The Wizard We Never Knew: Understanding Thomas Edison

By William Uhl // Photographs Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historic Park

Walking through the halls of Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, it’s easy to think history’s been frozen in time. From the chemical storage to his personal lounge, everything in the laboratory has been meticulously preserved and restored to look how Edison himself would have seen it. The material storage room still has everything ranging from iron bars to elephant hide, and the production floor has era-appropriate hats and jackets hanging on workers’ hooks.

In his office, a laminated photo on a table in the center of the room shows Edison, once called “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” standing in the right corner, glass specimen containers lined up on every shelf and surface. True to the photo, the right side of the room today has several glass containers side by side, recreating the almost century-old photo. The left side of the room, however, has a simple set of boxes, cabinets, and papers; nothing more. That photo of Edison standing in the corner is the only known photo of the office in Edison’s time – the emptiness around it is as close as historians have gotten to reconstructing what was once there. After speaking with historical author and park archivist Leonard DeGraaf, the divide between the historically-checked, tightly-packed, jar-laden shelves and the empty, unknown cabinets seems to illustrate the gaps in our understanding of Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison is best remembered as the prolific inventor of the light bulb, along with many other creations such as the phonograph, electric generator, and alkaline battery. A 2012 poll from MIT of Americans ages 16-25 even ranked Edison as the greatest innovator of all time, coming out far above more timely figures like Steve Jobs. Yet despite being such a celebrated figure, elements of his life remain obscured.

The archives at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park are comprised of all kinds of documents, from Edison’s letters to and from presidents and the original sketches for many of his inventions, to his daily to-do lists and letters from children thanking him for their radio. The combination of Edison’s meticulous note-taking and the efforts to preserve relevant documents even when he was still alive has resulted in a tremendously large number of historical documents. “Nobody really knows how big the archives are because we haven’t completed the cataloguing yet,” said DeGraaf. “You’ll read somewhere where it will be three and a half million pages; it was up to five million, and now they’re talking about six million – we just don’t know.”

All those documents, major and minor, are crucial for creating a whole and truthful idea of who Thomas Edison was. “There’s a lot of mythology about Edison out there — either things that are untrue, or are distorted and based on things that were turned around,” DeGraaf said. In the distant past, scam artists would dishonestly use Edison’s world-renowned name on their products in order to apply a veneer of credibility. These days, viral myths, like the notion that Edison stole Nikola Tesla’s inventions, eat away at Edison’s image without historical fact to back them up. “It’s important to respect history, and it’s important to understand how the process of understanding historical knowledge is created and studied. […] In a lot of ways, it’s a misuse of history,” said DeGraaf. Among the millions of files in the archive are dozens, if not more, of pages of correspondence between Edison and Tesla — the preservative efforts of others, several decades ago, have meant that those letters are still present and legible.

More than just dispelling myths, there are important areas of Edison’s life that have gone without thorough analysis. Edison was a prolific inventor, but fewer people know of his history as a businessman. He was one of the leading figures in the early days of the music record industry, selling records that were cylindrical as opposed to disc-shaped. When the market moved away from his cylindrical record design, he stuck to it, pointing to the improved sound quality. His unyielding dedication to the cylinder-shaped record, as opposed to the now-familiar disc, ultimately contributed to the downfall of Edison’s business in that area.

Untold stories like this are important, not just for Edison’s history, but for our future. “I think that Edison’s experience is important because he allows us to talk about and appreciate bigger questions in American history,” said DeGraaf. “How does society develop and introduce new technologies? These technologies don’t just appear – they’re socially constructed. By thinking about Edison and looking at how he works, it’s one way of getting at those questions.” Understanding Edison as an inventor and a businessman beyond the pop-culture conception is important not just for Edison’s sake, but for what inventors and businesses can take away for the future.

Discovering the greater meaning among the millions of letters, notebooks, and pieces of parchment is no small goal. “We try to bring order out of chaos,” said DeGraaf. “We try to make accessible to researchers and other users quantities of historical documents, to help them understand what’s in the material, what kinds of information is there, and to help them answer their questions about those documents.”

There’s no way of knowing what exactly will emerge from that chaos – maybe a new way of thinking about innovation. Maybe a thorough understanding of Edison’s successes and failures as a businessman. Or maybe what sat on the other side of his office. Until then, the left side of Edison’s office is staying bare – a reminder of how much history we have yet to learn.