The best book I read in 2011 wasn’t actually one book but three — a trilogy entitled Menlo Park Reminiscences by Francis Jehl. It was published between 1937 and 1941 by the Edison Institute of Dearborn, Michigan, a foundation established by car maker Henry Ford to honor and preserve the achievements of Thomas Edison — by most accounts the greatest inventor that America has produced. Francis Jehl was a young man who had the good fortune to assist Edison in his laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey during the years after the nation’s 1876 centennial when the inventor developed the first practical system for electrical lighting. Jehl remained intimately involved in Edison’s enterprises for 60 years, and had a encyclopedic understanding of the roles played by all the other Edison pioneers.
Although most Americans know that Edison developed the first successful incandescent light bulb, few realize that his breakthrough would have had only limited value had he not also developed dynamos for generating power, underground conductors for distributing power, meters for measuring the rate of use, fuses for preventing overloads, and a host of other technologies. In other words, Edison provided the foundation for an entire industry, one which transformed every facet of global commerce and culture to an even greater degree than computers and the Internet have. It takes Jehl over a thousand pages to tell the story of how this saga unfolded, focusing mainly on the period between 1878 and 1892 (by which time the commercial success of electric lighting was assured). It is chronicle of grit and perseverance unsurpassed in the annals of innovation, an inspirational tale of how a shy boy with a learning disability (deafness) who wasn’t good at math managed to change everything for the better.
But that is just the beginning, because woven into Francis Jehl’s reminiscences is a rich compendium of insight into Edison’s times. Who remembers today that when the Edison enterprise was first beginning to take off, directors declared a dividend every Saturday? Or that the reason workers went on strike at the first central generating plant was because managers decided they should work seven days a week, twelve hours per day? Or that labor strife was the main reason Edison’s subordinates moved their main factory from New York City to Schenectady, providing the foundation for the enterprise that J.P. Morgan would later consolidate into the General Electric Company? By 1941, the year that author Jehl died while putting the finishing touches on his reminiscences, that one plant in Schenectady was on its way to employing 40,000 workers.
The Edison story as recounted by Jehl is full of interesting sub-plots, as noted scientists of the day initially dismissed the young inventor as a naive tinkerer, and then later turned to stealing his inventions when they were proven useful. The enormous time and effort required to protect Edison’s intellectual property is a constant theme throughout the books, as is the role of financiers such as Morgan in funding its commercialization. Other companies and characters that we know well turn up unexpectedly throughout the story, from the bright young engineers that Edison hired away from Pratt & Whitney to the steam engines made by Babcock & Wilcox that Edison used in his generating plants to the visionary European inventor Nikola Tesla — who comes off looking like an unreliable fellow during his brief time as an Edison employee.
Although quite lengthy, the trilogy is full of photographs and diagrams that illuminate the text, and I found it an easy read. I doubt you can find a more accurate account of how Edison achieved his breakthroughs, or a more complete remembrance of all the various engineers, managers, scientists and financiers who contributed to the nation’s first great wave of electrification. If you are interested in reading the books, which have been out of print for many years, your best bet is to search for them at www.abebooks.com. There are still plenty of copies in circulation.
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