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Edison: A Life of Invention Paperback – February 16, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0471362708 ISBN-10: 0471362700 Edition: 1st
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Edison: A Life of Invention + The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World + Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It has been said of Edison that his inventive gifts consisted of 1% genius and 99% hard work. Israel, coauthor of Edison's Electric Light and managing editor of the Thomas Edison Papers (in progress), in effect confirms that assessment. Weighing the competing demands of biographical narrative and technological elucidation, he opts for the latter, showing Edison as tireless experimenter rather than inspired wizard. Israel portrays Edison as an improver of inventions and transformer of concepts into products, someone who applied himself pragmatically to the uses of electricity?from the telegraph and telephone and storage battery to the phonograph, incandescent light and motion picture. Israel shows Edison as a manager of innovation, making the shift from private workshop to corporate research and development with income from royalties. An effective self-publicist, he became in the public mind the central figure of 19th-century invention. He lived, however, into 1931, by which time his brand of empiricism had given way to industrial laboratories on a scale he could not have imagined as a teenage telegrapher in the 1860s. For a flesh-and-blood life one must return to such biographies as Robert Conot's A Streak of Luck (1970) or Neil Baldwin's recent Edison: Inventing the Century. But Israel draws on his subject's notebooks to provide an authoritative look into Edison's working methods, here leavened by enough personal detail to give the achievements shape. When Edison died, the nation extinguished its lights for a minute in tribute. He had not invented either, but he had made electricity work as no one else had. 20 illustrations.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Scientific American

Edison's name is on 1,093 U.S. patents--more than any other person's. It is a measure of his renown that his surname alone suffices for the title of this book. Israel, managing editor of the Rutgers University edition of Edison's papers, has explored thoroughly the five million pages of documents housed at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, N.J., and so he is well positioned to discuss the eminent inventor's achievements. That he does with care and clarity. The well-known inventions--the incandescent lightbulb, the phonograph, the kinetoscope for motion pictures, the carbon transmitter for telephones--are all here in detail, and so are the lesser-known ones as well as some Edisonian projects that did not succeed. Israel also paints a clear portrait of the man. One learns, among other things, of Edison's difficult relationships with his children, his indifference to his appearance and his singular notions about diet. (In his last years, when he was suffering from stomach trouble, "he consumed nothing more than a pint of milk every three hours.") Edison may well have been the "Inventor of the age," as he was orotundly described in the Grand Prize that he won at the Universal Exposition of 1878 in Paris, but he was in addition a complex and intriguing human being. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons; 1st edition (February 11, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471362700
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471362708
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #650,031 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Crawford on January 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
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 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.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 15, 1998
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Josh Daniels on June 7, 2005
Format: Paperback
Reading this book has been an experience for me. I wanted to find out more about the life of one of America's most famous inventors, and this book has helped me along the way, so I give it credit for that. However, I have felt like I am trudging into a mighty windstorm, reaching deep into my soul to plunge each forward step as I slowly turn the pages in this book. There are pockets of enlightenment throughout the book, but it really is a relaying of facts about Edison's life, which is technically what a biography should do, but this book does not come alive in my hands like others have.

To be fair, I did accomplish my goal of learning more about this great man. I learned that a lot his inventions were a result of not just great intellect, but of great work ethic and stick-to-it-iveness. Also, one of his greatest contributions was a corporate model for delegating work among his subordinates. The speed of the development of his inventions was the key, as several other inventors were working on similar ideas at the same time.

Anyway, I recommend the book as a good introduction to the life of Tom, but I am sure that there is a book out there that will give you the same enlightenment without making you feel as though you've crawled on your hands and knees through the Sahara, with a canteen full of lukewarm water that leaks at a very slow rate.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Candace Scott on August 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I did not know a great deal about Edison before reading this book and this served as a fascinating introduction. After visiting Edison's lab in West Orange, N.J. I became intrigued with him and wanted to learn more. Israel's book served as the perfect introduction to this complex and fascinating genius.
I emjoyed the fact that Israel divided the biography between Edison's professional scientific life and his complicated and sometimes bizarre private life, with strained relationships with his children and two marriages. Despite the fact Edison left much to be desired as a father, one almost feels sorry for him. Apparently his towering intellect made it difficult for him to connect emotionally with the more "plebian" sorts of people (which was everyone else on the planet). His sons struggled under the mighty shadow their father cast.
I highly recommend this book for anyone with a casual or serious insterest in the Wizard of Menlo Park.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Azlan Adnan on August 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The conventional story is so familiar and reassuring that it has come to read more like American myth than history: With only three months of formal education, a curious and hardworking young man beats the odds and becomes one of the greatest inventors in history. Not only does he invent the phonograph and the first successful electric light bulb, but he also establishes the first electrical power distribution company and lays the technological groundwork for today's movies, telephones, and sound recording industry. Through relentless tinkering, by trial and error, the story goes, Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) perseveres-and changes the world.
In the revelatory Edison: A Life of Invention, the author exposes and enriches this one-dimensional view of the solitary "Wizard of Menlo Park," expertly situating his subject within a thoroughly realized portrait of a burgeoning country on the brink of massive change. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of corporate America, and with it the newly overlapping interests of scientific, technological, and industrial cultures. Working against the common perception of Edison as a symbol of a mythic American past where persistence and individuality yielded hard-earned success, Israel demonstrates how Edison's remarkable career was actually very much a product of the inventor's fast-changing era. Edison drew widely from contemporary scientific knowledge and research, and was a crucial figure in the transformation of invention into modern corporate research and collaborative development.
Informed by more than five million pages of archival documents, this ambitious biography of Edison brightens the unexamined corners of a singularly influential and triumphant career in science.
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