Thomas Edison in American Mythology

EdisonA story has come down concerning one of the famous camping trips which Thomas Edison took with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and the naturalist, John Burroughs, in the hills of West Virginia shortly after the First World War.  A village mechanic was inspecting the motor of their ailing car when a tall man climbed out of the driver’s seat and said, “I am Henry Ford and I say the motor itself is in perfect order.”  The rustic then suggested that it might be the electrical system.  “I am Thomas A. Edison,” spoke up the stout man in the front seat, “and I say the wiring is all right.”  Whereupon the village mechanic, squinting into the back seat at John Burroughs and his long, white beard, remarked, “An’ I s’pose that must be Santa Claus.” Although the anecdote is apocryphal, it is a fact that Edison came to rank with Santa Claus as a major folk hero.

There is an air of inevitability to the Edison Myth.  Born in the 1840s during what has been called the “take‑off period” in our economic history, Edison grew along with the West, the cities, the railroads, and the productive power of America.  Inventors were prerequisite to industrialization and were in turn spawned by the process.  In 1847, the year of Edison’s birth, the United States Patent Office issued a total of 576 patents. In 1869, when Edison received his first patent, 13,813 others were granted (by comparison, 276,788 were issued in 2012).  Edison’s industriousness reached its peak in the early 1880s, when non-agricultural workers were beginning to outnumber those in agricultural pursuits and the output of manufactured goods was overtaking that of farm products in dollar value.  It is interesting that Edison’s inventive activity moves generally parallel to national patent totals (which have a chicken‑and‑egg relationship to the general state of the economy), rising sharply in the 1870s and again in the early 1890s, then failing off suddenly to recover at the turn of the century.  But by the 1920s, when the urban population officially exceeded the rural and consumption was a greater goal than production, Edison himself had become primarily an item to be consumed by readers of the popular press, radio listeners, and visitors at public events.  He died in 1931, on the eve of the worst period in the depression and in the twilight of the four‑hundred‑year boom in Western civilization.  In 1933, when Edison was posthumously granted his last patent, the annual total issued in the United States began a long downswing, not to reach the former high until the 1960s.

There is little coincidence, of course, in the fact that America, its railroads, and its greatest inventor grew up together.  In 1847 a new spurt of growth put railroad mileage permanently ahead of canals; in that same year, Edison was born in the booming canal town of Milan, Ohio.  He was six years old when the railroad began to shape the course of his life.  Rejected by the wary town fathers, the Lake Shore Railroad bypassed Milan in 1853, diverting commercial traffic and draining eighty percent of the population from the town.  In 1854 Sam Edison left the ruins of his lumber business and took his family across Lake Erie to Port Huron, Michigan, but the Edisons never regained their former prosperity.

Building northward from Detroit, the Grand Trunk Railroad reached Port Huron in 1859. Edison, now twelve years old, supplemented the family income by selling newspapers and candy aboard the train.  He soon began spending his spare hours in a section of the smoker car (the baggage car, according to legend) experimenting with some chemicals brought from his cellar laboratory at home. After giving part of his earnings to his parents, he would spend the rest on books and chemicals.  Later he brought an old press aboard and began printing the Weekly Herald, a small sheet containing primarily railroad news and advertisements, but often accompanied by a joke or epigram and occasionally news of the Civil War acquired from railway telegraphers.

The Grand Trunk Railroad was a part of the Michigan Central system, which had been the first to install a telegraph line along its routes in order to prevent collisions‑the early railroads having built only single tracks, with side tracks for passing.  At every station, therefore, was a telegraph, which fascinated boys in the mid‑nineteenth century just as planes, radios, and rockets have in the twentieth.  At fifteen, Edison learned telegraphy from a stationmaster whose small son he had earlier plucked from the path of a rolling boxcar.  In the Horatio Alger tradition, this incident is usually cited as the piece of pluck and luck which set Edison on the road to success—and the road was again the railroad.

At first he worked nights in railway stations as a telegraph operator and continued to experiment with electrical gadgets and various modifications of the telegraph itself.  So that he might sleep part of the night, he devised a clockwork mechanism which automatically sent the required periodic signal showing that he was on the job.  To practice receiving messages more rapidly he took the strips of paper on which dots and dashes were imprinted by the old Morse embossers and created a “repeater” which converted these strips back into electrical signals at any speed desired.  Then he developed a telegraphic printer which translated signals into roman characters—all the while experimenting incessantly with the idea of duplex telegraphy (sending two messages simultaneously over one wire).  As a result of his tricks, experimental mishaps, and personality clashes, he was frequently fired.  Adolescent America incarnate, Edison drifted about the country in the 1860s, riding or walking the rails, working in telegraph offices.  At one desperate point he actually joined a railroad gang laying track across a river in Arkansas. 

Eventually he wandered to Boston, which was then the center of American scientific and electrical research.  His work on the telegraph printer led to his involvement with the stock ticker (a specialized printer), first in Boston and then in New York, where he developed an improved ticker of his own.  With the money and backing received from his stock ticker patents he was able to set up his first “invention factory” at Newark, New Jersey, later moved to Menlo Park. 

The succession of Edison’s inventions followed as naturally as the events in his life.  He continued his work on the telegraph, eventually developing the quadruplex system.  His interest in automatic telegraphy (eliminating the hand‑powered telegraph key with faster encoding and decoding devices) led to an intensified study of chemistry and chemically treated paper and hence to the mimeograph.  His crucial improvements on Bell’s telephone (which was called a “speaking telegraph transmitter,” and which in effect substituted sound vibrations on a diaphragm for a hand‑powered key) involved refinements in the quality of voice reproduction.  The final product, the carbon‑button telephone transmitter, was derived from his discovery, during automatic telegraph experiments, that the conductivity of carbon varied according to the pressure it was under. 

Also during his experiments with automatic telegraphy, which involved a stylus (contact point) and chemically treated paper, Edison discovered that if he wrapped the paper around a cylinder and connected both the stylus and the rotating cylinder to a battery, the friction of the stylus against the paper increased or decreased according to the strength of the current.  He called this apparatus an “electromotograph” and attempted to find uses for its principle in a number of areas in which he had been working simultaneously: the mimeograph, autographic telegraphy (transmitting handwriting or drawings), a telephone speaker, and a means of somehow electrically encoding voice messages from the telephone onto paper so that Western Union might convert to it without prohibitive longhand transcription. 

Edison had been at Menlo Park little more than a year when these lines of experimentation converged in an aura of serendipity.  Although his electromotographic telephone speaker failed to transmit his shouts when tested, the slight impressions they had made on the paraffined paper vibrated the diaphragm as he continued to turn the cylinder.  The musical hum haunted him for days.  What would happen if he simply ran a strip of paraffined paper under the stylus?  He tried it, shouting “Halloo!” into the diaphragm, and then ran the strip back through. There was a distinct sound, Edison later related, “which strong imagination might have translated into the original Halloo!”  It was at that instant, on a hot July afternoon in 1877, that both the phonograph and the Wizard of Menlo Park were conceived. 

In the following year Edison applied the principle of the carbon button telephone to a heat‑sensing device (tasimeter); this led him to the idea that a heat sensor might solve the main problem then confronting experimenters in incandescent lighting: an overheating filament.  Although his eventual solution was different, this idea set him to work on the light bulb.  With the exception of his contributions to the motion picture camera and projector, which resulted from his attempts to synchronize the phonograph with an existing zootropic device (pictures on a rapidly rotating wheel reflected in a mirror), all of his other major inventions were outgrowths of his work on the light bulb.  His initial search for platinum as a filament substance led to his development of magnetic ore‑separating machinery, later applied to iron mining.  His plans for the installation of lighting systems demanded that he create a greatly improved generator along with all the aspects of the distribution system.  The generator was converted into an electric motor to drive machinery, leading him to designs for electric locomotives and cars, and to his final major invention (1909), a storage battery to power them. 

A child of the steam age and chief engineer of the electrical age, Edison was a living illustration of how developments in transportation fathered those in communications.  He and his dynamo stand as transitional symbols between the brute snort of the locomotive and the soft dissonance of the first computers.

It has been noted that the scope of Edison’s achievements rests largely on the fact that he invented the profession of inventing.  Ironically, while much of the Edison symbol derives from the image of a lone individual succeeding through extraordinary physical, mental, and spiritual powers, Edison actually initiated the kind of team research, involving machinists, technical men, and trained scientists, that served as a pilot model for the huge industrial research laboratories such as those later organized by General Electric or Bell Telephone.  Others have observed that an inventor of the Edison type is not a wizard but a patient plodder, trying all possible combinations and permutations, aiming for that logical but infinitesimal step which follows from the fund of previous knowledge.  This process, primarily the search for materials and the struggle for practicability, is what Edison had in mind when he said that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety‑nine percent perspiration.”  Such a view is supported by the fact that the same innovation is often introduced almost simultaneously by separate individuals.  The derivation of calculus, the discovery of the planet Neptune, the introduction of the decimal point, and the Darwin and Wallace theories of natural selection are among many examples.  Bell’s application for a patent on the telephone was given precedence over that of Elisha Gray because it was submitted a few hours earlier.  Yet the hero remains mythopoeic; for if he is not outside of history, he is history.  The argument from cultural determinism misses the point.  The inexorable logic of Edison and America maturing together is the very genesis of symbol and myth.  

A reporter from the New York Daily Graphic visited Edison one spring afternoon in 1878 shortly after the appearance of the phonograph.  “Aren’t you a good deal of a wizard, Mr. Edison?” he asked.  “Oh no!” Edison laughed, “I don’t believe much in that sort of thing.”  But the public had made its choice.  The conversation was printed; and Al Edison, the tinkering telegrapher, would live and die “the Wizard of Menlo Park.” 

Yet if one were to seek out the primordial moment when “the Wizard” materialized in American mythology, it would not be the night in 1879 when the carbon lamp gave off its soft, red glow, but almost two years before, when Edison arrived out of the blue at the offices of the Scientific American and pushed a quaint‑looking contrivance across the editor’s desk.

“ Here you are,” Edison said.  Spying a crank, the editor instinctively turned it. 

“Good morning!” said the machine.  “What do you think of the phonograph?” 

In those same West Virginia hills where Edison camped with Ford and “Santa Claus,” inhabitants of sleepy hamlets believed that his name was “Mr. Phonograph.”  And as late as the 1920s the Lynds found that the citizens of “Middletown” thought the phonograph the “most wonderful invention of the age.”  In spite of the Edison tower, illuminating the modern New Jersey sky with its thirteen‑foot, 5,200‑watt bulb, it was the phonograph that caught the fancy of America.


[Excerpted from my book, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (MIT Press, 1981.]



  1. Thomas Hilmer says:

    This is the year we are looking for “Other Voices” for talks at Edison’s West Orange Laboratory in NJ. As part of the National Park Service you must be familiar with the lab, Glenmont, Paul Israel and the Edison Papers Project. I have volunteered five years on saturdays and talk on technology, science and Edison topics. Will you be on the east coast soon, or would be willing to talk about your Stanford thesis used for American Myth.? ret architect, UMich 1968 Tom Hilmer

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