The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World

Very interesting biography of Edison. The book explored the good and bad. I was amazed by how bad of a businessman Edison was. He didn’t listen to customers, ignored industry economics, raised too much money, and completely missed markets he should have been well-positioned in.

My Notes

Would their boss permit him to tinker during his free time? The answer was yes.

The vote recorder was a bust, and the lesson Edison drew from the experience was that invention should not be pursued as an exercise in technical cleverness, but should be shaped by commercial needs.

Edison was disinclined to drink with his fellows because it would pull him off track, interfering with the greater pleasures: tinkering, learning, problem solving.

The mature Edison, post-fame, is most appealing whenever he returned to acting spontaneously, without weighing what action would serve to enhance his public image.


HAVING ONE’S OWN shop, working on projects of one’s own choosing, making enough money today so one could do the same tomorrow: These were the modest goals of Thomas Edison when he struck out on his own as full-time inventor and manufacturer.

Edison’s automatic telegraphy not only dramatically increased the carrying capacity of the telegraph network, it also eliminated the need for skilled operators.

Edison wanted to leave manufacturing and pursue invention full-time—and without the encumbrance of a partner.

Edison moved out on his own, without a partner in tow, and settled in a place so empty of dwellings that it resembled open frontier

carried an aura of authority and a tendency toward curtness that suggested advanced years.

The isolation of the Menlo Park setting infused the laboratory with a feeling of unbounded creative freedom.

Having tried all sorts of products, and focusing on no single one, the American Novelty Company failed about eight months after it was incorporated.

Telegraphy trumped toys. Great sums of money would go to the inventor that solved the telegraph industry’s most pressing need:

Young Bell and Edison were the same age, each improving the major invention that the other had come up with first,

“Mr. Edison has been so often scoffed at,” the Newark Daily Advertiser observed, “that it has no other effect upon him than to stimulate him to increased study and labor.”

Edison was in the perfect position to realize the business potential in music. But he did not; telegraphy remained his principal interest.

The principal point was to enable the company to send the recording for playback and transcription by low-paid copyists, who could work at the rate of twenty-five words a minute, rather than have highly skilled—and highly paid—operators try to record the message in real time at one hundred words a minute as it arrived.

The all-nighter at the laboratory must have been a routine occurrence, for the discovery was treated surprisingly casually in the lab’s notebooks.


For everyone who was not an engineer, this was a time when technology seemed to be both overwhelming and increasingly incomprehensible.

asked Edison how he had discovered the phonograph, Edison concocted a great drama in the wrong place, not when he and his assistants had first tried to record on a strip of paper, but later, when he directed his chief machinist to build the first cylinder model, the successful testing of which was noted in the lab books with scarcely a yawn.


Put simply, Edison failed to read the market. Without question, he was distracted by the attention that came with celebrity.

by temperament, he tended to flit from project to project.

Edison arranged his business affairs so that he could maintain complete independence,

His experience on the trip had sharpened his creative faculties, but he had never suffered a lack of promising ideas. His principal problem prior to the trip had been his inability to remain focused on completing the phonograph,

He spoke of the barrenness of the West on August 27, the day after he had returned. It was also the very day he, along with Batchelor and Kruesi, signed and dated a page in a laboratory notebook containing three sketches. They were labeled “Electric Light.”


Many ideas, until practically realized, will seem grandiose; but the inventor’s own interest in a given idea often disappears as quickly as the inspiration arrived.

“I think it is not becoming in me to try and jew him.”

Upton elected in July 1879 to take the offer of a 5 percent share of the company. He reasoned that a salary was ultimately dependent on the success of the electric light anyway, so he might as well select the option that provided the largest potential gains.


the designers thought it best to have a professional control the lights in the individual cabins. The ship’s steward had to be called to unlock a box outside each stateroom and throw the switch whenever a passenger wanted a light turned on and off.

when his business interests required a personal sacrifice on his part, moving into an almost full-time role as greeter, he did a brave thing: He accepted the responsibility to contribute in whatever way would most help the business, regardless of how much he loathed the role,


these early installations offered Edison Electric good references from customers less concerned about the economics than others would be.

Thomas Edison’s determination to spurn these opportunities to quickly commercialize the electric light, and instead to remain focused on the more difficult, but ultimately more significant, task of launching his own central power system, proved to be a brilliant stroke.

an intuitive hunch that demonstrating the viability of a centralized system would be strategically more important to the business than accepting orders from individual customers.

central stations, this was as good as it would get, it appeared: success gained one sale at a time, each on an exceedingly modest scale. He had the patience for a long campaign,


Managing his company did not engage him half as much as creating it, but he could not bring himself to let go of the captain’s chair.

Contract work for other companies provided much needed cash, but also kept Edison entangled in the agendas imposed by others.

Freedom to do exactly as he pleased in his laboratory turned out to be elusive.

Everyone who tried out the phonograph—everyone but Edison, that is—was struck by its beautiful reproduction of music, which it handled far better than the sound of the human voice.

Although there were very few recorded songs available for sale, the reports from the field showed avid interest among consumers.

Tate and other Edison associates did their best to persuade Edison of the commercial potential of a phonograph marketed for entertainment purposes, but Edison was so attached to his original notion that the phonograph was best suited to office dictation that he could not let go of it.

Edison was reluctant to accept the phonograph as a machine for playing music because he did not want his phonograph associated with wind-up music boxes.

Edison was dedicated to bringing out “useful” inventions, a mission that would be sullied by its association with something as frivolous as Victorian “toys” marketed to adults.

“Anything that won’t sell I don’t want to invent, because anything that won’t sell hasn’t reached the acme of success. Its sale is proof of its utility, and utility is success.”


The situation seemed so hopeless that Edison, the irrepressible optimist, was wondering aloud that night what would happen to them.

Under Insull’s management, the Schenectady workforce grew from two hundred to eight thousand in just six years.

Insull attributed his success during this time to simple geography: “We never made a dollar until we got the factory 180 miles away from Mr. Edison.”


He had resolved to make his mark in mining and prepared himself to invest whatever it would take, and spend as much time away from his family as required.

Charles L. Marshall, had installed five thousand nickel-gobbling machines in phonograph parlors. He had developed a simple rule of thumb: Give the public what it wanted, and that meant avoiding what he called “classical songs” like “Thou Art Like Unto a Flower.” Music that appealed to a less-refined sensibility—he singled out “Throw Him Down, McCloskey” and “One of His Legs Is Longer Than It Really Ought to Be” as exemplars—brought in fifteen times as much revenue per day.

The problem with projection was that it would work all too well—if he replaced the inefficient kinetoscope with projection systems that could serve up the show to everyone, “there will be a use for maybe about ten of them in the whole United States.” He concluded, “Let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”


“I never intend to retire,” Edison said in an interview in 1911. “Work made the earth a paradise for me.”


Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke, and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.”

With encouragement from the man whom Ford regarded as “the greatest inventive genius in the world” ringing in his ears, Ford returned home with the conviction that he should persevere.

nor did Ford immediately quit his day job at Edison Illuminating. It would take three more years before he felt ready to try to commercialize his automobile designs as a full-time entrepreneur.

No major business figure detested Wall Street as much as Thomas Edison—except Henry Ford. The two men had this in common. “Wall Street” was less a geographic place than a shorthand for grasping Jews.

The two men had lots of things to say about Jews, Ford doing so publicly and Edison, privately.

If Jews “are as wise as they claim to be,” Ford wrote in his autobiography, “they will labor to make Jews American, instead of labouring to make America Jewish.”

In the late evening, after the cameramen and interlopers had left, the men sat around the campfire and listened while Ford and Edison lectured the group about the nefarious deeds of Jews.

Burroughs wrote in his diary of how Ford “attributes all evil to the Jews or the Jewish capitalists—the Jews caused the war, the Jews caused the outbreak of thieving and robbery all over the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the navy of which Edison talked last night.”


The phonograph business faced a challenge in the 1920s unlike any that had come before: the advent of commercial radio stations and the wide availability of free music broadcasts and other entertainment.


Ott had observed with evident sadness that his children had grown up without knowing their father because he worked late every night at Edison’s side and never saw them.

“We all hoped to get rich with him,” but he ruefully observed that the only ones who succeeded in that ambition were those who had left Edison’s employ.