At the height of his fame Thomas Alva Edison was hailed as “the Napoleon of invention” and blazed in the public imagination as a virtual demigod. Starting with the first public demonstrations of the phonograph in 1878 and extending through the development of incandescent light and the first motion picture cameras, Edison’s name became emblematic of all the wonder and promise of the emerging age of technological marvels.
But as Randall Stross makes clear in this critical biography of the man who is arguably the most globally famous of all Americans, Thomas Edison’s greatest invention may have been his own celebrity. Edison was certainly a technical genius, but Stross excavates the man from layers of myth-making and separates his true achievements from his almost equally colossal failures. How much credit should Edison receive for the various inventions that have popularly been attributed to him—and how many of them resulted from both the inspiration and the perspiration of his rivals and even his own assistants?
This bold reassessment of Edison’s life and career answers this and many other important questions while telling the story of how he came upon his most famous inventions as a young man and spent the remainder of his long life trying to conjure similar success. We also meet his partners and competitors, presidents and entertainers, his close friend Henry Ford, the wives who competed with his work for his attention, and the children who tried to thrive in his shadow—all providing a fuller view of Edison’s life and times than has ever been offered before. The Wizard of Menlo Park reveals not only how Edison worked, but how he managed his own fame, becoming the first great celebrity of the modern age.
The Economist called Stanford R. Ovshinsky (1922–2012) “the Edison of our age,” but this apt comparison doesn't capture the full range of his achievements. As an independent, self-educated inventor, Ovshinsky not only created many important devices but also made fundamental discoveries in materials science. This book offers the first full-length biography of a visionary whose energy and information innovations continue to fuel our post-industrial economy.
In The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, Lillian Hoddeson and Peter Garrett tell the story of an unconventional genius with no formal education beyond high school who invented, among other things, the rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries that have powered everything from portable electronics to hybrid cars, a system for mass-producing affordable thin-film solar panels, and rewritable CDs and DVDs. His most important discovery, the Ovshinsky effect, led to a paradigm shift in condensed matter physics and yielded phase-change memory, which is now enabling new advances in microelectronics. A son of the working class who began as a machinist and toolmaker, Ovshinsky focused his work on finding solutions to urgent social problems, and to pursue those goals, he founded Energy Conversion Devices, a unique research and development lab. At the end of his life, battered by personal and professional losses, Ovshinsky nevertheless kept working to combat global warming by making solar energy “cheaper than coal”—another of his many visions of a better tomorrow.