June 5, 2014
Edison, The Brilliant Swine
I came across a new video from the Reactions series, produced by the American Chemical Society, a nonprofit organization chartered by the US Congress and the world’s largest scientific society.
The video has three main aims, it seems. Firstly, to celebrate chemistry itself, and science in general. (A fine aim.) Secondly, to celebrate the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, which, they explain, “is a National Historic Chemical Landmark… the complex is home to more than 400,000 artifacts… and is considered the template for modern research-and-development labs everywhere.” The place sounds incredible, not only for chemists and scientists, but for anyone interested in the history and continuation of human development. Another noble aim for the video, then.
The lab opened in 1887, with Edison’s significant involvement, as a “one stop shop” for science, we are told, with physicists and electronics experts, as well as chemists. Reactions then goes on to tell us that this is only one reason why Edison is a remarkable genius and a wonderful man. They tell us how Edison’s love of chemistry was at the heart of his famous discoveries, and that he began with a chemistry lab in his bedroom as a child, which after an accident, his mother insisted be moved to the basement (obviously she was more concerned about keeping her house nice than her son’s well-being).
We are told that it was chemistry that led to Edison being able to record sound for the first time, after “his phonograph records evolved from an etching on tin foil to wax cylinders,” and he experimented with many kinds of waxes, polymers and resins until he found the substance most suitable for reproducing sound. We find out that Edison was also responsible for developing batteries around 1900 – later essential in more advanced music players, of course – leaving behind the terrible lead-acid based batteries that spilled acid everywhere. Celebrating Thomas Edison, then, is the third and most important aim of the video.
I like the enthusiasm for science in this video, and certainly for the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, which I would love to visit one day. But I was also mindful of the current trend among many to celebrate Nikola Tesla over Edison, reducing Edison, in some cases — such as in this Oatmeal infographic — to nothing more than a cheat and a scoundrel. The Oatmeal claims that Edison was a CEO and businessman more than a scientist, who took the ideas of others, including his own employees, who went unpaid and uncredited — Tesla among them — and used them to get patents and make as much money as possible.
We are treated to a long list of things that Tesla invented or discovered and other people are credited for, but a strong dislike of Edison in particular runs throughout. Without a serious look into the history of science, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. No doubt Tesla was a genius, and the rivalry between the two is well established. But the ‘Tesla is God, Edison evil’ claims seem to be more the realm of slightly gimmicky, viral-chasing Internet sites (no disrespect, I like the Oatmeal, but it is hardly the New York Times), whereas more reputable sites such as Forbes, in an article entitled “Nikola Tesla Wasn’t God And Thomas Edison Wasn’t The Devil,” question the polarization of opinion on the two, claiming that it was scientific conviction that motivated Edison’s opposition to Tesla on issues such as DC (Edison) vs AC (Tesla) current, and the merits of RADAR, rather than money or ego.
I won’t draw too strong a conclusion on the subject, but on the broader issue of Internet viral links becoming gospel, I will. Like biased news channels and newspapers, it is amazing how one source can completely inform a person’s opinion on something. One might be forgiven, if not completely, for wrongly assuming that a long-established TV channel is telling them the truth, but a link a friend sent them on Facebook?! I am guilty of this kind of laziness sometimes, too, but we should all try to take as many sources as possible on a subject. The Thomas Edison National Historical Park may be a better source than the Oatmeal on this one.
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