BRIAN LAMB, HOST:Neil Baldwin, would you go back and tell the story that you tell at the end of the book about meeting the son of Thomas Alva Edison near his death?
Mr. NEIL BALDWIN, AUTHOR, "EDISON: INVENTING THE CENTURY": Theodore.
Mr. BALDWIN: Yes, indeed. Well, no one was allowed to come in from the
outside world. Theodore Edison was in his 90s--this was just a couple of
years ago--and I was sort of halfway through the book. I'm so
concerned in all of my biographies that -- I've been very concerned about
touching directly with the family of the subject, and so I had worked my way
in. I had met the nephews and some of the cousins and ingratiated myself, and
finally was given permission to enter the inner sanctum and go up to his home
in West Orange. He lived in Llewellyn Park, which is a very exclusive suburb
of West Orange, New Jersey. And the nurse let me into this very old house,
sec--very, very secluded, v--way off the beaten track. I never would have
found it if I hadn't gotten directions.
And Theodore Edison was lying in a hospital bed. The--the shades were drawn;
it was very dark. And I remember it was one of those beds with the railings
on either side and he was lying there. Next to his right hand was a telephone
that you--you know, it was one of those cradle phones with--the very black
cradle phones with the dials, like something out of the 1930s, with a very
frayed cord, you know. And the nurse was there and she introduced me to him,
Mr. Edison. His hands were sort of--he had very bad arthritis. His hands
were sort of clenched on his chest and he could hardly speak. He was in the
last stages of Parkinson's disease.
But he knew who I was, he knew why I was there and he had read my book on
William Carlos Williams, which really astonished me, that he had actually--he
knew of that book. And I started chatting with him. I asked him about--one
of the major things in the book was the celebration of the Fourth of July,
which was a big holiday in the Edison family, and how Thomas Edison used to
make his own fireworks--construct his own fireworks and have the kids run
barefoot on the lawn. And he would throw firecrackers at their feet and they
would jump up and down. Then they would eat watermelon and have a grand old
time. And--and Theodore was able to--to conjure up this image of a--a bygone
American time as if it were yesterday, even though he was laboring very, very
deeply with the problems of Parkinson's disease.
Then we talked a little bit about the--the radio. You know, Edison was
concerned that the radio was just, quote, unquote, "a fad," and he was
reluctant to enter into the technology, but he let his sons, Charles and
Theodore, begin to manufacture radios in the 1920s, so we talked a little bit
Then his wife came in, Anne. She was in a wheelchair. She sort of
interrupted the conversation and asked me what I was doing there. She was a
very, very protective woman. And we talked with her for a while. The
impression was of a person with an ember of thought in his mind, even though
his body was very, very infirm. I felt this was a--a person with life in his
brain but dying out slowly. And three or four months later he died, but I--I
call him the last Edison because none of Thomas Edison's male children had
offspring. So, in fact, Theodore was the last person with the name--surname
Edison left, and now he's gone.
LAMB: Thomas Edison made what? What did he invent?
Mr. BALDWIN: Oh, heavens. Well, since this is only an hour program--well,
he's known for 1,000--over 1,000 patents: the phonograph, the varion--varying
im--permutations of the telegraph, the electric pen, the concrete house, the
storage battery, the phonograph cylinder, the disc record, all sorts of
dynamos, every component of an electrical system. I think that one of the
points I--I try to get into in the book is it isn't just these free-standing
inventions that we should think of when we think of Edison. We should think
of systems of inventions.
And the light bulb, which is the most familiar to all of us, the one that we
grow up learning about, really is one component of an entire system of
delivering electric power to domestic and corporate settings, so that you have
to think of the--the dynamo that generates the electricity, the wire that goes
under the streets, the wire that goes from the streets to the actual apartment
or factory, the fuses, the--the measuring system for the--the meters, the
filaments of the bulb, in addition to the bulb itself at the very end, the
sort of end product. And Edison actually spoke about his pride in the entire
system that he created. That was his real--in his mind that was the
invention, rather than just the--the bulb or the lamp as it was known in those
days. It wasn't called a bulb then. It was called a lamp, actually.
LAMB: How long did he live?
Mr. BALDWIN: Let's see; 1847 to 1931, so that's 84 years. And that's why
actually "Inventing The Century" was a concept that I thought very carefully
about because I feel he represents the era and is a representation of the era
at the same time. He exemplifies the century, the--the waning of one era and
the beginning of another, as well as being a major prototype of the time. He
defines the time and the times define him--both.
LAMB: The picture that we've been showing from the cover was--what age was
Mr. BALDWIN: That would be probably about 40, 45 years old, when he was
really reaching the--the apotheosis of his career. I mean, he was a very,
very entrepreneurial and very ambitious person. And I wouldn't say he had a
goal to be a millionaire by the time he was 40, but he was a millionaire by
the time he was 40 years old.
LAMB: Where was he born?
Mr. BALDWIN: He was born in Milan, Ohio, which is a little town--it's still
very much the same way it was in the 1840s. It's about 60 miles west of
Cleveland. And his forebears, actually, were Canadian. His father came over
from the north country and set up a shingle shop there in--in Milan, Ohio, and
Edison was actually one of seven children, and he was born there. His
mother--her mo--his mother's forebears fought in the Revolutionary War,
American Revolution, and so there was a kind of a strong patriotic strain to
his background, combined with the--the intrepid nature of the northern
Canadian blue bloods--bluenoses as they were called because of the cold
LAMB: Where'd he get the name Thomas Alva?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, actually, Alva was named after Captain Alva Bradley, who
was a steamship captain who helped the family when they were coming in from
Canada, helped them bring their goods and their provisions over to Milan. And
he was a very close friend of the Edison family.
LAMB: You say that in the early days he called him--he wanted to be called
Mr. BALDWIN: Little Al. Yes. well, he liked to be called Al when he was a
little boy, very young, and then he graduated to Tom as a teen-ager. And
later on in life even the people who knew him always referred to him as Mr.
Edison. As a matter of fact, in the travels I've been doing and meeting with
some of the people and--especially in Florida, where Edison had a winter home,
there are still people there who knew him when they were children and their
parents knew him, and they still refer to him as Mr. Edison as a kind of a--a
reverential feeling there.
LAMB: How long did he live in Milan, Ohio?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, he lived there till he was--early childhood, and then his
family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when he was about eight years old.
LAMB: How long did he stay there?
Mr. BALDWIN: And he lived there--he worked on the railroad. He worked for
the--the Grand Trunk Railroad, which was a--a line that ran down to Detroit
from Port Huron and back. And that was when he began publishing his own
newspaper on the train, typesetting it h--by hand, publishing it and selling
it to all the people on the train. And he also ran a--he had a--he worked on
his father's truck farm growing vegetables and sold those on the train also.
He was extremely adept for a teen-ager, and he learned telegraphy an--at the
train station nearby in--in Mt. Clemens, Michigan.
Gradually it expanded his universe. During the Civil War he was an itinerant
telegrapher throughout the Midwest, living in various towns and working
part-time, learning the craft of--of telegraphy, which was a very common
profession for young men of that period around the Civil War time. And he
moved to Boston when he was about 20--20 years old, and then New York and then
Newark, Menlo Park, and the rest of his life in New Jersey as--which is
where--most people, you know, think of him as being a New Jerseyite, but in
fact he had his formative years in the Midwest.
LAMB: At what time of--back in those years after the Civil War, what
about--wh--when did electricity and the telephone and refrigeration and light
bulbs--I mean, I know that he's all a part of this...
Mr. BALDWIN: Yes.
LAMB: ...but wh--when did the first part of the--that--those things come
in--into being and--and--you know, like, wh--when did the telegraph start
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, telegraphy was a--a very nascent industry that grew up
sort of in tandem with the railroad. You have to see them as sort of brothers
in technology, if you will. That is to say that telegraphy sort of progressed
in complexity in the 1850s, 1860s. I always like to say that Edison grew up
with the railroad. He actually was born at a time when canals were the major
infrastructure system that was used for commerce. That you could--you could
travel through the waterways actually from the Midwest all the way to New York
through the canals, the Great Lakes and so forth.
But with the rise of the railroad, the--the change in the way in which goods
and information were transported necessitated an upgrade in the accompanying
technology. That's sort of my--the way I see it, anyway. So I think that
what Edison--Edison--that's what I mean by the fact that he defined his era
and was defined by his era. He was--had his ear to the ground in the sense of
what was required by this growing nation. And he understood the first--the
first sort of telegraphy that he got into, the first sort of communication
that he got into after the railroad was between businesses, a very rudimentary
kind of--I guess you would call it a local area network now--is what--the way
I analogize it is LAN of today, really, because Edison saw that the best way
to grow an--a--an industry was in concentric circles. So he started by
marketing these telegraphic services to related businesses in a community.
And I think he really had a sense of the pulse of--of the need of--of
corporate America because, you have to remember, this is, you know, ei--late
1860s, early 1870s we're talking about. And, you know, he--he had--always had
one eye on the future when he was developing his inventions.
LAMB: Milan, Ohio; Port Huron, Michigan...
Mr. BALDWIN: Right.
Mr. BALDWIN: Right.
LAMB: About how old was he when he got to Boston?
Mr. BALDWIN: Let's see; that would be late 1860s, so early 20s.
LAMB: Was he married yet?
Mr. BALDWIN: No. Actually, what happened was he moved to--he opened his own
shop right outside of Newark, New Jersey. This would be about 1870 or
thereabouts. He was 23, 24 years old. And that was where he met his first
wife. Her name was Mary Stilwell, and her family was from the Newark
area--Newark, New Jersey. And she was working for him as a--in a clerical
capacity. And she was very attractive, very young, blond, gray-eyed woman.
Her father was a sawyer, a--a merchant. And so they were married at Christmas
of 1871, and they had three children.
LAMB: What were their names?
Mr. BALDWIN: Tom Jr., of course, William and Marion.
LAMB: How long were they married?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, she bore him these three children over 13 years, during
the course of which--as I--as I said earlier, this was the period when Edison
was building his empire. He was proud of the fact that certain times of the
year he was away from the home for 100 nights in a row--100 nights in a row
working in the lab. And his notebooks, which I studied very carefully because
I think they are the true chronology of his career--he left over 3,000
laboratory notebooks behind.
LAMB: Where are they?
Mr. BALDWIN: Those are housed in the Edison historic site in West Orange, New
Jersey. That's where the major Edison archive is located.
LAMB: The actual notebooks.
Mr. BALDWIN: Yes, they are.
LAMB: And you read the notebooks, not on microfilm or microfiche.
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, I wanted to get--I read them in both ways actually, now
that you mention it. I wanted to--see, I--I have a background in studying
manuscripts as a kind of way to build my biographies. And I decided to
approach these notebooks a--as--as almost a freestanding literary genre in and
of themselves because Edison says in one of the first notebooks, `I am going
to make a full record of my career.' And so I said to myself, `Well, knowing
his--his--the importance of them from a documentation point of view, knowing
that--if you're going to create a patent, you have to keep a record of the
time, the place, the date of the invention. You have to keep a record of who
was working on it with you. You have to have a witness for the invention.
You have to have the most assiduous documentation when you're trying to create
a patent for--you know, for the consumer industry.'
So on that level the notebooks are important because they are Edison's
chronology of his work, but they also contain ideas and half-formed thoughts
and sketches and perceptions for other works and other creations that he
w--had thought of that did not become fully realized as--you know, in the
marketplace. And that's where you get the vision of Thomas Edison's
imagination. That's where you get the vision of him as a--as
a--introspective, creative person. He writes down all the names of all the
books he's wri--he's reading. He writes down the names of people that he
meets who give him ideas. He writes down chemicals that he wants to purchase,
tools that he wants to purchase. You get some sense of what direction he's
going in his research.
I mean, these are--these are really the--the chronicle of his entire life.
And I--I think that it's significant that he kept writing in these notebooks
long after he was able to visit the lab. When he was a sick man, when he was
in bed, when he couldn't lift his head off the pillow, he's still writing in
the notebooks, because it's the process that's important to him, not just the
manifestation, not just the thing, but the process of how you get through an
idea, how you track your thoughts and how you monitor your thoughts.
LAMB: How'd you get interested in him in the first place?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, I--my first two subjects were William Carlos Williams, the
poet and physician and probably, you could say, the precursor of--of modern
poetry in America today. And the second subject was Man Ray, who was the
photographer and painter who was also a great American figure. And I viewed
Man Ray as a quintessential modernist figure. And what I did was if--William
Carlos Williams, I was talking about a genre and the history of a genre. And
then I decided the most important thing after that would be to try to define a
period as a whole, the modern period as a whole, so Man Ray to me was the
metaphor for the modernist period in art.
And then I thought, `Well, I've dealt with two highly creative individuals,
and I've explored their imaginations.' But I wanted to make the point that
creativity and imagination are not the sole province of the artist, the--the
humanist thinker. I wanted to show that invention, which was actually defined
as an art in Edison's time--it was actually called the art of invention. I
wanted to show that the inventive process, the creative process, they all stem
from the--the--the deepest core of the imagination in--in a human being, and I
wanted to connect all those creative processes in the context of an American
And if you look at the time frame for these three books--William Carlos
Williams, Man Ray, Thomas Edison--they all begin sort of in the last vestiges
of the industrial era and the romantic era in culture and they pass through
the cataclysm of the wars and they end up sort of on the threshold of--of our
day. And so I do think they all connect, even though on first blush it
is--it's hard to see the connection, but I think there is a connection.
LAMB: Where's home for you?
Mr. BALDWIN: Home for me? Well, I consider myself a native New Yorker since
on my mother's side my--I'm a third-generation Manhattanite, and my kids were
born in New York City, too. But I live in upper Montclair, New Jersey, which
is right down the street from the Edison lab. So since I spent every Friday
at the Edison laboratory for four years doing my research, it was very
convenient. My travel budget was--was pretty well under control.
LAMB: Why'd you pick Fridays?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, you see, I have a full-time job as the executive director
of the National Book Foundation, which is the sponsor of the National Book
Awards. And I run this foundation, which has become quite a--a large
enterprise. The National Book Award is a very prestigious literary prize.
And so my writing has always taken place on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and
holidays and vacations because that's really when I take off from my full-time
job. So that's why Fridays were so good, because you can work yourself into
the weekend and not interfere with your 40 hours that you have to do your
LAMB: How big is the National Book Foundation?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, the National Book Foundation is small in staff; we
on--there are only four of us. But our scope has become huge. The
submissions by publishers to submit titles to be nominated for the National
Book Award has doubled in the past five years. And we now give three awards,
for non-fiction, fiction and poetry. We added poetry a couple of years--or
three years ago. And we also present authors, National Book Award winners and
finalists--talking about their work in communities all across the country. We
work in settlement houses, museums, Native American reservations, schools,
libraries. We are committed to taking the cachet of this great prize and
bringing it to a much broader public and becoming known, not only for literary
distinction, but for pluralism. We want to show that these great works in our
tradition can be accessible to a very, very broad audience.
I mean, I--I think that--you know, I've been thinking a lot about the
relationship of the subjects for my biographies and my job, shall we say, and
I think there is--the--the point is that the--the American story is a very big
story and a very varied story. And since my first roots are in literature, I
feel very, very deeply committed to the--to--to--to bringing great-quality
writing to a larger audience and making it the province of more people, even
though the publishing industry is, you know, fundamentally an East Coast
phenomenon and the corporate structures are in the East Coast. But the public
is very wide and very broadly based, and I think we have a responsibility to
LAMB: How long have you run the foundation?
Mr. BALDWIN: Let's see; the National Book Foundation was created about five
and a half years ago by the board of trustees of the then National Book
Award. And I was brought on to put a programmatic shell around the conferring
of the awards and to--at the time, you may recall, illiteracy--the whole
literacy struggle was really coming to the forefront, with Mrs. Bush being a
great spokeswoman for that. And the board felt that there had to be a way to
construct a social mission--a socially responsible mission for the awards so
that they were not on--they were not simply the province of the few, but that
they belong to the many, that if we're going to be a cultural player--if the
foundation's going to be a cultural player and a cultural participant, then we
have to spread the word. We have to proselytize.
LAMB: How long has the National Book Award been around?
Mr. BALDWIN: The National Book Award's been around since 1950.
LAMB: And who won it last year, the--the non-fiction?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, that would be Dr. Sherwin Nuland, who wrote the book "How
We Die." He was the non-fiction winner.
LAMB: Over the last couple of years can you name others?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, of course, Annie Proulx was the fiction winner for "The
LAMB: How about non-fiction, because that's what we do here.
Mr. BALDWIN: And--oh. Well, Paul Monette, who recently passed away, wrote a
book called "Becoming a Man." He was the non-fiction winner. And Orlando
Patterson, who's a professor at Harvard, wrote a book called "Freedom," and he
was a very distinguished winner. I mean, the--the thing is that every year
the judges change, and so you have a whole new constituency, a whole new
LAMB: Where does the foundation gets its money?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, the National Book Foundation is a non-profit 501C3
organization, and we are supported to a tremendous degree by the publishing
industry, not only in New York City, but all around the country because all
the publishers that submit to us now, including, I should say, more than a
third of all the members of the American Association of University Presses,
which is a tremendous new--a growing--I think growing sector of the publishing
world, the small po--poetry presses as well as the big corporations in New
York. Plus, we have wonderful funding from private foundations, the Lila
Wallace Reader's Digest Fund and Book of the Month Club and concerned
LAMB: Quick things. Where were you born?
Mr. BALDWIN: Where was I born? I was born in New York City in Manhattan.
LAMB: In Manhattan.
Mr. BALDWIN: Yeah.
LAMB: You're married. How many children?
Mr. BALDWIN: Two.
LAMB: How old?
Mr. BALDWIN: A boy and a girl, 15--my son is 15. His name is Nicholas. And
my daughter is Allegra. She's 13.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
Mr. BALDWIN: I went to the University of Rochester, upstate New York, and
then I did my graduate work in poetry at SUNY Buffalo.
LAMB: And what did you do before you got into the--the foundation?
Mr. BALDWIN: Foundation? Well, I basically spent the last two decades in the
non-profit sector raising money for literature. I was at the New York Public
Library on 42nd Street for five years working with Vartan Gregorian on the--on
the campaign for the library, to rehabilitate that entire institution. And I
was running the annual fund there, raising money for operations.
LAMB: Back to the book.
Mr. BALDWIN: Certainly.
LAMB: When did Thomas Edison start to lose his hearing?
Mr. BALDWIN: See, this is a story that I thought--this is a chance to set the
record straight, because here you have a person who was essentially--I believe
suffered first from variable hearing loss as a child, and I think this is--I
think a lot of parents who have young children can understand this. I mean,
ear infections and--and hearing loss are very common among little kids
starting when--you know, just after they're born. And you have to remember,
this is a long, long time ago before penicillin and before the kinds of
sophisticated treatments we have now.
So as a little boy Edison was chastised by his teachers for not listening in
class, daydreaming. And he really couldn't hear. It wasn't that he wasn't
listening. It was that he couldn't hear. But the teachers chastised him in
front of the class, and when he was seven years old, after only three months
of schooling, his mother came in and yanked him out of there. He never went
back to school again. He was home schooled for quite a long time, and then he
became--again, as a consequence of his progressively degenerating hearing, he
became a very introspective child. He became a voracious reader. He became
literally an autodidact who, as an adult, had a standing order at Brentanos
Bookstore for every single new book that came in--was shipped directly to his
So first you find the--the chronic ear infections, you find the hearing loss.
That became--as I found doing my research, he developed an arthritic condition
of the inner ear. In other words, the three--the three bones that--as we call
them, the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup, which are the three little bones
that--in the--that vibrate and touch each other--those three bones fused
together at a certain point, probably in his 40s and 50s because I've seen the
records of his visits to a doctor. That was the way they described it. He
also had several abscess--abscess problems which had to be lanced, which were
behind his right ear especially. And you'll see him--a lot of times in the
photographs you see him cupping this hand.
So a variety of ear--of ear problems afflicted Thomas Edison, yet I would say
he was--only became totally deaf toward the very end, which, ironically or
paradoxically, is when he entered the record business and started auditioning
opera singers and instrumentalists. And in those instances he would either
put his head--entire head inside the megaphone of the phonograph, stick it all
the way in there and turn the volume all the way up or, in one or two
instances, when a pianist was auditioning, he would literally clench his teeth
around the frame of the piano. And the vibrations which come--would come
through his jawbone and he would--and--and he would sense the music in that
way. And I've seen the teeth marks on the sides of the piano in Thomas
Edison's home. But he signed off on every single recording that was made for
his record company, even as his hearing was practically nil.
LAMB: First wife died when and--and why? What was the disease?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, I think that--and, again, I don't like to speculate in any
of my books. My--I can definitely say that Mary Stilwell was a very lonely
woman. She was depressed. The few letters of hers that survive talk about
herself being alone; that Edison isn't here. You know, `My husband is not
here. I have terrible headaches,' she would say. `My head is--is splitting.'
She became a drinker. We know this from the bills that she saved for her
accounts with a liquor store. She was a big sherry drinker and she gained a
tremendous amount of weight toward the end. She became a compulsive eater
also. And some of the pictures of her toward the end--and again, we're
talking about a woman in her 20s. When you compare them to her wedding
picture, which is in the book, they're almost--you almost can't recognize
them. And--I mean, she was a neglected woman--a neglected woman with three
little kids and a husband who wasn't around. And as to the actual physical
reason--cause for her death, I don't really know that, but she died very young
and very sadly and alone.
LAMB: Who was his second wife?
Mr. BALDWIN: The second wife--our story changes 180 degrees, because you have
to rea--you have to put this in the--relationship in the context of a man who
has achieved a certain level and a certain lifestyle and is still quite young
and still has three little children to take care of. I mean, Edison was one
of these people, I think, who--who had to be taken care of by a woman, and I
don't think he would have admitted that in so many words, but there's no
question in my mind. He met--Mina Miller was a young woman who he met through
family friends in Boston when he--when Edison was recently widowed. And he
was associating with some of his bachelor friends and they were trying to--to,
you know, connect him with eligible young women. And he met this young woman,
Mina Miller, who was from Akron, Ohio.
Now the interesting thing about her is that her father was Lewis Miller, the
inventor of the reaper. A variety of them--of--of the reaper, sort of in the
same generation as the McCormick reaper. He was a very successful businessman
who raised a large family in Akron, who lived in a big house, sent his
children to the best schools. And Mina was a very self-possessed, very
talented, very beautiful young woman. She was only 19 when he met her, but
she was much more educated and, I believe, much more self-possessed than his
first wife. And...
LAMB: What was the difference in Mr. Edison's age and his second wife's age?
Mr. BALDWIN: Let's see; he would have been in--they were married in 1885, so
he was in his 40s.
LAMB: She was...
Mr. BALDWIN: And she was about 20. He was about twice her age.
LAMB: And they had how many children?
Mr. BALDWIN: They had three children, Madeline, Charles and Theodore, the
man I mentioned at the beginning of the show, the person that I met.
LAMB: You say that when he died--Thomas Edison died, he had an estate of $12
Mr. BALDWIN: Indeed.
LAMB: And that was in the 1930s.
Mr. BALDWIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What would that have been like today? Do you have any idea?
Mr. BALDWIN: Oh, my heavens. The thing that is interesting about that, the
estate of Thomas Edison, is that there was a--the way the estate was--was
disposed in the will is really a very instructive metaphor for his
relationship to his children. I mean, what interested me about the estate
were--were the conditions of the will, insofar as the fact that the two sons
from the second marriage, Charles and Theodore, were the major beneficiaries,
and the three children from the first marriage and the daughter from the
second marriage were sort of given second-class citizenship in the--in the
terms of that will.
You--you see, the relationship that Edison had with his first wife, of course,
conditioned the problematic relationship that he had, especially, with the
children from the first marriage. And it--and it really conditioned a lot of
the problems that they had growing up, a lot of the problems they had relating
to him as a father. And that's something they never outgrew.
LAMB: At the height of his success, who were his best friends?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, the whole subject of Edison's friendships is--is
instructive, too, because here you have a person who has been--become known in
a kind of exclusive way for the pantheon of--of material goods that we again
mentioned earlier on. And yet, when you start to look at the structure of
Edison's work, you find out that the other root of his genius was his ability
to hire the best people, people who stayed with him for decades: Charles
Bachelor, John Kruezie, William Kennedy Dixon, Jonas Alesworth, Francis Upton.
These are people that I--I would bet that those names don't ring true with too
many people watching this program right now, whereas Thomas Edison has become
a household name.
But the thing is that these employees had expertise in electricity, physics,
chemistry and so forth and so on. And these were the people who were behind
the scenes making the tremendous research and development contributions to
Edison's corpus of work. And what happened was, when a time came--and the
time came to file the patent, their name was put subsidiary to Edison's. The
patent was filed under Edison's auspices. They were given--in most cases,
taken off salary and given a percentage of the gross revenues for these
inventions in perpetuity.
So the trade-off for these people was anonymity in the history books until
recently, until now and until the whole--you know, the whole sort of Edison
scholarship that's grown up around him in the last decade or so, but--college,
you know, education for their children, a house and a secure income, you see.
So when you ask about his friendships--these were very tight colleague
relationships that were predicated upon involvement in these great inventions.
LAMB: What was his relationship to Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, John
Burroughs, R.J.H. DeLoach...
Mr. BALDWIN: Yes. Well...
LAMB: ...and here's a picture that you have in here.
Mr. BALDWIN: Later on, of course, in the 1890s--1896, I believe, was when
Edison met Henry Ford, and that's a different genre of friendship because that
has to do with an older man, by that time Edison being a revered icon in
the--in the mind of Henry Ford who, at that time, was working for the Detroit
Edison Company. He was actually an employee of Edison's by extension at a
certain period. And he was just--Henry Ford was just beginning to become
involved in the internal combustion engine.
And he went to a convention of Edison managers in Long Island, at which Edison
gave a speech. And someone brought Ford over to Edison's table and said,
`Here's a young man who's beginning to work on the internal combustion
engine.' And he sat down next to Edison and sketched on a napkin his design
for the--the stroke engine he was working on, and Edison pounded his hand on
the table and said, `You know, you've got a good idea. Keep at it and one
day, you know, you'll become a success.'
There's a certain apocryphal strain to that, but the fact is that Henry Ford
was Thomas Edison's greatest admirer and most long-standing admirer for all
time. And at times when Edison was having problems financially with his cash
flow, Edison--Ford would--would commission him, for instance, to design a
battery for the Model T and he gave him a loan of $200,000 or $300,000 to--to
get--get him through and--and helped support Edison at the end of his life
when he was doing his research in rubber--rubber--the rubber plant.
But--and just peripherally, as far as Burroughs and Firestone were concerned,
there was a whole series of camping trips that these men went on during the
teens and '20s when they would take a caravan of cars and go out into the
mountains and sit around the fire and talk about the great issues of the day
and--of course, always wearing their white shirts and ties, but--it wasn't
exactly roughing it, but they were--there was this sort of a male bonding that
went on there for a while between these captains of industry.
LAMB: You say that Thomas Edison was a populist?
Mr. BALDWIN: I did not--yeah, I didn't use that word lightly. I think that
if you look at some of the statements he made about his--the--the rationale
behind some of his inventions, you will find statements sort of akin to Henry
Ford's `I will build a car for the great multitudes.' In the same way you
have Edison, for instance--I don't know how familiar people are with Edison's
work with prefabricated housing for working people. Edison was convinced that
he could design a concrete house that would be poured into a mold in one day.
The entire house would be poured into a cast iron mold from the top. And he
would--he would--he had a concept that he would build huge housing
developments very cheaply for the, as he called it, the working man to allow
him to--to provide the--the sort of American dream, the American ideal of the
home--the freestanding home for his family.
And when he was producing the phonograph records, his main goal was to promote
music that was palatable to the masses and that conformed to his taste. His
poet--his taste in literature ran to poets such as Longfellow, who was his
all-time favorite. I mean, he had a very mainstream sensibility and he
believed that he was in a position to disseminate that through his Thomas
Edison industries. So that's why I say populist.
LAMB: This is a real leap.
Mr. BALDWIN: Fine. I can handle it.
LAMB: I know you can. When we took a tour of the Ross Perot--little museum
outside of his office...
Mr. BALDWIN: Mm.
LAMB: ...couple of years ago during the political campaign, one of his proud
moments was to stop and point to a letter that was written by Thomas Edison
and signed on the wall. Why would that be that valuable today?
Mr. BALDWIN: You mean why would it--why does it seem that Ross Perot would
value the letter or...
LAMB: No. I mean, obviously it was an expensive item, I suspect.
Mr. BALDWIN: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: I mean, he didn't say how much he paid for it, but...
Mr. BALDWIN: Because I think that there's a--I know I read an op-ed piece
about Ross Perot and--and it rela--it referred to his--his reverence for
Thomas Edison from a--from an entrepreneurial standpoint, which I think is
very easy to understand--that there's a certain sense of identity there with
the sensibility of Thomas Edison.
LAMB: How would Thomas Edison's inventions do today in the governmental
regulation we have here in this town?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, you know, there was a very apt analogy. During the First
World War, Edison was--was contracted briefly with the Department of the Navy
to develop new technologies to help with submarine warfare. And he came
to--actually came to Washington and lived here for about a year working for
the Naval Consulting Board, as it was called at the time. And he developed a
roster of three or four dozen different inventions, mostly having to do with
ways of tracking submarines and sending up flares and signaling other boats,
and he advocated, you know, a certain type of n--naval commerce that would
avoid danger and so forth and so on. Unfortunately, none of these--none of
these ideas was adapted by the Navy, and Edison went away feeling very much
disillusioned by the bureaucracy at the time. But he really wanted to support
his country. He was a real patriot.
LAMB: This picture...
Mr. BALDWIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. The nap.
LAMB: ...where was it taken?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, you know, the naps were important to Edison, the cat naps.
That was taken in his lab in West Orange. I think that some of the stories
that we've all grown up with about Edison not needing any sleep really bear
looking at. I think a more accurate way of describing it would be that he
could--he could survive on five or--four or five hours of sleep a night;
that's true, because his pattern was such that he liked to stay up late after
everyone else went to sleep, be upstairs in his study. And at that time he
had what was called a thought bench up there, which was a place where he would
sit when he was totally quite and totally isolated so that he could reflect
and really distill his thinking and sort out what he was going to do the next
day and pro--plan his whole next day while the whole rest of the family was
But during the day, as an older man, he would get tired and he would have to
take these cat naps. And he was known for being able to fall asleep in the
most inhospitable circumstances. He could literally sleep anywhere. And then
he would wake up refreshed after five or six minutes.
LAMB: Did you get to know him, do you think, well enough that you could
describe what he would be like to spend a couple of hours with?
Mr. BALDWIN: I think I could. As a matter of fact, of the--of the three
subjects I've written about, I think that Edison would--would have been the
one that I personally could have connected with the best, I think because of
his many, many-times-stated appreciation of the combination of imaginative
thinking and hard work. And someone asked me the other day, `You know, where
is the genius reside? Does it reside in the imagination or does it reside in
the hard work?' And I said I think it's a synthesis of both, that it's not a
eureka kind of thing. It's not a flash. It's the understanding that the
tributaries of hard work feed into and out of the creative mind and you cannot
just expect to have ideas spring fully formed out of your mind from beginning
to end. They require a consciously directed effort. And I think
that--that--I believe there would have been an--an intuitive understanding of
that dynamic in a human being. I think that I could have communicated with
Edison on that level.
LAMB: What did he end up dying of?
Mr. BALDWIN: Oh, well, he ended up dying of pretty much a system breakdown,
you might say. He had congestion of the lungs. He had very serious digestive
problems as an older person. As a matter of fact, the last couple of years of
his life he was on an all-milk diet which, of course, I--you know, I
don't--from a medical standpoint, I don't know what the rationale would be,
except that he was very se--very sensitive to many foods and he couldn't eat a
lot of things. And he'd lost a lot of weight and became very weak. And it
wasn't a question of his heart giving out or his brain giving out. It was
pretty much his--his respiratory system and his digestive system combined.
LAMB: How did you get interested in biography?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, I think I'm a student of the human condition. I've always
been interested in--in other words, I think my interest in biography is built
upon my interest in people in--in general and in--in understanding what
motivates people, just people that I know, people that I've known throughout
my whole life. I think really biography--the craft of biography is a
sleuthing job that requires you to--like a--like a detective, you know, you
have to build all the evidence as we--we're seeing nowadays. You know, you
have to build and collect all the evidence. You have to--I always like to get
all my research together in one place before I start writing. You know, I
like to have my entire case, as it were, laid out for me from beginning to end
before I start to actually work on the book.
LAMB: Where do you write the book?
Mr. BALDWIN: In my study on the third floor of my house, in a little room
under the eaves there with a computer. I mean, it's not very romanticized,
but it's--it's on the third floor so the rest of the ho--family activities
take place on the first and second floors and I can be somewhat--I have to be
somewhat--I have to be somewhat isolated to do the work. But I--I mean,
the--the field work and the collection of the data is what--is what--is the
social part that I also enjoy.
LAMB: How many places did you go? For instance, did you go to the little
home in Milan, Ohio?
Mr. BALDWIN: Oh, yes. I would like--I would like to--I'm proud of the fact
that I went to every single place that Edison lived in this country, that is
to say Milan, Ohio; Port Huron, Michigan; Boston; New York; Newark; Menlo
Park; West Orange. And then I went to Florida, where he had his major winter
estate, which is in Ft. Myers on the Caloosahatchee River in Florida. He has
a beautiful home there which, of course, he designed himself and landscaped
himself. I also went to England because I did research at the Institution for
Electrical Engineers over there. And they have a whole archive from the time
when Thomas Edison electrified a 10-square-block section of the city of
London, which he did before New York. So there's a whole sort of subtext of
Thomas Edison's residence over there in London and his electrification of
this--of the center city of London, the Holborn Viaduct area.
LAMB: Has his tradition been captured at all these places? Are there
plaques? Are there homes? Are there tours?
Mr. BALDWIN: They vary in--they vary in complexity and in degree of
elaboration. I mean, the West Orange factory complex, which is just across
from New York, is--is 19th-century kind of Gothic structure with tours and a
shop and docents and so forth. And then his estate, Glenmont, is in Llewellyn
Park--is up the hill from the factory, so you get a very good sense of his
relationship of his home life to his working life. The Ft. Myers site is a
very popular tourist attraction because it's so picturesque.
LAMB: Who keeps it all going?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, that again is very different in all the different places.
The--the--the Ft. Myers site is owned by the city of Ft. Myers, whereas
the--the West Orange factory was given to the National Park Service, so
it's--it's part of the same system that runs Yosemite and, you know, it's part
of the same system that runs the outdoor parks that we are more familiar with.
But it's run by the Park Service. The Milan little home--little house is run
by the historical society there, the Edison Home Society. In Port Huron
they're doing a very interesting excavation--an actual archaeological
excavation of the site where Edison grew up, so you can stand on the hillside
overlooking the river where Edison stood. You can see the little train depot
where he worked as a child and it's right on the--on the river there.
LAMB: What influence did Thomas Paine have on his life?
Mr. BALDWIN: Ah. Well, Edison, evidently as a young man, read the works of
Paine which were on the bookshelf in his home. In 1925, he actually wrote a
preface for a volume of--of Paine's writings and he felt a very strong
identification with Paine's ideology. As I--I--we talked about populism
earlier. I think Edison felt that Paine was an exemplar of--of American
values, especially of freedom of the individual, the autonomy of the
individual, which I think was a major premise of Edison's.
LAMB: Books. You obviously spend a lot of time around books. You've written
three yourself. You're responsible for getting that National Book Award
announced every year. By the way, what time of year is it announced?
Mr. BALDWIN: November, right--the week before Thanksgiving is when we have
our big announcement of the winners. And the nominees--the finalists are
announced in early October, about six weeks before the major event. We have a
dinner at the Plaza, which is sort of like the Oscars and all the nominees
come and we make a big hoopla about that, and that's when they're announced.
LAMB: What do they get, the winners?
Mr. BALDWIN: The winners? Well, each winner gets $10,000 and a bronze statue
by Joel Shapiro, who actually is the sculptor who did the statue at the
Holocaust Museum here. Joel Shapiro is the--the artist who did that statue,
and he was commissioned by the foundation to do a--a sort of a--a bronze award
that goes to each winner. And the finalists each get $1,000.
LAMB: Are you precluded from entering the awards?
Mr. BALDWIN: Yes. The board of trustees, actually, just before--just a few
weeks ago the board of trustees of the National Book Foundation decided that,
obviously, anyone who's running the National Book Awards can't be an entrant
in the National Book Awards.
LAMB: How many people on your board?
Mr. BALDWIN: We have 15 trustees. It's about half CEOs of publishing
companies because the publishing industry has always had a strong
representation. And then we have other authors and, as I say, philanthropic
LAMB: Is there any point in the process of choosing the--the book winners of
the year where you throw your hands up and say, `There's too much politics in
Mr. BALDWIN: I really think that the National Book Award--because of the way
we set up the process, unlike some other awards, I think the National Book
Award has maintained its democratic structure. We have different judges every
year that are--that are an autonomous panel that make their own deliberations
and come to their own conclusions. The publishers are only--only the
publishers are allowed to submit the titles, and they're not allowed to submit
them with any accompanying material of any kind, and they're not allowed to
comm--communicate directly with the judges at all at any time.
LAMB: Because this show is devoted to non-fiction...
Mr. BALDWIN: Right.
LAMB: ...hardback books, what's the future of that industry? How's it doing?
Mr. BALDWIN: Which--which part of the industry?
LAMB: Non-fiction books.
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, I think the future of--I think the future of quality
American literature is very good because I think publishers are beginning
to--to understand that the reading public is capable of reaching for higher
standards. And I--I think you have to look--I think you--you know, you have
to look beyond the best-seller list. I mean, I've been going into bookstores
for a long, long time, and I think that the--the independent bookstores and
the chains together are presenting more titles by more authors that are
causing the--the reading public to reach a little bit more, to stretch a
little bit more. And they can stretch and they will.
LAMB: You have any idea how many books are sold a year? And is it going up?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, I can tell you this. About 45,000 to 50,000 different
titles are published in this country every single year--different titles every
single year. But the book industry is about a billion-dollar industry now, so
LAMB: Going up? Going up or down or...
Mr. BALDWIN: ...got to be spending that money. It's going up. It's going
up. Consumerism of books is definitely going up.
LAMB: How many biographies of Edison have been written?
Mr. BALDWIN: Well, one of the first things I did before reading--starting
this book was I read every single word that had ever been written about Thomas
Edison. And it went in phases. There was a big burst of stuff right about
the time that he reached middle age and he was becoming famous, and there was
another burst in the 1920s when he was becoming revered as a--a deity, almost,
in American culture. But in the last 35 years, which is what I was sort of
focusing on, there had only been two biographies that--that are of any note,
which I talk about as having some strengths and some weaknesses. But I think
mine is the most balanced and the one that deals the most with him as a
per--as a human being, as a person as well as a myth.
LAMB: Our guest, Neil Baldwin. The book, "Edison: Inventing The Century."
And we thank you for joining us.
Mr. BALDWIN: Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.