Science Leadership Academy Learn · Create · Lead

Thomas Edison in Fiction

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.
Slide 1:
None

Slide 2:
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,

Slide 3:
Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb, he invented a filament to make the lightbulb last longer.

Thomas Edison was for most a businessman, most of his inventions were small patents that made big changes to already existing inventions.

Thomas 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.

Slide 4:
Edison, 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.

Slide 5:
In 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.

Slide 6:
In 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.

Slide 7:
For 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.

Slide 8:
Here's 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.

Slide 9:
So, Edison is portrayed as bad, Tesla is portrayed as good. Why is this?

The 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".

I 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.

Slide 10:
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 money.

Slide 11:
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 himself.

Slide 12:
None.