Tonight on American Experience: Edison

American Experience
American Experience / American Experience

Airing tonight (January 27, 2015) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Edison, a documentary following Thomas Edison's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. Here's a 30-second preview:

Edison: Inventor

In American Experience's new documentary Edison, we see a two-hour exploration of Thomas Edison's life of invention, rivalry, success, and tragedy.

Although presumably everyone reading this has heard of Edison, it may not be clear what exactly he did (aside from something to do with lightbulbs), or when, or how much it mattered. This documentary examines the strengths and weaknesses of this self-taught inventor whose strong intellect was paired with intense stubbornness, a combination that often resulted in great work, but sometimes disaster.

When we think "Edison," most of us think "lightbulb." It's true that Edison made the first commercially viable lightbulb, though he didn't invent the lightbulb; he perfected it. A patent was granted for the incandescent lightbulb six years before Edison was born (as the documentary explains). The problem was that the bulbs burned out rapidly, or used too much current, or were too expensive to be practical. Giant electric arc lights were used to light some public spaces prior to Edison's lightbulbs, but using arc lights in the home was basically impossible (unless you lived in a stadium).

Edison's major contributions here included finding a viable way to make the bulbs last, plus installing the infrastructure (power plants and transmission lines) to provide home electricity in an era when that kind of utility simply didn't exist. The lightbulb was about bringing light into homes, to move people from light sources that burned fuel (read: open flames in your house) to those that were contained within glass bulbs.

Edison speaking into a cylinder phonograph, West Orange, New Jersey, 1888. Photo Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historic Site.

More interesting, though, is everything else Edison was involved with. For instance, he invented the phonograph before his famous lightbulb work (though he didn't perfect it until much later). He also invented the stock ticker (based on his experience in telegraphy) before his work on the lightbulb. He worked on early motion pictures, including sound-sync movies. He invented the carbon microphone used in Bell telephone handsets for roughly a hundred years (!). His full list of patents exceeds 1,000 entries. The man did a lot of work.

In the first half hour or so of Edison, we learn how Edison was raised in Michigan and got his first job running a telegraph at age 15. Here's the first 9 minutes of the documentary to give you a taste:

Edison: Stubborn Rival

Some nerds (especially Tesla fans) are aware of the War of Currents, in which Edison declared that Direct Current (DC) power was superior to Alternating Current (AC). Edison lost the war, though it was hard-fought. He did some awful things in an attempt to demonstrate why the DC system was better; most ghastly among them was electrocuting animals using AC current. He also advocated using AC electricity for the electric chair, despite having disavowed the death penalty previously—the idea being that he wanted to associate AC power with death, apparently at any cost. Edison was extremely competitive, and would kill (animals) to win.

Ultimately, after the market settled on AC current, Edison conceded defeat and a business merger created General Electric. In a pattern that repeated throughout his life, Edison's inventions were made practical in large part by business and infrastructure; it was not enough to simply make a lightbulb—he had to make business deals to generate electricity, run wiring, bill people for using it, and deal with all the problems inherent in installing and maintaining brand-new infrastructure. While it took him years longer than he had hoped, he was eventually successful in illuminating one square mile of Manhattan, an achievement that truly changed city life.

Edison also failed spectacularly at times. The documentary details his incredible experiments with mechanized mining that ultimately crashed and burned. He also missed the boat on projecting motion pictures for quite a while, until he could no longer ignore progress made by other inventors. In general, a strong theme of Edison's life is competition with other inventors, and a desire to get to an invention first.

Here's an exclusive clip from before the Manhattan light project occurred; it describes the electric lighting Edison installed in his laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, and a special night when he invited the press to experience his lights in the dark. Cast your mind back to the late nineteenth century and enjoy this:

Edison: Celebrity

As Edison settled into old age, he was a major celebrity, and he hung out with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs. They named their little club The Vagabonds, traveling and camping together in grand style, and the press began to follow along, reporting on a bunch of dudes camping.

Henry Ford, Edison, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone at Yama Farms Inn (undated). Photo Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historic Site.

Edison also protected his personal brand (long before that concept was commonplace), and paid his son Thomas Edison Jr. $25/week to change his name for business reasons (so no product could be endorsed by a "Thomas Edison" except the elder). This is just one example of Edison's complex relationship with his family.

Portrait of Thomas Alva Edison, circa 1922. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress.

When Edison died, President Hoover asked radio listeners to turn off their lights at a coordinated moment, to remember what life was like before Edison brought practical electric light to the masses.

It's hard to imagine these days what life would be like without electric light, sound recordings, motion pictures, and the many other things Edison brought to the market. Everyone reading this was born long after these inventions became commonplace. This documentary gives us two solid hours to understand who Edison was, the world that shaped him, and how he shaped the world. He was not without flaws, and the documentary shows that. But he did invent many tremendous things.

Where to Watch

The documentary airs tonight (January 27, 2015) on PBS stations around the U.S. It's an American Experience documentary, so if you're setting your DVR, search for "American Experience" with the episode title "Edison." Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. Depending on your PBS station, the show may repeat later in the week at odd hours, so if you miss it tonight, you may still be able to catch it (or stream it later).