The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World
When I choose my next book to read, I normally do quite a bit of research in order to ensure it is time well spent. As you’ll see from my other reviews, my reading typically centers around faith, business, stewardship, etc. However, I have had many people tell me how much they learn from the biographies of great men. With that seed planted I decided to read some of the most highly recommended biographies about entrepreneurs, ranging from Carnegie to Branson. For a first foray in to this field, “The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Created the Modern World” did not disappoint.
First, regarding the style, it is very well written and engaging. There were few sections well I felt the urge to skip ahead or disengage. Honestly, much of Edison’s life was fairly mundane and characterized by long, boring (and usually unsuccessful) work. The author does a good job of accurately reflecting this while still focusing on the highlights, which makes for engaging reading. Edison lived till 84 but throughout the entire period you feel you really see the man for all his good and bad.
Speaking of bad, unfortunately I learned more about what not to do in business with this book than what to do. Edison seemed to be a horrible businessman who succeeded despite himself, and not because of himself. When comparing the vastness of the industries he started or was involved with, his financial worth was surprisingly low and he often made fortunes only to quickly lose them in ill conceived business ventures. His other area of failing seems to be with his family, as he was a man so dedicated to his work that there doesn’t appear to be much warmth and affection reflected in his actions. Lastly, he was not a man of faith at all, which for me is incredibly sad. He was a sometimes vulgar character who was openly anti-Semitic and did the bare minimum in philanthropic efforts. By many measures, his life was not a success, despite the common perception.
The good about the bad is that there are still valuable lessons to learn if one is wise enough to perceive them. For example, despite his repeated failures, both before and after his most famous invention of the light bulb, Edison never seemed phased or discouraged. He started many, many businesses that amounted to little and would often go from boom to bust. This was driven by the fact that he loved inventing more than business, although he often stated that he was in it primarily for the money, as that was the best indication of the success of his invention. As a young entrepreneur myself, it is encouraging to realize that success often only comes after failure, and that the key is to continually try rather than get everything right every time.
The other focus of this book is Edison’s incredible fame. It is hard to imagine today, in the world of Kardashians and Twitter, but Edison was a bona fide celebrity in his day. Newspapers were the main media of the time and rarely was there not some sort of article about him, his latest invention, or his sometimes outlandish predictions and pondering. This was also a valuable lesson, as the importance of leveraging public persona and media is a good one to learn before a rise to fame, rather than after. Edison did this masterfully, leveraging the media to his advantage while also ensuring that his name would remain a legacy for generations. He apparently succeeded because I finished the book realizing that in many ways, he didn’t do much. Sure, he had many patents (over 1,000) in his name, but most things he invented were with assistants that got little credit, and were actually brought to market as viable products by more competent managers or competitors. Examples would be the Victrola, which competed with his failed phonograph, and the ultimate failure of Direct Current power distribution to the competing Alternating Current.
Edison was as much a master of managing perception as he was creating reality. His life is fascinating if not also at times sad. Much can be learned from his story that spans the test of time and teaches much to the modern day student of business and entrepreneurship. I would certainly recommend it.