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The Age of Edison

Promotion is what gets you in the history books. 4/27 Future Shoes hed: “The Age of Edison” Promotion is what gets you in the history books. by Michael Finley

A couple weeks ago I got a call from a friend at a local college. An actor/historian from Indiana named Hank Fincken was coming to the campus to do a one-man show on Thomas Edison, and would I like to come see it?

Would I. I’ve loved one-man shows since seeing Hal Holbrook do “Mark Twain Tonight” at Finney Chapel in Oberlin, Ohio in 1963. I was struck by how effective a single person, stalking the floorboards, could be. I remember Holbrook/Twain creepily wailing the line from a terrifying ghost story, “Who stole my golden arm?” Every hair in the hall stood on end.

Oberlin was 10 miles from where I grew up, which was 50 miles from where Edison grew up, in Milan, Ohio. As a kid, I visited Edison’s home a couple times, and later, his laboratory at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn. I thought it was fascinating to see the soap dish in Edison’s bathtub, or the cherry tree that he climbed as a boy.

Edison was the kind of hero a kid could grasp. He invented just about every modern invention, from electric light to the tape recorder to motion pictures to the phonograph. More than that, he kept refining inventions after the original patents were filed. Today’s telephone owes as much to Edison’s improvements as it does to Alexander Graham Bell’s original squawk box.

Sometimes, when I hear people say that the Internet is the greatest invention, and the greatest mania, in human history, I want to pipe up and saw, “What about electricity?” The difference between the unelectrified world and the electrified world is easily as great as that between an un-networked world and a networked one. Indeed, you could make the claim that the Internet would be a hard sell without electricity, or that the Age of Networks is merely a postscript to the Age of Alva Edison.

Anyway, I not only went to the show, but I took my son Jon, 13. The play takes place October 21, 1929, the 50th anniversary of the invention of the incandescent lamp. The audience is a room full of reporters, and Fincken plays a cantankerous Edison, eager to spin the news in a way favorable to himself.

He was not an especially nice man, and Fincken made that clear. He was full of himself, and customarily took credit for work his underlings did. It is unlikely that the worst words recorded were “Mary had a little lamb,” as legend would have it. He even took credit for the telephone greeting “Hello!” If Bell had had his way, Fincken/Edison said, we would greet one another today with “Ahoy!”

He told of how he lured consumers with free light bulbs, so he could sign them up as paying utility customers. How he tricked J. P. Morgan into investing in his electric company. How he battled with Nicolai Tesla over direct versus alternating current (Tesla won, only to see Edison blame alternating current for thousands of electrocution deaths). Forget the perspiration/inspiration ratio–promotion is what gets you in the history books, and Edison was no piker at it. A lot of his legend is just that. He was much more likely deaf from childhood meningitis than from a Pullman porter pulling him aboard a moving train by the ears. The Pullman story was just his way of tweaking the world.

What was most striking about Fincken’s presentation was “Edison’s” grief that the age of great man–Ford, Luther Burbank, Charles Goodyear, George W. Carver, himself–must necessarily be over. Modern inventions require development by committee. True enough, except for the occasional Apple or Linux.

In 1978, I remember cutting a picture and story from the newspaper. That old cherry tree, the one the bright boy with the big ideas swung from, rumored to be 200 years old, held up by crutches and wires, finally surrendered its spirit. In the springtime, all it could coax from itself was one last hatful of white blossoms. How hard it is to see the great ones go.

ComputerUser columnist Michael Finley also writes Diversions monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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