Friday, April 3, 2020

Edison, Edmund Morris

I mostly enjoyed this book, though I found the Morris technique of chronicling Edison's life in reverse to be unhelpful.

I had not realized the worldwide fame and admiration of Edison around the turn of the century ... comparable to Lindbergh after his flight. With a little reflection it is pretty easy to understand. For conscious beings, the power to turn night into day was indeed Promethean, and they were grateful.

Edison liked to be in control, and he was supremely confident in his visions -- he was certain that he could employ magnetism and massive technical advancement in mining to corner the market on iron production. He lost massively to the iron rich Mesabi Range in northern MN to the tune of many millions and years of wasted time for a brilliant man.

When we say "hello", Edison invented that.

As a mostly deaf man, he was a strange sort of audiophile -- always searching for perfection in sound with the phonograph being his personal favorite invention.

He was BOTH an inventor and a master of applied technology  -- he was able to visualize all the parts that were needed to deliver PRACTICAL electric lights to the masses, and was able to invent the pieces required to make  it happen (wiring, substations, dynamos, switches, etc). He, was able to lead a band of technologists (in his own eccentric way) to get the WHOLE THING done.

Possibly his most critical invention was the development laboratory.

To vastly oversimplify the AC/DC decision, Edison was "technically correct" about AC, however in the day, AC was more practical to widely distribute. Today, we may be heading to the DC world of Edison's vision. The Tesla / Edison personal "war" was more a made for media creation than a reality.

He was a difficult father and spouse -- which is not at all uncommon for men of at least near genius and absolute dedication to their visions -- many visions in Edison's case.

His "kaleidoscopic laser" focus was a great asset and a great liability. He could shift his focus at the drop of a hat and be "gone" for days, months, even years (in the case of mining), when that focus would have been much more "productively" applied in other areas. However, who is to say if that was possible -- the muse is hardly ever a slave to practicality.

His energy and stamina were incredible throughout his life 20 hour "average" workdays for long stretches, driving himself and certainly his assistants to exhaustion in pursuit of the "aha".

The time in which a book is read has an effect on what the reader sees in it. Edison lived through the time of the Civil War, WWI and of interest today, the Spanish Flu -- none of these were of that large an effect in Edison's life. WWI the most, because his batteries had explosive issues and submarines were important. The US military made a fairly big show of having Edison involved in weapons research, however the bureaucracy largely just wanted to use his name, not his innovations or recommendations. 

 I don't believe the Spanish Flu was mentioned in the book. Reading history gives perspective. When we live through an event ... JFK assassination, moon landing, end of the USSR, 911, etc, it SEEMS to be "historic"  at the time, however time -- and our personal and societal biases of course, are the arbiter of it's actual effect. We all know this life is finite. If this is all there is, then history, nor our lives really "matter", because mattering involves some idea of "meaning" or "purpose", and godless randomness lacks both.

In the context of "progress" toward more ease, longer less painful lives, more atomization of community, family, culture, etc, Edison is very much a hero. He was a firm believer that technology was the solution.

In today's psychological language, Edison may have been quite high on the Asperger scale -- his experience as a young boy of having a playmate drown, wait around for him, get tired of waiting then go home and have to be woken up at night to be asked when he last saw him seems quite disconcerting  (they found the body after Edison told them where he disappeared). The incident seemed to have little effect on him.

A decent book ... I would be tempted to do more evaluation and would likely choose another given a second chance.

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