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Volume 1, Issue 2      February 1994

ACADEMY STREET REVIEW

Book Review - Edision, A Biography

Edison, A Biography
by Matthew Josephson © 1959 Pub. 1959 by McGraw-Hill. Foreword, 1992 by Reese Jenkins. Pub. by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Edison, A Biography is a key piece of reading for would-be developers of an underdeveloped power source such as solar, particularly if it relates to electricity. It shows that Thomas Alva Edison (the inventor who worked during the late 18th and early 19th century) did not merely invent a practical light bulb, but also means of generating and distributing sufficient current.

The book covers a lot of ground relating to Edison's character (portraying both the good and the bad parts) and Edison's other inventive works (he also invented the first commercializable versions of the phonograph and motion picture films and discovered the electron tube). However, large portions are devoted to the development of the light bulb, generating systems, distribution systems, storage batteries and the electric automobile in enough detail to make the reader feel as if personally present during these great efforts (which in terms of imagery is not always pleasant).

An interesting background theme is the presentation of Henry Ford, a great friend and fan of Edison. The book portrays both Ford and Edison as artists who wished to make a better world for everyone, especially individualists, but who actually created a mass-consumption society where individualism nearly disappeared. Edison is portrayed as a grease-covered yet cultivated intellectual (even though legend has him as unschooled, he was extensively educated by his mother) with a wide-range of interests, while Ford was portrayed as more single-minded (his only major innovations were related to the automobile). Curiously, Ford was originally a pacifist and even went on an ill-fated, pitifully idealistic peace mission to Europe to try to stop World War I .

This background is worth mentioning here, because it involved the development of the electric automobile. Ford considered Edison to be his mentor and tried to follow Edison in everything, including by electrifying everything possible in the Ford factories. Edison, and therefore Ford, wanted very badly to build an electric car (which they knew would be quieter and cleaner than one petroleum-powered). The heartening note is that they actually built electric cars for "short-haul" use and these were reasonably popular. Unfortunately, try as hard as they could, they could not develop an electric automobile for long distance use (although that was 80 years ago -- surely the technology has advanced!).

The biography wanders somewhat chronologically, but given the cornucopia of Edison's activities, this is yet effective, if a bit disconcerting sometimes. The book, a voluminous 500 pages in paperback version (printed on acid-free paper), is a bargain at $15.95, but can be tedious reading as the technical details are important. Nevertheless, the book is written for the non-technical reader and touches on a lot of general history. Further, for anyone trying to develop or advocate community-wide or larger-scale solar electric systems, this is must reading, because not only is today's electrical grid still based upon much of the same technology but also, as demonstrated, these systems are as much an art as a science. For all kinds of solar energy experimenters, this book will add historical depth to their efforts. For those who pay a monthly check to the electric utility, they will have a better idea of exactly what they are paying for. -- Mark Ciotola.

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National Solar Power Research Institute, Inc., © 1994.
Editor - Mark Ciotola; Assoc. Editor - A. To; Publisher - Peter Spangler. Contributing writers: Abdoulaye Yansane, Jean Wu, Ri-Xi Liang, Zilian Tang. Officers: Ri-Gui Dalia Liang, Ann Marie Cheng and Mark Ciotola. Subscriptions: 50 reimbursement per issue domestic / 23 plus postage foreign. A matching donation is suggested, but optional. Limited number of free copies available. Mail subscriptions and correspondence to the National Solar Power Research Institute, Inc., 601 Van Ness Avenue Suite E3248, San Francisco, CA 94102. V1 I2.