EDISON by Neil Baldwin


Inventing the Century
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 This new biography attempts not only to chronicle Edison's achievements but to set him in the context of his time. It falls short on both counts. Thomas Edison remains, more than 60 years after his death, the quintessential American genius. The electric light alone earned him a central spot in the pantheon of inventors. Add to it the phonograph, motion pictures, and over 1,000 patents for everything from an electric pen to a method for enriching iron ore, and it's no wonder Baldwin (Man Ray, 1988) seems overwhelmed by his subject. Fiercely competitive, Edison was a workaholic long before the term was invented. His first wife, Mary (who died an early death), rarely saw him. He would work 60 hours straight on a project that caught his fancy and frequently juggled four or five ongoing projects at once. His genius for assembling a team of men totally dedicated to his goals--and willing to delegate all the glory to the ``Old Man''--was surpassed only by his genius for promotion. (The incandescent light was far less significant than his convincing the world that his system, and only his, was the light of the future.) Baldwin does present an Edison more complex than the Horatio Alger template into which his contemporaries wanted to fit his life, but he never quite manages to pull together the various strands of his portrait. The reader gets only perfunctory descriptions of Edison's early inventions and how they were received, let alone any insight into how he was able to convince others to back his projects or to join his team, before the phonograph made him world-famous. Like many eminent Victorians, Edison was a fascinating monster, and Baldwin captures some of both the fascination and the monstrosity; but one comes away from the book feeling that the best part of the story remains untold. (50 b&w photos, unseen)

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 1995
ISBN: 0-7868-6041-3
Page count: 534pp
Publisher: Hyperion
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1994


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