Thomas Edison is a strange creature when it comes to his portrayal in fiction and nonfiction, while most classic nonfiction praises him as a genius inventor, fiction seems to portray him as almost anything but. In this project, we take a look at Edison's strange portrayal in fiction, and how it compares to his historical rival, Nikoli Tesla. Due to the nature of the presentation, most of the information in the slideshow is in presenter notes, which I have transcribed here below my introduction.
You know Thomas Edison, inventor
of the lightbulb, the creator of the motion film camera, godfather of
funk, however, do you know Thomas Edison the cultist? The ghost? The
violent thief? The ever feuding scientist?
Thomas Edison is oft
portrayed as a hard working inventor, who overcame a lot in order to
become the most important inventor of the 20th century. You can decide
if he was hard working, or had to overcome anything on your own. But I'm
not here to discuss what he was, I'm here to tell you what he looks
like, do most of you agree that Thomas Edison is usually seen as a good
guy who's inventions did a lot? Well, fiction would disagree, before I
get into these examples however, here are some facts,
Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb, he invented a filament to make the lightbulb last longer.
Edison was for most a businessman, most of his inventions were small
patents that made big changes to already existing inventions.
Edison once hired Tesla to work at his lab, and tricked him out of
$20,000, Tesla continued to feud with him until his death.
He shocked animals to death in order to scare people from using alternating current, against his direct current.
Thomas Edison did talk about inventing a machine to talk to the dead.
in movies, comics, and other fiction, is very much not the prominent
young inventor he is in non-fictional biographies. Like I said earlier,
Edison is portrayed as the opposite, he is portrayed a s weirdo, a
psychopath, and a number of things, here are a few examples.
the manga, that's japanese comic for some of you, The Lives of
Eccentrics by Hirohiko Araki, Thomas Edison is portrayed as an inventor
for sure, however his methods are viewed as impractical, and he is
violent towards lab assistants, and in general cruel. This is dramatized
in a fictional scene where Edison attacks Tesla for building an
alternating current generator instead of a direct current generator, and
another where he kills an animal with electric current to show that
alternating current is dangerous. Here's what's important, the viewpoint
is skewed, the manga focuses on Tesla, as many choose to do, and
therefore must show Edison as a negative force, however, the manga gets
most of its facts straight, and was fairly well researched.
other comics, Edison is not only shown for his scientific prowess, but
also with a talent, and even an obsession for the occult. For example,
in Matt Fraction’s Five Fists of Science, Thomas Edison is shown to be
deeply into the occult, summoning demons and such through human
sacrifice, and owning an extensive collection of mythical animals, such
as the yeti we see so prominently featured on this slide.
a lighter example, we look at Brian Clevinger’s all ages comic Atomic
Robo, which features a similarly occult based Edison character. In this
comic however, his focuses are still science based, and he tries to
combine the occult with the scientific, using the odic force in an
attempt to create immortality. In this, it not only makes Edison a
thief, who steals both technology and mystical items for his purposes,
but also as someone obsessed with his idea of something. It also makes
sense of his plea for direct current, saying the reason he was so
strongly for it, was because it could easily conduct odic force. Atomic
Robo’s Edison is similar to Five Fist of Science’s, though there are
differences simply because of target audience.
another example, which is from a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, in the
story, Edison is a genius, inventing a device to measure the
intelligence of a person or animal, this leads to him finding out that
his dog was much smarter than even Edison himself, and in order to keep
it a secret, the dog gave him the secret to the filament in his light
bulb. This is a different fictional side, because while it does show
Edison, it does not show him as a villain or as opposed to Tesla or any
force of good, in fact, he’s still a genius. The difference is that like
most of Vonnegut’s work, this is a comedy.
So, Edison is portrayed as bad, Tesla is portrayed as good. Why is this?
main reason is because Edison lived a life of happiness, while Tesla
slowly became more miserable, if you look at that, it's easy to
understand exactly why Edison is portrayed as bad, his effect on Tesla's
life was negative, and since they were known to feud it slowly becomes
more obvious that Edison is not a good person, or at least, it becomes a
more prominent viewpoint. And since Tesla was an eccentric as opposed
to the fairly straight-laced Edison, he becomes a more interesting
person to write about to a fiction author, not to mention that Edison's
work was practical, while Tesla's involved "death rays" and "automatons
capable of destroying cities" and "earthquake machines".
think, that another part is about the attraction of Tesla, while Edison
was a methodical worker, Tesla was creative and ingenious in his
methods, something writers often find interesting, or find themselves
connecting to, while no fiction writer can compare to the dreary Edison,
working bit by bit in a completely organized pace, obviously the
somewhat crazed Tesla is more fun to write about, and Edison is easily
put into an antagonistic role.
Not to say Edison is
bad in all fiction, but he is almost always a villain of some kind,
however, in non-fiction, it's interesting that not only do they portray
him in a positive light, they completely eliminate the negative things
Edison did, like electrocuting animals, or messing with Tesla about the
To finish, I'd like to examine, perhaps one
of the most critical points of Edison's life, his death. When he died,
newspapers were filled with friends and companions' words of praise, all
but one quote talked about his genius, and that was Nikola Tesla's