Robert A. Bovaird
Dr. Quinjiang Yao
Mass Media in a Free Society
1 July, 2011
In our minds, when we think of Thomas Edison, we may see the incandescent light bulb. We may envision a thoughtful man sitting in his laboratory hard at work. He is deep in thought, scratching notes on a tablet. A mess of gadgets and wires and vials of chemicals are scattered on the table in front of him and on the shelves behind him. Edison is the man whom we have heard called the “Wizard of Menlo Park” and the “Inventor of the Age” (“Thomas Alva Edison Biography”). By the time he had died on October 18, 1931, he had made a remarkable impact on American society (Kennelly 303). He had obtained 1,093 US patents, the most ever issued to one person by the US Patent and Trademark Office (“Edison”). However, Edison probably is not the first person one might consider when asked about major contributors to American media culture.
Edison’s early life tells us much about the man he was to become and the role he would play in American media. He was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. His father Samuel was active in the Canadian rebellion against the British government; forced into exile in the United States (Kennelly 287). His mother Nancy was a school teacher, and he “attended school briefly but was principally educated at home by his mother and in his father’s library” (“Thomas Alva Edison Biography”). As a teenager, he loved to learn, as evident with his willingness to spend two dollars—nearly two days’ pay—for a membership to the Detroit Public Library (Walsh). In 1859, he began working for the Grand Trunk Railroad and “conducted chemical experiments in a baggage-car laboratory” (“Thomas Alva Edison Biography”). This work experience, along with his family and his demeanor as a youth, did much to set him forward on his path to greatness.
With respect to both American media culture and American innovation, Edison contributed a great deal to pushing our nation forward to the front of world development. His role in these areas involved ownership of utilities and the process of invention, in addition to his various inventions and improvements on existing technologies. In 1882, he established “the first investor-owned electric utility” (Walsh). He also created and owned new companies to manufacture and sell his products (“Edison”). Furthermore, biographers write that his “true genius lay in his ability to bring mass brainpower to the process of invention—and then to market the resulting devices” (Walsh). In 1876, he established an entity that was essentially the first research and development facility. His work directly led to the evolution of the idea of invention, which grew to encompass “innovation—invention, research, development, and commercialization” (“Thomas Alva Edison Biography”). As for his inventions, he gave us “useful electric lighting and the world’s first electric power system” (“Edison”) and he developed areas of mining and cement technology (“Thomas Alva Edison Biography”). Biographer Carol Cramer says of Edison, “[He]was the transitional figure who bridged the gap between the crude workshops of the nineteenth century and the facilities that make up research and development departments in modern corporations today” (27). Edison is most well-known for his three greatest inventions: the improved telephone transmitter, the phonograph, and the electric light (“Edison”). The 1940 biopic Edison, the Man gives an “honor roll of Thomas Edison’s achievements”: the fluoroscope, mimeograph, and storage battery, as well as his contributions to motion pictures—“The heart of the matter for the film industry” (Corliss). However, he is best known for the invention of the incandescent electric light and the phonograph (Perry 253).
Thus, when examining the life and work of Thomas Edison, we must consider his business savvy, his prowess as a manager, and his keen scientific intellect. These elements led directly to his greatness and his placement in American history books as a major figure. In essence, Edison epitomized the idea of the “American Dream” in that he was the Henry Ford of electric innovation, a pioneer who paved the way for today’s telecommunications, recording, and film industries.
In order to fully appreciate Edison’s contributions to society, his “minor” inventions should be addressed. He was one of the pioneering inventors of the telephone. Although he was not the one who invented the telephone, he did improve upon the “speaking telegraph,” as it was called. He added an element known as the carbon-based transmitter, which “made the voice of a speaker louder and clearer over the phone” (“Edison”). The telegraph is another invention that he did not originate, yet improved upon it with various elements of its equipment (Walsh). He made it faster and more efficient with the addition of the quadruplex, a device that enabled a person to simultaneously send four messages over a single wire (“Edison”). The phonograph, one of his true inventions, was created in 1877. It was the “first practical machine that could record and play back sound” (“Edison”). This device would “record and play back sounds on tin-wrapped cylinders” (“Recording Industry”). Finally, one should consider his foray into the mining industry. In the early 1890s, he began experimenting on the electromagnetic separation and concentration of low-grade iron and gold ores. He established a full-scale plant in northern New Jersey to process iron ore, but it was his “most notable commercial failure” (“Thomas Alva Edison Biography”). Whereas every inventor, writer, or artist of note is remembered for his or her successes, even the greatest ones suffer failure, too. The afore-mentioned inventions are not “minor” in that they are not as great as his other contributions; rather, they are “lead-ins” to the discussion of his greatness with respect to American media and culture.
Edison’s major contributions to American society can be measured in three areas: his philosophy on industry, his conceptions on the means of production, and his involvement in the film industry. Readers do not often think of Edison as a philosopher or a giant innovator of production like Henry Ford, and rarely do they immediately think of him as being a key figure in the development of our nation’s film industry. However, these areas are vital in order to understand the man and his role in American history.
Thomas Edison was a product of a society that “reveled in the romance of scientific discovery” (Walsh). He “believed that technology could solve social problems,” expressing the idea of “faith in progress and industry” (“Edison”). He “saw that the future lay in organized research and manufacturing” (“Edison’s Other Genius”). When asked about the key to his success, he replied that it was due “to never looking at the clock,” the comment of a man fully experienced and initiated into the world of hard work (Perry 243). It was commonplace for Edison to spend long stretches of time, as much as twenty hours, in his laboratory researching, experimenting, and perfecting his work. He paused only to take time to eat, and he focused on just one study at a time. He would never move on to the next project until “he had a clear comprehension of the existing state of the art” of his current subject (Kennelly 298). It is remarkable that this man was not a “glory-hound” who was rendered vain because of his achievements; he “rebuffed all efforts of the public to make a hero of him” (Perry 258). He had once said, “One hundred thousand dollars would not tempt me to sit through two hours of personal glorification” (Perry 258-9), and at public receptions, he was “shy and retiring” (Kennelly 299). These aspects of his character present him as a humble man of innovation, one who knew first-hand the value of hard work. This giant of scientific research and development was not a man driven by greed or a thirst for power, but instead a humble man of romantic notions and dreams.
Seeing that Edison’s career directly followed the innovations of the Industrial Revolution, his contributions to the field of production were extremely important. At Menlo Park, his inventor community, he developed a unique and effective system of production: “using a sizable cadre of skilled assistants with expertise in multiple fields” (Walsh). This means of production allowed Edison and his team to develop “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so” (Walsh). He also came up with the idea of the modern research laboratory, which is often credited by scientists and historians as “Edison’s greatest achievement” (“Edison”). This means of production allowed Edison to make use of his view of vertical integration: “His company controlled each stage of production, from the raw materials to the finished product” (“Edison’s Other Genius”). In addition to this production dominance, his company’s primary goal was product diversity, “working on hundreds of different projects at once” (“Edison’s Other Genius”). He streamlined his means of production by utilizing his own innovative ideas and the contributions of the generations preceding him.
His involvement in the film industry pertains to his inventions in the field, his own company’s films, and his pivotal role as a leader in the industry itself. After his failed foray into the iron mining industry, he bounce back to rebuild his empire with movie cameras (“Edison’s other genius”). In 1888, he Edison publicized his endeavor to create “an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear” (Corliss). His company later dominated early American film industry by controlling patents on filmmaking equipment (“Motion Picture”). One of the first movie cameras was called the kinetograph and its companion, the kinetoscope, which was a device for watching films (Corliss). With the kinetoscope, one viewer at a time would “watch through a peephole as the film moved on spools” (“Motion Picture”). He later invented the kinetophone, a “combination kinetoscope and phonograph” that synchronized sound and images (“Edison”). As an inventor, it was natural for him to “emphasize hardware over the software” (Corliss). That is, he focused his attention on the tools utilized by the industry, not necessarily on the fads and rages that were popular at the time. Instead of working to please the masses, he worked on a means to enhance and produce those films that pleased the masses.
The Edison Company produced some of the best-known films in early American cinema: The Kiss, Fatima’s Dance, and The Great Train Robbery (Corliss). The Kiss was a 20-second excerpt from a Broadway play; it was one of the most popular motion pictures of the 1890s and “the first to be viewed on a large screen” (Corliss). The Great Train Robbery is hailed as the first American blockbuster film (Corliss). The content of some of their films was interesting, and not too far off from today’s film content: “firemen at a blazing house,” “Annie Oakley shooting at glass balls,” “travelogues (Coney Island and Niagara Falls),” “Annabelle Moore performing a ‘serpentine’ dance,” “staged boxing matches and cockfights,” and the electrocution of Topsy (a Coney Island elephant who had killed a man) (Corliss). The content of these films is not all that different from today’s television and film content, thereby suggesting that Edison’s legacy goes further than simple invention and improvement on technologies.
During the late nineteenth century, Edison served as head of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), which was a “cartel of the main American film producers” based in New York City (Corliss). His chief assistant from 1888-1893 was a man named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson; contemporary biographers suggest that Edison was “Steve Jobs to Dickson’s Steve Wozniak” (Corliss). Edison, being the more well-known of the business duo, now gets much of the acclaim for their company’s successes, while Dickson, though receiving some credit, takes the back seat. Dickson eventually left Edison’s company and joined with some of his rivals. His involvement in the film industry worked well for him, spanning several decades. However, in 1915, a federal court ruled that the MPPC was an illegal monopoly (“Edison”). Despite this ruling, Edison’s business rivals had already been chased out of the New York arena and they settled in Southern California; in a sense, Edison also “invented Hollywood” (Corliss). This event set up our modern-day view of the film industry being a thing of the West, and when Edison’s company was terminated in 1918, it allowed businesses in California to flourish. Thus, with his dominance of this field, he also enabled his competitors to launch themselves into greatness the moment his business faltered. A further business weakness exposed during Edison’s time in the film industry was with his level of power in the MPPC. His control in the company allowed him to “impose his old-fashioned tastes on the company” (“Edison’s Other Genius”). It has already been discussed that he preferred to focus on the hardware, rather than the software, which is evident in this case. While the company pioneered and dominated on the technical side of the industry, due to his dislike for jazz, the company “missed the great boom in popular music of the 1920s” (“Edison’s Other Genius”). This differs from the giants of industry today because they keep a sharp eye trained on the whims of the consumer—the software that is “in demand.” Had Edison been more attuned to his partner, the building power of his rivals, and the current rages in culture, his impact may have been even greater.
When we think of the great pioneers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we think of the magnates and tycoons, the men who built vast empires and took advantage of the working-class peons below them. We think of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, often overlooking the genius and achievements of more humble men like Thomas Edison. Edison was a man whose name has more of a positive connotation and is held with such figures as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, and Abraham Lincoln. His name is associated with innovations such as the phonograph, the telephone, and electricity, yet not one we are likely to identify with the mining or film industries. His legacy rests in his “devotion to science and innovation” is his legacy (Walsh). Edison`s means of production, which were the “forerunner of every business-world creative concept” we have today, gave us the technological supremacy that contributed to making “the 20th century the American century” (Walsh). Edison once said, “Whatever setbacks America has encountered, it has always emerged as a stronger and more prosperous nation” (Walsh).
Unlike Carnegie and Rockefeller – the giants of steel and oil – Edison holds more of a tender spot in the hearts and minds of Americans. He knew his employees and recognized their talents by working alongside them. He set the mold for many generations of Americans as to what the American Dream was supposed to be about – starting from humble origins, overcoming deficiencies in opportunities, capitalizing on resources available, and taking risks .
Although it is noted that he took sole credit for some inventions, like with the film industry, but also shared his successes with them. Vertical integration of his industries was risky, as seen with how he lost much of his empire in his foray into the mining industry, but he also made great gains with other areas. Vertical integration was also the means of the downfall for many of the “little people” involved in industries (family farmers, small business owners, etc.) – people who fared poorly in the Great Depression. Corporations today now seek to control all aspects or outsourcing these aspects, which has a detrimental effect on local economy. This method adds great things to the global economy, helping our nation reach out to the rest of the world, but it also casts our business leaders in the role of the villain on the local scene, especially during trying economic times.
What all has been made possible through the inventions and innovations of Thomas Edison? Our cellular phones, the films we watch on our iPods, the albums we listen to on our laptops, as well as countless other elements of today’s society that have roots in research and development, one of Edison’s greatest contributions. Edison was a man born with revolution in his blood: his father being a revolutionary figure in Canada and Edison himself being revolutionary with his inventions and contributions to society. He was a leader whose place was in the field, not a tycoon or magnate who sat in lushly furnished offices and apartments while the peons slaved away on the factory floor or in the laboratory. His charisma and personal connections to his teams catapulted his success far ahead of his competitors. Like the great men and women of the 19th century and early 20th century, he was a self-made individual; achieved the American Dream. With the telephone, movie cameras, and electricity, instead of trying to “reinvent the wheel,” he built upon the foundations of other inventors. These were technologies that opened the minds of people to great possibilities: gave fruition to the human fantasies that became telecommunications, music, and film industries. These are industries that required great imaginations to create in the first place, and have fed our imaginations for generations since their inceptions.
Corliss, Richard. “Lights, Camera… Edison!” Time 176.1 (2010): 50. History Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 24 June 2011.
Cramer, Carol. Thomas Edison. Greenhave, CT: Greenhaven Press, 2000.
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Kennelly, Arthur E. Biographical Memoir of Thomas Alva Edison, 1847-1931. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 1932.
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