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Edison: A Life of Invention

Edison: A Life of Invention

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Thomas Edison - A Life of Invention

Recommended Reading | Creator ...

From Publishers Weekly ...

It has been said of Edison that his inventive gifts consisted of 1% genius and 99% hard work. Israel, coauthor of Edison's Electric Light and managing editor of the Thomas Edison Papers (in progress), in effect confirms that assessment.

Weighing the competing demands of biographical narrative and technological elucidation, he opts for the latter, showing Edison as tireless experimenter rather than inspired wizard. Israel portrays Edison as an improver of inventions and transformer of concepts into products, someone who applied himself pragmatically to the uses of electricity?from the telegraph and telephone and storage battery to the phonograph, incandescent light and motion picture.

Israel shows Edison as a manager of innovation, making the shift from private workshop to corporate research and development with income from royalties. An effective self-publicist, he became in the public mind the central figure of 19th-century invention. He lived, however, into 1931, by which time his brand of empiricism had given way to industrial laboratories on a scale he could not have imagined as a teenage telegrapher in the 1860s.

For a flesh-and-blood life one must return to such biographies as Robert Conot's A Streak of Luck (1970) or Neil Baldwin's recent Edison: Inventing the Century. But Israel draws on his subject's notebooks to provide an authoritative look into Edison's working methods, here leavened by enough personal detail to give the achievements shape. When Edison died, the nation extinguished its lights for a minute in tribute. He had not invented either, but he had made electricity work as no one else had. 20 illustrations. 
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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  1. Amazon Review

    Posted by Review courtesy of Amazon on 21st Nov 2009

    I was given this book for a writing project and dutifully plowed through it over the Christmas holidays. Overall, I must say that it was an absolutely excellent holiday book as well as chock full of useful ideas for my scholarly purposes. This is an extremely difficult balance to strike and Israel has done it better than I thought possible - I was prepared for a long dry slog and instead found a great and exciting story.
    Edison, Israel argues, was not just a lone little-educated tinkerer of genius as he is often portrayed, but the creator of the prototype for the modern corporate research lab - he knew how to find talent, how to organize it to get the most out of people, and how to beat the competition by both speed and in the creation of entire new systems of technology. He also knew how to manipulate the media and build on his fame, creating a myth to which he had to live up. That being said, he had a pitch-perfect intuitive sense not only of potential new markets, but of how to create technical solutions to exploit them. He learned from his failures and strove to apply his less-successful inventions elsewhere, often to great effect. Taken together, this was true business genius and Israel explains it all succinctly, including the exposure of Edison's many weaknesses in management and his financial affairs and his many flops (such as the mining experiments that nearly bankrupted him). Furthermore, the basics of his major inventions - improvements to the telegraph and telephone, the light bulb, commerical electricity generation systems, to mention a few - are covered with competence, always with an eye to the management of it all and what it took, all of which are of great use. This adds up to a masterpiece of scholarship and popular writing in my view, crossing a plethora of disciplines in very readable prose and at a good pace of storytelling.

    However, there are many things that make this a challenging read and in some ways disappointing. Even though I know a lot about science and engineering from my own writing, I found the many passages explaining the nuts and bolts of his inventions hard to follow and ultimately rather dry. If the reader is not interested in these highly technical details, he can skim them without losing the narrative thread. Moreover, Edison as a person does not always come thru, though really he was his work and not much else. You also do not learn much about the fate of his enterprises or even his personal financial fortune after his death, which is also a part of his legacy that should be explored. Finally, Israel addresses somewhat rarified questions in the concluding chapter regarding whether Edison was a "scientist" and how industrial research was changing (developing specialties that required far more education than inventors of Edison's "heroic invention" epoch) to make the emergence of generalist, self-taught inventors like him far more difficult and with limited horizons; while I enjoyed this a great deal, it is of limited interest to those who were never steeped in "science policy."

    All in all, highest recommendation. It is a great achievement and will stand as one of the definitive biographies of this great and difficult man.

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