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In December 2006, THE ATLANTIC ran a cover story titled The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time. Selected by a panel of 10 distinguished historians, the list was admittedly unscientific and beset by a number of challenges, for example, how does one define "influence." How does one compare the influence of a president with that of an entrepreneur with that of a novelist? Despite its limitations, the rankings, from Abraham Lincoln at number 1 to Herman Melville at number 100, attracted considerable feedback from readers who argued about the relative rankings of different individuals or made the case for those who had been omitted from the list. If one assumes that Benjamin Franklin's selection at number 6 was due more to his diplomatic and political activities than to his business and scientific endeavors, then the most influential businessman, at number 9 was Thomas Edison, who outranked John D. Rockefeller (number 11), Henry Ford (number 14), Andrew Carnegie (number 20) and 14 other businessmen and entrepreneurs on the list.
After reading THE WIZARD OF MENLO PARK: HOW THOMAS ALVA EDISON INVENTED THE MODERN WORLD, I doubt that its author, San Jose State University professor Randall Stross, would rank Edison so high. Without a doubt, Edison was an inventive genius. Among the more than 1,000 patents he received in his lifetime, there are significant technological breakthroughs, such as the phonograph and the electric lightbulb, that have changed the way Americans (and much of the world) live their daily lives. To many, both then and now, Edison, in the words of the book's subtitle, "invented the modern world." But has his influence been overrated? Stross begins his book by stating, "Thomas Alva Edison is the patron saint of electric light, electric power, and music-on-demand, the grandfather of the Wired World, great-grandfather of iPod Nation." Then he adds, "Well, not exactly. The heroic biography we were fed as schoolchildren does have its limitations...." Stross then proceeds to detail these limitations but not in a negative, mean-spirited attack. Rather, he draws a portrait of a hardworking, easily distracted man of exceptional curiosity, one with a brilliant mind for solving technical problems but only a halfhearted interest (and a correspondingly limited ability) for trying "to convert technical achievements into commercial success."
THE WIZARD OF MENLO PARK is not a conventional biography. The reader barely meets Edison's parents, and the first 22 years of Edison's life pass quickly in the first 10 pages. Once young Edison decides to devote his efforts full-time to tinkering and experimenting, we learn a great deal about his efforts associated with different inventions but little about his two wives or six children. This lack of personal detail seems fitting in that Edison proved to be a distant and generally disinterested husband and father, consumed by work, not family obligations. Stross's aim is not to present a full portrait of Edison's life but, rather, to study how Edison, whom he calls "the first hybrid celebrity-inventor," dealt with fame. "This book," Stross explains, "examines how …