Because, as with Marconi, his reputation was based on showmanship rather than science. Technical skills, sure; but science? Nah. Here is something I wrote on the occasion of Edison's last birthday.
Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
- Thomas Alva Edison, born at Milan, Ohio on this day in 1847.
Prolific inventor, Wizard of Menlo Park, blah blah yaddi yaddi. I've always had a problem with Edison's reputation, particularly regarding electricity, because I don't think it holds up well under scrutiny. Yeah, he had some good ideas, is underrated as a botanist, and almost single-handedly invented synthetic rubber, but his famous quote about genius is very revealing.
Like Einstein and quantum theory, Edison was limited by a limited imagination. If he couldn't understand it, it wasn't right. The motion picture camera and phonograph were purely mechanical devices. Other companies added electric motors years later, and were sued by Edison. His one big "electric" invention - commercial power generation and distribution - was a gigantic flop because he knew nothing about how electricity works. His DC system literally did not travel well. Beyond a few miles, there was so much power loss in the transmission lines that it was not reliable, profitable, or practical. For a while it was the only game in town, and made him rich, famous, and powerful (his company grew into GE). But Tesla's AC system, which recognized Ohm's law as the problem, and Maxwell's field equations as the solution, was picked up by Westinghouse and is the world standard today.
As for that other thing, the light bulb... In the 1870's, hundreds of people around the world were trying to invent the safe, practical electric light. The electric arc light was almost 70 years old, Ohm's law was over 50, and everything was in place. What was needed was someone who could pull it all together - literally. Edison was a superb machinist, and a brilliant designer of precision machining equipment and techniques, as indicated by his previous (purely mechanical) invention, the phonograph. What Tommy boy did was design a better fixture to hold the glass bulb and maintain the partial vacuum while it was being sealed. That's it. That's all. He figured out how to keep the air out, and won the race.
Another Edison quote deals with how he tried over 200 materials for the filament before landing on carbonized cotton thread. Perseverance, sure, but only because he had nothing else. With no knowledge of chemistry or metallurgy, and a raging paranoia about finances, it was a semi-random foraging for not just a filament, but one with the "correct" lifetime. Edison demonstrated his light bulb in December, 1879. It was such an enormous success that development was almost completely stopped while production ramped up. Years later one of his researchers developed much better filament, which Edison promptly rejected as too long-lived. So in 1910, William David Coolidge took his tungsten filament idea to - - Westinghouse.
But his ultimate missed opportunity came in 1883, when one of his researchers reported "The Edison Effect". Strange things were happening inside the light bulb, particularly when you added extra wires in there. Edison saw no practical value, and the investigations fizzled. ***21 years later***, British researcher John Flemming patented the vacuum tube.
Tesla worked for Edison for a while, and had something to say about the great man:
If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.
- Nikola Tesla, 1856 - 1943
Another great man said it better 400 years earlier:
He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.
- Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 - 1519
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