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Edison: Inventing the Century Paperback – April 28, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0226035710 ISBN-10: 0226035719

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 542 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (April 28, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226035719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226035710
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 5.9 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #996,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), who introduced the light bulb and the phonograph to a startled world from his pastoral New Jersey retreat, strides across Baldwin's engrossing epic biography as a complex, contradictory figure. The hearing-impaired inventor was a visionary inclined "to think globally long before achieving success locally," a cranky, authoritarian businessman, a daredevil entrepreneur pathologically addicted to work, a metaphysical thinker who practiced automatic writing and who, inspired by Madame Helena Blavatsky's theosophical/mysticism, postulated that intelligence pervades every atom of God's creation. To Baldwin (Man Ray: American Artist), the Ohio-born genius, who pioneered the microphone, the motion-picture camera and the world's first central electric-light power plant, embodied the American experiment in industrial civilization and the potential of technological change. By charting Edison's relations with venture capitalists, unsung collaborators and competitors, Baldwin spins an inspirational American saga of titanic determination and protean imagination. Edison's later projects-his decade-long, abortive iron-ore milling and smelting operation, and his return to the soil, at age 80, in search of a natural source for rubber in his own herbarium-take their rightful place in the story. We also meet the torn family man whose neglect of home and hearth contributed to the death at age 29 of his chronically ill, emotionally troubled first wife, Mary Stilwell. His second wife, heiress Mina Miller, by this account became his subservient helpmeet, while his domineering, impossible-to-please ways drove his six children into convoluted patterns of dependence and alienation. Photos.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Thomas Alva Edison, an icon to millions, was a prodigious inventor and emblem of the American entrepreneurial spirit. His impact on our century via the electric light, the phonograph, the movie, and even Portland cement truly transformed the American experience. Capturing not only the creative and inventive thrust of Edison's life but its personal aspects, Baldwin offers first-rate writing. Baldwin, author of Man Ray: American Artist (LJ 10/1/88) and executive director of the National Book Foundation, describes with care the family and business milieu Edison fostered and lived in. He also gives generous treatment to the important people in Edison's life. The story is fascinating. Highly recommended for all libraries. [For more on Baldwin and Edison, see LJ's Behind the Book interview, "Biography of an Inventive Life," on p. 116.-Ed.]-Michael D. Cramer, Virginia Polytechnic & State Univ. Libs., Blacksbur.
--Michael D. Cramer, Virginia Polytechnic & State Univ. Libs., Blacksburg
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Jean-Francois Virey on February 13, 2001
Format: Audio Cassette
"The electric light is the light of the future- and it will be my light, unless some other fellow gets up a better one." - Thomas A. Edison
The author of lives of artist Man Ray and poet William Carlos Williams, Neil Baldwin chose to devote his third biography to a practical-minded genius: Thomas Alva Edison, one of America's most venerated icons. Beginning with the history of Edison's ancestors in the new world, this thick, 500-page volume has its subject come to life on page 17, and chronicles his prodigious accomplishments until his death in 1931, with numerous highlights on his two wives (the first of whom, Mary Stilwell, died at 29), children and in-laws.
The tone of the book is generally sympathetic, though Baldwin deliberately attempts to eschew the hero-worshiping of some earlier works in order to achieve a more "balanced" and sober view of the man. A lot of stress is laid on the consequences of Edison's incredible working habits on his family life and the emotional development of his children, and one cannot help thinking that the author blames him for his single-minded devotion to the pursuit of technological progress. Indeed, the metaphors used to describe Edison's industriousness and concentration are often borrowed from the vocabulary of pathology: he is presented as a "workaholic" rather than a hard worker, with "obsessions" rather than ambitions or passions. Even the division of labour in Edison's West Orange research center, says Baldwin, "physically epitomizes the schisms in Edison's psyche".
The book is not overladen with technical minutiae, as the author seems to be more attracted to period detail than to hardware.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Larry Phillips on September 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
I stopped reading this book after about 150 pages, and resolved to find a better Edison biography. I had two problems with the book:
1. The writing is a bit muddled. For example, we find Edison at age 23 running an "invention factory" with 50 or so employees housed in a four story building in Newark. There is almost no explaination of how he got the backing to set up such an enterprise.
2. The author does not seem to have much understanding of the science behind Edison's work. He makes no attempt to explain how any of Edison's inventions operated - no diagrams or drawings, and he seems confused about the difference between electricty and magnetism.
The author's background is in poetry. At the risk of sounding mean-spirited, I think that an Edison biography is not a good fit for him.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Danny Hillis on October 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
This book does a good job of explaining Edison's personality, but a not-so-great job of explaining his achievements. The book is obviously carefully researched, but it would have been better if Baldwin had a deeper technical understanding is of Edison's inventions. Most of the invention description of his seem to be extracted from notebooks and patent disclosures with little insight into what is essential and what is incidental. Edison's wedding is described is greater detail than his phonograph, and his domestic problems are explained more clearly than his problems with the electric light bulb. The book is well written, and I enjoyed reading it, but a reader looking for an understanding of Edison's inventions will be disappointed.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By rodboomboom HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on January 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
Background into this important American figure in our century. So much of what we now have came from this man. His connections to Ford and the whole electric industry are monumental. This book describes the unfolding of this giant's life in witty, easy-to-read style. His emphasis on all the elements of the man's life without too much detail of the technical, kept me captivated.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Bomojaz on April 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
In this biography of the great inventor, Neil Baldwin chooses to emphasize Edison the person rather than focusing on the inventions, as some earlier biographers had done. Perhaps for this reason, though the book is thorough, it reads somewhat shallow. Of all the inventions of Edison, Baldwin writes in detail only about 2 of them: the phonograph and motion pictures. He also spends a great deal of space covering Edison's work in the iron ore mine he owned in Ogdensburg, NJ, and his experiments with rubber, both of which produced negligible results. I found Matthew Josephson's 1959 biography on Edison to be much better.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Matt Hetling on April 11, 2005
Format: Paperback
Marge Simpson (tired of Homer's endless prattling about Edison): I bet Thomas Edison didn't talk about Thomas Edison all day.

Homer: Oh, that's not true Marge. He was a shameless self-promoter!

This is a mammoth book that seeks to provide the entire story of the world's most famous inventor. Baldwin takes us from Edison's birth to his deathbed, with equal parts of attention being paid to his personal life and his professional life.

Some people might be disappointed by the fact that Baldwin doesn't fawn over Edison the man, but I appreciated the objectivity. While Edison's famous work ethic and engineering genius earned him the mythic status that he holds in the public imagination, his home life was troubled, unsurprising for anyone who is at the top of their field. Bringing some of the less savory aspects of Edison into the light de-mythologizes him somewhat, but this is done in the service of truth, and I generally find that this makes for a better biography.

I notice that other reviewers have criticized Baldwin's lack of science credentials, but I didn't find that to be a problem, either. Edison wasn't a scientist himself, in the sense that a nuclear physicist or a chemist is a scientist. Edison was an inventor. He made things, and the basis of his creations was generally not an abstract scientific concept that would be difficult for laymen to grasp. That being said, I do wish that there were some diagrams and sketches, which would have given us a more clear picture of the nuts and bolts of Edison's work.

I was actually surprised to see the simplicity of most of Edison's inventions. It seemed that his real genius lay more in tinkering with an existing idea until the dream of a working practical application became reality.
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