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Machine Dreams

The Papers of Thomas A. Edison Volume 1: The Making of an Inventor, February 1847–June 1873

edited by Reese V. Jenkins. others
Johns Hopkins University Press, 708 pp., $65.00

The Evolution of Technology

by George Basalla
Cambridge University Press, 248 pp., $10.95 (paper)

American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970

by Thomas P. Hughes
Viking, 529 pp., $24.95


Thomas A. Edison invented his life story as he invented electromechanical systems, by imaginative adaptations of previous stories and systems, with essential elements improved at critical points. He was the purely self-made man, without formal education, patronage, or inheritance. His invented life ignored the few years he had in a Michigan school, and the instruction he received at home from his schoolteacher mother. It repeated the Horatio Alger theme of spectacular success with no one’s help but what he won with pluck and luck. He even pictures himself saving a baby from the path of a train to win the gratitude of an influential man.

Most of all he stressed his insatiable curiosity and freethinking independence, which got him fired from one job after another, from his start as a newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad, through a decade of itinerant jobs as a telegrapher and willful adventurer in the world of invention, until, turning twenty, he finally emerged as master of his own invention factory, with a corps of skilled assistants working out his ingenious improvements in electromechanical systems.

He told that story many times to admiring reporters and when he was sixty finally put it in writing for the guidance of his official biographers. The excellent editors of his Papers include those autobiographical notes in this first volume, a triumph of the bookmaker’s art, with splendidly arranged illustrations, essential background information, and cautionary reminders of the common sources on which his imagination drew.

Rambunctious wandering from job to job was common to the telegrapher’s trade, and so too were the picturesque tales they told along the way—or swapped over the wires in quiet hours—telling of jobs suddenly resigned on individualist impulse or literally destroyed in drunken outbursts, of the practical jokes they played on each other or their bosses, of contests for speed in sending and receiving, of gambling in keno parlors, and of bawdry. Edison repeats such tales with gusto, though letting us know that he is skipping the bawdy part of his collection and that he himself abstained from alcohol. He expressed his own flamboyant individuality in practical jokes of an inventive sort, such as wiring a washbasin to shock the hands that dipped in it, or rigging an apparatus to electrocute roaches on his workbench, which delighted fellow workers and embarrassed the boss of an especially filthy shop.

Most of all, Edison’s tales emphasize his willfully persistent experimentation, regardless of employers’ disapproval and the mishaps that prompted it—such as spilling a carboy of sulfuric acid, which leaked through the floor into the boss’s office. His employers were mostly dimwits, but exceptional men of vision recognized his inventive genius from the start. When he was only twelve, publishing his own newspaper with a hand press on a moving train, he was seen by a famous British engineer, who put news of the prodigy in the London Times. But that could not be, the editors inform us, for the famous engineer was already dead when Edison achieved “the 1st newspaper in the world to be printed on a train in motion.”

A little fiction of that sort hardly matters, though it has been constantly repeated as fact even in scholarly biographies, and will be read forever in “The Electrical Wizard,” one of the lives of celebrities that Dos Passos scattered through U.S.A. The supreme fiction that informs Edison’s story of himself matters a great deal, for it is the American dream of oneself in triumph: he was his own man, who freely chose what he wanted to do and did it with enormous success, whether measured in lasting celebrity or indisputable benefit to humanity. Dos Passos’s novel casts ironic doubt on that audacious self-assurance, as it does on the analogous dreams of all its pushy American characters. They are all reduced to pathetic unfreedom by the modern system, the leviathan they thought to manipulate for individual gain or to change for the benefit of all.

With spectacular early success to feed his growing ambition as inventor, entrepreneur, and magnate, Edison put together the biggest invention factory in the world, and expanded his commitments even further, into grand projects for ore separation and cement manufacture, where he failed, “behaving like the ‘small-brained capitalists’ he once despised.” That is not Dos Passos’s novelistic opinion; it is the sober judgment of Thomas Hughes, a scholarly historian of technology, in his new book, American Genesis.

Ironies of that sort abound in “these great times,” as Henry Adams perceived in 1862:

Man has mounted science and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.1

We may hope that is lurid caricature, but we can hardly deny the paradox that it exaggerates: the modern system of applied science, though created by human minds and hands, confronts them as an alien power, crippling the sense of freedom that it was intended to serve, possibly threatening human existence itself.

That is not a distinctively leftist insight, though it does go with dreams of revolutionary leaps to mastery of the system. Thinkers of the right have been moved by the same insight to dreams of salvation by church and throne. When Dostoevsky visited London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in the 1850s, the first world’s fair of the industrial age, he saw a human anthill, which would drive individual ants to prove their autonomy by self-destructive outbursts or spiteful isolation, or both. Notes from Underground, the little novel that expressed that bilious vision of the self-made man as rebellious insect, may now enjoy the widest and most sympathetic reception of all the classics that teachers of literature assign to students. Against such subversive influences, genially oblivious to them, stands the life story that Edison invented, the self-made man who won the admiration of humanity by showering beneficent inventions on it.

Pride in work is one of the main features of Edison’s story, that is, in work as the free expression of himself, his unique, creative mind–brain–hand. Even as a receiver of telegraphic news reports, translating dots and dashes into written English, he boasts of winning fame for speed through creativity: he would jot down key phrases and invent the intervening stuff. He notes the laughing admiration of his fellow telegraphers when they caught on, and neglects to say how they reacted to the deliberate destruction of their craft, which was his first major project of invention. “Automatic telegraphy” is the main topic in this first volume of Edison’s Papers. The first step was to put women in place of men, that is, to replace the machines that required skilled male operators with a system of decoding and printing machinery that could be operated by “girls,” the routine label in these documents for ideally cheap and tractable employees.

Few of Edison’s letters survive, but we can get their gist from the responses of Daniel Craig, his major financial supporter, a one-time journalist who had risen to be president of the Associated Press, had been pushed out by Western Union, and dreamed of winning a monopoly over the wire services. He calculated that a four-to-one cut in labor costs would come with the machinery Edison was developing, and urged him on with impatient goading—“When are you going to have something to show…?”—and with lavish praise for his genius. “Indeed, if you should tell me that you could make babies by machinery, I shouldn’t doubt it.”

Edison and Craig were applying to the communications industry what Andrew Ure in 1835 had called “the philosophy of manufactures.” Ure was a British professor of industrial engineering, as we would say nowadays, who found the essence of the industrial system in “training human beings…to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.” Of course he did not include himself in the mass that needed such training. He had in mind the lower order that works for wages, and works poorly until disciplined by “the complex automaton,” his neat metaphor for the factory system as a whole. Within it, “the benignant power of steam summons around him his myriads of willing menials, and assigns to each his regulated task.” Edison and Craig replaced the benignant power of steam with electricity, but otherwise carried forward the dream of lesser human beings trained to serve the complex automaton. “You captivate my whole heart,” Craig wrote to Edison in 1871, “when you speak of making machines that will require ‘No Intelligence.’ That’s the thing for Telegraphers“—but not for people like us, he did not need to add.

In class-conscious Britain Ure plainly distinguished between shiftless lesser beings, whose autonomy had to be repressed, and men of the commanding sort, creators of the factory system who expressed their autonomous powers with “a Napoleon nerve and ambition.” In 1878 a British newspaper called Edison, barely thirty years old, “the Napoleon of invention,” and some Americans repeated the image of the self-made man as emperor. In 1888 Edison even posed for a Napoleonic photograph—romantically slouched with dark commanding stare over the phonograph that had just yielded to a five-day assault by the sleepless superman and his troops—but usually he showed a better sense of public relations in democratic America. His notes for the official biographers avoid the distinction between lesser and higher beings, and he may have avoided it even in the letters to Craig that projected machines requiring no intelligence. But the distinction is quite plain in Craig’s replies and, indeed, in all they were doing to achieve automatic telegraphy. They were expressing themselves, their craft and power, by subjecting workers of the lower sort to machinery that represses self-expression.

To be sure, the higher sort of work imposes its own kind of enslavement. Edison was evidently boasting of his round-the-clock labor already in 1871—his catnaps on the job would become a photographic icon of his legend—provoking Craig to rival boasting: “I claim to have more real work in me than any other ten men except, only, yourself—and I have all the ambition in the new field that you could possibly desire me to have.” Such competition for the championship of honorific work was a contest precisely for honor, with great financial prizes to certify the highest honor. It was a world apart from the treadmill they were devising for office girls, not to speak of the unemployment they were preparing for telegraphers. Those types would prove themselves losers, as Americans like to say, while Edison and Craig would prove themselves winners—all striving together in the service of the complex automaton. And the life story that Edison told, and the press imprinted on the mass mind, would reinforce the common faith that America is a land of democratic equality. Everybody gets what’s coming to him.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford University Press, 1964),p.350.

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