Inventing Edison

Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph on this day in 1877. In his recent biography The Wizard of Menlo Park, Randall E. Stross says that heroic portraits of Edison as “the grandfather of the Wired World, the great-grandfather of iPod Nation” are an exaggeration and a disservice to his assistants, competitors, and forerunners. Stross’s book focuses not so much on Edison’s inventions as on his genius for marketing himself through his inventions, by “the application of celebrity to business.” This began, says Stross, with the phonograph announcement:

No one of the time would have predicted that it would be an inventor, of all occupations, who would become the cynosure of the age. In retrospect, fame may appear to be a justly earned reward for the inventor of practical electric light — yet Edison’s fame came before light. It was conferred for an earlier invention: the phonograph. Who would have guessed that the announcement of the phonograph’s invention would be sufficient to propel him in a matter of a few days from obscurity into the firmament above?… More mysterious is that it was not the phonograph itself — it would take two decades before the machine was ready to be actually commercialized on a mass scale — but the mere idea of the phonograph that instantly seized the imagination of everyone who heard it….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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