Edison: A Life of Invention. Paul Israel. John Wiley & Sons.

Edison: A Life of Invention Book Cover Edison: A Life of Invention
Paul Israel
John Wiley & Sons
September 7, 1998

The conventional story is so familiar and reassuring that it is come to read more like American myth and history: With only three months of formal education, a curious and hard-working young man beats the odds and becomes one of the greatest inventors in history. Not only does he invent the photograph and the first successful electric light bulb, but he also establishes the first electrical power distribution company and lays the technological groundwork for today’s movies, telephones, and sound recording industry. Through relentless tinkering, by trial and error, the story goes, Thomas Alva Edison perseveres – and changes the world.

In the revelatory Edison: A Life of Invention, author Paul Israel exposes and enriches this one-dimensional view of the solitary “Wizard of Menlo Park,” expertly situating the subject within a thoroughly realized portrait of a burgeoning country on the brink of massive change. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of corporate America, and with it the newly overlapping interests of scientific, technological, and industrial cultures. Working against the common perception of medicine as a symbol of a mythic American past where persistence and individuality yielded hard-earned success, Israel demonstrates how Edison’s remarkable career was actually very much a product of the inventor’s fast-changing era. Edison drew widely from contemporary scientific knowledge and research, and was a crucial figure in the transformation of invention into modern corporate research and collaborative development.

Informed by more than five million pages of archival documents, Paul Israel’s ambitious life of Edison brightens the unexamined corners of a singularly influential and triumphant career in science. In these pages, history’s most prolific inventor – he received an astounding 1,093 U.S. patents – comes to life as never before. Edison is the only biography to cover the whole of Edison’s career and invention, including his early, foundational work in telegraphy. Armed with unprecedented access to Edison’s workshop diaries, notebooks, and letters, Israel brings fresh insights into how the inventor’s creative mind worked. And for the first time, much attention is devoted to his early family life in Ohio and Michigan – where the young Edison honed his entrepreneurial sense and eye for innovation as a newsstand owner and editor of a weekly newspaper – underscoring the inventor’s later successes with new resonance and pathos.

In recognizing the inventor’s legacy as a pivotal figure in the second Industrial Revolution, Israel highlights Edison’s creation of the industrial research laboratory, driven by intricately structured teams of researchers. The efficient lab forever changed the previously serendipitous art of workshop invention into something regular, predictable, and very attractive to corporate business leaders. Indeed, Edison’s collaborative research model became the prototype upon which today’s research firms and think tanks are based.

The portrait of Thomas Alva Edison that emerges from this peerless biography is of a man of genius an astounding foresight. It is also a portrait rendered with incredible care, depth, and dimension, rescuing our centuries godfather of invention from myth and simplification.

Paul Israel is the Managing Editor of the multivolume documentary edition of Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University and the co-author of Edison’s Electric Light. He lives in Highland Park, New Jersey.