Thomas Alva Edison, An American Myth

Thomas Alva Edison, An American MythThere have been countless biographies of Edison the man, detailing the course of his life and describing his inventions. The subject of this book is larger than life: Edison the Myth, Edison the Hero. It traces the transmutations of Edison’s image in the eyes of his countrymen as the ideal embodiment of American values and virtues: hard work, perseverance, the gospel of technological progress, the mythology of the self-made man, individualism, optimism, practicality mingled with idealism.

To the American public in the late nineteenth century, Edison was the Wizard, the archetypal Scientist, and finally the Creator. Many journalistic accounts of the period evoke the Promethean and Faustian legends, depicting Edison as the bringer of light from on high, the worker of miracles designed to delight and ease the life of the common man.

Not long after the turn of the century, however, many Americans began to feel that life had gone soft, that material comforts—many of them made possible by Edison’s own inventions—were eroding character, that the individual could no longer make his voice heard above the drone of the mass society as he could in the good old days when pastoral values were still supreme. Accordingly, the author notes that the mythic image of Edison changed: The young Tom Edison was seen as the All-American Boy (the spunky Tom Sawyer, the handy Tom Swift) who by his own efforts and perseverance overcame great odds to achieve adult success—the self-made man who didn’t forget where he came from and retained his social consciousness—the rugged individualist who had to struggle in the laboratory and in life, but who, on his own, made a difference and had more than 1000 patents to prove it.

The book concludes by suggesting that the Edison legacy has now shifted from the myth to the man himself and that “the man who remains is finally greater than the myth.” The author interprets Edison from today’s perspective as the real and symbolic figure who led us from the First into the Second Industrial Revolution in which communication overtook transportation and the consumer outstripped the producer in status. Edison and his dynamo “stand as transitional symbols between the brute snort of the locomotive and the soft dissonance of the computer.”

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