Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman

Today’s NYT also had a great article entitled Edison the Inventor, Edison the Showman. It focuses on Edison’s first popular discovery, the phonograph, and his pioneering use of his own fame as a marketing innovation. It has some fascinating observations on his partial deafness. (He used to bite a piano, so he could hear through bone conduction.) But it also chronicles his missteps, including sticking by an incompatible format, his pursuit of technical perfection over commercial viability, flawed assumptions about popular taste based on his own hearing bias, and the fact that he wouldn’t sign famous artists or allow artists on his label to build their own names:

A sales manual from this time laid out the company’s defense, which directed the public’s attention to “the great Wizard” who personally tested voice samples using techniques of his own devising and selected “those voices which are most worthy of re-creation by his new art.” Only the voice, not the reputation, mattered to the Wizard.

…his own companies used his fame as the Wizard to market his inventions, prominently displaying his name and driving off anyone who threatened to infringe the trademark. But he could not abide others – in this case, his own recording artists – using fame, even though much more modest, for their own commercial interests.

But my favorite thing about the article was the picture of Edison in his lab in 1888. This isn’t the usual Edison, the famous inventor, but the early entrepreneur, still on his way up:

Thomas Edison in his lab in 1888, from the NY Times, photo credit to US Dept of Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site