The Gangster of Menlo Park

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.

Comments (8)

  1. Nowlan

    Not too long ago, the Edison Museum re-opened (after many years of, I assume, painstaking renovation).  I’d think that would be enough for this elephant electrocuting (concrete) blockhead.

    What are we going to do next, name a town after him?

    Growing up in W.O., I heard several accounts of T. Alva’s miserliness and meanness (not synonyms here) from reputable sources in Quigley’s (ca. 1972).  My informants were old, and they were not drinking Cokes like I was, but they seemed sincere in their hatred for their old boss.  Or did their fathers work for him?  I was about seven at the time, and I recall the men being intent on my not regarding Edison as a hero.

    Anyway, I learned a lot about Edison from Weird NJ, a Simpsons episode from years back in which Bart and Homer visit the old Edison lab (sweatshop?) in West Orange, and other reliable sources.

    And a song on the They Might Be Giants CD NO-sung by Nick Hill.

    Here’s part of “The Edison Museum”:

    So when your children quarrel

    and nothing seems to quell them,

    Just tell them that you’ll take them to

    the Edison Museum.

  2. Couch Potato Politics

    Great reminder. Edison was a clever hijacker and liar. I didn’t want to see him getting credit for AC power. He didn’t invent it either. Nikola Tesla did.

    Edison used the electrocution of animals as a way to discredit Nokola Tesla. The story is that Edison disputed Tesla’s ground breaking, and our current primary Alternating Current (AC) electrical grid design. It intruded on his plans to sell the country on HIS DC substations wiring systems. He traveled the eastern seaboard trying to crush Tesla and he even electrocuted an elephant to prove his point.

    Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb either.

    So, like Christie now, Edison was both a fraud and a bully.

  3. Nowlan

    Paul Mulshine defends Edison.  And why not, young Thomas didn’t waste taxpayer cash–he quit school and cut his own way through the woods. (Today T.A. would cost a bundle in special ed.dollars!)  

    Well, wikipedia proves Kendaljames wrong–Paul your sources are worse than mine!  

    Say, I have learned that Thomas Edison looked like Mickey Rooney!

    I’d like to find the research that proves T.A. was not like school on a Saturday–no class!  Find out why he never tried to invent a hearing aid–that will indicate something.  

    I like the brilliant, maniac Edison much more than I do the sanitized version.  But let’s not spend any more cash on him.

    And let’s not take ourselves too seriously, Edison would not have wanted that.  

  4. KendalJames (Post author)

    Meant DC. Editorial error that changes nothing about the substance of this piece.

  5. Nowlan

    George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant” (too easy, huh?)

    Here’s the vintage vid.


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