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The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World [Hardcover]

Randall E. Stross
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

13 Mar 2007
At the height of his fame Thomas Alva Edison was hailed as “the Napoleon of invention” and blazed in the public imagination as a virtual demigod. Newspapers proclaimed his genius in glowing personal profiles and quipped that “the doctor has been called” because the great man “has not invented anything since breakfast.” Starting with the first public demonstrations of the phonograph in 1878 and extending through the development of incandescent light, a power generation and distribution system to sustain it, and the first motion picture cameras—all achievements more astonishing in their time than we can easily grasp today—Edison’s name became emblematic of all the wonder and promise of the emerging age of technological marvels.

But as Randall Stross makes clear in this critical biography of the man who is arguably the most globally famous of all Americans, Thomas Edison’s greatest invention may have been his own celebrity. Edison was certainly a technical genius, but Stross excavates the man from layers of myth-making and separates his true achievements from his almost equally colossal failures. How much credit should Edison receive for the various inventions that have popularly been attributed to him—and how many of them resulted from both the inspiration and the perspiration of his rivals and even his own assistants? How much of Edison’s technical skill helped him overcome a lack of business acumen and feel for consumers’ wants and needs?

This bold reassessment of Edison’s life and career answers these and many other important questions while telling the story of how he came upon his most famous inventions as a young man and spent the remainder of his long life trying to conjure similar success. We also meet his partners and competitors, presidents and entertainers, his close friend Henry Ford, the wives who competed with his work for his attention, and the children who tried to thrive in his shadow—all providing a fuller view of Edison’s life and times than has ever been offered before. The Wizard of Menlo Park reveals not only how Edison worked, but how he managed his own fame, becoming the first great celebrity of the modern age.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Publishers (13 Mar 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400047625
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400047628
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,574,840 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By S. Gale
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Thomas Edison has become a legend in the field of innovation. Amongst other things, he invented the phonograph and the first practical electric light bulb. During his career he was granted over 1,000 patents across a wide range of subjects. As part of this success came fame - indeed, he is recognised as one of the world's first celebrities - interestingly, it was a man of science rather than entertainment (in those days, I suspect that there wasn't much difference!).

This book provides insights into Edison's life - the roller coaster nature of being an inventor, his dogged determination to perfect the phonograph, the multiple commercial and financial setbacks, and the people behind the scenes who helped (and hindered) him along the way. I found this a compelling book, particularly having read so many dry textbooks recently on innovation. Innovation is a difficult process to describe and yet it is critical to almost all endeavours. Frequently when attempting to understand the innovation process, many authors reduce the process to a set of rather abstract processes that lack the human touch making the processes difficult to relate to. Ultimately, innovation is a by-product of an inquisitive mind in the right sort of social and commercial setting.

In many ways, it is the quintessentially human activity. This book helped to bring real life to a set of abstract processes described elsewhere. I would highly recommend reading this book AFTER reading a number of the innovation textbooks. It helps underline the more abstract issues raised by other authors as well as providing another viewpoint on the innovation process.

This book seems to take a very balanced view of Edison's life - offsetting myth against, what has become, legend. Highly recommended for anyone interested in innovation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not very readable 4 Mar 2011
This book may have contained the facts and information on Edison's life but I found it a real chore to read.
I finished it but it was like completing a work or school white paper.
I got a sense of Edison from reading this book as being a great innovator but a poor business man and an average husband, father, friend and competitor at best but his legend will live on for those innovations he brought to make our world a better place.

So this book gets the message across but the read is difficult and really not so enjoyable as biographies should be. I read a biography of Dickens recently, got the sense of the man and also enjoyed the read, for this book, just the former and not the latter.
2.5 stars!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent biog of Thomas Edison 23 Feb 2012
By alanj
Having spent some time trying to track down a decent biography of Thomas Edison (the inventor and brilliant businessman), I would wholeheartedly recommend this one. Very hard to find in UK as this is a US published book only. A lot of the books on sale are frankly for children and hopeless - this is for adults and is also illustrated. His life and achievements are fascinating - and more so than I had expected.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  34 reviews
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Wizard Invents Himself 17 April 2007
By R. Hardy - Published on
The greatest American inventor, most would agree, was Thomas Alva Edison, but it may be that his greatest invention was himself, as image in the newspapers and as "Thomas A. Edison", a phrase that was an important addition to any marketable gadget. In _The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Edison Invented the Modern World_ (Crown), Randall Stross has looked at the mechanical and electric inventions, few of which Edison single-handedly originated or developed, but has concentrated mostly on his fame. "Once brought into being," Stross writes, "Edison's image inhabited its own life and acted autonomously in ways that its namesake could not control." Stross, a historian who is a professor of business, makes the case that Edison discovered the importance of the application of celebrity to business. We had celebrities before, of course, presidents and generals, and contemporary with Edison were famous figures like Mark Twain and P. T. Barnum. Edison's celebrity exceeded them all, and oddly, he was famous because he was an inventor. When celebrity came to him, he was not an inventor who had made a practical gadget like a cotton gin, a telegraph, or an elevator; he had invented (and had come far short of perfecting) the phonograph. It was the celebrity from this particular machine that carried him through many ups and downs in his long life.

This is not a complete biography, but a welcome look at particular qualities of Edison's celebrity and its effects on his life and business practices. Edison jumped from the most modern technology of the time, telegraphy, and was working on improved telephones, not on voice recording in 1877. The world was dazzled by the prospect of a machine that could talk, but the phonograph sat in its unperfected form for another ten years as he went about other projects, and this was despite a clamor for the machine and an elevation of Edison in the public mind to "mythic inventor hero". Edison was happiest when he was tinkering wherever his whimsy carried him; he was good at coming up with new ideas, bad at working on perfecting them, and terrible at making them pay. He understood the importance of his fame, and used it, although he could not control all the ways others put it to use or all the ways that it took time out of his other activities. He made himself available to the press, and reporters loved interviewing the plain-talking inventor who would chew tobacco throughout such visits. He loved the role of wise advisor, and the press liked him to pontificate on all sorts of matters that had nothing to do with his areas of expertise, like diet.

Edison was no charlatan. Even though he took credit when it actually belonged to those who worked for him, and even though the public insisted on crediting him for inventions others had perfected, he did have a real role in innovating gadgets. As time went on (he lived until 1931) and his public persona as a wizard continued, people tended to forget his many failures; all of his most famous inventions were early in his career, and all amounted to little while he was the one in control of their manufacture and marketing. It would be unfair to judge him just on his earnings, but one of his sons was probably right when he bitterly complained, "You should have been... a millionaire 10 times over if you knew how to handle your own achievements." Such a skill was not within his wizardry, however. Stross shows that Edison could not focus on a new project and bring it to commercial fruition without getting distracted by other endeavors, and that often the distracting endeavor was that of making himself a celebrity. He was wildly successful in this, but it proved to be a strain that he could not enjoy or control. Stross sums up: "Edison failed to invent a way to free himself from unrealistic expectations produced by his own past."
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thomas Edison is human. 4 April 2007
By Real Positive Guy - Published on
The author brings Thomas Edison to life in these pages exposing all of his brilliance, ineptness, and stubborness. No one can doubt the genius that is Edison, while at the same time appreciating all of the business opportunities lost due to his quirks of personality and failure to recognize them when they are right before his eyes.

It is a fascinating look at someone who I have admired for years from reading about his accomplishments, but now I feel I know him as a person. I had a hard time putting the book down. A must read for anyone and especially people who are innovative and entrepreneurial.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Destroyer of Edison 10 Sep 2011
By John R Drake, PhD - Published on
As a lover of technology, reason, and heroes, I have read several biographies of Edison. This one, by far, is the worst I have read. I must emphatically do not recommend this book. The reason - Mr. Stross seems determined throughout the book to tear down Edison, to find every fault (real or imagined) and detail how Edison was not amazing. Instead of reading about how Edison was able to achieve over 1000 patents in his lifetime, you read about how Edison was not a good businessman, not a good husband, not a good father, not a good friend, not a good philanthropist, and not a good employer. You will read about dozens of examples where Edison over promised results, became insufferably conceited, sought after publicity, claimed credit for inventions he didn't create, and made hundreds (if not thousands) of bad decisions. Stross meticulously documents every negative newspaper article printed throughout Edison's lifetime. In every case where there are two possible explanations for Edison's behavior, Stross writes about the most negative one. One has to wonder why Stross would want to write this biography.

What was noticeably absent was detailed discussions of Edison's genius, of his innovative capacity, of his independence in thought, of his confidence in his own abilities, of his prodigous work ethic, or of his experience creating the world's first industrial laboratory. It wasn't until the last chapter of the book that Stross even discusses the enormous values created from Edison's inventions, spawning several multi-billion dollar industries by the time of Edison's death in the 1930s. It is too little too late. But even then, Stross is quick to point out that Edison's net worth was only estimated at $12 million when he died, just in case you were not convinced of Edison's poor business skills.

All-in-all, this destroyer of the greatest in Edison should be forgotten. I regret I spent money on it.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a Flawed Genius--"Warts and All" 10 July 2009
By Bill Lampton, Ph.D. - Published on

In early childhood we heard much about Edison the inventor, yet very little about Edison the man. This book fills that gap. We learn about Edison's prejudices, his workaholic habits that took incessant priority over his family, his resilience, his close friendships with prominent men like Henry Ford, and his adjustment to his lifelong hearing impairment.

My only drawback: the author's style lacks popular appeal, bordering on dissertation style. Still, I recommend the book because we get to know the man who made so many of our modern conveniences possible.

The Complete Communicator: Change Your Communication-change Your Life!
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Man Behind the Myth 1 July 2007
By J. Groen - Published on
Thomas Alva Edison was probably the greatest inventor of all time. However, he was also one of the worst businessman to ever run a business. Yes, he invented the phonograph, but then was beaten in the market by the Victor company because he micromanaged the decisions for the selection of the artists to record. In fact, initially, he wanted to use his invention as a dictation device. Many consider him to be the inventor of electricity and the light bulb, and yet, many inventors were working on this at the same time. And, ultimately, Westinghouse beat his company in the market because he pursued the more costly direct current while they pursued the more cost efficient alternating current. Alternating current is what is used today. His life was that of a creative genius who pursued what he was interested in and not what was important to the market, thereby missing many opportunities. However, pursuing what he was interested in resulted in great advances in many fields that were important in the development of the modern world. I think the most important statement of his importance to our world was provided when the US government requested that all people turn off their lights at the time of his funeral in 1931. He was very important to the modern world, but the myths that arose since his death, that resulted in him being close to a deity, were not correct. This book provides the man behind the myth, doing in a very credible and readable fashion. Consequently, I highly recommend this book.
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