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Edison, Thomas Alva

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

(1847-1931) US inventor, entrepreneur and author, credited with numerous Inventions – including the light bulb, the phonograph and significant contributions to the development of the motion picture – for which he received more than 1093 patents. It has been argued that Edison's working practice was to supervise the original work of others, taking corporate credit for them in his own name (a practice which, under various descriptions, remains common in scientific research); there is certainly no doubt that he marketed inventions that were essentially the work of his own team of "muckers", but he never disguised this procedure. He may have had some typological kinship to figures like P T Barnum (1810-1891) or L Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, but there was always substance to his pitch. Though he was in fact reckless businessman, he managed to maintain market control over many of the innovations generated by his own hand or under his aegis.

Unlike his peer and rival Nikola Tesla, Edison did not himself claim to be a significant creator of mythopoeic visions of future Technology; he clearly saw himself as an inspired enabler. The Edisonade – usually a tale using Edison himself or an Edison-like figure (see entry for detailed analysis) – tends to focus on heroes who are simultaneously tinker-geniuses and men of action: but who are not visionaries as such. Better known examples include the Frank Reade tales (see Frank Reade Library) mostly by Luis Philip Senarens and Edison's Conquest of Mars (12 January-10 February 1898 New York Evening Journal; 1947) by Garrett P Serviss. Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's L'Eve future (1886; first book trans Marilyn Gaddis Rose as The Eve of the Future 1981) unusually treats Edison as a gnomic guru, but without any attempt at creating a realistic portrait. Kurt Vonnegut's "Tom Edison's Shaggy Dog" (14 March Collier's Weekly) is exactly a shaggy dog story. The figure of the inventor, usually discovered busy in his workshop, has occasionally been used more recently by authors including Donald R Bensen, Dan Gutman and Chris Moriarty; he has also appeared in various Graphic Novels.

Edison is of specific sf interest for his collaboration with George Parsons Lathrop on "In the Deep of Time" (3 March 1897 English Illustrated Magazine), a collaboration consisting essentially of elaborate notes transformed into story form by Lathrop. In common with many of the Sleeper Awakes tales, a popular form at the end of the nineteenth century, the protagonist of the tale awakens from Suspended Animation two centuries into the future, in the year 2200, where he finds a high-Technology Earth in constant contact with Mars via advanced Spaceships; electricity figures large among the Power Sources used to enable a technics-dominated world, though solar power also plays a role. Drones are presciently used for postal deliveries; individual-sized Balloons make urban life easier to negotiate.

Perhaps due to a lack of narrative drive, or to the same publishing bias that for half a century kept Edison's Conquest of Mars from book form, "In the Deep of Time" was never published separately. [JC]

see also: Adam and Eve; History of SF; Gustave Le Rouge; Theosophy; UFOs.

Thomas Alva Edison

born Milan, Ohio: 11 February 1847

died Llewellyn Park, New Jersey: 18 October 1931

works (selected)

  • "In the Deep of Time" (3 March 1897 English Illustrated Magazine) by George Parsons Lathrop "in Collaboration with Thomas A Edison" [mag: na/]


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