The “Edison” of biography vs the Edison of “The Current War”


I’ve just finished the last biography written by the historian Edmund Morris, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the world’s foremost expert on Teddy Roosevelt, and among those foiled by “There’s no THERE there” in trying to write a biography of Ronald Reagan.

“Edison” paints a gloriously detailed and most human portrait of “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (Edison hated that label), one that flies in the face of much of what recent revisionism has attached to his reputation.

He’s remembered as a fanatical credit hog, even though he generously acknowledged when he was building on the work of others working on the same project, even contemporaries.

He fought to protect what was his, and indeed impede those competitors pushing the envelope when it came to infringing on his patents. In film histories, he is depicted as single-handedly holding back the cinema, and inspiring much of the newly-born business to flee to California thanks to his stranglehold on film camera and projection patents, which his lawyers defended through the Motion Picture Trust. Some of that is true, but he freely acknowledged whose work – Edward Muybridge, for starters, who asked him to look into pictures that mimic movement — he was building on in his revolutionary leap forward in film. Whatever claims the French, Brits et al have to the invention of the cinema, Edison is the one who made it work and created standards in terms of screen shape, the width of the film and projection speed that endured a century.

And he was on the whole “sound film” thing decades before “The Jazz Singer.” He was older and less interested in Kinetoscope and its children, pulled away to do war work, etc., otherwise he’d have surely licked the synchronization problem he was attempting to solve at about 1900.

He was alternately rich and broke — constantly spending money on that next big nut he was sure he’d crack — automated magnetic iron mining, for one thing, synthetic rubber for another.

He considered the phonograph his greatest achievement, not the light bulb, even though he had been almost wholly deaf since age 12. He stuck with pre-electric “acoustic” recording (no wired microphone, etc) too long, and judged musicians — singers especially — by the smoothness of the grooves they created when singing into his disc cutters. Everybody’s a critic.

“The Current War” had its film festival premiere before Morris died, but there’s no word he saw the film, which is built on the battle between Edison’s first-to-market Direct Current (DC) system and the Westinghouse/Tesla Alternating Current (AC) system. There’s a lot in the movie that’s accurate, although making Edison a wily villain (Benedict Cumberbatch) who —the myth endures — HATED Tesla is inaccurate.

That lightbulb presentation scene depicted above? It really happened. But Edison, publicity hound though he was, hated public speaking and let others do the group pitches on such occasions. Remember, DEAF.

He and Tesla (played by Nicolas Hoult) had a very good relationship, each singing the other’s praises, with Edison even understanding that the brilliant younger man had to go off on his own after only short employment with Edison’s first-in-the-world research and development lab.

They were close enough to pay tribute to each other on many public occasions, close enough for Edison to jab Tesla’s diet (Steak. Just steak. Apparently.)

Westinghouse, played by Michael Shannon? He stole Edison’s light bulb patents, and the very idea that the whimsical, unassuming and unkempt Edison would socially snub the guy (a motivating factor in the film) doesn’t jibe with the portrait of the man Morris paints.

“The Current War” was perhaps the best rescue-edit in recent film history, a film trapped in an inferior, studio-dictated cut by Harvey Weinstein during his last gasp of TWC power. It’s damned entertaining and worth tracking down.

Morris’s “Edison” would make a glorious historical mini-series, a story he tells in reverse order — the chapters are ten year (or so) increments in Edison’s life, beginning with his last days, working towards his birth, with a shockingly touching epilogue to close it.

Whatever PBS and others have done in documentary form, this is a life of drama, pluck, “on the spectrum” genius and conflict and begs for recreation with actors. He spent as much time defending his patents as he did bringing the world light, a power grid, recorded sound (an outgrowth of his efforts to make Bell’s “telephone” work), cinema and (in inventions that he refused to patent but left to humanity) making X-rays practical.

He was a joker from an early age, a wry yarn spinner in one-on-one company, with a natural wit. One of the most accomplished telegraphers during his days as a Western Union man, he was pranked by new colleagues when he showed up to take a new posting in Boston. They had him transcribing a long news story sent via the manic telegraphy of a super-fast Washington operator. None of the pranksters realized that nobody was faster than the very-young Edison at transcribing Morse code.

The sender got flustered and frustrated, telegraph key fingers cramping up at being unable to rattle Edison into begging him to slow down. The man who would invent the microphone thus had his first “drop the mike” moment, a punchline delivered via dots and dashes to a punk who thought he had him punked.

“Suppose you send a little while with your other foot?”

His legend was burnished into myth for so long it was only natural that generations would follow and try to take some of the polish off that reputation. I remember getting into arguments at cinema museums in Britain and France about whose work on the cinema deserved priority (The Brits, then and now, looked down their noses at him even as they were jumping in and claiming credit for ideas he’d already patented. The French did less technologically than aesthetically, even if they were the first to do real cinema — not peephole — projections.)
“Edison” the book details all the discoveries he and his peers lacked the language to describe or figure out a use for. Radio, for one thing. Nobody knew sound could be carried on waves he’d observed in his pre-oscilloscope lab.
As for the elderly wizard, on the night he died in 1931, America and much of the world paused, turned off its lights, and remembered just what life was life before Thomas Alva Edison came along.


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