DOA Q+A: Thomas Edison

edison411Without the contributions of Thomas Alva Edison, it's been said, we'd all still be in the dark. America's inventor-philosopher lit the way into the 20th Century, contributing so much to the framework of technological innovation that has brought us blazing into the 21st, up to and including, if not outright inventing electronic, screen-based media.

Edison is credited with inventing (or at least patenting) the motion picture camera, the phonograph and what might well have been a precursor to television, the small-screen kinetescope. The Edison Manufacturing Co. made early cameras and projectors; it even built the first studio, Black Maria, to supply content for the new devices. But before you ascribe any great high-mindedness to these endeavors, keep in mind that not only did Edison establish the technology to exhibit moving pictures, but also gave the public what it wanted, as they say.

A goodly amount of Edison's aptly named Peephole Kinetoscopes displayed, essentially, peepshows (produced by Edison's company) in parlors, arcades and bars. "The old joke goes, 'As soon as the movie camera was invented, exploitation started five seconds later,' " says film historian Eddie Muller. "Someone said to his girlfriend, 'Would you mind taking off your clothes for the camera?'"

From Oscar-nominated films to reality television to Chatroulette (as taking off their clothes is still the first thing some people think to do with a camera), the legacy of Edison can be found in all the screens we now watch. And as those screens begin to cover an increasing portion of the landscape we live in, along with the invention with which Edison is most associated, MEDIA got the Wizard of Menlo Park's thoughts on what he's wrought.

What was your initial goal for the motion-picture camera?
An instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.

What were the end goals for those inventions?
For most of my life, I refused to work at a problem unless its solution seemed to be capable of being put to commercial use.

Some have said you, in a way, foresaw the development of e-books (or maybe a form of e-ink), though in a cruder form. You thought books would be printed on nickel. Why?
A sheet of nickel one-twenty-thousandth of an inch thick is cheaper, tougher and more flexible than an ordinary sheet of book paper. A nickel book, two inches thick, would contain 40,000 pages. Such a book would weigh only a pound.

What would you say your legacy is, and what is your reaction to the way in which you are revered?
I would be embarrassed at the honors ... were it not for the fact that in honoring me, you are also honoring that vast army of thinkers and workers of the past. If I have helped spur men to greater effort, if our work has widened the horizon of thousands of men and given a measure of happiness [to] the world, I am content.

There's plenty of argument, still, over (at times contradictory) comments you made over the course of your life and what you may or may not have meant by them. One such statement, your description of the "spirit telephone" to B.C. Forbes in Scientific American in 1920, has been particularly contentious, leading many to speculate that you had, in fact, created the apparatus. What did you say exactly?
If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical and scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect and other faculties and knowledge that we acquire on earth ... I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, moved or manipulated ... by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.

Did religion and God ever enter your thinking?
Nature is what we know. We do not know the gods of religions. And nature is not kind, or merciful or loving. If God made me - the fabled God of the three qualities of which I spoke: mercy, kindness, love - He also made the fish I catch and eat. And where do His mercy, kindness, and love for that fish come in? No; nature made us -nature did it all - not the gods of the religions.

Are you saying there is no God?
You have misunderstood ... because you jumped to the conclusion that it denies the existence of God. There is no such denial, what you call God I call Nature, the Supreme Intelligence that rules matter ... It is doubtful in my opinion if our intelligence or soul or whatever one may call it lives hereafter as an entity or disperses back again from whence it came, scattered amongst the cells of which we are made.

Are there still mysteries out there for you?
I wonder if dogs ever go up to flowers and smell them. I think not. Flowers were never intended for dogs and perhaps only incidentally for man.

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