Deconstructing Thomas Edison

I’m reading Remarkable Engineers to write a review for a website. The prose is pretty bland, though it got spicier in the chapter on Thomas Edison. It seems the author felt he needed to take Edison down a notch.

The career of Thomas Edison was not that of a great man of science, or even that of an inventive genius … His only major scientific discovery was the fact that a vacuum lamp could act as a rectifier, passing only negative electric currents. … He was said to have invented the business of invention.

So Edison was an engineer rather than a scientist. This criticism seems odd in a book devoted to remarkable engineers.

Surely Edison was an inventive genius; he held over a thousand patents, more than anyone has ever held. That is not to say anyone believes he came up with over a thousand unprecedented ideas completely by himself. He built on the work of others. He coordinated the work of his employees. He took ideas that were not being used and commercialized them. Perhaps he was more of an entrepreneurial genius than a scientific genius, but he was a genius nonetheless.

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6 thoughts on “Deconstructing Thomas Edison

  1. Daniel Lemire

    I read that he acted more as a CEO. Maybe it would be wiser to compare him to Bill Gates.

    And before you say this is silly, consider that Bill Gates is a published researcher:

    Bounds for sorting by prefix reversal, Discrete Mathematics Volume 27, Issue 1, 1979, Pages 47-57

  2. I haven’t read the book but to say “He was said to have invented the business of invention.” derisively, sounds like someone who eschews the idea of business and prefers academia and inventing for the sake of inventing. I’m not going to bash it since I do know some great ideas have come out of it, but it’s nothing I aspire to. Something about getting paid well for your work bothers some people. I’m a capitalist through and through, and I measure the value of my work by the money it’s able to bring in. There’s nothing wrong with combining your passion and intellect to make money, indeed, that’s the sweet spot.

  3. Daniel Lemire

    Some engineers apparently take great offense at what they perceive to be an elevated status being bestowed on scientists.

    And I suppose scientists take offense at the elevated status Mathematicians receive?

    Well. I guess you try to make up in prestige what you lose in salary and grants?

  4. Any real distinction between scientist and engineer was lost on me until I read Henry Petroski’s recently released book, “The Essential Engineer: why science alone will not solve our global problems.” Some engineers apparently take great offense at what they perceive to be an elevated status being bestowed on scientists. (I never knew it was a problem.) Anyhow, Dr. Petroski makes a solid case that engineering frequently leads science, and that “R&D” should more appropriately be termed “D&R.” From Chapter 4:

    Had the inventors and engineers who brought us steam engines, radio broadcasting, airplanes, rockets, and Moon landings felt a need to wait for sufficient scientific evidence and full theoretical understanding before proceeding, then we would likely still be waiting for these engineering accomplishments and achievements.

    While the chapters concerning the uniqueness of the engineering approach were quite interesting, I found the discussions of “global problems” to be less informative, probably because these yet unsolved issues can only be discussed in broad terms. Perhaps in twenty years I will find a review of the engineering solutions a bit more riveting. Nonetheless, a good read for anyone who wants to know more about the engineering “way” of doing things.

  5. I. J. Kennedy

    I won’t claim to be an expert on Edison, but I have read a few biographies. He was something of boyhood “hero” to me. But the more I’ve learned about it him, the less I like him. No one could dispute he was a great man, but great men play hardball, and are often out-and-out bastards, shrouded in myth. The white-hat stories of Columbus, Lincoln, Washington and the like make inspiring lessons for kids, but reality usually disappoints.

    There’s nothing wrong with being good at the business of inventions, except that he apparently screwed over deserving people right and left, and then history lazily gave him all the credit. He certainly got things done, but my reading leaves me with the feeling that greed drove him more than the love of knowledge, engineering or science.

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