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In Search of Thomas Edison

For more than 30 years, Paul Israel has been researching and cataloging the life of the famous inventor—a gargantuan task that has yielded millions of pages of documents that shed light on Edison the man, Edison the innovator, and Edison the marketing genius. Thanks to Israel and his team, the world can get a rare glimpse of Edison’s many achievements and just how he managed to do it.   

By Christopher Hann             


Paul Israel
Paul Israel—the director and editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers project, a 30-year effort to chronicle, in multiple media, the full scope of Edison’s revolutionary work—in the library of the Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Photography by Nick Romanenko

It’s dark here, in the back of the old Livingston Theater in Piscataway, within the cramped second-floor office of Paul Israel, the director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers. I’m here to talk with Israel about the three decades he has spent trying to understand the guy who invented the lightbulb. But in some kind of cosmic irony, I arrived in the middle of a power failure. So we sit, in the dark.

Israel GSNB’89 can only laugh. He’s a native of California, lanky, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a Samuel Beckett haircut, and he’s not prone to lose his cool over an electrical system gone kaput. Besides, as the world’s preeminent expert on the man widely considered the world’s preeminent inventor, Israel has much to expound on regarding the subject of Thomas Alva Edison, the darkness be damned.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who quite compares with Edison,” Israel says. “He was the first inventor to become an institution. He wasn’t just an inventor; he was a laboratory director. While the lab worked on his ideas, it allowed him to invent in a diverse number of areas.”

portrait of Thomas A. Edison
A portrait of Thomas A. Edison, circa 1903.

Israel had never been east of Utah when he packed his suitcase and flew across the country in February 1980. He had just completed a master’s degree in public historical studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara and taken a six-month job assisting Robert Friedel, a historian in West Orange, New Jersey, commissioned by the National Park Service to study how Edison invented the electric light. Their collaboration resulted in Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention (Rutgers University Press, 1986). Israel figured he’d finish the six months and head back to California.

But he was offered another position, as a research assistant with the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers, one of the most ambitious editing projects ever undertaken at an American university. Part of the School of Arts and Sciences, the Edison Papers project is an attempt to chronicle, in multiple media forms, the full scope of Edison’s revolutionary work. Thirty-plus years after he began, Israel has become its driving force and public face. Last fall he appeared on the Turner Classic Movies channel during its seven-part series on the history of American motion pictures, an industry that Edison practically founded (he even created two film studios, producing some of cinema’s best-known titles). Israel is the author of Edison: A Life of Invention (John Wiley & Sons, 1998), a 550-page doorstop of a biography that received accolades from the Society for the History of Technology. More recently, he wrote the foreword for The Quotable Edison (University Press of Florida, 2011), a compilation of interviews, notes, and quotes.

filament lamp
Edison’s filament lamp, circa 1879.

“He’s the world’s leading expert on Thomas Edison—period,” Theresa Collins, an associate editor who’s worked on the Edison Papers for 20 years, says of Israel. “He’s a Californian—a little Silicon Valley, a little Malibu. It’s all there. Paul works very hard. He sets a high bar. For a team of people who are equally matched in intelligence, curiosity, and dedication to the project, it’s amazing how sometimes it could take me four hours to figure out something that takes him two seconds.”

Israel’s work with the Edison Papers has given him unprecedented insight into the critical methods of innovation, marketing, and promotion used by an inventor who seemed to never stop tinkering. Edison accumulated a mind-bending total of 1,093 patents in his lifetime, the phonograph, lightbulb, and movie projector among the best known. But he also made breakthrough discoveries with the telegraph, telephone, and stock ticker and later with electric cars, concrete houses, and a whole lot more. Israel, having retraced the steps of the great inventor at every technological turn, has devoted his entire adult life to discovering Thomas Edison.

The subject has never failed to fascinate him. Because Edison toiled in so many technologies and so many industries, Israel’s scholarship has likewise explored one breakthrough after another. “I never feel like I’m working on one person,” Israel says. “Edison is part of a group of people, both in laboratories and businesses, who are constantly interacting with whole groups of people in other fields. So it’s not like I’m entirely in his head all the time, although it’s an interesting place to be.”

phonograph cylinder
A phonograph cylinder in its original cardboard sleeve with a portrait of Edison, circa 1910.

Israel and his staff—four full-time editors, a business manager, a part-time indexer, two graduate students, two work-study students, and a volunteer—have pored through an estimated five million pages of Edisonia: notes; letters; drawings; doodles; invoices; journal entries; legal and financial records; articles from newspapers, magazines, and technical journals; and thousands of pages of correspondence between Edison, his six children, and his two wives (his first wife, Mary Stillwell, died in 1884; he married Mina Miller two years later).

The Edison Papers project is compiling the Edison record in books and microfilm and on a website, a trove of information made available to students, scholars, historians—anyone, really, with a pulse and some curiosity. And that’s the point. “The big benefit is providing additional access to the archives of Thomas Edison,” says Michelle Ortwein, the supervisory museum curator at the Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. “There’s a lot we know, but there’s a lot we don’t know. There are always hidden treasures in there.”

An example is Edison’s prophecy, in October 1888, about an as-yet-undiscovered technology: “I am,” he wrote, “experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear—which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion.” The collection even includes a note to Edison from the secretary of the Rutgers College trustees: “With great pleasure, I inform you that the honorary degree of doctor of philosophy was conferred on you by the Trustees of Rutgers College at their meeting held June 17, 1879.”

label of an early Edison record
The label of an early Edison record of “My Sweetie Went Away,” featuring the inventor’s likeness, circa 1920s.

Thomas Edison, born in Milan, Ohio, 14 years before the start of the Civil War, was largely homeschooled by his mother, whose greatest gift, he would recall, was instilling in him a lifelong love of reading. As a teenager living in Port Huron, Michigan, and working as a newsboy on the railroad that ran to Detroit, Edison visited local libraries across the state, devouring the available literature on electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and telegraphy. By 16, he was working as a telegrapher.

By all accounts, Edison was tireless, with a stubborn persistence to the task at hand that saw him through countless laboratory failures. He was unafraid of a hard day’s labor. “Genius is all bosh,” he told the New York Sun in 1878. “Clean hard work is what does the business.”

If Edison revolutionized the American approach to innovation, the secret to his success may well have been his emphasis on the practical. Not satisfied with groundbreaking discoveries in the lab, Edison wanted to make sure his research could be profitably marketed. “I am not a scientific man. I am an inventor,” Edison told the Brooklyn Citizen in 1888. “As soon as I find that something I am investigating does not lead to practical results, I do not pursue it as a theory.”

Fresh from a trip to England in 1873, where he marveled at the latest technology in telegraphy, Edison set out to equip a modern research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The big breakthrough came with the lightbulb. “The electric light,” Israel says, “is what transforms Menlo Park from a research laboratory into a research-and-development laboratory.”

Edison took all that he learned in Menlo Park about invention, research, and development, and transferred it in 1887 to a much larger operation in West Orange, New Jersey (he and Mina, his new bride, had built a house, Glenmont, in nearby Llewellyn Park). The main building of Edison’s new complex had both a large machine shop and a precision machine shop, and separate laboratories were built to study electricity, chemistry, and metallurgy. The new site even had a recording studio and, perhaps most importantly, plenty of space for manufacturing.

An advertisement for the Edison invention the vitascope, which was an early form of the film projector.

“Manufacturing was the way in which Edison thought about invention,” Israel says, “because to be successful, you had to have these things work in the real world. This is one of the things that makes Edison such a successful innovator. He doesn’t just think about developing technology to the point where he can bring it to market, but actually brings it to market and thinks about how to improve it so that it’s successful in the marketplace. That’s really important.”

As a scholar, Israel has specialized in the study of innovation, so he’s taken a particular interest in Edison’s work habits. He has come to understand, for example, the importance of Edison’s early research in telegraphy, his pivotal trip to England in 1873, and his practice of conducting basic research to lay the groundwork for some future discovery.

“That’s certainly something that comes out of his experience in Britain, where he encounters underground lines and cable telegraphs that create problems that he’s not familiar with in telegraphy,” Israel says. “This begins his effort to understand more what’s going on in the transmission of electrical signals, and, in the process, leads to improvements in certain kinds of telegraph technology.”

Scrutinizing the countless notebooks that Edison and his assistants left behind, Israel discerned how Edison used the same approach to unlock the mystery of the electric light. “Edison, like everybody, begins with the idea that he’s going to focus on the lamp,” Israel says. “But he quickly realizes that if you’re going to do an incandescent lamp, you also need to think about the design of the generator, because the generators that existed at that time weren’t really optimal for incandescent lighting systems. And this is one of Edison’s key insights. He devises an entire system, not just the lamp. In fact, he has a generator design before he has a successful lamp design.”

Poring through the Edison record for three decades also yielded clues about Edison’s relationships with his wives, each making clear her frustration over being neglected at the expense of her husband’s lab. “There are these interesting aspects to Edison’s relationships to women in his life that come through in the notebooks as well as in correspondence and elsewhere,” Israel says. “Both wives had the experience of having this very famous husband who spent as much time as he could in the laboratory.”

In a notebook entry written shortly after they were married, Edison revealed his apparent frustration with Mary, who had worked in the lab: “My wife, dearly beloved,” he surmised, “cannot invent worth a damn.”

family portrait
A family portrait of the inventor with his son, daughter, and wife Mina.

“The problem,” Israel says, “was that she just wasn’t showing enough interest in what he was doing.” In the 1890s, when Edison was trying to extract low-grade ore from a mine in northern New Jersey, he and Mina exchanged a series of testy notes stemming from his workaholic habits. “She’d clearly been complaining to him that he’s not home,” Israel says. “And he writes back to her that, ‘You and the children and the laboratory are the most important things in my life.’ Trying to reassure her that she was as important as the laboratory. I think ultimately the laboratory might have been more important.”

To date, the Edison project’s collections are in assorted stages of completion: the five-part microfilm edition contains 281,000 document images on 288 film reels (a sixth part is planned); six books, with drawings, transcriptions, and assiduous annotations, have been published by Johns Hopkins University Press (the seventh of 15 scheduled volumes is due in July); and the website contains 188,000 document images, most taken from the first three parts of the microfilm edition. This year’s budget for the Edison Papers is about $700,000, with Rutgers providing the single largest chunk, about $230,000. Other key benefactors include the National Historical Publications and Records Commission ($134,000), the New Jersey Historical Commission ($105,000), the National Endowment for the Humanities ($102,000), and the National Park Service ($82,000).

“It was a lot of detective work putting the archival material together in a way that made it easy for people to use,” Israel says. “A lot of the material had never been gone through. There were related notebook pages in separate folders. It was a massive undertaking just to figure out where everything was and what was related to what.”

There is, of course, still much work to be done. At the current rate of funding and staffing, Israel says, the Edison Papers project could take another 25 years to complete. But in documenting the Edisonian record and making public an already colossal compilation, Israel and his team have already illuminated decades of technological advances that changed the world, helping to bring the rest of us out of the dark.

To learn more, visit the website for the Thomas Edison Papers.