Wizards and Saints

Hagiography has gone out of style. Since the Reformation we’ve come to see even our most promising lights as flawed and sullied, and no one retains the sheen of unadulterated goodness. It is the new realism. Yet somewhere in our psyches we still need our heroes—those who give us something to which we might feebly attain. A couple years back I visited Edison’s Orange labs in New Jersey—his last inventing paradise—and partook of the mythology that is Edison. Thoughts of that visit keep coming to me, so I read Randall Stross’s The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. Like a wonder-struck schoolboy, or Homer Simpson, I was ready to find stories of incredible creations Edison conceived. Instead Stross’s account is devoid of hagiography and presents a tarnished hero that is much more in keeping with the spirit of the twenty-first century.

Edison was known, even in the nineteenth century, for his atheistic leanings. He was one of the proponents of the human spirit of achievement, a perennial hard worker who believed we could solve our own problems. In many respects, although he didn’t foresee the practical aspects of his inventions, he was ahead of his time. As Stross points out, during his days as a telegraph operator Edison got into trouble for transcribing Jesus Christ as “J.C.,” following the standard practice of rendering time as “B.C.” (Before Christ). Others saw this as sacrilege, perhaps falling into that perpetual myth that Christ was Jesus of Nazareth’s surname. Abbreviation, no matter how sacerdotal the content, is eminently practical in telegraphy.

When entertaining Henry Stanley during his days of phonograph fame, according to Stross, Stanley asked whose voice Edison would most like to hear from history. (Keep in mind, at this time, before records, magnetic tape, and MP3s, a recorded human voice seemed to be a way of communicating with the dead.) When Edison answered “Napoleon,” Stanley expressed surprise suggesting he would’ve supposed the most important voice to be that of Jesus. Edison replied, “Well, you know, I like a hustler.” Even for Edison hagiography was dead. But he did see that the world had gone after the hustlers. Watching the political game unfold again, of which I’m already deathly sick, I hear echoes of Edison’s cynicism. Political leaders would have us believe they are in it for our best interests. Anyone who has studied history (which most politicians despise and discourage us from doing) knows that Edison was right. For all his flaws, Edison will remain a symbol of light in dark times.

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