- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

In 1922, 750,000 young Americans were asked to vote for the “greatest man in history.” Thomas Alva Edison, who had registered more than a thousand patents in his long life, won hands down, beating out Theodore Roosevelt and Shakespeare.

In The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World (Crown, $24.95, 364 pages, illus.), technology writer Randall Stross gives Edison full credit for his creative genius, while noting his marketing failures and his many personal idiosyncrasies.

Edison grew up in Port Huron, Mich., where his father owned a prosperous shingles mill. Young Edison was home-schooled, but he was less interested in his studies than in scientific experimentation. Always a go-getter, at the age of 12 he worked on a railroad, selling snacks and reading matter to passengers and crew.

At some time in his childhood Edison became partially deaf, the effects of which the author might have considered more closely than he does. Edison never attended college, but his interest in telegraphy led him to spend four years as a roving telegrapher in the Midwest. An inveterate tinkerer, he invented an improved stock ticker in 1870 that generated the funds with which he set up a laboratory in Newark, N.J.

Six years later he moved to nearby Menlo Park where, in rapid succession, he invented the microphone, a device for measuring the sun’s rays and the first practical phonograph. The inventor was slow to recognize the potential of the phonograph, viewing it more as a dictating machine than an entertainment medium. Mr. Stross details Edison’s inept marketing, which allowed the Victor Company to become the leading manufacturer of phonographs.

Edison was, for the most part, an empiricist. He ignored the theoretical sciences, in which he was untrained, and instead sought to develop commercial products suitable for mass production. He thought nothing of putting in 12- to 16-hour work days, remarking late in life that “Work made the earth a paradise for me.” But his isolation led him down some strange paths. A plan to manufacture concrete furniture for America’s working families never caught on.

Edison inaugurated the world of electricity when, in 1879, he produced the first durable, commercially practical electric bulb. He and his team developed a variety of electrical components, crowning the campaign with construction of the world’s first power plant in New York City. Three decades later Edison succeeded in synchronizing motion pictures and sound, thus paving the way for talking movies.

Something seemed quintessentially American about Edison’s work ethic and his trial-and-error methodology. The taciturn inventor became a celebrity and was given credit for inventions with which he had little or no association. If Edison did not court this publicity, he did nothing to discourage it.

Always a workaholic, Edison died at the age of 84 after collapsing in his laboratory. Mr. Stross concludes, “Edison fortuitously lived at just the right time, close enough to the present to be associated with the origins of the modern entertainment business and also the basic electrical infrastructure … yet not too late to be able to get away with claiming sole authorship” of inventions that were in fact the products of a gifted team.

Edison’s personality remains elusive, but Mr. Stross has provided a commendable account of the inventor’s busy life.

Peter Rabbit’s creator led enough lives for a half-dozen people, and in Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (St. Martin’s Press, $30, 583 pages, illus.), Linda Lear, the prize-winning biographer of Rachel Carson, covers them all. Peter was Beatrix’s childhood pet, along with other rabbits, frogs, lizards, water newts, salamanders, mice, bats, snails, guinea pigs, hedgehogs, a tortoise, a ring snake, a canary and a wild duck.

Young Beatrix did not simply tame and sketch her menagerie; after the animals died “they were boiled and their skeletons preserved. The bones were then articulated, measured, drawn, labeled, and preserved.” She also studied and sketched fungi, fossils, insects, spiders, butterflies and moths.

In sum, she was a naturalist, skilled artist and amateur scientist who, in a later era, might well have had a professional scientific career. Instead, she became a world-famous writer of some 30 children’s books and a conservationist who raised prize-winning sheep and preserved thousands of acres of her beloved Lake District for the National Trust.

Ms. Lear credits Beatrix’s father, Rupert, as the strongest influence in her life. An upper-middle-class lawyer who seems to have spent most of his time taking his family on holiday while indulging his passion for photography, he encouraged Beatrix and her younger brother in all their childhood interests.

In contrast, Beatrix’s mother, Helen, comes through as domineering, selfish and miserly throughout her long life. It was only when Beatrix was 39 and was earning substantial royalties — and had inherited some money from an aunt — that she was able to buy a Lake District farm and establish a life apart from her parents.

This book has more than 100 pages of notes documenting Ms. Lear’s thorough research amid the vast stores of Potter memorabilia in Britain and America. It would appear that nobody ever threw away anything Beatrix wrote or drew, and that includes her “picture letters” to young children, from which many of her books stemmed.

Most of her business with her eventual publisher (she published “Peter Rabbit” privately at first, when publishers rejected it) was conducted by mail because her mother disapproved of her associating with people “in trade,” and the correspondence on each of her books is recounted in detail.

Fan mail from America, which led to new friends and new outlets for her writings, is detailed. The samples of her extraordinarily skillful sketches and paintings may even send readers back to their bookshelves to reexamine the artwork in those “pretty little books,” as she termed them.

What was the secret of her success? Says Ms. Lear, “Beatrix Potter had in fact created a new form of animal fable: one in which anthropomorphized animals behave always as real animals with true animal instincts and are accurately drawn by a scientific illustrator… . Peter Rabbit’s nature is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever been around a rabbit, and readily endorsed by those who have not, as true to nature, because her portrayal speaks to some universal understanding of rabbity behaviour.”

On one level this biography can be read as a social history of England from the late-Victorian period into World War II from the perspective of one affluent, peripatetic family. Beatrix was a child on whom nothing was lost, and despite stifling parental restrictions she used whatever was at hand, eventually achieving financial and personal independence through her writings and business acumen. At age 47 she married her North-country solicitor and they shared three happy decades.

So what if she eventually became ornery and led the young National Trust land agent waiting for her property on a merry chase? She comes through as a real person, and the reader who bogs down in all the midbook detail is loath to let her go at the end.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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