New Jersey is about to pay $2.4 million to restore and preserve an art deco tower honoring Thomas Edison, located in the township that bears his name. Yet despite the many credits bestowed upon Edison by popular history, his true skills and legacy lay in theft and coercion. more below
To be clear, Edison’s acumen as an inventor was substantial. But having learned to game the U.S. Patent Office early in his career, Edison’s real racket was stealing ideas and laying legal claim to them as his own. He was a primordial Bill Gates: a competition-crushing raider who hoped to impose a world beholden to “his” technology, adding to his personal wealth with every volt of electrical light or motion picture consumed. (And using dishonest PR to do it.) Edison wanted points on every piece of the coming technological world, and used ruthless means to get them. Sometimes he was deft. Edison’s celebrated incandescent light bulb, for example, wasted most of the electricity it consumed, because Edison wanted to sell electricity, not bulbs. And sometimes he was crude; Edison often sent goons to physically intimidate those who resisted his plans, and made a habit of electrocuting animals as a way of demonstrating the power of his AC electrical system.
You might say, “Who cares if the light bulb was really invented by an Englishman named Joseph Swan? I get my light either way.” And in a sense, that’s justified. But what about the New Jersey that could have been? What if, for example, Paterson or Newark had become the motion picture capital of the world instead of Hollywood? It could have been, had Edison not chased all the film production companies as far as they could get from the man.
The Christie administration says that the Edison Memorial Tower is “an important part of our state’s history.” It would be good to get some clarity on what, exactly, that means.