February 9, 1995
In Thomas Edison, America found its first true native-born genius, the man who fulfilled the nation’s dreams about its potential while extravagantly personifying its cherished values. Imagination, dynamism, entrepreneurial brilliance – never before had one of its citizens been so prodigiously gifted. For Edison himself, these gifts were nothing less than the means to achieve the spiritual manifest destiny of the United States. It had fallen to him, as remarkable an inventor as he was a shrewd businessman, not only to define the meaning of progress, but then to chart the path by which he would lead the country toward it. And at the end of that journey lay the technological revolution of the twentieth century, the birth of the modern era.
Neil Baldwin’s Edison: Inventing the Century is the first biography of one of the seminal figures in our history to examine him as both myth and man, assessing his remarkable accomplishments while taking thorough measure of the paradoxes of his character. Drawing upon unprecedented access to Edison family papers and years of research at the Edison corporate archives, Baldwin offers a revealing portrait of the inventor, in which we discover a man whose life epitomized the American dream as fully as he became a victim of its darker side. From his years as a fragile boy hawking newspapers on trains throughout the Midwest to his arrival in New York City as an itinerary telegrapher seeking his fortune; from his development of the light bulb to his spectacular electrification of lower Manhattan; from his struggles to create the photograph and motion picture and bring them to market to his obsessive search for a source of natural rubber even as he was dying, Edison: Inventing the Century is an enthralling chronicle of the most revered figure of his time.
Alongside the esteemed scientist stands the fiercely self-aggrandizing manufacturer of his own myth; the man possessed by a virtually incessant flow of ideas, who often fights brutally to protect those ideas in the marketplace; the man who publicly preaches the values of home life while his own family is plagued by clinical depression and alcoholism, and what his six neglected, aimless children from two marriages try to step from his massive shadow, yet prove, almost inevitably, to be a disappointment.
Reaching across mid-nineteenth-century pastoral America to the epochal upheavals of the Industrial Age, from dim, disheveled laboratories in Menlo Park where the incandescent light was perfected to dazzling electrical lighting displays in Paris, Edison: Inventing the Century compellingly recounts the greatest saga of success and ingenuity in our history, the story of a singular genius who threw off the shackles of the past to become, as a New York Times poll of the time named him, “The Greatest Living American.”
A native New Yorker, Neil Baldwin received his Ph.D. in Modern American Poetry from SUNY/Buffalo. He is the author of critically acclaimed biographies of William Carlos Williams and Man Ray. He lives in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and two children.