Thomas A. Edison
Thomas A. Edison; drawing by David Levine


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.


The progress of modern technology, it has often been said, demands that persons be treated like things, to be valued or devalued, used or cast aside, as required by some mechanical exigency, in this case the increasing speed and volume of messages flowing through a growing network of wires. There is some truth in that, but it is enclosed within an ideological confusion between the system’s cultural values and its physical principles. The maleness of telegraphers was not a physical requirement of the equipment that needed minds and hands to translate between English and Morse code, nor was the femaleness of their replacements specified by the new machinery that took over the translation and lowered the level of skill among those who ran it. That point about sex is easily grasped nowadays, thanks to the strength of the women’s movement, but a deeper confusion about skill goes largely unchallenged because the labor movement has grown so weak. We tend to assume that increasing automatic capacity in machinery necessarily depresses skill and status in workers, whether male or female, that the automation of work entails the replacement of “tool users” by “machine tenders,” as Thomas Hughes has neatly labeled a major feature of industrialization.

Is that depression of skill, that crippling of autonomy among people who work with machines, an unavoidable cost of technological progress? I note that it is avoided when the status of the workers specifies avoidance, as it does, for example, with respect to physicians or plumbers. In those trades mechanized equipment is devised to enhance the use of knowledge and manual skills, not to depress it. Of course it would be utopian to imagine Edison inventing equipment for communications workers with the same respect he would have shown for physicians or plumbers, but the utopianism of the thought is in its challenge to sociocultural reality, not electromechanical principles. Physicians and plumbers have rank as autonomous workers and are provided with appropriate equipment; communications workers get what’s coming to them, machinery that reinforces their subordinate status.

It is misleading to see the problem of technology, as it so often is presented, as a choice between determinism and free will: either the technological system determines the way we must arrange our lives, or we decide how our machines are to be used. An abstract hammer is usually brandished to make the case for free will: it can be used either for constructive or for murderous purpose; therefore, choose life. In the real world ingenious inventors have created hundreds of different hammers (see Figure I.1 in George Basalla’s Evolution of Technology) and the significance of those instruments is to be found in the differences, not in the mechanical similarity they share with a mace or a blackjack. Likewise for whole systems of technology; they reveal the societies that invent and use them, not just the inventors’ grasp of mechanical principles but also their notions of social status and distributive justice, even their metaphysical beliefs about the self that must be expressed or altered or repressed in the work process. In one of Karl Marx’s classic formulations:

Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions which flow from those relations.

That quote stands as epigraph to a recent history of the seed business, that is, the social process by which seeds have been transformed from nature’s gift into marketable commodities, the stuff of biotechnology.2 Confessional Marxism is quite absent from such recent works by historians of technology; they appropriate ideas from any serious thinkers, whether Karl Marx or Ortega y Gasset or Lewis Mumford, who have tried to fit the development of technology within human history at large. Such boldly eclectic specialists are trying to overcome the isolation of their discipline as an anti-quarian sideline of history, a museum in which genealogies of obsolete machines are pedantically reconstructed and claims of priority are tediously debated.3

George Basalla, a historian of technology at the University of Delaware, has made an especially ambitious effort to break out of those musty confines. He has condensed the evolution of technology within two hundred pages, not by a breathless rush through genealogies and priority claims, but by cogent analysis of the rival theories that have been offered to explain technological change or stasis. The result is an absorbing and richly informative interweaving of conflicting theories with well-chosen examples to test the elements of truth in each. The most popular theory, the vision of the inventor “as a romantic hero who battled social inertia…to bestow the gifts of technology upon humankind,” is traced to its origin and destroyed. Even Edison shrinks into an illustration of social processes.

Automatic telegraphy, to return to Edison’s first major achievement, would have emerged when it did, and very much in the forms it did, if Edison had blown himself up in his boyhood trials of explosives. As for the incandescent bulb that crowns his image in the mass mind, that too was the product of a race by several inventors toward a widely perceived goal. Edison distinguished himself in the invention of integrated systems, especially the system of organized invention—the invention factory, as I have called his pioneering version of the industrial research lab. And of course he left his imprint on the electrical power systems that emerged at the turn of the century.

Basalla calls attention to rival forms that were overborne by Edison’s genius for devising all the parts of the system, from home wiring to central power plant, to fit within an operating cost lower than gaslight, which was the inspiring model and the major competitor. His genius extended also, and crucially, to command; he knew how to muster financial and press support for his grand schemes, and how to drive his invention factory in shock-brigade style to overcome the bottlenecks in the systems that he sold to financiers and the public at large before they were in workable condition. The Pearl Street station, which started producing the electricity to serve one square mile of New York in 1882, is quite small-scale in retrospect, but Edison’s approach pointed toward the marshaling of enormous systems by magnates like Samuel Insull, who learned the business as Edison’s secretary.

Thomas Hughes, the leading historian of electrification, has shown how monopolistic power companies extending over large areas won out over small-scale systems. To be sure, small companies have been enjoying a revival in the United States, challenging the received economic wisdom and the governmental rules that fostered monopolies throughout large regions. But it seems unlikely that the small companies will win more than niches within huge grids dominated by single firms. Hughes emphasizes the powerful logic of the monopolistic form that Edison and Insull gave to electrification: the “load factor,” the ratio of average demand to the capacity required for peak demand, obliges the company to expand, to seek an increasingly large region of service and an increased diversity of customers and their uses of electricity. The generating plants needed for peak evening hours must pay for themselves in other hours by powering equipment that the mass public must be taught to demand, by reaching out to areas and activities on different time schedules, by persuading industrial managers to use electricity from central stations rather than their own generators—each widening of the gyre compelling the next in pursuit of maximum return on capital.

That was a major theme in Hughes’s magisterial history of electrification in the US, England, and Germany, a book that left the impression that large-scale systems were mandated by the laws of physics.4 Electrical power is very hard to store efficiently; otherwise every building could have its own economical power system as well as its own heating plant. In his new book Hughes looks beyond electrification to technological development as a whole, as an integral part of US history, and he has serious second thoughts. He does not question the compelling logic of the load factor, except for the brief observation that it is compelling not only because electrical power is hard to store, but also because our society is obsessed with maximum return on capital. Physical and cultural principles act in fusion to shape the systems that shape the human beings who perceive the fusion of principles as imperatives in the further expansion of technological systems.

Hughes calls that “technological momentum,” and ascribes to it the long-term tendency of grand systems to overwhelm the commendable purposes for which they were originally designed. The power grids that Edison and Insull created with private capital and public franchises inspired the drive for public power serving grander goals, most notably in the TVA. The TVA set the precedent for the Manhattan Project and provided part of its electricity; and out of that precedent has come the military-industrial complex, with its endlessly swelling “baroque arsenal” that may yet prove Henry Adams to have been no lurid exaggerator back in 1862.

Was it so? Did the benign technology of electrification engender the great malignancy of the warfare state? Some will challenge the linkages that Hughes perceives between private power development and the TVA, and then between the TVA and “the mammoth governmental systems” of the baroque arsenal. He ignores the ideological conflicts that accompanied each transition, but they may have been mere froth on an irresistible tide. The zealots of private enterprise, who raged against public power, greedily endorsed huge public spending for weapons systems, while the liberals who championed public power for peaceful internal development in the 1930s adapted themselves most zealously to the crusade for freedom in foreign places, which justified the militarization of public spending. So Hughes may have had good reason to pass over all that ideological posturing within a process that he considered an irresistible product of “technological momentum.” I wish he had made his thought explicit.

Hughes claims at the outset that he has enlarged the history of technology to reach “the mainstream of American history,” but he does so through impressionist additions to the usual stories of inventions and their diffusion—throwing in chapters on futurism in the arts and the image of America in Germany and Russia—not by confronting such fundamental issues as Basalla presents. Hughes does not say outright that inventions determine the historical “mainstream,” but his narrative scheme leaves the impression that they do. In the beginning were the inventions—of systems, to be sure, not of separate artifacts; Hughes emphasizes that. Then came the diffusion of the new technological systems, with enthusiasm for them growing into “a technological culture,” and out of that came “mammoth government systems” and the military-industrial complex. The menace of that final stage has provoked disillusion and a “counterculture” of protest against modern technology, to which Hughes devotes his closing pages of somber reflection and modest hope.

It is easy to turn that sequence around, to present modern inventions as consequence rather than cause, recent products of a culture that emerged in Europe a long time ago. In the beginning, many have argued, was the compulsion to make every aspect of life fit some rule of reason, including religion and government as well as business enterprise and implements of production. Historians with that bias reach back to the Middle Ages, and discover in theological disputation and legal systems, clocks and double-entry bookkeeping, water wheels and the abandonment of serf labor—the list can be greatly extended—the drive for rationality that would culminate long afterward in the technology of steam and electricity and the communications networks that keep us all in line. Does it matter which strand of the integrated process the historian chooses to put first? Hughes unintentionally demonstrates that it does. By emphasizing inventions, leaving out most of the other strands, and ignoring the issues that attend the effort to weave them together, he brings us willy-nilly to technological determinism.

To be sure, readers who don’t look for theoretical argument in history books won’t regret its absence in American Genesis. They will enjoy, as I did, its informative accounts of major inventors and organizers—Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor as well as Edison, but most of all Elmer Sperry, the inventor not only of the gyroscope but also of many automatic control systems, who is clearly the author’s favorite—and they will share the author’s worry over the “technological momentum” that carried the US from monopolistic electrification to the mammoth constructions of the warfare state. Perhaps they will be impressed by Lewis Mumford’s conversion from romantic enthusiasm for modern technology to disillusion and criticism, which Hughes presents as a major turning point, the beginning of the effort to assert human control over modern systems.

I cannot help noting, with all respect for Mumford, that Rousseau, who started that kind of critical thought, was a far more powerful thinker, with a much greater impact on activists as well as philosophers. So I cannot help observing a decline of the critical tradition where Hughes perceives emergent promise. The image of modern society as a speeding vehicle without a driver—to take a vivid expression of the tradition—captivated Hughes in Mumford’s version, but I note that it disturbed a larger readership in Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901), and a much larger audience in Zola’s great novel of railroad systems and homicidal mania, La Bête humaine (1890). Like Mumford, Norris, and Zola—and Marx and Rousseau too, for that matter—admired modern technology at the same time that they worried over it. The questioning of faith in technological progress has often been the twin of enthusiasm for pressing it further; both appeal to the basic assumption that human beings can improve their lot by worrying about it. The common adversary is mindless acceptance of the systems that keep us in line, and my sense is that such servility has been increasing in our century.

George Basalla approaches such issues, but backs away from them with the declaration that the process of technological change is ultimately akin to natural selection, which works its way regardless of human will. He is too keen and well-informed a historian to insist on that notion in any literal sense. Indeed, he repeatedly tells us why the evolution of technology can not be explained by the principle of natural selection. Conscious intentions to improve beyond the level of mere subsistence and mental calculation of ways to that goal are crucial to the development of technology, but they are not among the selective pressures that shape biological species. In Basalla’s usage natural selection is only a metaphor to point toward long-term incongruities between the intended and the actual results of technological change:

During the process of selection, humankind is constantly defining and redefining itself and its cultural situation. As it establishes its changing goals, technological choices are made that may affect the welfare of generations to come. This selection process is of crucial importance for present and future human history, yet it does not function in a rational, systematic, or democratic manner.

To press that kind of thought further is to get involved in philosophizing about history, and Basalla turns away from such metaphysics, as he calls it. The metaphor of natural selection serves to brush off the question whether human beings can distinguish themselves from other animals by gaining comprehension of their evolving condition and shaping it to accord with purposes that reach beyond mere survival. To assume without argument that they cannot is to provide more evidence that Lewis Mumford marked the end, rather than the beginning, of serious critical thought about technology. I hope I am wrong.

This Issue

December 7, 1989