Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: Edison

Edison: Inventing the Century
Neil Baldwin
Biography, engineering

There's a pop-culture idea out there that denigrates Thomas Edison in favor of Nikola Tesla. There's no doubt that Tesla was a genius, but Tesla had basically one idea: perfecting the use of alternating current. It was a great idea--we depend on it today--yet ultimately Tesla veered off into showmanship and pseudoscience. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, had vast quantities of ideas; he made many of them come true; and he kept having them, and working on them, until he died. In terms of who had more impact, there's just no comparison.

Neil Baldwin's biography does Edison justice. Well, more or less: it puts a lot of emphasis on Thomas Edison the man. In part that's because there's a lot of ground to cover. Edison was a complex man. He neglected his first wife and their children. He did better with his second wife, but even the children of that marriage drifted in adulthood. He was, famously, a workaholic who inspired both fierce loyalty and bitter disenchantment among his employees. Baldwin gets full marks for depth of analysis and psychological acuity, particularly around the tricky area of Edison's creative processes.

But the actual inventive and engineering work gets short-changed. I can't avoid the impression that Neil Baldwin doesn't like or understand science. Edison contains numerous errors of detail, a few clunky bits, and some major omissions. For example:
  • Edison's first big innovations were in the world of telegraphy. Baldwin skips over the whole subject in a few paragraphs.
  • Baldwin seems to be under the impression that X-rays are "high-speed electrons". (They're high-energy photons.)
  • He also seems to believe that conservation of mass/energy was some quirky, semi-mystical notion of Michael Faraday's, rather than being a cornerstone of physics.
  • He refers to certain of Edison's notions as being "tantalizingly close" to the Big Bang theory. In context of what's quoted, that's absolutely ludicrous.
  • He describes Edison as having received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is a military decoration. Edison actually received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Instead of getting these facts nailed down, Baldwin chooses to spend a lot of words on ephemera. In several spots, for example, he gives long and detailed descriptions of (of all things) interior decorating. Seriously. There's one place where he goes on for a good two pages:
The luxuriously-furnished entrance hall, illuminated by a glass and silver chandelier and adorned in oak wainscoting, featured built-in settee and armchairs . . . The adjacent library . . . was made entirely of mahogany bookcases, their doors lined with box-pleated silk, while its walls and ceilings were stenciled decoratively . . . The drawing room was furnished entirely in rosewood . . . the dining room [was] covered in peacock-blue wallpaper on dull yellow ground with Persian figurings . . .
When Baldwin does introduce technical detail, he doesn't always do it well. Here, for example, is a description of Edison's late experiments with rubber: ". . . the specimen was treated with acetone . . . extracted with benzol. . . the acetone step was abandoned and replaced with more precise bromination . . . which essentially meant the addition of carbon tetrachloride and alcohol . . ." Unless you're a chemist, this isn't very informative; it reads to me as though Baldwin was paraphrasing some technical description that he didn't really understand either.

Least justifiably, Baldwin occasionally lets his lack of interest in science and technology filter over into condescension. "Edison's purpose," he writes in a not-atypical passage, was "to meld the pretense of music appreciation with blatant commercialism." Neither "pretense" nor "blatant" is in any way justified by the facts he reports; this reads suspiciously like a liberal-arts major's attempt to assert cultural dominance over the lowly mechanics of this world.

So: Edison has highs and lows. There are, to be fair, many more highs. It's nicely written and thoroughly researched: Baldwin had access to Edison's surviving descendants and family papers. It's neither too uncritically adoring nor too skeptical of its subject's achievements. It's insightful without lapsing into psychological babble. I just wish that someone with some level of technological literacy had gone over it before it was published. I'd be available.


  1. I have never read any biography of the man, so this is new to me. I was struck by the description of Edison's personal like. It sounds a lot like Steve Jobs; workaholic, both loved and hated by his employees, ignoring his wife and children. Not sure if this means anything, but it did strike me as I read your description.

    1. Yes, nowadays Thomas Edison would absolutely have gone to Silicon Valley. He was a genius; some people have tried to denigrate him as a mere "cut-and-try" tinkerer, but this book makes it pretty clear that he was far more than that.

  2. I see the author didn't appear to dwell on the fact that Edison was notorious - according to some accounts - for taking other people's ideas and presenting them as his own. To his credit though he was a far better businessman - one might say ruthless - not prone to weirdness like Tesla.

    1. The way Baldwin presents matters, it's more the case that Edison in his later years ran one of the first industrial-scale research organizations. Motion pictures are a case in point. Edison himself did very little actual work on them. However, he (a) set up movies as a research goal, (b) hired people with the relevant expertise, and (c) provided funding and overall guidance for the project. In my opinion that doesn't qualify as stealing ideas.

      In his earlier days, Edison certainly did do most of the work attributed to him. He didn't do it alone. Nobody does; the myth of the lone-genius inventor is precisely that.