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
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…

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