Edmund Morris – Edison

Edmund Morris – Edison

This book is organized chronologically, but backwards, and for no good reason. Morris, who passed away after finishing this book but before its publication, gives no explanation for his mistaken choice. The book begins, as most biographies do, with a late-life “Exhibit A” scene with the main character in peak form. But instead of moving back to the beginning to show how the person became that way, Morris starts with Edison’s final decline, then goes back a decade at a time in each chapter. Each chapter also is roughly themed, though mostly by title only, based on what Edison was working on at the time—phonographs, electricity and lighting, war-related inventions during World War I, and so on. Edison’s approach to life was so scattershot that this approach doesn’t really work, either. The final chapter covers Edison’s formative years, with a brief epilogue returning to his death. This historiographical choice is an experiment, fitting its subject’s temperament. Also befitting many Edisonian experiments, it doesn’t work.

We meet his children when they are already fully-formed adults who have already experienced all of their major successes and mistakes. Only later do we see them falling in love and entering into marriages that we had already seen fail in earlier chapters, or begin to fight personal demons of which we had long since seen the consequences. Only after/before all that, do we finally see them as young children missing their distant father and get a sense of why they turned out as they did.

Edison seems to mostly remain the same person throughout. He had a salty temperament, but wasn’t necessarily mean. He also didn’t necessarily mind being mostly deaf. It spared him from distractions and gave him an easy out in social situations he wasn’t interested in, and gave him a running excuse to be cranky. He insisted on working long hours while barely eating, which led to numerous chronic health problems, though he still lived and worked to an advanced age. He also enjoyed being a bit of a showman, and had a keen interest in marketing his inventions and in promotional gimmicks. He had an odd way of not much caring about other people, yet having a need to be on their mind. He used an earthy, avuncular sense of humor to attempt to endear himself to people, though he could be clumsy about it.

Totally deaf in later years, even the young Edison was deaf in one ear and had limited hearing in the other, unable to hear high frequencies such as birdsongs after about age 12. It is miracle that he essentially invented recorded music. He had a surprisingly keen sense of sonic quality, though he had some odd ideas about, and a stubborn streak that limited his progress as other inventors improved on his technologies. For more on that, see

Morris also has some pretty basic misunderstandings. At the end of the book, when he fially gets to describing Edison’s father, he repeatedly describes him as “libertarian.” The elder Edison was a confederate sympathizer during the Civil War, and didn’t necessarily respect property laws. Opposition to slavery and respect for property rights are fundamental to any liberal philosophy; its is shocking that Morris doesn’t get that—enough to question his ability to interpret other matters more important to his subject.

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