Television

'American Experience: Edison' Captures the Inventor's Practical and Imaginative Spirit

Just as Thomas Edison represented the America of his time, so too does he represents the America of our time in his try-and-succeed, try-and-fail methodology.


American Experience: Edison

Airtime: 9pm ET
Cast: Michael Murphy (narrator)
Network: PBS
Director: Michelle Ferrari
Air date: 2015-01-27
Website
Trailer
Amazon

American Experience: Edison portrays Thomas Alva Edison as a conspicuously American archetypal figure in his outsized contradictions. We learn here that he was the very model of the ingenious inventor of world-changing technological wonders, self-taught and practical in contrast to the iconic visionary Albert Einstein (whose theories Edison professed not to understand one lick). Although his contraptions were revolutionary products of patient experimentation and tireless collaboration, Edison was a grandiose self-promoter who turned himself into a walking brand. Widely admired and hugely famous from relatively early in his career, Edison worked restlessly, reacted vehemently when he felt betrayed by associates, and undertook a ruthlessly negative public relations campaign when competitors bested him with superior methods and innovations.

In showing these many aspects of the man, Edison offers a complex image of the inventor of the phonograph (the first device to record and play back sound), the first sustainable light bulb, and the motion picture camera that would one day make this very film (and, consequently, this review) possible. Michelle Ferrari's portrait shows a man possessed of undeniable genius and imagination, as well as tunnel vision and tremendous venality.

The program traces Edison's early years as a precocious tinkerer and experimenter, deprived of proper schooling, but insatiable in his autodidactic curiosity. Early work as a telegraph operator gave him detailed practical knowledge of the machine that heralded a new age. Edison raised funds with various telegraphic patents to set up a purpose-built new lab of his own in New Jersey, and applied what he learned to the problem-solving processes whose technological results would make his name, not to mention his fortune.

Millions of Americans can tell you what happens next, at least in general terms. But American Experience reframes the familiar narrative of Edison’s incredible string of eureka moments with nuance, contradiction, and vital context. His gargantuan work ethic made his inventions possible, and the film mostly eschews hyperbole and platitudes to demonstrate Edison’s practical creative process as well as how he often refined previous inventions. Still, the long hours in the lab created strain in his family unit; when his first wife died before her 30th birthday, Edison felt sharp pangs of guilt at not being more present in the home.

Perhaps the most illuminating point made by Edison is that, despite our experiences with the light bulb and descendants of Edison's phonograph and movie camera, in the immediate aftermath of their invention, he never quite harnessed their potential. Edison and his corporate backers managed to make a pretty penny, but the phonograph and motion picture camera remained mere novelties for quite some time and developed into mass media machines under later stewards.

Even electric light, identified so closely with Thomas Edison that he may as well have swapped his head for a bulb, developed gradually into a reputation-sullying debacle for the master inventor, the notorious War of Currents. Edison’s single-minded preference for the costly and inefficient direct current (DC) system that he developed blinded him to the advantages of high-voltage alternative current (AC), backed by George Westinghouse on the basis of the patents of Nikola Tesla (aka "the Hipster Edison"). Edison’s massive smear campaign painted AC as too dangerous for mass distribution, and to prove his point, he electrocuted animals and even humans. Edison’s team is responsible for secretly developing the electric chair for the state of New York, which was charged with AC.

AC won out over DC in the end, and Edison lost a stake in his electrical company when it merged with another to form General Electric. Tesla goes curiously unmentioned in the film; a former Edison Company employee, he quit in disgust after a broken promise of compensation for services rendered. He eventually rose to rival the great man’s electrical distribution achievements, posthumously surpassing them. But then Tesla died poor and unknown, while Edison expired as a national hero.

That said, as Edison considers this man so defined by his successes, it also finds something quite revealing in his failures. A substantial section of the documentary focuses on Edison’s grand money-losing misadventure in iron-ore separation mining in Ogdensburg, New Jersey in the 1890s. Although the mine never did become profitable and was eventually abandoned after swallowing a large portion of Edison’s personal fortune, Edison contextualizes the inventor’s involvement in the project as a time of great happiness at practical engagement in technology after many years of public appearances and navigating the business realm.

One of the documentary’s interviewees mentions an account of Edison speaking of work with a tone of reverence assumed by the pious when speaking of God. This is the most consistent picture of Edison advanced by the film, as someone more invested in inventing than in controlling consequences. Ogdensburg’s failure reenergized Edison, the program suggests, providing the impetus for the Edison Company’s development of a nascent filmmaking industry. But it also throws the man into sharper relief, so he is not only the Wizard of Menlo Park, but also a driven, self-made man with the characteristic blinders of the future-focused.

Edison is made in what you might call the American Experience house style: expositional narration (by series mainstay Michael Murphy); slow pans over archival photos, maps, and technical schematics; and sober, well-spoken talking heads. The formula enables the life story of Edison to migrate towards a rich portrait of an American icon while also commenting on America itself. Innovator, celebrity, capitalist, seeker of the new, Edison was as practical as he was imaginative, as competitive as he was collaborative. And as much as he represented the America of his time, he also represents the America of our time.

Splash and thumbnail images courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

7
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Books

'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Film

It's a Helluva of a World in Alain Corneau's 'Série Noire'

Alain Corneau's Série Noire is like a documentary of squalid desperation, albeit a slightly heightened and sardonic one.

Music

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2015

From the old guard reaffirming its status to upstarts asserting their prowess, personal tales voiced by true artists connected on an emotional level in the best Americana music of 2015.

Music

Dizzy's Katie Munshaw Keeps Home Fires Burning with 'The Sun and Her Scorch'

In a world turned upside down, it might be the perfect time to take a new album spin with Canadian dream-pop band Dizzy and lead singer-songwriter Katie Munshaw, who supplies enough emotional electricity to jump-start a broken heart.

Music

Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers Bring Summery Highlife to 'Ozobia Special'

Summery synths bring highlife of the 1980s on a reissue of Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers' innovative Ozobia Special.

Music

'The Upward Spiral' Is Nicolas Bougaïeff's Layered and Unique Approach to Techno

On his debut album for Mute, Berlin-based producer Nicolas Bougaïeff applies meticulous care and a deft, trained ear to each track, and the results are marvelous.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.