By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine
THERE is no more iconic American pioneer than Thomas Alva Edison—although his bright light may have been eclipsed in recent decades by other celebrated American innovators: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or perhaps in the realm of spiritual innovation Americans might name Oprah or Rob Bell or Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
In Edison’s prime, one poll of schoolkids found that Edison surpassed everyone else in America as the person they hoped to be like someday. Certainly, Edison was popular for his heroic rise to fame, his long series of startling inventions, not to mention the fortune he amassed. But the reason ReadTheSpirit magazine is highly recommending this two-hour PBS American Experience documentary about Edison is also the key to his worldwide celebrity as “the Wizard of Menlo Mark.”
Thomas Edison transformed our world.
Read the previous sentence again, because that kind of claim seems commonplace today, doesn’t it? Every day, headlines trumpet yet another “transformation” by Apple or the latest App developer with some new service that might range from finding a taxi to monitoring of our body’s vital signs.
What this PBS documentary shows us is that, by comparison with Edison’s milestones, most of these current “transformations” are trivial. And therein lies the deep spiritual and cultural questions raised by this fascinating video version of Edison’s life.
As an aside to our readers, in this review I want to properly credit writer and director Michelle Ferrari, who certainly has emerged as one of the most thought-provoking documentary filmmakers in America today. She also worked on two other documentaries that ReadTheSpirit highly recommended: The Poisoner’s Handbook and War of the Worlds. Bravo Michelle Ferrari for this intriguing body of work!
What Ferrari tries to convey to us in her story of Edison’s life is the earthquake-like changes he ushered into American life. Consider …
When he introduced the first device to permanently record sound—Edison took something that had been ephemeral throughout human history and, in one stroke, began the accumulation of audio in our worldwide cultural storehouse. Before Edison, music vanished as it was performed, great orations disappeared as soon as the speaker stepped away from the podium, and a host of historic events remain silent in our collective memories.
Think of the way our daily lives are surrounded by recorded sound in myriad forms! Before Edison, life’s soundtrack was limited to what happened within earshot.
When Edison introduced his light-bulb, Americans had been trying to claim useful hours after sunset through candles, oil lamps, gas jets and a handful of cities had tried using powerful outdoor arc lights. Edison safely tamed a permanent source of night-time illumination for our homes—and began the massive project of electrifying America—one city block at a time. Just imagine life before electrical outlets in every building!
Edison’s introduction of his first effective motion-picture camera was a turning point in global culture. Just as his audio recorder had suddenly allowed us to capture and preserve sounds—his camera let the world preserve motion! Before Edison, the world’s great dancers vanished with their last performance. Motion was ephemeral for thousands of years; now millions of movies surround every aspect of our lives.
If these Edison milestones intrigue you, then don’t miss Edison on PBS—or consider ordering a DVD of Edison from Amazon.
Care to see more from PBS?
This PBS American Experience website provides more background on Edison and includes a convenient option to find local broadcast times in your region.