Essential Books on Thomas Edison
There are countless books on Thomas Edison, and it comes with good reason, as one of America’s foremost businessmen, his inventions, which include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and early versions of the electric light bulb, have had a widespread impact on the modern industrialized world.
“One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But speaking for myself, I can honestly say this is not so…I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential figures to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Thomas Edison.
Edison by Edmund Morris
Although Thomas Alva Edison was the most famous American of his time, and remains an international name today, he is mostly remembered only for the gift of universal electric light. His invention of the first practical incandescent lamp 140 years ago so dazzled the world – already reeling from his invention of the phonograph and dozens of other revolutionary devices – that it cast a shadow over his later achievements. In all, this near-deaf genius (“I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old”) patented 1,093 inventions, not including others, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he left unlicensed for the benefit of medicine.
One of the achievements of this staggering new biography, the first major life of Edison in more than twenty years, is that it portrays the unknown Edison – the philosopher, the futurist, the chemist, the botanist, the wartime defense adviser, the founder of nearly 250 companies – as fully as it deconstructs the Edison of mythological memory. Edmund Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, brings to the task all the interpretive acuity and literary elegance that distinguished his previous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Ludwig van Beethoven.
A trained musician, Morris is especially well equipped to recount Edison’s fifty-year obsession with recording technology and his pioneering advances in the synchronization of movies and sound. Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship.
The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall E. Stross
At the height of his fame, Thomas Alva Edison was hailed as “the Napoleon of invention” and blazed in the public imagination as a virtual demigod. Starting with the first public demonstrations of the phonograph in 1878 and extending through the development of incandescent light and the first motion picture cameras, Edison’s name became emblematic of all the wonder and promise of the emerging age of technological marvels.
But as Randall Stross makes clear in this critical biography of the man who is arguably the most globally famous of all Americans, Thomas Edison’s greatest invention may have been his own celebrity. Edison was certainly a technical genius, but Stross excavates the man from layers of myth-making and separates his true achievements from his almost equally colossal failures. How much credit should Edison receive for the various inventions that have popularly been attributed to him – and how many of them resulted from both the inspiration and the perspiration of his rivals and even his own assistants?
This bold reassessment of Edison’s life and career answers this and many other important questions while telling the story of how he came upon his most influential inventions as a young man and spent the remainder of his long life trying to conjure similar success.
The Vagabonds by Jeff Guin
In 1914 Henry Ford and naturalist John Burroughs visited Thomas Edison in Florida and toured the Everglades. The following year Ford, Edison, and tire maker Harvey Firestone joined together on a summer camping trip and decided to call themselves the Vagabonds. They would continue their summer road trips until 1925, when they announced that their fame made it too difficult for them to carry on.
Although the Vagabonds traveled with an entourage of chefs, butlers, and others, this elite fraternity also had a serious purpose: to examine the conditions of America’s roadways and improve the practicality of automobile travel. Cars were unreliable and the roads were even worse. But newspaper coverage of these trips was extensive, and as cars and roads improved, the summer trip by automobile soon became a desired element of American life.
The Vagabonds is “a portrait of America’s burgeoning love affair with the automobile” (NPR) but it also sheds light on the important relationship between the older Edison and the younger Ford, who once worked for the famous inventor. The road trips made the automobile ubiquitous and magnified Ford’s reputation, even as Edison’s diminished.
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history – and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?
In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.
Innovate Like Edison by Michael J. Gelb
Bestselling author Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott introduce a carefully researched, easy-to-apply system of the five success secrets inspired by the creative methods of Thomas Alva Edison. The greatest innovator in American history, Edison set the stage for America’s global leadership in innovation by his focus on practical accomplishment. Now Gelb and Caldicott apply the best practices of this American genius to contemporary business situations to help today’s leaders harness their own innovative potential. This gem among books on Thomas Edison is a blueprint for success that will enable executives and entrepreneurs to revitalize their own ingenuity and thrive in today’s culture of innovation.
Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, three brilliant and visionary titans of America’s Gilded Age – Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse – battled bitterly as each vied to create a vast and powerful electrical empire. In Empires of Light, historian Jill Jonnes portrays this extraordinary trio and their riveting and ruthless world of cutting-edge science, invention, intrigue, money, death, and hard-eyed Wall Street millionaires.
Edison struggled to introduce his radical new direct current (DC) technology into the hurly-burly of New York City as Tesla and Westinghouse challenged his dominance with their alternating current (AC), thus setting the stage for one of the eeriest feuds in American corporate history, the War of the Electric Currents. The battlegrounds: Wall Street, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Niagara Falls, and, finally, the death chamber – Jonnes takes us on the tense walk down a prison hallway and into the sunlit room where William Kemmler, convicted ax murderer, became the first man to die in the electric chair.
Edison and the Electric Chair by Mark Essig
Despite having been an avowed opponent of the death penalty, Edison threw his laboratory resources and reputation behind the creation of a very different sort of device – the electric chair. Deftly exploring this startling chapter in American history, Edison & the Electric Chair delivers both a vivid portrait of a nation on the cusp of modernity and a provocative new examination of Edison himself.
Edison championed the electric chair for reasons that remain controversial to this day. Plumbing the fascinating history of electricity, Mark Essig explores America’s love of technology and its fascination with violent death, capturing an era when the public was mesmerized and terrified by an invisible force that produced blazing light, powered streetcars, carried telephone conversations – and killed.
Uncommon Friends by James Newton
James Newton’s Uncommon Friends is “a delightful portrayal of five great men who shared special friendships and common visions” (Booklist). Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh were twentieth-century giants known personally by very few. In this compelling memoir, James Newton recalls a lifetime of friendship with all of them – a friendship that began when he was only twenty years old and head of development of Edison Park in Fort Meyers, Florida. Based on Newton’s diaries, recollections, and extensive correspondence, Uncommon Friends is a unique opportunity to share a view of the personal side of some legendary historical figures.
The Edison Gene by Thom Hartmann
Thomas Edison was expelled from school for behavior that today would label him as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but his mother understood how to salvage his self-esteem and prepare him for a lifetime of success. In The Edison Gene Thom Hartmann shows that the creativity, impulsiveness, and distractibility that are characteristic of ADHD are not signs of a disorder at all, but instead are components of a highly adaptive skill set utilized by our hunting and gathering ancestors. These characteristics have been critical to the survival and development of our modern civilization and will be vital as humanity faces new challenges in the future.
Hartmann, creator of the “hunter versus farmer” theory of ADHD, examines the latest discoveries confirming the existence of an ADHD gene and the global catastrophe 40,000 years ago that triggered its development. Citing examples of significant innovators in our modern era, he argues that the children who possess the “Edison gene” have neurology that is wired to give them brilliant success as innovators, inventors, explorers, and entrepreneurs.
He offers concrete strategies for helping Edison-gene children reach their full potential and shows that rather than being “problems,” such children are a vital gift to our society and the world.
Edison: A Life of Invention by Paul Israel
From the preeminent Edison scholar, in the revelatory Edison: A Life of Invention, author Paul Israel expertly situates his subject within a thoroughly realized portrait of a burgeoning country on the brink of massive change. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the birth of corporate America, and with it the newly overlapping interests of scientific, technological, and industrial cultures.
Working against the common perception of Edison as a symbol of a mythic American past where persistence and individuality yielded hard-earned success, Israel demonstrates how Edison’s remarkable career was actually very much a product of the inventor’s fast-changing era. Edison drew widely from contemporary scientific knowledge and research, and was a crucial figure in the transformation of invention into modern corporate research and collaborative development.
Informed by more than five million pages of archival documents, Paul Israel’s ambitious life of Edison brightens the unexamined corners of a singularly influential and triumphant career in science.
Armed with unprecedented access to his workshop diaries, notebooks, and letters, this gem among books on Thomas Edison brings fresh insights into how the inventor’s creative mind worked. And for the first time, much attention is devoted to his early family life in Ohio and Michigan-where the young Edison honed his entrepreneurial sense and eye for innovation as a newsstand owner and editor of a weekly newspaper-underscoring the inventor’s later successes with new resonance and pathos.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Thomas Edison, be sure to check out our list of The 10 Best Books on Henry Ford!