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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best biography of Edison so far, 16 Nov 1998
By A Customer
This is the first biography of Edison with real details about how he and his co-workers carried out the process of invention. The best previous Edison biography (Neil Baldwin's Edison: Inventing the Century (1995)) contains many interesting personal anecdotes but lacks the sort of research and development details required by a technically oriented reader. Paul Israel's scholarly work is a much needed addition to the history of technology.
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5.0 out of 5 stars superb scholarly and technical treatment, 10 Aug 2011
rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
I was given this book for a writing project and dutifully plowed through it over the Christmas holidays. Overall, I must say that it was an absolutely excellent holiday book as well as chock full of useful ideas for my scholarly purposes. This is an extremely difficult balance to strike and Israel has done it better than I thought possible - I was prepared for a long dry slog and instead found a great and exciting story.

Edison, Israel argues, was not just a lone little-educated tinkerer of genius as he is often portrayed, but the creator of the prototype for the modern corporate research lab - he knew how to find talent, how to organize it to get the most out of people, and how to beat the competition by both speed and in the creation of entire new systems of technology. He also knew how to manipulate the media and build on his fame, creating a myth to which he had to live up. That being said, he had a pitch-perfect intuitive sense not only of potential new markets, but of how to create technical solutions to exploit them. He learned from his failures and strove to apply his less-successful inventions elsewhere, often to great effect. Taken together, this was true business genius and Israel explains it all succinctly, including the exposure of Edison's many weaknesses in management and his financial affairs and his many flops (such as the mining experiments using magnetism that nearly bankrupted him). Furthermore, the basics of his major inventions - improvements to the telegraph and telephone, the light bulb, commerical electricity generation systems, to mention a few - are covered with competence, always with an eye to the management of it all and what it took, all of which are of great use. This adds up to a masterpiece of scholarship and popular writing in my view, crossing a plethora of disciplines in very readable prose and at a good pace of storytelling.

However, there are many things that make this a challenging read and in some ways disappointing. Even though I know a lot about science and engineering from my own writing, I found the many passages explaining the nuts and bolts of his inventions hard to follow and ultimately rather dry. If the reader is not interested in these highly technical details, he can skim them without losing the narrative thread. Moreover, Edison as a person does not always come thru, though really he was his work and not much else. You also do not learn much about the fate of his enterprises or even his personal financial fortune after his death, which is also a part of his legacy that should be explored. Finally, Israel addresses somewhat rarified questions in the concluding chapter regarding whether Edison was a "scientist" and how industrial research was changing (developing specialties that required far more education than inventors of Edison's "heroic invention" epoch) to make the emergence of generalist, self-taught inventors like him far more difficult and with limited horizons; while I enjoyed this a great deal, it is of limited interest to those who were never steeped in "science policy."

All in all, highest recommendation. It is a great achievement and will stand as one of the definitive biographies of this great and difficult man.
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Edison: A Life of Invention
Edison: A Life of Invention by Paul Israel (Audio CD - July 2013)
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