Thursday, June 18, 2015

That Light Bulb Moment

Elementary school students love field trips. Trips beat parsing sentences and doing long division any day. In 1963 (I think), one of the trips taken by my class was to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in nearby West Orange, NJ. This was where Edison opened his research laboratory in 1887. It dwarfed his previous facility in Menlo Park. Nothing like it on this scale had existed before anywhere. Edison’s movie studio was built on the same grounds in 1893. The lab was in operation until the 1930s and hasn’t changed much since then. Thomas’ son Charles Edison (governor of NJ in the 1940s) saw to that; he donated the site to the federal government in 1956.

For no good reason, I hadn’t been back inside the place since 1963 – until, that is, a week ago when friends from CA (see, in the area for some business at the Bronx Zoo, suggested I meet them in West Orange. There was no need to ask twice. Revisiting the site was fun. I appreciated all of it on a different level than in 1963, of course.

I’ve been mulling a question that arose during the tour. The question was whether Edison, for all his 1,093 patents, was as important as all that. Could it be that the time was just ripe for his inventions? Wouldn’t someone else have invented them had he not existed? I didn’t respond to this particularly well at the time, but I’ll do it now. The answer is yes, but… emphasis on the “but.”

The “times” don’t create anything. People do, individually or in teams. The surprising thing is not how often several inventors are working on a similar idea at the same time, but how few those inventors always are. To be sure, the times do matter. For example, the ancient world cared little for Heron’s steam engine or (except for slinging bolts and rocks) Archimedes’ levers. The ruling classes were perfectly happy with slave labor and saw no need to exploit mechanical power in its place. By 1800 circumstances were very different in parts of Europe and North America. Yet, the social conditions which made the 19th century ripe for the industrial application of science were created, once again, by people – people with names, even if we no longer know most of them. The “times” did not simply emerge out of the ether. Nothing “just happens.” Somebody makes it happen.

I remember growling something similar to myself while slogging through War and Peace years ago. About 1,000 pages into the book Tolstoy seems to lose interest in his characters and instead treats us to more and more of his theory of history. He tells us how the times were responsible for creating Napoleon and how his defeat was inescapable. Um, no. The times (created by specific people, many of them Revolutionaries) did make Napoleon possible, but not necessary. Had he died in Italy there is no reason to believe anyone else would have or could have duplicated his career. Nor was his defeat in Russia woven into the fabric of time. Alexander had something to do with that. It all could have turned out quite differently with different actors in place. I'm not sure why this is even a matter for dispute, but apparently it is.

In short, I don’t think we make a mistake by admiring people who revolutionize our lives, whether in business, science, politics, or culture. Without them, might others come along sooner or later with comparable contributions? Yes. In that case we wouldn’t be making a mistake by admiring them instead. One way or another, it always takes a real live human being, not some nebulous chronology. 

Thomas Edison deserves a park with his name on it.


  1. Your post remind me of a couple of things. One is the Spencer Tracy movie, Edison, the Man, which is actually a pretty good movie. The other is James Burke's older series called Connections, where he shows how one thing build upon another. A series I've been meaning to revisit but haven't done so yet. I bet the actual Edison lab would be fun to visit. One of the places in Texas I've been meaning to visit is Dealey Plaza in Dallas. It's doable since it so close. It's just a matter of planning it.

    1. Oddly, I have been to Dealey Plaza, but, even though I see it all the time out in the harbor when driving in and out of NYC, I've never been inside the Statue of Liberty. I guess it's one of those things that one puts off (someimes forever) as a local because one can do it anytime, but rushes to see as a tourist because there might not be another chance. Connections was a good program -- one which I haven't thought about in years.

    2. Oddly I've been to the Statue of Liberty, but they were working on the arm holding the torch at the time, so that part you could not access. My brother did go up the stairway that winds up inside the arm to the observation deck on top the year before, and side the stairway climb wore him out. (They don't have elevators for that unless you have a medical problems.) It would be nice to make that journey though. I bet you get a nice view.