The Current Wars

The Current War dramatizes the conflict of ambitions, beliefs, and money that shaped the electrical future of the United States and the world. The movie fictionalizes the rivalry between Thomas Edison (the “Wizard of Menlo Park”) and industrialist George Westinghouse in the “War of the Currents” in the late 1880s and early 1890s. There was no such thing as an electrical “grid” then—service was limited to a patchwork of power stations serving select parts of American cities. Each side championed a different—and incompatible—system of distributing electric current: Edison for direct current (DC) and Westinghouse for alternating current (AC). Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla sold Westinghouse the rights to a motor that made AC useful for driving machinery, and he envisioned sending vast amounts of power over long distances using what became known as the polyphase alternating current system. The conflict played out in daily newspapers and caught the public’s attention.

The fight was between two stock companies (and their investors) with different strategies for carrying out the costly work of electrification: the Edison Electric Light Co. (and its successor, the Edison General Electric Co.) and the Westinghouse Electric Co. and its allies. But for Edison and Westinghouse, the rivalry was also personal. Westinghouse was cordial even as he sued to force his way into selling money-making electric lights like Edison’s. Edison initially gave his opponent a grudging respect, though he expressed concern that the AC system would eventually kill someone. He came to see Westinghouse as a “shyster” and even an accessory to cold-blooded killing in public streets.

Edison had mixed motives for fighting the “War,” some of them plainly self-serving. But two principled beliefs were also among them. One was that the reversing pulsations of AC were inherently more damaging to living cells than the straight-ahead energy of DC. The other was that high voltage of any kind did not belong in wires running through public streets. He knew that AC was more likely than DC to be distributed at high voltage, and he knew that accidents happen; New York City had a sad history of deaths from high-voltage lines (at least five in the last four months of 1889). Edison and his company played on public fear to brand the Westinghouse AC system as the “executioner’s current” and they supported municipal oversight of essentially unregulated local utilities. The technical and economic advantages of AC were not as obvious then as they would seem later, but Edison was not oblivious and tried to counter them by improving his system. He also made some attempts to develop his own AC components and to graft their features onto his DC system. But by then he was busy with other inventive projects, and his AC development work was too little and too late to catch Westinghouse.

The War of the Currents took place against the backdrop of efforts to find more humane methods of killing unwanted animals and executing criminals. The electrocution experiments with dogs (and a few larger animals) that took place at Edison’s laboratory in Orange, N.J., were prompted by inquiries from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and by a New York State commission on humane execution. These experiments were among the factors that led New York State to adopt electrocution as an alternative to hanging in capital cases. When William Kemmler was convicted of killing his common-law wife, he was the first person sentenced to die that way. The case led to a suit over electrocution’s constitutionality in which Edison was an important witness. After the court ruled against Kemmler, the Edison lighting interests (but not Edison himself) played a crucial role in obtaining the Westinghouse dynamo used for his electrocution in 1889.

Edison won the lamp lawsuit brought by Westinghouse but lost the “war.” Less expensive to build and operate, the AC system was increasingly favored by start-up utilities in the 1890s. Those choices led incrementally to the electrical infrastructure in the United States today: an interdependent grid of energy producers and consumers, large generating stations far from cities, long transmission lines carrying polyphase AC current, substations, transformers, and near-universal service for light and power. Edison himself left the lighting business in 1892 (a year before the Chicago World’s Fair) when the Edison General Electric Co. merged with another rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Co., to create the hugely successful General Electric Co.

There are many ways to learn about the actual events that inspired The Current War, including Jill Jonnes’s Empires of Light, Richard Moran’s Executioner’s Current, and Mark Essig’s Edison and the Electric Chair. For the principal figures you can turn to the authoritative biography by Edison scholar Paul Israel, a new Edison biography by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Edmund Morris, and historian Bernard Carlson’s Tesla. George Westinghouse has not gotten his due, though there are two dated biographies of him, and the Westinghouse entry in the American National Biography provides a brief overview of his life and work. See references below.

The digital edition of the Thomas Edison Papers offers easy online access to hundreds of primary documents concerning Westinghouse and Tesla ( Look below for a brief selection of documents related directly to Westinghouse and the “War of the Currents.” Volumes 8 (New Beginnings) and 9 (Competing Interests) of the Edison Papers print edition present a small number of these documents in thorough detail; the volumes will be available online sometime in 2020 through Project Muse of the Johns Hopkins University Press (

Suggested reading:

  • W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  • Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death (Walker & Co., 2003).
  • Paul B. Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (John Wiley & Sons, 1998).
    Jill Jonnes, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (Random House, 2003).
  • Francis E. Leupp, George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements (Little, Brown, & Co., 1918).
  • Richard Moran, Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).
  • Edmund Morris, Edison (Random House, 2019).
  • Henry G. Prout, A Life of George Westinghouse (American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1921 [and later reprint editions]).

Sample Edison Papers online documents:

Notebook Entry Concerning Alternating Current, October 1886.  p. 261.

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to Edward Hibberd Johnson, November 1886.

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to John H. Vail, November 28th, 1887.

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to Alfred Porter Southwick, December 19th, 1887

“A Warning from the Edison Electric Light Co.,” March, 1888.

Letter from Alfred Ord Tate to American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, May 2nd, 1888.

Letter from George Westinghouse, Jr. to Thomas Alva Edison, June 7th, 1888.

Publication of the Westinghouse Electric Co., July 3rd, 1888.

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, July 13th, 1888.

Letter from George Westinghouse, Jr., to New York Post, December 10th, 1888.

Letter from Harold P. Brown to George Westinghouse, Jr., April 4th, 1889.

Letter from Harold P. Brown to Samuel Insull, July 17th, 1889.

Legal Testimony of Thomas Alva Edison, July 23rd, 1889.

Letter from Thomas Alva Edison to Edison General Electric Co, Jacob Hobart Herrick, October 30th, 1889.

[1]Document 3005  [document id N321261 works in legacy but not digital edition]

[2]Doc. 3379

Was Thomas Edison anti-Semitic?


by Lewis Brett Smiler

Was Thomas Edison anti-Semitic?  There is no simple answer to this question.   The inventor believed in many common Jewish stereotypes, and some of his remarks about Jews can be construed as prejudice.  However, Edison also expressed support in their quest for freedom and employed them in trusted positions at his laboratory.   He once referred to Jews as a “remarkable people,” and the evidence suggests that Edison’s feelings about them were complex.[1]

Henry Ford, Edison’s close friend, built an “entire worldview” around anti-Semitism, and his publications helped popularize the idea of a “Jewish World Conspiracy.”[2]  Ford stated in 1923, “Jews are the scavengers of the world.  Wherever there’s anything wrong with a country, you’ll find the Jews on the job there.”[3]  Some might argue that Edison’s association with Ford suggests that he was just as prejudiced.  However, the inventor’s views should be assessed based on his own words and actions and not on those of Ford’s.

In 1921 Ford associate Ernest Liebold sent Edison a leather-bound copy of The International Jew, a set of essays promoting Ford’s anti-Semitic views.[4]  Edison’s personal secretary William Meadowcroft replied that Edison “. . . wishes to express his thanks for your kindness in sending him a copy,” but the inventor’s feelings regarding the book’s contents are not known.[5]  Ford Motor Company executive Harry Bennett wrote, “I only saw Ford ashamed of his bigotry before one man, and that was Thomas Edison . . .  More than once I heard Edison rebuke Mr. Ford for his prejudice.”[6]  Bennett’s statement was complimentary towards Edison, but this does not mean the inventor was entirely free of anti-Semitism.   Many of the inventor’s remarks suggested that he was influenced by popular Jewish stereotypes.

During the early 20th century the Bolshevik revolution was commonly seen as a Jewish conspiracy against the Russian people.[7]  Author André Gerrits wrote, “Even among those who were essentially sympathetic to the Jewish cause, Bolshevik rule was widely regarded as a means of retaliation by Russian Jews.”  It was believed that the Jews were punishing the Russian people for the imperial government’s anti-Semitic policies.[8]  Did Edison buy into the theory of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy?  In a 1919 letter to Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, he briefly mentioned “two crazy Jews at Petrograd [who] can delude the proletariat” in some part of Europe.  (This reference did not appear in the final draft of the letter.) [9]  In 1924 he mailed a newspaper clipping to Liebold suggesting that most of the Soviet government leaders were Jewish and only five were of “pure Russian blood.”  Edison’s only comment on the clipping was that it was “interesting.”[10]

The evidence suggests that the inventor acknowledged a Jewish-Bolshevik connection, but the full extent of his views is not clear.  There is very little documentation regarding Edison’s thoughts on the topic.   However, his association of Jews with communism was hardly unique for that time period.   Even the U.S. State Department kept track of Jewish officials in the Soviet regime.[11]

Edison said more about his views on Jewish capitalism, another subject where he subscribed to many of the common stereotypes.  Abraham Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote that it was a popular myth that “powerful Jews practically dominate and control the world of business.”[12]  Edison seemed to believe this was true in Germany during World War I.  In a 1914 interview with the Detroit Free Press, the inventor stated that the Jews “. . .  have control over the business of Germany, and the military gang which governs the country does their bidding.”[13]  Was Edison suggesting that Jews also controlled the German military?

In a letter to Jewish journalist Herman Bernstein, the inventor explained his views in more detail.  “. . . the fact is that the military group that rules Germany had brains enough to take the advice of the great Jewish bankers and business men, and gave the captains of industry a free hand, thus enabling them to build up the power of modern Germany.”[14]  Edison credited Jews for the “. . . quick commercial rise of Germany,” but whether or not he blamed them for World War I is open for interpretation.[15]  However, Edison’s comments demonstrate how much he was influenced by the stereotypes of Jews in business.

According to Foxman, it was a common myth that Jews were wealthy “thanks to their innate abilities.”[16]  Edison wrote in a 1911 letter that the Jew “…has acquired a sixth sense, which gives him an almost unerring judgment in trade affairs.”[17]  Another myth covered by Foxman was that Jews will try to accumulate wealth “by any means necessary.”[18]  Edison wrote in 1911, “I wish they [Jews] would all quit making money.” This particular sentence was crossed out and did not appear in the final draft of the letter but still offered insights into the inventor’s thinking.[19]  Foxman also discussed the myth that “Jewish tradition holds that it is acceptable to exploit and even cheat non-Jews.”[20]  Edison mentioned in a 1917 letter that he was “compelled to pay the Jews 4 times the price for diamonds…” that he needed.[21]

There is no question that the inventor made some anti-Semitic comments, but he also expressed opposition to Jewish persecution and considered that to be the cause of their business practices.  He wrote in 1911, “The trouble with him [the Jew] is that he has been persecuted for centuries by ignorant, malignant bigots and forced into his present characteristics . . .” Edison believed that in America where the Jew has freedom, “…in time he will cease to be so clannish” and not take advantage of others in the business world.[22]

Even as Edison’s comments continued to stereotype Jews, it is important to note that he seemed to support Jewish emancipation.  In a July 1916 letter, the inventor wrote that the Jew will receive justice “. . . when religious superstition dies out and all nations become republics.”[23]   Bernard Richards, secretary of the American Jewish Congress, sent Edison a letter two months later asking for support.[24]  Edison responded, “. . . I am in favor of having a Jewish Congress, as well as any other device that Jews can think of, in order to obtain their rights.  I believe the day is not far distant when men will not be persecuted for wanting to go to Heaven in their own way and not in some other people’s way.”[25]

Were Edison’s comments sincere?  Did he really believe in freedom for Jewish people?  It seemed that Edison’s anti-Semitic views mostly applied to their role in business.  He wrote in 1911, “While there are some ‘terrible examples’ in mercantile pursuits, the moment he gets into Art, Music, Science, and Literature, the Jew is fine…”[26]  This comment sharply contrasted with Ford’s The International Jew, which suggested Jews were utilizing literature, art, and other influences to poison American society.[27]  Edison never expressed prejudiced views on that level and, even though he seemed to resent Jews in the world of commerce, there were some whom he respected.  The inventor visited the office of Felix Fuld, a prominent Jewish merchant in Newark, and seemed very welcoming when Fuld wanted to return the visit.  Edison wrote Fuld in 1917, “I shall be glad to see you and your friends . . . and have the pleasure of shaking hands with you all.  I shall also be glad to have you and them look through the Laboratory.”[28]

In 1918 Edison expressed admiration for Jewish banker Otto Kahn after reading his speeches and pamphlets.  The inventor wrote the following note to his secretary Meadowcroft, “Will you please ask personally of Kahn for his photograph autographed.  Say Mr. Edison think [sic] you are one of the very few men known to him who can think straight.”[29]  Kahn’s picture would be hung in the library at Edison’s laboratory, demonstrating that the inventor’s admiration for him was sincere.[30]

There are no signs that Edison discriminated against Jews in his hiring practices.   Frank Shapiro was a senior at Tufts College with an obvious Jewish name.  In April 1917 he wrote to Edison asking about a job opening in June.  Shapiro indicated that he was “deeply interested in the branch of Organic Chemistry that deals with the intermediate tar products and Dyestuffs themselves.”[31]   Edison replied four days later with a job offer.  He wrote, “. . . I shall have some experimental work in the line you mention, which could wait until June to be taken up . . . If you want to try it, please let me know, and also say about what day in June you would be ready to commence work.”[32]  The Tufts archives indicate that Shapiro did work for Edison as a research chemist and later held posts in various Jewish organizations.[33]

Shapiro was not the only Jew to be employed in Edison’s laboratory.  Benjamin Liebowitz, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was hired by Edison during World War I to assist with military research.[34]  Isidor Chesler, a Russian Jewish immigrant, worked on Edison’s storage battery and later helped with naval experiments.[35]  Meyer Strell, another Russian Jewish immigrant, worked directly with Edison for four years and assisted with the development of various inventions.  Strell said in 1962, “It was difficult for any Jew to get a job, so restricted were the laboratories.  But Edison didn’t care who you were, as long as you were a good worker.”[36]  Was Strell correct in his assessment of Edison?  We can only speculate how many Jews worked in Edison’s laboratory through the years, but the evidence suggests that he was open-minded about hiring Jewish employees and trusted them with important work.

We cannot ignore the fact that Edison stereotyped Jews and made prejudiced comments, but they do not tell the whole story of his feelings or relationships with Jewish people.  Many of his words and actions seemed to convey acceptance, support, and even admiration.  The evidence demonstrates that Edison had mixed feelings towards Jews, and not everything he expressed suggested anti-Semitism.

[1]Thomas Alva Edison to Isaac Markens, November 15 ,1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition, Part V (1911-1919) (Bethesda, MD: LexisNexis, 2007), 249:509.

[2]Abraham H. Foxman, Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 69; André Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism: A Historical Interpretation (Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2009), 17.

[3]Steven Watts, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 381.

[4]Ernest Gustav Liebold and Dearborn Publishing Co to Edison, January 28, 1921, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition Doc X001B8AA; Watts, The People’s Tycoon, 379.

[5]William Henry Meadowcroft to Liebold and Dearborn Publishing Co, February 3, 1921, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Dearborn, MI, TAED Doc X001B8AB

[6]Harry Bennett, We Never Called Him Henry (New York: Fawcett Publications, 1951), 47.

[7]Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism, 9.

[8]Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism, 18.

[9]Edison to William Bauchop Wilson and U.S. Dept of Labor, May 13, 1919, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 271:325.

[10]Edison To Liebold, November 28, 1924, Accession 64, Box 1, Liebold Papers, TAE Folder, Corres. & Agreements 1912-1929, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Dearborn, MI.

[11]Gerrits, The Myth of Jewish Communism, 18.

[12]Foxman, Jews and Money, 92.

[13]“Militarism Is Cause of War, Thinks Edison,” Detroit Free Press, October 26, 1914, TAEM V 259:1005.

[14]Edison to Herman Bernstein and Day (Newspaper), November 13, 1914, Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village Research Center, Dearborn, MI, TAED Doc X001A3.

[15]“Militarism Is Cause of War, Thinks Edison,” TAEM V 259:1005.

[16]Foxman, Jews and Money, 84.

[17]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[18]Foxman, Jews and Money, 98.

[19]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 274:285; Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[20]Foxman, Jews and Money, 102.

[21]Edison to John Ferreol Monnot, January 23 1917, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 268:161.

[22]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[23]Edison to Charles Schwager, July 7, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:308.

[24]Bernard G. Richards to Edison, September 27, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 267:835.

[25]Edison to Richards, September 30, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:445.

[26]Edison to Markens, November 15, 1911, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 249:509.

[27]Aspects of Jewish Power in the United States, vol. 4 of The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem (Dearborn, MI: The Dearborn Publishing Co., 1922), 225

[28]Felix Fuld to Edison, January 27, 1917, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 269:510; Edison to Fuld, January 30, 1917, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:739.

[29]Edison and Meadowcroft to Otto Herman Kahn, November 15, 1918, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ,  TAEM V 270:615.

[30]Theresa M. Collins, Otto Kahn: Art, Money & Modern Time (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 330

[31]Frank Simon Shapiro to Edison, April 22, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 266:692.

[32]Edison to Shapiro, April 26, 1916, Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, NJ, TAEM V 277:113.

[33]Biographical Information: Frank S. Shapiro, Microfiche Development Research Files, UA043 University Advancement Division Records, Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives, Medford, MA.

[34]Thomas E. Jeffrey, From Phonographs to U-boats: Edison and His “Insomnia Squad” In Peace And War, 1911-1919 (Bethesda, MD: LexisNexis, 2008), 49.

[35]Jeffrey, From Phonographs to U-boats, 42.

[36]Barbara Krampf, “Newark Inventor Recalls Early Days with Edison,” The Jewish News, February 9, 1962, TAED 508A.


When part of your daily routine is to sift through the papers of the world’s foremost inventor, you begin to expect the unexpected. Still, it’s hard not to be surprised when you come across designs for a steam-powered snow remover or an electric cigar lighter or at times a surrealistic poem in the unmistakable handwriting of the great man himself—Thomas A. Edison.  But perhaps the most surprising and enigmatic document of all is what we at the Thomas A. Edison Papers dubbed “The Scorecard.”

Click here to read more from Daniel Weeks post on “Unexpected America” at Johns Hopkins Press.07.19.16-Weeks-Edison Scorecard.3a.

Jazz and the Phonograph

Having spent the better part of three decades as a professional jazz musician, at least on a part-time basis, I’m well aware that jazz could not really exist and continue to progress in the way it does without recording.  If there were no sound recordings, a musician could only study improvised soloing and comping by attending live performances. Jazz musicians must, of course, experience the music live to develop their own chops, but there would be no way to really dissect solos down to the bones without sound recordings. Jazz musicians often make transcriptions of recorded solos to better understand them.  But with no recordings, no transcriptions would exist. Jazz improvisations, when they are truly innovative, are simply too complex and fleeting to notate as they are heard live. And it might be said too that even a transcription is only a rough approximation of what a jazz musician has played. It can’t possibly capture all the nuances—of tone, timbre, rapid dynamic shifts, approach to swing, etc. So jazz simply could not have developed as it did had the musicians not had access to recordings of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane and in my own case (I’m a drummer) to those of Art Blakey, Philly Jo Jones, Vern Fournier, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Rutgers’ own Ralph Peterson, Jr., just to name a few.

So it was with a great deal of interest that I read through the 1888 correspondence between Thomas Edison and the composer, pianist, and conductor Edgar Stillman Kelley concerning Edison’s then-new “perfected” phonograph. Kelley was interested in coming out to Edison’s spanking-new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, to experiment with this improved phonograph. So in May 1888, he sent a note to Edison to see if the inventor was up for a visit.  “Many machines have been invented to reproduce in visible form the tones produced upon the pianoforte,” Kelley offered, “. . . but none have been practically successful—The main idea being to preserve musical improvisations.”

There it was! I felt like this was really the beginning of it all, a necessary moment that nearly a century later would allow me to spend countless hours trying to figure out what Art Blakey was playing on recordings like “Free for All” or “The Crisis” or just trying to soak up the swinging brushwork of Vern Fournier on Ahmad Jamal’s album Live at the Pershing 1958. And I’m talking a lot of listening. I wore out two LPs of Live at the Pershing before I was able to get this album on CD (which so far is holding up).

Kelley, of course, was writing well before the advent of jazz. He was interested in recording improvisations—snippets of music known as motifs—that might later be written down for the purpose of composing “classical” style works. Later, in 1911, when jazz was still in its raw infancy in New Orleans and virtually unknown outside of that city, Kelley recalled that after working at the lab with Edison’s new phonograph, he had “expressed the hope that the invention might be so applied as to enable composers to preserve their improvisations, whereas they at times lose some of their happiest inspirations through inability to record with sufficient rapidity the ideas as they occur to them.” Kelley was no doubt thinking of the kind of noodling composers do as they are puzzling out a new composition. With the phonograph, one might capture such an improvisation without having to immediately stop the flow of ideas to scratch it down on paper.  With the phonograph, if the recorded music was later found worthy, it could be played back again and again and notated at leisure before being incorporated into a formal composition.

Kelley, while he is now a virtual unknown, was an important figure in American music in the late nineteenth century. Some writers considered him the successor of Edward McDowell. So this was not a nobody who had contacted Edison immediately after seeing an article on the perfected phonograph in the New York World. “While pursuing my musical studies in Germany,” Kelley explained, “I became deeply interested in your phonograph when it first came out, and witnessed a number of experiments with it.”  This early interest was in Edison’s first phonograph, the tin-foil phonograph of 1877-1878, which appeared when Kelley was a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory.

As Kelley would later note, recordings made on the 1878 phonograph could capture with surprising accuracy the “rising and falling inflections of the orator’s voice as well as the melodic outline of musical selections. . . . But the tone colors of the various sound producing media were only remotely suggested bearing about as strong a semblance to the originals as does a blurry copy in charcoal to an oil painting.” In other words, it had little use for accurately documenting musical performances. While Edison’s early phonograph with its ability to record and playback the human voice astounded the world, the poor fidelity and the delicacy of the tin-foil cylinders made it little more than a remarkable toy. It failed commercially, and Edison himself soon lost interest in it.

But the exhibition of Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter’s wax-cylinder graphophone in New York City in 1887, rekindled Edison’s interest in improving his own phonograph design. It was this redesigned “perfected phonograph,” which used a wax cylinder, that Kelley wanted to see. “I feel certain,” he explained, “that it may become an aid to the members of the musical profession.”

By the end of May or early June at the latest, Kelley had paid his visit to Edison’s new lab in Orange, New Jersey. He brought with him a number of other musicians to test whether the new phonograph could capture with sufficient fidelity the tone colors necessary to turn recorded music from blurry charcoal copies to proverbial oil paintings of sound. After experimenting for several hours, Kelley was satisfied that this new machine would transform not only how people heard music, but how they learned it, composed it, and performed it. And though he might not have realized it in 1888, the phonograph and its successors would go on to play a seminal role in the creation of whole new genres of music—jazz first and foremost.

—Dan Weeks

Edison Sunbury motor

An unexpected piece of the past.

We preserve quite a bit of material related to Thomas Edison here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The national collections include objects related to famous successes like incandescent lamps, phonographs and motion picture equipment as well as lesser known inventions such as electric pens, alkali batteries and Edison-effect lamps. We also preserve failures like the talking doll since even Edison struck out on occasion.

As one might expect given Edison’s many projects, every now and then something unexpected turns up. I learned of one such piece in 1999 while talking to James O. Weber of York, Pennsylvania who offered to donate “an old motor made by Thomas Edison.” My initial reaction was skepticism but then Weber told me he went to high school in Sunbury, PA and the motor was used at that school. That caught my attention. Edison’s first 3-wire station began powering Sunbury’s electric lighting system in 1883. (Edison Papers 7, 39ff; Carlat and Weeks; Jehl, 937, 1003, 1096-99). The photos Weber subsequently sent showed a small, almost miniature, version of an early bi-polar direct current motor that had obviously seen much use. Weber’s story about the motor suggested that this small device might have something to teach us about Edison’s fledgling electric utility business.

Weber received the motor from Harry L. Keefer (1902-1978), his former science teacher at Sunbury High School. Francis Jehl, in Menlo Park Reminiscences, referred to Keefer as “the Edison Historian of Sunbury.” (p.1101) An article in the Sunbury Daily Item reported that Keefer had “organize[d] the Edison Science Club of Sunbury High School.” Weber assisted Keefer in class demonstrations and recalled that Keefer used the motor as a non-functioning model for classroom demonstrations. He could not remember precisely how Keefer obtained the motor but believed that Edison sent it for classroom use. Weber stayed in touch with his teacher after graduation. Late in life, Keefer gave him the motor “because he knew I was interested in such things.” Later, Weber looked at the old motor and thought of the Smithsonian.

This motor is indeed a rudimentary example. For example, armature construction is a science of its own with drums of various cross-sectional shapes and coils wound in complex configurations. We have a variety of early armatures in the collections that show ways engineers learned to coax more power out of their designs. The armature on this motor could hardly be simpler, a single coil wrapped lengthwise around the drum. Built this way, the armature could produce little power but like a good teaching tool would clearly show the principle of winding.

The question remains of how Keefer came by the motor. Did Edison give the motor to him when Keefer, then a high school student, visited the West Orange laboratory around 1916? (Keefer, 196) Might Edison have made a gift of the motor during a visit to celebrate Sunbury’s sesquicentennial in 1922? Or did Edison perhaps send the motor to Sunbury earlier? A cardboard label accompanying the motor may give a clue: “Electric motor. Used in early experimenting at Edison’s Sunbury Plant. E. Vine St. near N. Fourth St.” The motor seems far too basic for Edison’s level of technical knowledge in 1883 so it may have served another purpose.

When Edison and his team first came to Sunbury, they needed to teach others how to operate the new equipment. Steam engineering and gas lighting were mature technologies by then but electric lighting and bulk power generation were still in their infancy. Edison’s team had learned lessons the hard way but few others understood the nuances of how to run their system. As Louis Carlat and Daniel Weeks wrote, “concerns about the capability of local skilled and semiskilled labor to operate the machinery with only a few weeks of training would haunt [Edison’s] experience not only at Sunbury but in a number of other plants.” (p. 312)  Edison understood that he was promoting a new industry that would require workers to learn new, highly technical skills. So perhaps the motor came to Sunbury as part of that training process and only later made its way to Keefer’s science class.

We may never know the answer, a situation not uncommon when studying the past. Historians are constrained by sources that are seldom as complete as we’d like. But every so often a new piece of the past surfaces–a letter, a photograph or a small motor. One more part of the much larger puzzle.

– Hal Wallace, Associate Curator of the Electricity Collections at the National Museum of American History.



Edison “Sunbury” demonstration motor, c1884. Catalog number 1999.0138.01, from James O. Weber. Electricity Collections, National Museum of American History.

Carlat, Louis and Daniel Weeks. “‘New and Untried Hands’: Thomas Edison’s Electrification of Pennsylvania Towns, 1883–85.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 139, no. 3 (October 2015): 293-321.

Israel, Paul B., Louis Carlat, Theresa M. Collins, David Hochfelder, eds. The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Losses and Loyalties, April 1883–December 1884. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Jehl, Francis. Menlo Park Reminiscences 3. Dearborn, MI: Edison Institute, 1938.

Keefer, Harry L. “Edison, the Scientist, in Sunbury.” The Northumberland County Historical Society Proceedings and Addresses XV. Sunbury, Pa.: The Society, 1 October 1946: 190-199.

“Dedicate Edison School Sunday; Carter to Speak,” Sunbury Daily Item, ca 1979.


Mark Twain: The Edison of Our Literature

Quick: which icon of late 19th century America described an overly-busy man as one “inebriated with industry”? Or insulted another for having “a genius for stupidity”? Or likened birds singing at sunrise to a “canary seed orchestra”? If this lively language put you in mind of Mark Twain, don’t feel bad that the author was actually Thomas Edison. The comparison occurred to me in reverse. Edison’s prose is pretty familiar from my work at the Thomas Edison Papers, so my scalp tingled recently when I recognized a similar voice while rereading Twain’s memoir of Life on the Mississippi.

Edison was no Twain: he wrote mainly to inform or instruct, not to amuse or spin a coherent story. But he also had a liveliness and a knack for making words sound like informal speech, traits that make Twain’s narratives so distinctively American. Edison could wrap a trivial event around a forceful verb, used unexpectedly, to freshen the action. When he went boating on a windy day and got splashed, it was because the “water broke loose from the iron grasp of gravitation.” A gentleman whom Edison asked for directions didn’t mumble in reply; rather, he “worked his articulating apparatus so weakly I didnt hear a word he said.” The same with adjectives or adverbs: hair neatly combed has been “laid out by a civil engineer.”  A man in a place of responsibility is “clothed with authority.” Actually, that last phrase is Twain’s, as is the description of a treacherous bit of river where “twenty-nine steamboats had left their bones strung along” the bottom. But you see the point.

Edison didn’t usually stylize his writing this way, and I resorted to a bit of cherry-picking for those examples. They’re from entries in a diary that he read aloud as a parlor game with a group of friends on vacation in 1885. But the creative vigor in his voice jumps off his workaday pages, too. Quickly outlining a complex technical argument for an associate, he closed with: “Do you catch on with your intellectual grippers?” It’s there even in hasty directions. Drafting a set of patent applications in 1887 and 1888, he successively told his attorney to “Claim the Earth,” then to “Claim Everything,” then “the Solar System,” and finally to claim “Alpha Centauri Orion & the pole star.”

Those exaggerated commands are on the scale of Paul Bunyan, the woodsman of American legend, and they remind me that Edison and Twain both came from a time and place where vivid storytelling was a respected art. Born just twelve years apart, each grew up in the West (what we now call the Midwest), where a rich oral culture of humor and tall tales flourished before the Civil War. Edison’s “perceptible Western twang” was still evident years later. As a successful inventor, he became a magnet for newspaper reporters, who noted the ease with which he bantered and swapped stories with them—and with his employees.

Edison also shared with Twain a long connection with the newspaper business, which had its own traditions of spirited writing. Twain, of course, had been a reporter, and Edison had published his own paper as a boy. As a young man, Edison worked as a telegraph operator on the press lines, taking down stories filed from distant cities; working the telegraph sounders, he literally heard stories before they were printed. Telegrapher and reporter were both itinerant jobs, and Edison and Twain traveled extensively, no doubt picking up new linguistic habits from companions on trains and ships or in boardinghouses.

By the 1880s, Edison and Twain were in their successful middle years, each renowned for inventiveness—one with machines, the other with language. (Not for nothing did a newspaper call Twain “the Edison of our literature” in 1885.) Twain also was fascinated with new machines. A famously early user of the telephone, in 1888 he also sought out the new Edison phonograph—before it was ready—for dictating the manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a cautionary tale about new technology. He also dabbled at inventing, though only one of his creations ever made him any money. That was a self-pasting scrapbook, a copy of which Edison bought on his 1885 vacation.

-Louis Carlat, Associate Editor.