Thomas Edison is revered as a great American inventor, and his incandescent bulb is considered one of the most important inventions of the modern world. But in The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, Ernest Freeberg shows that the light bulb reflected the work of many inventors, rather than Edison’s lone genius. Freeberg, a University of Tennessee historian, recently spoke with U.S. News about the unexpected and far-reaching ways the light bulb revolutionized life in America, creating a foundation for the consumer economy and urbanization. Excerpts:
You do not believe Thomas Edison should be credited as the inventor of the light bulb?
Definitely not, and a lot of what I look at in the book is trying to show that invention is a very complex social process. He was in a very competitive race where he borrowed—some said stole—ideas from other inventors who were also working on an incandescent bulb. What made him ultimately successful was that he was not a lone inventor, a lone genius, but rather the assembler of the first research and development team at Menlo Park, N.J.
Why is he customarily credited with the invention?
Well, partly, Edison was himself a great promoter of his image, and it was important to claim to be the sole inventor in order to win the crucial patents that would determine which person got to control the market share. Also, I think that people wanted to believe in the idea of an inventive genius. Edison certainly was, by any stretch, an inventive genius, but people were very drawn to this idea that Edison was a wizard.
Were people initially resistant to using electricity?
Yes. It was very dangerous, and people understood that. The only thing that might have been more dangerous was the system of gas lights that people were already using, so people were drawn to electric light, hoping it would be safer. Lots of people were electrocuted in the early days, both innocent bystanders and those working for the companies. It took quite a long time for people to put it into their houses.
How did electric light influence urban development?
It really created what we think of as the modern city. Many people were drawn from rural areas into the city in search of work, [and] also because of the fact that cities began to offer rich urban nightlife of entertainment, late-night restaurants, and sporting events.
How did the light bulb contribute to the development of an industrial economy?
In one important way: it extended the work day. Factory owners began to realize that they could get a lot more mileage out of their capital investment if they could keep their machines running into their second shift, and even the third shift. It made the 24-hour-a-day delivery system possible, [which] made a huge difference in terms of accelerating the economy and is basically the foundation of our modern consumer economy.
Did the invention of the light bulb begin an American legacy of inventiveness?
No, I would say it continued it. We remember it as maybe the greatest invention by the greatest American inventor, but Americans had, before Edison came along, a growing reputation around the world for being able to take other people’s scientific breakthroughs, figure out a way to make them into practical devices, and then market them around the world. It wasn’t just Edison that created modern culture, but culture created people like Edison who were able to put all those things together and create great new machines.
How did the American patent system differ from those of other countries?
Many people around the world thought that the great genius of American inventiveness was connected to the patent system. Americans had to pay much less to get a patent than they did in Europe. Also, women received a large number of patents in 19th-century America. That was partly because America had a democratized patent system that made no class distinctions and encouraged the possibility of everyone in the country to be rewarded for coming up with a great new idea, a better mouse trap.