what seems exceptional to us can be understood as more typical of the times. To understand that lack of formal education was more common but that reading was an important means of gaining knowledge. Furthermore, that those young men who gravitated to technical professions often showed an interest in technology as young men. And that the pranks and trouble that Edison got into as a child were certainly anything but exceptional. By using reminiscences of those who knew him as a boy I have been able to also show him engaging with other children rather than being the loner that he is often presented as. In addition, while his mother teaching him to read was very important, what he read was equally so. And here his father, a freethinker, exerted considerable over his later views on religion and other subjects. I also do the same thing with his years as an itinerant telegraph operator, during which he learned to become an inventor. While the majority of telegraphers did not follow the same kind of path that Edison did, many successful inventors and telegraph managers certainly did. Technical expertise was a path to success and I've tried to show how the ways in which Edison learned the technology and how to improve it were typical of other ambitious operators. Even as an inventor, Edison was often typical rather than exceptional. What finally set him apart was his innovation of the industrial research laboratory and his ability to see invention as part of an innovation process. Unlike most of his fellow inventors, Edison had a good grasp of how to bring his inventions to market.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 7 Sep 99 09:57
>It was Edison who chose the recording artists and much of the music that was >recorded for the company at a time he was growing ever harder of hearing. -- and so, Edison prefigured the modern record company executive :^)
David Gans (tnf) Tue 7 Sep 99 10:00
>XYZ force Is this "new force" thing a misnomer? Wasn't he looking to recognize natural forces, or did he think new physical/electrical/whatever forces were coming into being because of technology, etc?
David Gans (tnf) Tue 7 Sep 99 10:03
>I've tried instead to place his boyhood in context so that what seems excep- >tional to us can be understood as more typical of the times. Thank you! That's very important! So often we're given to believe that famous, brilliant people were born with a golden aura...
David Gans (tnf) Tue 7 Sep 99 10:05
These days, so much of corporate life -- which is, of course, the mainstream of life on Earth -- seems driven by profit ONLY. The people who invent stuff are often bought out by people who market stuff, and entire industries have been taken out of the hands of the people who love that stuff and delivered unto those who would only profit. I find it reassuring, somehow, that Edison was more interested in developing new stuff than in concentrating on the bottom line.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 7 Sep 99 10:51
Edison believed that there were natural forces that had not yet been discovered and that there were relationships between natural forces that were not well understood that might lead to technological innovations.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 7 Sep 99 11:01
The fact that Edison was not obsessed with the bottom line and truly loved what he did are among the things I most like about him.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 7 Sep 99 11:15
Okay, what DON'T you like about him?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 7 Sep 99 12:09
Should have guessed that question would be next. One of the things that I most dislike about Edison is probably a product of the very great love he did have for his work. He was not the best husband or parent as a consequence of the time he spent at his laboratory or away from home working. Both wives had difficulty adjusting to his long hours away from home, the second wife dealt more successfully than the first with this issue. Although Edison wrote to his second wife at one point when he was away from that "You & the children and the Laboratory is all my life I have nothing else," the laboratory (and the project of the moment) clearly continued to come first. The children from his first marriage were particularly screwed up by the death of their mother and the changes wrought by his second marriage. Edison's first wife was working class and he had come from the lower middle and neither had much formal education. His second wife was the daughter of an upper middle class agricultural machinery manufacturer who was a cofounder of the Chautauqua Institute and her father encourage a college education not just for men but for women. Edison's children suddenly found themselves with changed expectations as a consequence of their father's success and his remarriage. They ended up being sent to exclusive private schools that emphasized traditional classical curriculums while their father argued that such schools were outmoded. The sons tried to follow in his footsteps but he did little to provide mentoring for them. They also grew up somewhat spoiled by being the children of the great inventor and also found it difficult to forge independent lives. The children of the second marriage were better prepared by their mother from early life for dealing both with their class expectations and their father's celebrity. The sons from that second marriage also ended up at MIT, the sort of modern engineering school Edison admired. The differences in the educational experiences of the sons were also a product of changing times. The first two sons grew up when the transition to more formal technical education was just beginning to occur while the second two sons grew up in a period when university education was becoming the norm.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 7 Sep 99 13:13
What else do you think modern America could/should learn from the example of Edison?
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