In school, we learn that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in his lab in Menlo Park, N.J. He had the idea and he developed the technology to make it a reality. The truth is much more complicated, involving a vast network of investors, partners and competitors all over the world.
In his new book “The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America,” Ernest Freeberg, a history professor at the University of Tennessee, explains that the light bulb was a product of “social invention,” in that “many people were participating in the process of developing this tool and finding ways to make it useful.”
“The Age of Edison” expertly maps out not just how electric light was pioneered and installed across America, but how it changed society forever.
Edison’s True Legacy
“Edison was a great inventor,” Freeberg says, but the most important thing he did was develop a new style of invention: the prototype for what would become research and development, or R&D. “He assembled a team of expert glass blowers, technicians and people who had a better grasp of higher mathematics and chemistry than he did. But it was all directed by his persistence and genius.”
Making the Bulb Glow
“The bulb itself was only one of many technical issues that had to be resolved,” Freeberg says. “Edison improved the dynamo [a generator that produces direct current]. He worked out the switches and wires and figured out how to make a meter so that the customers could be charged for the service. That was really Edison’s genius: He connected the bulb to a complex system capable of generating power and distributing it across city blocks.”
‘No Rules’ Technology
“There were no rules about where companies put their wires, so they were throwing wires in trees and over roofs,” Freeberg says. “You’re asking people to put what they recognize as a potentially deadly form of energy into their homes. It helped that a lot of people figured that if the Wizard of Menlo Park says it’s OK, then it must be OK.”