Wednesday, January 28, 2015

American Experience: Thomas Edison (PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the PBS American Experience (oddly not American Masters!) program on Thomas A. Edison. It was a two-hour documentary written and directed by Michelle Ferrari — hers was the only name on the rather scanty page for the show and the PBS Web site is so hyped up on social media and offering the program itself for “streaming” (bah, humbug!) that I couldn’t find a button on the page giving the credits the way I used to be able to for PBS programs. The Edison documentary was two hours long and was basically a warts-and-all presentation — it was certainly not a hagiography and it focused almost as much on what Edison got wrong as what he got right. He was right about the electric light bulb but wrong about what would power it — he clung to direct-current generating technology despite the far greater practicality of alternating current, which could be transformed (lowering the amperage — the amount of current — and simultaneously raising its voltage, the force with which it moves down a conductor) and thereby could be moved across long distances; Edison’s technology would have required a power station every mile or so. He was right about the phonograph (though he let that invention lay fallow for a decade — 1877 to 1887 — while he pursued electric light research, and was only spurred into action by Alexander Graham Bell’s cousin, Chichester Bell, who developed an improved phonograph in the 1880’s that used wax instead of foil as the recording medium; Bell offered to go into partnership with Edison to develop it and Edison, fiercely protective of his intellectual property, vowed instead to build his own improved phonograph and put the upstarts out of business) but wrong about the recorded medium of choice, which would be discs (invented by Émile Berliner based on a paper French inventor Charles Cros had filed with the Academy in Paris to establish his prior claims on the technology since he didn’t have the money actually to build a working model) instead of the bulkier, less convenient cylinders.

He was right about the automobile but wrong about what would power it — he bet on electricity instead of gasoline (electric cars were tried at the turn of the last century but the problem was the huge, bulky storage batteries required to make them go took up virtually the entire space of the car — you could carry people in them but nothing else — and they also had a limited range). He was right about how to film motion pictures but wrong about how to display them, clinging to the Kinematograph private viewer while other motion-picture pioneers, including the Lumière brothers in France, were figuring out how to project them to mass audiences. (He later bought a prototype projector from inventor Joseph Armat and marketed it as an Edison invention, telling Armat he was better off financially selling it to him than trying to market it himself.) He was also a century ahead of his time in developing mountaintop-removal mining — with the Eastern veins of iron ore running out and the entire modern world running on objects made of steel, he used his profits from the electric light to pioneer a technology of blowing up mountains, pulverizing the dirt into ever finer mixtures, then pulling the iron out of the remaining sand and gravel with magnets — only just as he’d got the bugs out of the process, the Mesabi range of high-grade ore was discovered in the Midwest and Edison’s process suddenly became uneconomical. (This is something like what happened more recently to the Solyndra corporation; they developed a technology for making photovoltaic solar cells without silicon, a mineral largely controlled by China — and then the Chinese government decided to dump so much silicon on the world market its price dropped to one-tenth of what it was before and Solyndra’s process no longer made economic sense.)

What’s most interesting about this program is the degree to which it makes Edison out as the pioneer not only of various inventions but the whole modern system of research and development; Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, with its collection of researchers working for him and an open space in which they could interact, was essentially the first modern research campus, and the late Steve Jobs comes off more than usual as the Edison of our time, both in the sort of operation he ran and his ferocious protectiveness of his intellectual property (on his deathbed Jobs was pleading with his successors to continue the no-holds-barred patent war he had declared against Samsung and the Google Android technology that competes with Apple’s iPhone and, in Jobs’ view, infringed on his patents; he was even quoted as saying that if he had to spend his whole fortune to put Samsung and Android out of business, it would be worth it). The show also indicates the extent to which Edison essentially turned himself into a “brand,” using his name and logo (a stylized version of his signature that probably bore no more relationship to his real signature than Walt Disney’s corporate logo did to his actual hand — Marc Eliot’s Disney bio reproduced an actual contract signed by Disney that looked nothing like the logo signature) to sell all manner of products.

One person commenting on the show on the PBS Web site protested the omission of any mention of Nikola Tesla — who was one of the pioneers in developing alternating-current generators — and the show also didn’t mention Elihu Thomson, the third (along with Edison and Tesla) in the interesting triumvirate of electrical pioneers in the late 19th century, who was the main researcher on George Westinghouse’s team to develop alternating current but has got lost in the shuffle because he didn’t become a public figure the way Edison did or a cult figure like Tesla. Charles noted that the real unsung hero of the show was Samuel Morse, since Edison had cut his teeth as an inventor by developing improvements to the telegraph and it was Morse who had first had the idea not only of using electricity for communication but sending it over long distances and laying an infrastructure of wires and poles to be able to do so. If anything, the story of Edison shows the contradiction between the patent system (Edison won more than 1,300 patents from the U.S. Patent Office, more than any other person; Thomson is second) and the inherently collaborative nature of scientific research, in which people build on each other’s discoveries: Alexander Graham Bell may have invented the telephone (though claims have also been made for Elisha Gray and Bell’s researcher, Antonio Meucci) but it was Edison’s improved transmitter that made it practical (and made him more money than anything he’d invented on his own to that time), while as noted above it was actually Bell’s cousin who made the phonograph a viable commercial product. The clash between the exclusivity of patent rights and the inclusivity needed for scientific progress to occur is still a live issue today, when scientists report that they’re scared to pursue certain lines of research for fear they’ll run afoul of someone claiming a patent in the field (and the U.S. Patent Office hasn’t helped by becoming far more indiscriminate in awarding patents than they were in Edison’s day) and you have to wonder whether patents and copyrights are fulfilling their constitutional purpose “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” or are actually retarding the progress of science and useful arts.