At 10 o’clock on the night of October 21st, 1938, NBC and CBS offered a joint radio broadcast: an eight-minute tribute to the great American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, who had died three days earlier, at the age of 84. When the tribute concluded, listeners were asked to switch off their lights. The darkness that descended all across the nation in the moments that followed was meant as “a reminder of what life would have been like if the inventor of the incandescent light had never lived.”
Before Edison darkness, after Edison light––it was a simple formulation often repeated, both during his life and after his death. Edison was a genius, the story went, who had bestowed upon humanity the gift not only of electric light, but of the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and “thousands of other inventions.”
Certainly, his genius as an inventor could not be disputed. The holder of no fewer than 1,093 patents––in disciplines ranging from telegraphy to cinematography to metallurgy and botany––Thomas Edison was nothing if not inventive. But the simple story––before Edison darkness, after Edison light––was likewise an invention, one that obscured not only the nature of the inventor, but also the nature of invention itself, particularly in the feverish turn-of-the-century rush to the technological future.
Edison will restore the obscured bits to the light. Assisted by interviews with biographers and historians, the program will augment Edison’s popular image, and will illuminate the contributions of others––collaborators and competitors alike––to his achievements. Underscoring his significance as a critical, transitional figure between the lone inventor of the nineteenth century and the industrial researcher of the twentieth––an innovator who merged research and development with manufacturing and promotion, and ultimately transformed invention into a methodical, modern business––Edison will offer surprising new perspective on the man and his milieu, as well as on his remarkably durable fame.
American Experience, WGBH, Boston