SINCE THOMAS EDISON HIMSELF mythologized his early life beyond recovery, we're glad to report that by page 76 of Neil Baldwin's Edison: Inventing the Century (531 pages. Hyperion. $27.95), the plucky, deaf little newsboy has already rescued a child from an oncoming train. learned telegraphy, improved Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and is about to invent the phonograph. This leaves Baldwin room to exhibit the fully formed Edison in his many manifestations. He doesn't skimp on the mediagenic Wizard of Menlo Park, beloved for catnaps and cracker-barrel philosophizing about how genius was I percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. But he also shows the entrepreneur evolving "from shop-culture artisan to corporate manufacturer," the absentee family man-who made ne'er-do-well son Tom Jr. change his name-and the quixotic chaser of failed dreams. The inventor of the tric light and the motion picture wasted years on abortive mining schemes and only tried by "dynamism of will power (conducted via rubber tubes extending from his forehead) to move a pendulum."
These days we're apt to find Edison's lapses more fascinating than his triumphs. He clung to direct current and the phonograph cylinder (resisting AC and discs) and believed the future of films lav in peep shows-. radio was a "fad." But we read about these lapses by his own electric light; his influence on our world is so pervasive we take it for granted. Baldwin presents Edison's practical successes and failures as byproducts of a life spent in compulsive creative thought: "Beyond the one thousand patents," he writes. "we continue to discover ideas and more ideas as inventions in their own right." To Edison, the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which suggested the motion picture (images recorded). Simple-in retrospect. Edison may have overestimated the perspiration he added to the inspiration he was given-out of humility, pride or both?--but he never denied he was a genius. Baldwin has demythologized the man and left the genius bigger than life.