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Neil Baldwin
Neil Baldwin
Edison: Inventing the Century
ISBN: 0786881194
Edison: Inventing the Century
Neil Baldwin discussed his book, “Edison: Inventing the Century,” published by Hyperion. The book focuses on the life of inventor Thomas Alva Edison and reveals how Edison raised doubts about the nature and value of technology that remain with us today.
Edison: Inventing the Century
Program Air Date: March 19, 1995

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?
LAMB: Yes.
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 about that.

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 he?
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 weather.
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 Al.
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...
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 being used?
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.
LAMB: ...Boston.
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 vision.

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 other jobs.
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 them.
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 Shipping News."
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 critical opinion.
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 individuals.
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?
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 home.

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 million.
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...
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 asleep.

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 private citizens.
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 this'?
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 somebody's...
LAMB: Going up? Going up or down or...
Mr. BALDWIN: 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.

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