the story of Thomas Edison

I’m writing about Thomas Edison right now, which is making me very annoyed. If you received the standard late-twentieth century American public education (which I did) then you are very familiar with the supposed story of Thomas Edison. For some reason this story was hammered into us as the ultimately morality tale. Edison was the lone figure in his workshop trying again and again and again because that’s what hardworking Americans do, right? Thomas Edison was to be idolized and emulated.

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Given that background, here’s a few facts you might find annoying.

-Edison was already a famous and financially successful inventor and businessman by the time he developed his lightbulb. He had a good relationship with the press, allowing him to easily publicize his work.

-Edison had an entire workshop at Menlo Park where he employed a staff of engineers, craftsman, draftsman, etc to help him with his inventions (by help, I mean do the work).

-Edison bought a patent for a fully functional lightbulb from the Canadians Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans in 1876 BEFORE he started developing his own lightbulb.

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-Before Edison had a successful lightbulb, there was an entire street in England lit by Joseph Swan’s electric lightbulbs.

-Before Edison had a successful lightbulb, William Sawyer filed for a U.S. patent for an incandescent bulb. Edison would later sue Sawyer to claim the patent, but his suits were denied. The U.S. courts unequivocally declared Edison did not invent the first lightbulb in the United States.

-Just a few months after Edison’s first lightbulb, Italian inventor Alessandro Cruto invented a lightbulb that lasted 12.5 times longer than the Edison bulb, but his invention was ignored in favor of Edison’s.

-Edison’s bulb became an immediate success because he had the financial backing of JP Morgan. Morgan’s backing ensured that even if better bulbs were invented (and they were) Edison would dominate the commercial sale of electric lighting.

-Edison’s lightbulb had a major design flaw because the filment kept breaking. Lewis Howard Latimer, a Black man, was the person who invented the solution for that problem. His patent was purchased by Edison and he was later employed by Edison. Latimer’s expertise was used to improve the lightbulb, set up lightbulb factories and train workers, oversee the installation of the electric light grid in multiple cities, and translate that information into French and German. Latimer even wrote the first book on electric lighting. (As a side note, he was also the person Alexander Graham Bell hired to draw the diagrams so Bell could patent the telephone).

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Does it particularly matter if Edison invented the lightbulb first or by himself or not? In a vacuum, not really. The inventor of the lightbulb is not a fact upon which history turns. But because Edison has been turned into a prop for teaching morality, yes it matters.

It matters because we tell children to be like Thomas Edison, when even Thomas Edison was not like Thomas Edison. The story of Thomas Edison is used to tell people that with hard work anything is possible. Except it’s not. Through Edison’s hard work, he was able to profit from a system that privileged his accomplishments and allowed him to benefit from and claim credit for the work of others.

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Let’s stop telling a history of science and invention that places white men on genius pedestals. Let’s diversify that narrative. Science and invention are fundamentally collaborative fields. We need to stop oversimplifying and instead tell the messy, complex history.

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