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A STREAK OF LUCK: The Life and Legend of Thomas Alva Edison by Robert Conot

A STREAK OF LUCK: The Life and Legend of Thomas Alva Edison


Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Seaview--dist. by Simon & Schuster

Why is a chronicler of social disorder (Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, among others) writing about ""Mr. Edison the Electrician""? Conot picked up Edison's trail in Detroit where young A1 (until genteel wife #2 insisted on Thomas) the hustling railroad newsboy first became enamored of chemistry and telegraphy; and pursued it in evident fascination through every scrap in the Edison archives. That enthusiasm for his subject, for the public hero's murky private life, overrides his lay knowledge of science and makes this the life of Edison for people who appreciate a gifted, skewed personality--the flash of lighting that illumines the sky and fells the tree. Edison, who had poor hearing, was a hopeless telegrapher who passed himself off as a whiz--and went on to develop the phonograph. He believed he could solve any problem--and anticipated myriad later developments--but once he had invented something, he hadn't the patience to perfect it. A disaster as a business manager, he outfoxed financiers. All his inventions were essentially collaborations, but he cut down and drove away new talent. He was an ardent suitor and an absent husband; when his neglected children turned out badly, he wrote them off as ""unsuccessful experiments."" Conot gets bogged down in Edison's financial entanglements and endless lawsuits (though an appended list of characters helps), he hasn't the expertise to place the experiments in a larger context, and while he makes the contradictions and paradoxes manifest, he doesn't satisfactorily explain them: Edison was not merely one of the 19th-century's most rugged individualists. But Edison's excesses don't daunt him, and so we have the man of many parts pretty nearly whole.