Thomas Edison

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William Irving Sirovich.


Thomas Edison.


Embalming team with Vladimir Lenin’s corpse.


For better or worse, Vladimir Lenin was treated with a powerful embalming fluid when he succumbed in 1924, allowing his body to lay in state for the long-term. (His caretakers, by the way, drank some of the alcohol used in the process and got properly pissed.) It wasn’t an easy afterlife for the remains as they had to be spirited to Siberia during WWII to ensure the Nazis didn’t abscond with them. More than 145 years and many “touch-ups” later, the Bolshevik hero still looks swell.

In 1931, the New York congressman-doctor-playwright William Irving Sirovich traveled to Europe and learned of a method for lasting post-life preservation. Upon his return, he suggested the United States use the treatment to follow the Soviet lead and hold onto its heroes long after their last breaths. Since it was just days after the passing of Thomas Edison, Sirovich hoped the inventor would be the first to be maintained in this manner. An article in the October 23, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle had the story.



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If you thought the public mourning over Steve Jobs’ death seemed outsize, just imagine what went on when Thomas Edison, whose contributions were much more foundational, was at life’s end.

While Edison didn’t create the first incandescent lamp (that was Sir Joseph Wilson Swan whom he eventually partnered with), his 1879 invention and business acumen enabled the brightness of modernity. It was this accomplishment among his many that was celebrated with “Light’s Golden Jubilee” in 1929, a live celebration of the Edison bulb that was broadcast on radio. President Hoover was there in person, and Albert Einstein, Madame Curie, Orville Wright and Will Rogers were a few guests who were patched in remotely. Edison reenacted his eureka moment and entire cities put on blinding light shows. It was a merry time that beat by just four days the arrival of the stock market crash that begat the Great Depression.

In 1931, when the inventor died, many American schools were closed and everything from lightbulbs to trains were turned off for a moment in Edison’s honor. A pair of Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles embedded below recall the elaborate expressions of gratitude.


From October 20, 1929:

From October 21, 1931:


The occasion of French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion’s second marriage in 1920 gave opportunity to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to publish his thoughts on a machine Thomas Edison announced he was working on, which would purportedly allow the living to communicate with the dead. Talk about a long-distance call.

Flammarion, who believed a personality of sorts survived after life had ended, was understandably excited about the deceased being conjured via allegedly scientific means in Menlo Park. In addition to the serious astronomical work he published, Flammarion wrote sci-fi and speculative narratives and is credited with birthing the idea of an alien race superior to Earthlings, which he believed in actuality and utilized as a plot device in his fiction. 


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Fears about declining America innovation is a cyclical concern, not something that started with Peter Thiel. Thirty-five years ago, then-MIT President Paul Edward Gray believed if the sky wasn’t falling then it had at least darkened. Gray was right that smaller companies were about to explode into behemoths and elbow aside traditional giants, but his worries about regulation seem to have been excessive. And he clearly couldn’t have anticipated China’s rise.

Of course, the most honest response to the question “So there will be no more individual inventors like Edison?” is that Edison and other larger-than-life industrialists never were individual inventors. That was mostly a “Great Man” narrative. From Gail Jennes’ 1980 People interview with Gray:


What is happening to the spirit of innovation in America?

Paul Edward Gray:

The increasing complexity of the systems we work with makes innovation ever more difficult. It requires larger investments in laboratories, equipment and people—and more sophistication in all of them. Not that inventing a practical light bulb looked simple to Edison around 1879 when he did it; but it was physically a lot less complex than, say, what Edwin Land faced when he invented instant photography in 1947. And that, in turn, seems simple in comparison with some of the challenges facing us today.


So there will be no more individual inventors like Edison?

Paul Edward Gray:

Well, in the last decade or two it’s become harder for an inventor to bring a new idea into the marketplace. It’s not just a matter of the light bulb turning on over somebody’s head, as in the cartoons. The innovator has to think about the problems of marketing, sales, controlling the manufacturing process and, not least, meeting the demands of government regulatory agencies.


Then who is replacing the old-fashioned inventor?

Paul Edward Gray:

Small companies like Alza Corp., a pharmaceutical company in California, and Florida’s LaserColor Laboratories. The large corporations have the means to innovate, but they develop an investment in the present—a mindset which values stability and resists the introduction of radically different ideas. Take the transistor, or semiconductor, as an example. None of the companies that made vacuum tubes 30 years ago is significant in semiconductors today. The ability to invent and the ability to capitalize on invention are often two radically different things. …


In terms of innovation, is the U.S.S.R. gaining on us?

Paul Edward Gray:

Basic science there in many respects is very good. In certain areas, such as fusion research, they’ve been in the forefront. But that’s not true of their technology. Why is the U.S.S.R. so interested in buying large-scale and medium-size computers? Because they can’t make their own. They can hand-tailor a few for military installations, but they can’t produce modern, fast digital processors like we can. The Soviets will not be our competitors in any high-technology world market in the foreseeable future. The same thing is true of China, in spades. I visited Peking last summer, and their computer, chemical and engineering sciences are 20 years or more behind. They’ll have a tough time catching up.


Who will be our competitors?

Paul Edward Gray:

A few Western European countries, principally Germany. Also Japan. And maybe in the near future some other Far East nations. Taiwan, for instance, has developed at a tremendous clip. So has South Korea.


Are you optimistic about the future of science in the U.S.?

Paul Edward Gray:

Someone once said that the difference between the optimist and the pessimist is that the pessimist understands things better. I’m not sure I agree. I guess I am an optimist. A large part of the answer lies in training the scientists and engineers of the 1980s and 1990s to deal with novelty and uncertainty. At MIT, we’re in the right place at the right point in history to make a difference. I hope we can.•

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A non-projection version of the Kinetophone that presaged the theater type. It was referred to as a “peep show.”

A 1912 Edison publicity still of a home version of the Kinetophone.

A 1912 Edison publicity still of a home version of the Kinetophone.

One persistent problem for Thomas Edison was the development of the talking picture. He thought he had the answer in 1913, when he exhibited a projection version of his Kinetophone in New York City to much acclaim. But it was still just another phonograph record-based model that had to be synced to the images by an operator, Unfortunately, these employees generally had butterfingers, and the new sensation soon lost its lustre. Before the close of the following year, all the Kinetophone images and sound masters were destroyed in a warehouse fire. True talkies would have to wait. A New York Times article about the initial exhibition, which touched on the technical issues to come:

After Thomas A. Edison had invented the motion picture and the talking machine he dreamed of talking pictures, and the next morning he went to work again. For several years hints came from the Edison laboratory that the Kinetophone was in the process of development. Finally Edison spoke of his invention as a thing accomplished and yesterday, for the first time on any stage, the “Kinetophone” was on the bill at four of the Keith Theatres, the Colonial, the Alhambra, the Union Square, and the Fifth Avenue. To judge from the little gasps of astonishment and the chorus of “Ain’t that something wonderful?” that could be heard on all sides the Kinetophone is a success.

The problem involved was fairly simple. Mr. Edison was looking for perfect synchronization of record and film. The difficulty was to have a record sufficiently sensitive to receive the sounds from the lips of actors who would still be free to move about in front of the camera instead of being obliged to roar into the horn of a phonograph. But the difficulties have been overcome and the kinetoscope is actually in vaudeville and highly regarded there.

The first number of the exhibit was a descriptive lecture. The screen showed a man in one of those terribly stuffy, early eighties rooms that motion-picture folk seem to affect. He talked enthusiastically about the invention, and as his lips moved the words sounded from the big machine behind the screen. Gesture and speech made the thing startlingly real. He broke a plate, blew a whistle, dropped a weight. The sounds were perfect. Then he brought on a pianist, violinist, and soprano, and “The Last Rose of Summer” was never listened to with more fascinated attention. Finally the scope of kinetophone powers was further illustrated by a bugler’s apoplectic efforts, and the barking of some perfect collies.

The second number was a minstrel show with orchestra, soloists, end men, and interlocutor, large as life and quite as noisy. It brought down the respective houses but the real sensation of the day was scored quite unintentionally by the operator of the machine at the Union Square Theatre last evening. He inadvertently set the picture some ten or twelve seconds ahead of his sounds, and the result was amazing. The interlocutor, who, by a coincidence, wore a peculiarly defiant and offended expression, would rise pompously, his lips would move, he would bow and sit down. Then his speech would float out over the audience. It would be an announcement of the next song, and before it was all spoken the singer would be on his feet with his mouth expanded in fervent but soundless song.

This diverted the audience vastly, but the outbursts of laughter would come when the singer would close his lips, smile in a contented manner, bow, notes were still ringing clear. The audience, however, knew what happened, and the mishap did not serve to lessen their tribute of real wonder at Edison’s intent.•


“Mr. Edison was not entirely present, but he was not entirely absent.”

Thomas Edison’s phonograph, or “talking machine,” though not an immediate commercial success, was nonetheless an amazement. “He” was received in London society for a demonstration of the remarkable machine. From an article in the August 15, 1888 New York Times:

London–Thomas A. Edison was given a very handsome reception this afternoon by Col. Gourand at his beautiful villa, Little Menlo, at Upper Norwood, in Surrey. A large number of ladies and gentlemen gathered there to meet the distinguished inventor of America. The reception included a dinner, lasting from 3 o’clock to 8 o’clock. Under the inspiring influence of popular appreciation Mr. Edison made a speech, in which he dwelt first upon his first visit to England, 18 years ago, and then devoted himself to a humorous criticism of English politics and climate. He then proceeded to amaze the company by reciting ‘Bingen on the Rhine,’ and winding up with a most extraordinary whistling spasm. Then he sang a funeral march, and without waiting for an encore gave ‘Mary had a little lamb.’ He told funny stories, and, in fact, conducted quite a variety entertainment all by himself. Mr. Edison was not entirely present, but he was not entirely absent, and the perplexity of the company over the human voice and its absent owner, 3,000 miles away, was very great.

Mrs. Alice Shaw, who has quite conquered London, whistled for the perfected phonograph, and it whistled back quite as brilliantly as she did. A large number of the guests were presented to Mr. Edison via the phonograph, each making a short speech to him suitable to the occasion. When the company was breaking up three rousing cheers were given for Edison, with a tiger and long clapping of hands. The effect, when the cheers and applause were repeated a moment later, was funny in the extreme. All the introductions, whistling solos, British cheers, &c., dryly recorded on the wax cylinders, will be taken to America by Mr. W. H. Crane of ‘The Henrietta.’ When they arrive Mr Edison will find that he has a lot of acquaintances who know him very well by voice but not by sight. The reception was an exceedingly novel one, and the new machines, with their perfect articulation, excited wonder, reaching in many cases to amazement.•

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We appreciate the pioneering spirit but sometimes in retrospect discount the costs. The experiences of Clarence M. Dally, a former military man and glassblower who worked as Thomas Edison’s point person on the development of X-rays, serve as a cautionary tale. From an article in the October 4, 1904 New York Times:

“EAST ORANGE–Clarence M. Dally, electrical engineer, died yesterday at his home 108 Clinton Street North, East Orange, a martyr to science, the beginning of his illness having been due to his experimental work in connection with the Roentgen rays. For seven years he patiently bore terrible suffering and underwent seven operations, which finally culminated in the amputation of both his arms.

During the experimental work on the X-rays Mr. Dally was Thomas A. Edison’s chief assistant. Mr. Edison himself was slightly burned with the chemicals, but Mr. Dally, who had almost all of the experimenting to do, was quite badly burned on his hands. He suffered no pain from these burns, but his hands looked as though they had been scalded.

Six months after the first indications appeared the hands began to swell, and Mr. Dally was unable to keep at work continuously, but went to many of the hospitals where the X-ray was being installed and set up the machines and did some work in the laboratory besides. He suffered in this way for two years, when he and his family went West.

Cancer finally developed on the left wrist, and he came East for treatment. An operation was performed, but not successfully.

The disease then steadily spread and Dally was taken to the New York Post-Graduate Hospital, where the affected arm was amputated four inches below the shoulder. For a time an improvement was apparent, but the little finger on the right arm became affected, and on Nov. 1902, this member was taken off at his home.

Three other fingers were removed on June 16, 1903. The development of a spot on the wrist made it necessary to perform another operation on Sept. 7 of the same year. On Nov. 18 the physicians performed another operation where the stump of the little finger remained. Later the right arm was amputated.

A pair of artificial arms was provided for him, but he used them only a week when he was obliged to succumb, the disease having affected his entire system. During the seven years he had been unable to care for himself, and all the time he was West he was obliged to rest his hands in water during the night to allay the terrible burning sensation.”

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From “7 Epic Fails Brought to You By the Genius Mind of Thomas Edison,” Erica R. Hendry’s fun Smithsonian article about the master inventor’s follies:

Electric pen

As railroads and other companies expanded in the late 19th century, there was a huge demand for tools administrative employees could use to complete tasks—including making multiple copies of handwritten documents—quicker.

Enter the electric pen. Powered by a small electric motor and battery, the pen relied on a handheld needle that moved up and down as an employee wrote. Instead of pushing out ink, though, the pen punched tiny holes through the paper’s surface; the idea was employees could create a stencil of their documents on wax paper and make copies by rolling ink over it, ‘printing’ the words onto blank pieces of paper underneath.

Edison, whose machinist, John Ott, began to manufacture the pens in 1875, hired agents to sell the pens across the Mid-Atlantic. Edison charged agents $20 a pen; the agents sold them for $30.

The first problems with the invention were purely cosmetic: the electric pen was noisy, and much heavier than those employees had used in the past. But even after Edison improved the sound and weight, problems persisted. The batteries had to be maintained using chemical solutions in a jar. ‘It was messy,’ says [Leonard]  DeGraaf.”


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Not to pick on Google today because as an outsider I’m fascinated by what the company is trying to accomplish, but they used to ask prospective employees ridiculous questions to make themselves feel special. But that company wasn’t the first to be criticized for such a practice: In 1921, Thomas Edison was taken to task for a similar thing. Here are 141 of the questions he asked applicants, per the New York Times:

  1. What countries bound France?
  2. Where is the Rover Volga?
  3. What country and city produce the finest China?
  4. Where does the finest cotton grow?
  5. What country consumed the most tea before the war?
  6. What city in the United States is noted for its laundry machine making?
  7. What city is the fur centre in the United States?
  8. Can you play any musical instrument?
  9. What country is the greatest textile producer?
  10. Is Australia larger than Greenland in area?
  11. Where is Copenhagen?
  12. Where is Spitzbergen?
  13. In what country other than Australia are kangaroos found?
  14. What telescope is the largest in the world?
  15. Who was Bessemer and what did he do?
  16. Where do we get prunes from?
  17. How many States in the Union?
  18. Who was Paul Revere?
  19. Who was Hancock?
  20. Who was Plutarch?
  21. Who was Hannibal?
  22. Who was Danton?
  23. Who was Solon?
  24. Who was Frances Marion?
  25. Who was Leonidas?
  26. Where did we get Louisiana from?
  27. Who was Pizarro?
  28. Who was Bolivar?
  29. What war material did Chile export to the Allies during the war?
  30. Where does the most coffee come from?
  31. Where is Korea?
  32. Where is Manchuria?
  33. Where was Napoleon born?
  34. What is the highest rise of tide on the North Atlantic coast?
  35. Who invented logarithms?
  36. Who was Emperor of Mexico when Cortes landed?
  37. Where is the Imperial Valley and what is it noted for?
  38. In what cities are hats and shoes made?
  39. Where is the Sargasso Sea?
  40. What is the greatest depth ever reached in the ocean?
  41. What is the name of the large inland body of water that has no outlet?
  42. What is the capital of Pennsylvania?
  43. What state is the largest? The next?
  44. Rhode Island is the smallest state. What is the next and the next?
  45. How far is it from New York to Buffalo by way of the New York Central Railroad?
  46. How far is it from New York to San Francisco?
  47. Of what State is Helena the Capital?
  48. What State has the largest copper mines?
  49. What State has the largest amethyst mines?
  50. What is the name of the famous violin maker?
  51. Who invented the modern paper-making machine?
  52. Who invented the typesetting machine?
  53. Who invented the printing press?
  54. On what principle is the telephone based?
  55. Of what is brass made?
  56. Where do we get tin from?
  57. What ingredients are in the best white paint?
  58. How is leather tanned?
  59. How is artificial silk made?
  60. What is a caisson?
  61. What is coke?
  62. How is celluloid made?
  63. Where do we get shellac from?
  64. What causes the tides?
  65. To what is the change of the seasons due?
  66. What is the population of the following countries: Germany, Japan, England, Australia, Russia?
  67. From what part of the North Atlantic do we get codfish?
  68. Who discovered the south pole?
  69. What is a monsoon?
  70. Where is Magdalena Bay?
  71. From where do we import figs?
  72. From where do we import dates?
  73. From where do we get prunes?
  74. From where do we get domestic sardines?
  75. What railroad is the longest in the world?
  76. Where is Tallahassee?
  77. Where is Kenosha?
  78. How fast does sound travel per foot per second?
  79. How fast does light travel per foot per second?
  80. What planet is it that has been recently measured and found to be of enormous size?
  81. What large river in the United States is it that flows from south to north?
  82. Where are the straits of Messina?
  83. In what country are earthquakes frequent?
  84. What mountain is the highest in the world?
  85. Where do we import cork from?
  86. Name six big business men in the United States.
  87. Who is called the father of railways?
  88. Where was Lincoln born?
  89. Who stated the following: ‘Fourscore and seven years ago,” &c?
  90. What business do you like best?
  91. Are you experienced in any of the following: Salesmanship, clerk, stenography, bookkeeping?
  92. Name a few kinds of wood used in making furniture, and the highest priced?
  93. What kind of wood is the lightest?
  94. What kind of wood is the heaviest?
  95. Of what kind of wood are axe handles made?
  96. Of what kind of wood are kerosene barrels made?
  97. What part of Germany do we get toys from?
  98. What states bound West Virginia?
  99. Where do we get peanuts from?
  100. What is the capital of Alabama?
  101. Who wrote “Home, Sweet Home”?
  102. Who wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner”?
  103. Who composed “Il Trovatore”?
  104. Who was Cleopatra?
  105. Where are Condors found?
  106. What voltage is used on street cars?
  107. Who discovered the law of Gravitation?
  108. What cereal is used all over the world?
  109. Where is the Assuan Dam?
  110. What country produces the most nickel?
  111. What is the distance between the earth and the sun?
  112. Who invented photography?
  113. Where do we get wood from?
  114. What is felt?
  115. What states produce phosphates?
  116. Why is cast iron called pig iron?
  117. Name three principal acids?
  118. Name three principal alkalis?
  119. Name three powerful poisons?
  120. Who discovered radium?
  121. Who discovered the X-ray?
  122. What is the weight of air in a room 20x30x10?
  123. Where is platinum found?
  124. With what metal is platinum associated when found?
  125. How is sulphuric acid made?
  126. Who discovered how to vulcanize rubber?
  127. Where do we get sulphur from?
  128. Where do we import rubber from?
  129. Who invented the cotten gin?
  130. What is the price of 12 grs. of gold?
  131. What is vulcanite and how is it made?
  132. What is glucose and how is it made?
  133. What is the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal?
  134. Where do we get benzol from?
  135. Of what is glass made?
  136. How is window glass made?
  137. What is porcelain?
  138. What kind of machine is used in cutting the facets of diamonds?
  139. What country makes the best optical lenses and what city?
  140. Where do we get borax from?
  141. What is a foot pound?



“The brain, like the phonographic cylinder, is a mere record.”

Thomas Edison didn’t believe humans were magical, individual souls created by God but simply a swarm of biological machines. The death of philosopher William James in 1910 occasioned much breathless discussion in intellectual circles about immortality and heaven, but Edison wasn’t having any of it. From an article by Edward Marshall in the October 2, 1910 New York Times:

“No one has studied the minutiae of science with greater care than Edison. I determined, therefore, to find out what were his conclusions. And the result, as I have said, was amazing, fascinating. 

Searching the inner structure of all things for the fundamental. Edison told me he had come to the conclusion that there were is no ‘supernatural,’ or ‘supernormal,’ as the psychic researchers put it–that all there is, that all there has been, all there ever will be, soon or late, be explained among the material lines.

He denied the individuality of the human being, declaring that each human being is an aggregate, as a city is an aggregate. No just judge would, in these modern days of clearing vision, punish or reward an entire city full; therefore future reward and punishment for human beings seems to him unreasonable. Immortality of the human soul seems as unreasonable. He does not, indeed, admit existence of a soul.

A merciful and loving creator he considers not to be believed in. Nature, the supreme power, he recognizes and respects, but does not worship. Nature is not merciful and loving, but wholly merciless, indifferent. He hints, but does not say, that he believes discoveries of vast import will be made by man among the hidden mysteries of life, but thinks the present wave of ‘psychic study’ is conducted on wrong lines–lines which are so utterly at fault that it is most unlikely they ever will produce important information.

‘I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul,’ he said to me, as, with his eyes closed tightly while concentrated in deep thought, he sat the other day in the great, dim library which forms his private quarters in the tremendous works known as his ‘laboratory’ at Orange, N.J.

‘Heaven? Shall I, if I am good and earn reward, go to heaven when I die? No–no. I am not I–I am not an individual–I am an aggregate of cells, as for instance, New York City is an aggregate of individuals. Will New York City go to heaven?’

The perfecter of the telegraph, inventor of the megaphone, the phonograph, the aerophone, the incandescent lamp and lighting system, and more than 700 other things, raised his massive head and looked at me with eyes which did not see me because the mind behind them was busy searching the vast mysteries of our existence. 

edisonbulb‘I do not think that we are individuals at all,’ he went on slowly. ‘The illustration I have used is good. We are not individuals any more than a great city is an individual.

‘If you cut your finger and it bleeds, you lose cells. They are the individuals. You don’t know them–you don’t know your cells any more than New York City knows its five millions of inhabitants. You don’t know who they are.

‘No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life–our desire to go on living–our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it though. Personally I cannot see any use of a future life.

‘But the soul!’ I protested. The soul–‘

‘Soul? Soul? What do you mean by soul? The brain?’

‘Well, for the sake of argument, call it the brain, or what is in the brain. Is there not something immortal of or in the human brain–the human mind?’

‘Absolutely no,’ he said with emphasis. ‘There is no more reason to believe that any human brain will be immortal than there is to think that one of my phonographic cylinders will be immortal. My phonographic cylinders are mere records of sounds which have been impressed upon them.

Under given conditions, some of which we do not at all understand, any more than we understand some of the conditions of the brain, the phonographic cylinders give off these sounds again. For the time being we have perfect speech, or music, practically as perfect as is given off by the tongue when the necessary forces are set in motion by the brain.

‘Yet no one thinks of claiming immortality for the cylinders or the phonograph. Then why claim it for the brain mechanism or the power that drives it? Because we don’t know what this power is, shall we call it immortal? As well call electricity immortal because we do not know what it is.

‘The brain, like the phonographic cylinder, is a mere record, not of sounds alone, but of other things which have been impressed upon it by the mysterious power which actuates it. Perhaps it would be better if we called it a recording office, where records are made and stored. But no matter what you call it, it is a mere machine, and even the most enthusiastic soul theorist will concede that machines are not immortal.'”

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Here is a cool artifact of Harry Houdini, courtesy of It’s audio from a 1914 wax cylinder that Edison made of the master of escape. In the clip, Houdini describes his Water Torture Cell trick.

Harry Houdini speaking, in 1914 (mp3)

If you’re unfamiliar with Jason Kottke and his site, he’s one of the original bloggers and has been serving up intelligent posts since before most people heard of the word “blog.” Everyone who came after and tried to do something smart in the format owes him a debt. To learn more about his early days as a blogger, have a look at this 2000 New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead (subscription required).


More Harry Houdini posts:

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A tidy encapsulation of the what caused the rift between Edison and Tesla, courtesy of Smithsonian:

‘After Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879, supported by his own direct current electrical system, the rush to build hydroelectric plants to generate DC power in cities across the United States practically guaranteed Edison a fortune in patent royalties. But early on, Edison recognized the limitations of DC power. It was very difficult to transmit over distances without a significant loss of energy, and the inventor turned to a 28-year-old Serbian mathematician and engineer whom he’d recently hired at Edison Machine Works to help solve the problem. Nikola Tesla claimed that Edison even offered him significant compensation if he could design a more practical form of power transmission. Tesla accepted the challenge. With a background in mathematics that his inventor boss did not have, he set out to redesign Edison’s DC generators. The future of electric distribution, Tesla told Edison, was in alternating current—where high-voltage energy could be transmitted over long distances using lower current—miles beyond generating plants, allowing a much more efficient delivery system. Edison dismissed Tesla’s ideas as ‘splendid’ but ‘utterly impractical.’ Tesla was crushed and claimed that Edison not only refused to consider AC power, but also declined to compensate him properly for his work. Tesla left Edison in 1885 and set out to raise capital on his own for Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing, even digging ditches for the Edison Company to pay his bills in the interim, until the industrialist George Westinghouse at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, a believer in AC power, bought some of Tesla’s patents and set about commercializing the system so as to take electric light to something more than an urban luxury service. While Tesla’s ideas and ambitions might be brushed aside, Westinghouse had both ambition and capital, and Edison immediately recognized the threat to his business.”


Bowie as Tesla, The Prestige:

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At the American, Vaclav Smil argues that Steve Jobs shouldn’t be compared to Thomas Edison. An excerpt:

“I have no desire to disparage or dismiss anything Jobs has done for his company, for its stockholders, or for millions of people who are incurably addicted to incessantly checking their  tiny Apple phones or washing their brains with endless streams of music—I just want to explain why Jobs is no Edison.

Any student of the history of technical progress must be struck by the difference between the epochal, first-order innovations that take place only infrequently and at unpredictable times and the myriad of subsequent second-order inventions, improvements, and perfections that could not have taken place without such a breakthrough and that both accompany and follow (sometimes with great rapidity, often rather tardily) the commercial maturation of that fundamental enabling advance. The oldest example of such a technical saltation was when our hominin ancestors began using stones to fashion other stones into sharp tools (axes, knives, and arrows). And there has been no more fundamental, epoch-making modern innovation than the large-scale commercial generation, transmission, distribution, and conversion of electricity.”


Edison talks:

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Representation of the Ur-videophone, from Punch’s Almanack.



Thomas Edison with phonograph in 1868.

As we clasp hands and celebrate Thomas Edison’s birthday today, here’s a note about his modest beginnings in the December 1, 1898 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“When Thomas Edison was a boy he made a set of working telegraph instruments, not covering a small envelope in size, in his spare time. He fixed this on a line connecting the station at which he was at work and the town, using tenpenny nails for insulators; and in dry weather the tiny telegraph company worked very well, though things were apt to go wrong in rainy seasons. During the first months Edison and a boy friend who ran the line netted 31 cents from their venture–not a large amount, but enough to show that the instruments were of some use.”


"Books of the coming century will all be printed leaves of nickel, so light to hold that the reader can enjoy a small library in a single volume."

A fun post on John Boitnott’s blog recalls predictions for 2011 that Thomas Edison made 100 years ago. He was asked to prognosticate about the future on June 23, 1911 by the Miami Metropolis. Some hits, some misses, of course. (Thanks Reddit.) An excerpt:

Already, Mr. Edison tells us, the steam engine is emitting its last gasps. A century hence it will be as remote as antiquity as the lumbering coach of Tudor days, which took a week to travel from Yorkshire to London. In the year 2011 such railway trains as survive will be driven at incredible speed by electricity (which will also be the motive force of all the world’s machinery), generated by ‘hydraulic’ wheels.

But the traveler of the future, says a writer in Answers, will largely scorn such earth crawling. He will fly through the air, swifter than any swallow, at a speed of two hundred miles an hour, in colossal machines, which will enable him to breakfast in London, transact business in Paris and eat his luncheon in Cheapside.”

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This video, which was made in 1898 by Thomas Edison’s film company, shows an Arab-American street urchin doing a proto-breakdance. He’s pretty great.



More than 5,000 spectators watched Big Mary’s execution in 1916.

I’m familiar, of course, with the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant at Luna Park in Coney Island in 1903. (It was a stunt perpetrated by Thomas Edison to discredit Nikola Tesla’s Alternating Current, which was the chief competitor to his Direct Current.) But I had never heard of the hanging of Big Mary the Elephant in Erwin, Tennessee, in 1916, even though it’s apparently been written about quite a bit.

Big Mary was the chief attraction of the small, second-rate Southern circus owned by Charlie Sparks. The great Long Form pointed me in the direction of a 2009 article about Mary’s demise in Blue Ridge Country magazine. It seems the pachyderm didn’t take kindly to a new attendant and killed him. After guns and electricity failed to put Mary down, she was hanged with the aid of a crane in a railroad yard. Sad and bizarre. An excerpt:

“Mary was billed as ‘the largest living land animal on earth’; her owner claimed she was three inches bigger than Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s famous pachyderm. At 30 years old, Mary was five tons of pure talent: she could ‘play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note’; the pitcher on the circus baseball-game routine, her .400 batting average ‘astonished millions in New York.’

Rumor and exaggeration swarmed about Mary like flies. She was worth a small fortune: $20,000, Charlie Sparks claimed. She was dangerous, having killed two men, or was it eight, or 18?

She was Charlie Sparks’ favorite, his cash cow, his claim to circus fame. She was the leader of his small band of elephants, an exotic crowd-pleaser, an unpredictable giant.

On Monday, September 11, 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows played St. Paul, Va., a tiny mining town in the Clinch River Valley.

Which is where drifter Red Eldridge made a fatal decision. Slight and flame-haired, Red had nothing to lose by signing up with Sparks World Famous Shows: he’d dropped into St. Paul from a Norfolk and Western boxcar and decided to stay for a while. Taking a job as janitor at the Riverside Hotel, Eldridge found himself pushing a broom and, then, dreaming of moving on.

Eldridge was hired as an elephant handler and marched in the circus parade that afternoon. It’s easy to imagine that what he lacked in skill and knowledge, he made up for with go-for-broke bravado. A small man carrying a big stick can be a dangerous thing.”

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On June 22, 1897, the Edison Film Company recorded this horse race at the Sheepshead Bay Racing Track in Brooklyn, New York. The track was built by prominent businessmen in 1880 and was popular until Governor Charles Evans Hughes banned all racetrack gambling in the state in 1910. The track was eventually sold and an auto racing track was subsequently built. It eventually ran into financial troubles as well and the land was purchased by real estate concerns.

From what I can gather, there were nine horses competing in this 1897 race. A horse named Clifford, who was then approximately seven years old, was the heavy favorite and easily dispatched of his competitors.

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