Brief Book Review: The Wizard of Menlo Park

Over time, [Edison’s] fame acquired an indestructible sheath and eclipsed the attention accorded to the individual inventions themselves. It was Thomas Edison, the person, to whom the public became most attached during his lifetime. “Thomas A. Edison” was an estimable invention, too.

The Wizard of Menlo Park captures the conflict between an inventor’s work and an inventor’s fame. One requires solitude, patience and meandering. The other tempts with praise, prestige and speaking engagements. Randall captures an Edison caught between being and doing. On one hand, Edison relished the limelight. He maintained an open door policy to his Menlo Park laboratory, inviting hordes of reporters to his workstation begging for the next dazzling demonstration. On the other, Edison is famous for his brusque, introverted nature, sacrificing time with family and friends for another night of tinkering and testing.

It’s not clear whether Edison successfully walks this tightrope, and The Wizard of Menlo Park takes every opportunity to reduce the man to his tangible achievements. We associate Thomas Edison with developing electric light, the phonograph and motion picture camera. While Edison was the man at ground zero, digging up new seeds with world-changing potential, he neglected them before they could fully bloom.

Very few of Edison’s inventions reached the mass market, giving competitors the opportunity to make something commercially viable and sell to the world (Edison would be plagued by phone calls from customers of competitor’s products). For many inventions, true credit lies with the talented engineers working for one of the laundry list of companies sporting the Edison brand.

Edison was the 18th century personal brand. While the inventions themselves rarely worked and always arrived behind schedule, Edison was bigger than one man. Edison was a beacon of discovery, hope and excitement for the future. Edison was the Elon Musk of his time, and the similarities are startling. Both are credited with pushing humanity forward. Both cultivate a fervent following that sell out products before they are even released. Both launch companies that look to revolutionise global industries as side-projects (“No critic at the time apparently commented on the outlandishness of Edison’s carelessly announced ambition to radically remake American education — and in his spare time”). Both run counter to the typical tech celebrity, unadjusted to the media spotlight. Both depend on a large team of talented and hardworking employees who don’t get the recognition they deserve.

The question is, how will we view Elon Musk in years to come? As a revolutionary pioneer, or a master of illusion; a wizard of OZ?

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