The Phonograph Was Cool, But Edison Was Still Kind of an Asshole

Written by Joe Ross. Posted in Featured, Trends

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Published on November 21, 2011 with No Comments


Thomas Edison announced the phonograph on November 21st, 1877. At least, that’s what the internet says. The most reputable source I could find was, but I admit I didn’t spend too much time looking. He filed for the patent in December and you can read it here.

The phonograph marked the beginning of a sonic revolution that still shows no signs of slowing, but this post isn’t about the phonograph. Instead, it’s a brief reminder that genius is often one side of a coin rounded out by an equal helping of assholetry. There are lots of Wikipedia links because this isn’t a research paper, it’s just a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek balancing of the record. Get it? Record?

I’ll start with my weakest argument: he liked ‘em young. His first wife, Mary, was a mere 16 to his 24 years of age. His second wife, Mina, was 20 to his 39 years. The “conventional wisdom” says such spousal age gaps were far more common in Edison’s day. But his preferred age difference more than doubled between wives. There’s a creep factor I just can’t ignore.

Edison, glaring

The second point I’ll offer will have special appeal to the animal people among our readership. Edison set out in 1903 to prove that his direct current electricity technology was superior to the alternating current technology patented by Nikola Tesla (more on him later) and eventually sold to George Westinghouse. Edison decided that the best way to make his point about the danger of alternating current was to kill something, and something big. Topsy the Elephant was 28 years old when she was zapped to death with 6,600 volts. Sure, she had killed three men in her day, but one of them was an abusive trainer. Maybe the potassium cyanide they fed her first had caused her to lose consciousness before the electricity hit.

If you aren’t that upset about a homicidal elephant getting electrocuted by copper slippers of death, read this Smithsonian Magazine piece, which mentions the stray dogs Edison bought from neighborhood boys for use in the same kind of displays. The fact is, Edison used very public animal executions as marketing leverage in the “War of Currents.”

Genius? Yes. Assholetry? Absolutely.

Tesla, proud that AC won

Edison may have been ruthless in attacking competing technologies, but he was at least as ruthless in his evil treatment of competing inventors. Nikola Tesla was the Serbian immigrant who invented alternating current. He also did a ton of other awesome stuff, besides inventing that thing Jack and Meg White talked about in Coffee and Cigarettes.

But that didn’t stop our man the phonographer (yes, I made the word up). Edison, the tale goes, promised Tesla $50,000 if he could improve direct current technology. Tesla, being awesome, did it, and asked for the cash. Edison allegedly replied with the oh-so-xenophobic zinger “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.”

Who knows, maybe Edison’s tone of voice had been one of jest. But if the guy gets the job done, at least offer him something. Instead, Edison let Tesla resign over the conflict. Of course, the world eventually chose alternating current for most applications, and Tesla attacked his rival’s methods and hygiene after Edison’s death, but that doesn’t reduce Edison’s assholetry.

Even approaching his deathbed, Edison expressed what I can only call a “backhanded regret”: he apparently said his biggest mistake was never respecting Tesla or his work. Couldn’t he have asked someone to let Tesla know that, despite their persistent state of enmity, he respected the other scientist’s own genius and innovations? No, he couldn’t, because that would have been a lie. He may just as well have said “Quick, before I die, someone tell Telsa I didn’t respect him, and also DC 4 EVA.” But that was Edison for you, equal parts American genius and scowling misanthrope.

Put that in your phonograph and spin it.

About Joe Ross

Joe Ross is one of the cofounders of KeyPulp. A law student, gadget geek and sci-fi fanatic, Joe also enjoys playing music, matching wits with kittens, and being proven wrong by his beautiful fiancée. Note: Joe writes about legal stuff sometimes. None of that is legal advice and it should never be construed as such. | 

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