You don't need to be a genius to know why Thomas Edison was popular

Edison Disc PhonographThere are many theories as to why Thomas Edison was more popular that other inventors of his generation. There is an overwhelming abundance of conspiracy theories on the internet claiming that Edison cheated his contemporary inventor Nikola Tesla out of fame and fortune. Some of the wild stories would have you believe that Edison was the devil. As far as any conspiracy of why Edison is more popular than Tesla, it doesn't take a genius to figure it out.

Nikola Tesla was fascinated with AC power (alternating current), he is most famous for working with George Westinghouse in the development of AC power distribution. For much of his life Tesla worked alone in laboratories on experiments with alternating current. Edison was popular in the media of his day, and he introduced the world to devices that played music and movies.

Thomas Edison rock star

Thomas Edison was an entertainer who promoted cool toys that entertained the world. In a world long before the internet and television existed, Edison brought us music and movies. At a time when the world was changing rapidly as the industrial age was introducing new technology to everyday life Edison created the image of the mythical inventor. Edison wasn't working in some cold boring laboratory, he used his image as the great American folk hero to tell people he was creating an invention factory.

One of the first things created in his invention factory that would make Edison the rock star of the late 19th century would be the phonograph. The first invention of the phonograph was in 1877 while Edison was hoping to create a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, which could later be sent over the telegraph repeatedly. Edison made a name for himself as the inventor of the phonograph giving demonstrations of his famous talking machine to the president and the US Congress. Becoming a legendary larger than life folk hero of the 19th century, Edison was dubbed the Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison sold the rights to his initial creation using a cylinder with tin foil, and various versions of it were not a commercial success.  The phonograph finally would take off when Edison started the National Phonograph Company in 1896, which would manufacture phonographs for home entertainment use. The phonograph was Edison's life-long personal favorite invention, and he would revisit it many times throughout his lifetime.The concept of the phonograph would evolve over the years, as would Edison and his companies.

In 1911 the new Edison Disc Phonograph using 10" plastic discs was released.  Edison loved the tinkering and inventing, but he understood that inventing was much more than just having an idea. Edison's unique mix of genius inventor and shrewd businessman was illustrated with his development of the Edison Disc Phonograph.  Edison was well aware that providing the music people wanted to hear was essential to the success of the Edison Disc Phonograph. Long before commercial radio was popular, and any type of music libraries existed, Edison was creating his own extensive music collection.  From 1912 to 1929 the Edison Diamond Disc catalogs offered recordings of many types of recording from the popular songs of the era to classical tunes. The Edison label contained a vast musical library from instrumental dance music and popular vocals to marimba and Hawaiian songs.

Edison would have a performer sing along with a disc recording of their voices and dared the audience to be able to tell the difference. In a publicity stunt known as the Tone Tests performing artists alternating their live performance on a darkened stage with that on the disc, and a live audience was challenged to tell the difference.

Thomas Edison movie producer

One of the areas Edison did a lot of work in that does not get much discussion is motion pictures. The first commercially exhibited motion pictures in the United States were from Edison. Thomas Edison himself played no direct part in the making of his studio's films beyond being the owner. The movie studio created content for his inventions the Kinetoscope motion picture exhibition device and the Kinetograph innovative motion picture camera.

Edison Studios made close to 1,200 films as part of the Edison Manufacturing Company (1894–1911) and then Thomas A. Edison, Inc. (1911–1918) until the studio's closing in 1918.  The overwhelming majority of the films were very short. One of the more famous films made by Edison Studios was the first motion picture adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The silent film produced in 1910 has a running time of 12 minutes.

One of the movies produced by Edison's movie company was cats boxing.  If you find that a bit weird or cruel, Edison's treatment of household pets would not win him any awards with animal rights activists. Edison often used cats and dogs in his experiments to illustrate the dangers of AC power.  He was also believed to be associated with the public execution of a circus elephant that was sentenced to death.

Who do you think is more popular?

We can remember Nikola Tesla for inventing something called the Tesla Coil. It looks cool in the science lab, but the novelty of a glowing light that shoots sparks wears out quickly at parties.

Thomas Edison created the first device that could provide music at our parties, and collected the best music collection of his generation.  The the Edison Diamond Disc catalogs were not exactly iTunes, but still provided for a great party in the early part of the twentieth century.  Edison also was involved in developing the concept of movies and motion pictures.

You don't need to be Einstein to know why Thomas Edison was so popular. Much like the modern-day geek cult heroes like Steve Jobs, Edison became a wealthy man finding new ways to get wealthier by producing cool toys that he could sell to the public. Thomas Edison was a lunatic at times, but long before we had iTunes, Edison realized the importance of a good music library.




Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies


Graphic: 1915 pre-Christmas ad for the Edison Diamond Disc player