The Spark of Genius
Thomas Edison created the first light bulb 125 years ago. But he was not only America's greatest inventor. He was also a master entrepreneur
It sits in isolation on a slope in the middle of a cow pasture, a two-story white clapboard house surrounded by a picket fence. Approached from the front, it looks like an ordinary home, with high sash windows, a gracefully arched porch ascended by sagging wooden steps, and a little balustraded balcony above. The first surprise is how far back the house extends. From the modest 30-foot façade, it runs at least 100 feet to the fringe of a virgin forest.
It is late on a winter's night in 1876. There is snow on the ground, and wood smoke curls from two brick chimneys. Inside, up the dark, uncarpeted stairs, a big bare-boarded room lit by gas jets and kerosene lamps stretches the building's full 100 feet. Its ceiling is laced with wire and piping, its walls lined floor to roof with jars of liquids and bottles of powder of every color. A rack in the center of the room is stacked with galvanic batteries, and every other nook and surface is covered with bits of copper, brass, lead, and tinfoil; crucibles, phials, and small darkened panes of glass; microscopes, spectrometers, telegraph keys, and galvanometers; rubber tubing and wax and small disks of some obscure material. At scattered workbenches and heaped-up tables there are a dozen young men engrossed in what they are doing: A bearded pair observe a spark jumping from an electromagnet to a metal lever; another boils a smelly chemical; another has his ear to some kind of telephone receiver; another, chewing tobacco, bends his head to frown at the needle on an instrument. In the far corner, stretched out on the floor amid a score of open books, is a pale young man with a mop of brown hair and stains on his hands, entirely lost to this world because he is concentrating on making a new one.
This is Thomas Alva Edison at 31. If we stay long enough, we will see him uncoil his shabby 5 feet, 8 inches and, stooping slightly, move slowly among the workbenches, cupping an ear to listen to observations on the night's work, reaching over to tweak an instrument, breaking out in laughter as one of the fellows makes a joke at his expense. His black frock coat and waistcoat are dusty, and a white silk handkerchief around his neck is tied in a careless knot over the stiff bosom of a white shirt rather the worse for wear, but what stands out is the extreme brightness of his eyes.
Around midnight he and his comrades in discovery will settle in front of a blazing fire for pie, ham, crackers, smoked herring, and beer. There is as likely to be a competition in mocking doggerel or crude cartoons as a debate on the proper expression of Newton's law of gravitation. Someone, maybe Edison himself if he has had a good day, will blast out a melody on a huge pipe organ at the end of the big room and they will raise the rafters singing sentimental (and censorable) ditties. Then they will all go back to their benches and books until the early hours while down the hill in Edison's farmhouse home, Mary Edison, his wife and the mother of two of his children, will have given up and gone to sleep with a revolver under her pillow. One late night soon a disheveled Edison will forget his keys, climb onto the roof, and let himself in through an open bedroom window. Mary, ever fearful of intruders, will nearly shoot him with her .38 Smith & Wesson. In the words of his journal, he will again "resolve to work daytimes and stay home nights," but he cannot keep a promise to himself when his head is filled working out the complexities standing between a panoramic vision and the steps to its realization.