by Edmund Morris

Hardcover, 2019




New York : Random House, [2019]


Biography & Autobiography. Business. Science. Nonfiction. HTML:NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER �?� From Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris comes a revelatory new biography of Thomas Alva Edison, the most prolific genius in American history. NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Time �?� Publishers Weekly �?� Kirkus Reviews Although Thomas Alva Edison was the most famous American of his time, and remains an international name today, he is mostly remembered only for the gift of universal electric light. His invention of the first practical incandescent lamp 140 years ago so dazzled the world�??already reeling from his invention of the phonograph and dozens of other revolutionary devices�??that it cast a shadow over his later achievements. In all, this near-deaf genius (�??I haven�??t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old�?�) patented 1,093 inventions, not including others, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he left unlicensed for the benefit of medicine. One of the achievements of this staggering new biography, the first major life of Edison in more than twenty years, is that it portrays the unknown Edison�??the philosopher, the futurist, the chemist, the botanist, the wartime defense adviser, the founder of nearly 250 companies�??as fully as it deconstructs the Edison of mythological memory. Edmund Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, brings to the task all the interpretive acuity and literary elegance that distinguished his previous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Ludwig van Beethoven. A trained musician, Morris is especially well equipped to recount Edison�??s fifty-year obsession with recording technology and his pioneering advances in the synchronization of movies and sound. Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship. Enlightened by seven years of research among the five million pages of original documents preserved in Edison�??s huge laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, and privileged access to family papers still held in trust, Morris is also able to bring his subject to life on the page�??the adored yet autocratic and often neglectful husband of two wives and father of six children. If the great man who emerges from it is less a sentimental hero than an overwhelming force of nature, driven onward by compulsive creativity, then Edison i… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member dmclane
The story of Thomas A. Edison’s life is recounted in an unusual manner in this biography. Told from the perspective of the man’s fascinations with different fields, electricity, sound, light, chemistry, and botany, it does not follow the normal life’s progression found in most biographies. I
Show More
found this interesting and while each section was detailed I was not put off by the detail as each related to former or future endeavors of Edison. For instance, the book begins with Edison’s work in the field of botany at the behest of friends, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. Something I knew nothing about, but was not surprised to learn, Edison pursued finding latex in native plants with the same singularity of purpose that he is noted to have used in the pursuit of a viable filament for incandescent lamps. The arrangement made the book easier to read and perhaps provided a better understanding of what made the man than many biographies.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ibkennedy
A little too technical in areas but an interesting person
LibraryThing member dasam
A comprehensive biography of Thomas Edison, Morris' book is rich in technical history and details while offering little new in understanding the man himself. Perhaps that is as it should be. Edison seems opaque in many ways, perhaps because he was increasingly closed in by his deafness. And he
Show More
seemed less willing to share himself as a person, even with those he loved, than he was to share the gifts of his mind and invention with the world.

For an unfathomable reason, Morris chose to have this biography go backwards. I cannot determine a scholarly, literary or entertainment value in doing so and recmmend simply reading the book backwards.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ulmannc
This book is LONG. If it wasn't for the fact that I am intrigued by him I would have never bought it. Based on the way he "managed" his ideas, patents, construction and sales it is surprising anything was successful.
LibraryThing member santhony
I read a lot of biographies, being of the opinion that, in many cases, history is best learned by study of the people who make it. Certainly, Thomas Edison, one of the most prolific inventors in history, is deserving of study as relates to the technological advancements that occurred throughout the
Show More
years of the late 19th and early 20th century. Having recently read a biography of Nicola Tesla, a little balance was also in order.

It has become fashionable to inflate the achievements of Tesla while downplaying those of Edison, which is absurd. While Tesla was certainly a genius, Edison was without peer in his ability to suit his many inventions and patents to practical application.

In a decision that I cannot reconcile with good judgment, the author of this book elected to write his biography in reverse chronological order. It makes no sense whatsoever and creates difficulty as the author frequently has to refer to past events by directing the reader forward within the book. The author breaks Edison’s life into ten year time frames, each focusing on a particular area od scientific study (magnetism, telegraphy, electricity, sound, botany) as though each chronological decade matched perfectly Edison’s scientific inquiry; “Well, it is December 31, 1889, I’d better stop working on electricity and begin working on the phonograph for the next ten years.”

This decision of the author to break up Edison’s life into arbitrary blocks of time, and then proceed to investigate them backwards detracts from what could have been a better reading experience. For anyone interested, I would strongly suggest reading the chapters in reverse order, so that some type of chronological flow can be maintained.

The other criticism I would have was the highly technical explanation of many of his inventions. Of course, the 99.9% of the readers that have no inclination or training to understand them can skim over these sections, as I did. Where possible, a simpler description would have been helpful. Highly technical specifics could have been included in an addendum for consumption by electrical engineers.
Show Less
LibraryThing member MikeBiever
Any person who can accomplish the accomplishments of greatness is of interest to me. To consider that individuals accomplish for the masses is a consideration of the fortune that many are given by the work and dedication of others. Therefore, Edison presented itself to me as an opportunity to learn
Show More
about the individual and an individual of greatness. I'm certainly grateful that the author could provide so much detail about Edison. It's one thing to know the name, but another to know more about the man. No matter what we think we know, it's always a fundamental understanding that this was a man with tremendous drive. And yet, a normal man with judgment and feeling. You might think that the electric light was an invention that occurred and was shared. But in reality it was an on-going process; burdensome with failure and success and repeated attempts to improve.
Show Less
LibraryThing member charlie68
If you're vague about who Edison was and what he did read this, it's pretty comprehensive. The science was really beyond me and the unorthodox working from his death backwards left me impatient.
LibraryThing member tuckerresearch
The late Edmund Morris, he died before this book was published, has written some great biographies. His The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt justly won a Pulitzer; the two concluding volumes of his TR biography (Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt) were just as good. His biography/memoir of Ronald Reagan,
Show More
Dutch, is good, once you realize it's narrator Morris is actually a semi-fake simulacrum of Morris invented to make it a memoir of Reagan.

In this book Morris made the perplexing decision to write Edison's life in backwards chunks. So, the book begins with a prologue set in 1931 and then chapters in decadal parts, each with a general theme then going in Edison's life: Botany, 1920-1929; Defense, 1910-1919; Chemistry, 1900-1909; Magnetism, 1890-1899; Light, 1880-1889; Sound, 1870-1879; Telegraphy, 1860-1869; Natural Philosophy, 1847-1859. (I guess Edison did nothing worth mentioning in 1930, which is ummentioned and left to dangle outside the scheme.)

This leads to an odd reading experience. Past events are mentioned and then you have to wait to read about them in a future part. This leads to a weird sort of foreshadowing—backshadowing?—that engages the reader. Wow, how did he invent that phonograph? that light? what have you? You read the results and then read the causes and effects later. It's almost like in a mystery novel, where you know the results of the crime and then later get the recapitulation and solution from the Holmes-figure at the end.

As an example of the effects this has on the reader, I'll give an example from the end, the boyhood of Edison. On pages 623 to 628 Morris writes of Edison's readings of his first real science book, A School Compendium of Natural and Experimental Philosophy by Richard Green Parker. In it you get hints of everything Edison is later going to tackle in his adulthood: minerals, machines and mechanics, vacuum (including mercury gravity pumps), steam engines, electricity, batteries, sunspots, acoustics, light, telegraphy, and solar eclipses. Now, having read Edison's future first, I recognized how each part of this textbook fit into Edison's life and career. It would have worked as foreshadowing, but it was even more powerful and meaningful as backshadowing.

Unless you are a forgetful or angry reader, it's not hard to read backwards like this. I see no reason you couldn't read the parts in reverse, but that's not what Morris intended.

Edison was a genius. With all that entails. Odd social life, odd habits, a lack of common sense sometimes. Doggedness, cussedness. Poor personal relationships, but sometimes tenderness and a free ease with money. His family life was odd, and you get the feeling he was a poor and absent father, but then, you get the idea that his kids were ne'er-do-wells too. As someone with little grounding in actually DOING science, I found the explanations of inventions and ideas and experiments easy enough to understand. It's a good, lucid, readable, interesting narrative life of Thomas A. Edison. Well worth the time and effort to slog backwards through 600 pages of text.

Added to the text are good images, including photographs, diagrams, patent drawings, etc. A good set of proper endnotes using a proper citation format. (Thus emulating the endnotes of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, not the dumb, unwieldy, uninformative page number-snippet-source system of Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt.) There are asides in footnote form too, though I think sometime they would have better fit worked into the text. And, oddly, sometimes the text in a footnote was repeated verbatim in a nearby endnote at the back of the text. (I get the feeling some of the apparatus and text was left in an unfinished state when Morris passed.)

All-in-all, a good, lucid, readable, interesting—though backwards—narrative biography of Thomas A. Edison.
Show Less



Page: 0.5793 seconds