Conversation | Thomas Edison (Greenville)

Event details

  • Saturday | September 11, 2021
  • 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm
  • To be announced
  • 864.244.1499

 View Map  Cost: Free

Conversation with Hank Fincken (Thomas Edison)

During the History Comes Alive Festival each afternoon at 2:00p from Tuesday September 7 – Saturday September 11, we gather together to pick the brains of the historical performers. No costumes, no script, just a chance to have some personal time and dialog with the performers.

Each “Conversation” features a different performer/historical figure. Often the other performers and Chautauqua staff also join in the fun. And if you come to multiple Conversations, you begin to see how the 2021 “Reinventing America” historical figures relate to each other.

The event is Free, however registration may be required. The location of the event has not been determined at this time. It will be held either indoors with social distancing, virtually, or a combination of live registered audience and virtual presentation.

Thomas Edison by Hank Fincken

Thomas Alva Edison helped America become a world power, not with weapons but with insights into how things work and how things can be made to work better. He became the poster child of what America is supposed to be: a land of infinite opportunity for the individual willing to expend a little elbow grease. His inventions include the fluoroscope, the alkaline storage battery, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the megaphone, the microphone, the cement house, the improved telephone, and the electric light system.

More than one historian said he invented the twentieth century. I would challenge that conclusion slightly. He showed the country how to keep reinventing itself. He invented new products that were dependable, could be mass-produced, and improved. He did it for fame, for the scientific challenge, for money, but also to improve the lives of everyday Americans. An optimist his whole adult life, he praised himself most when he paraphrased Lincoln: “Everything comes to he who hustles while he waits.”

Edison delivered. By 1900, his light system, phonograph business, and new movie industry had changed the lives of everyone in America. But even more importantly, Edison embodied an attitude that Americans believed best described themselves. There was nothing The Wizard of Menlo Park could not do (and, therefore, nothing that we could not do) once he/we set our minds to it. Sometimes he succeeded immediately (according to his story of the phonograph) and sometimes it took a decade (50,000 experiments to develop the alkaline storage battery), but eventually he got it right. Almost everyone admires his quotation: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” America’s self-image and self-confidence grew as Edison’s reputation grew.

Of course, the reality was more complex. In the 1890s, Edison dropped out of the electric business and lost another fortune experimenting with low-grade iron ore deposits in the east. His efforts to make a quality hearing aid failed and his experiments with x-rays proved that new technology can have pitfalls. Still, the spirit of the times was optimistic. In 1900, you could enter a building and see outdoor events or contemporary news (called “actualities”) projected on a screen. At the same time, the cheaper improved phonographs made it possible for middle class families to enjoy a concert in their own homes. Who could not see the future as bright and rosy?

Edison often took someone else’s invention and made it better.  The telegraph is the perfect example.  Morse’s invention revolutionized human communication, but it had its limits. Edison made it practical, both quicker and more energy efficient.  These improvements made his reputation in the business world, but that was not enough. Edison quickly learned that his best advertising gimmick was himself, and he loved the attention.

One reporter said, “Edison is the Aladdin’s lamp of the newspaper man.”  He has been criticized for his flair for self-promotion. Actually, he was the first to realize that publicity influences market share and image determines perceptions of quality. In the public’s mind, “Edison” quickly came to mean “the latest and best.”

What makes Edison the first great twentieth century inventor was his willingness to delegate responsibility. Research and Development is more sophisticated today than it was when Edison started, but that was because the techniques themselves had yet to be invented.

Edison determined which problems had to be addressed and then assigned teams of inventors with appropriate mechanical and engineer skills. With the light system, there were many teams. One worked on the filament, another the vacuum in the lamp, and a third on the generator. Edison demanded that his men keep accurate notes to avoid redundancy, to determine possible new directions, and to win patent battles. He saw himself as overseer, guide, and inspirational leader. His best work was teamwork. Edison did not invent the wheel, but his facilities and collaborators could reinvent it so it would last longer, fit better, and do its work more efficiently. He had become an industry.

If Edison was sometimes lucky, he also deserves credit for making his luck work for him. The phonograph was designed to fulfill a business need.  Experiments in 1877 with the automatic telegraph and nearly useless Bell telephone led to a machine that Edison believed had a market in the business community: storing letters, speeches, and historical documents. The public preferred it play tunes. By the 1890s, the market for recorded music seemed to have no limit.

Scholars today debate who deserves credit for the invention of the motion picture camera (kinetoscope). In his 1888 caveat to the patent office, Edison said he would “devise an instrument that should do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.”  Preference often depends on national pride, selective memory, and trust or distrust of History. The truth is: several inventors were working on the project at the same time. While one was more advanced in one area, another excelled in a different area; all contributed and all learned (or stole) from the others.

President Hoover said Edison’s greatest invention was the invention factory. I believe that his greatest discovery was that the invention process is never over. If you do not constantly improve your product and decrease the selling price, your competition will. History does not remember who made the great improvements, but the businessman knows those improvements are what make sales possible. Edison recognized this need and constantly worked to improve his products.

For example, he claimed to invent the phonograph one day in 1877, but he spent a lifetime perfecting it. In 1902, he perfected the Gold Molded cylinder record that meant each copy was as good as the original. In 1912, he created the Blue Amberol records, which captured the truest acoustic sound ever.

Edison saw himself as part of a continuum. He said, “Every invention has a pedigree. That pedigree improves with each generation. “ And with a dash of humility, he added, “I begin where the last man left off.”

There’s a way to do it better – find it.

Edison by Edmund Morris (October 2019) New book by winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award soon to be available at Greenville Library System

Before the Nickelodeon by Charles Musser (1991) Musser analyses every film that came from the Edison studios, with special emphasis on the director Edwin Porter.

Discovering Antique Phonographs by T.C. Fabrizio and G. f. Paul (2000) This detailed book is why I think collectors are often underrated historians.

Edison and the Business of Innovation by Andre Millard (1990) This book captures the second half of Edison’s career, when the shop culture becomes the research and development laboratory. This detailed volume proves that Edison was as much a businessman as an inventor and did some of his best work after Menlo Park.

* Edison: A Biography by Matthew Josephson (1959) This is the first serious scholarly attempt to look back at Edison and measure his influence on our lives today. After sixty years, the book still holds up, giving lots of insights into the man and his life of invention.

Edison: A Life of Invention by Paul Israel (1998) If you want to know how the inventions worked, get this book. Nobody has studied the invention notebooks with such care.

Edison: Inventing the Century by Neil Baldwin (1995) This book is extremely strong when talking about Edison the man and his family.

Edison’s Electric Light by Robert Friedel and Paul Israel (1987) This is a month by month report, the highs and lows, that resulted in the invention of the incandescent lamp. After all this time, it still reads as a careful study.

* Executioner’s Current by Richard Moran (2002) What would you do to make sure your light system dominates the world? Would you create an electric chair to show the dangers of AC current even thought you do not personally believe in capital punishment? Edison did.

Innovate like Edison by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott (2007) There are great quotations and insights here, but the audience is corporate executives. Edison made no mistakes or rather even his mistakes have inspiring consequences.

Inventing the Future by Marfé Ferguson Delano (2002) This photobiography is ideal for those who need to see what Edison did. Great pictures but a bit simplistic. This book implies Edison is a secular saint. Written for middle school.

Thomas Alva Edison; An American Myth by Wyn Wachhorst (1982) This book discusses how the man becomes a symbol and the role of that symbol in our society. Also, this author is the consummate prose writer. I reread it just to enjoy his use of language.

* Thomas Edison and Electricity by Steven Parker (1995) The danger of most children’s books about all great men and women is that they simplify the past for an inspiring message. They trust the myths and unverifiable anecdotes. This book is better than most.

The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn (2019) This book focuses on their camping trips with Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs from 1914-1924.

Edison and Tesla and the War of the Currents

* The Electric War: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Light the World by Mike Winchell (2019) Rousing account of one of the world’s defining scientific competitions.

Empires of Light by Jill Jones (2003) If you think History is just about good guys rising to the top, you should read this. Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison battle for leadership in the light/power hungry world.

The Current War – Movie Release date Oct 25, 2019. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Edison.

(Starred items are available in the Greenville County Library System.)