In the passage quoted below, Bill Bryson is strongly critical of Thomas Edison. It’s been many years since I last read a full biography of Edison, but my impression is that Bryson is not being fair to Edison.
I like Bryson and I like Edison, so I was bothered enough to dig out the online “Notes” that Bryson posted to go with his book. On the passage critical of Edison, he cites p. 83 of Linda Simon’s Dark Light book.
It turns out that Simon is a literature professor whose book is mainly about the early fears that superstitious people had about electricity. Many of her sources are literary. The book is a long way from a focused, balanced biography of Edison.
On page 83, she makes a casual and unjustifiedly snide comment on Morgan, Vanderbilt, and especially Gould, and then criticizes Edison by associating him with them. She also criticizes Edison because others sometimes challenged his patents. (Just because lawsuits were brought against Edison, does not imply his patent claims were unsound—anyone can file a lawsuit who is willing to hire a lawyer.)
The “bribe” is apparently that Edison gave some reporters stock, or “suppers or songfests” who had reported favorably. To judge such claims, we would like more evidence and more context. (Today, many institutions hire former reporters to do public relations work. Universities often provide free meals to those whose favor they seek; even book publishers send out free books in the hope that they will be reviewed favorably. Do we count all of these as “bribes”? Are all “rewards” ipso facto “bribes”?)
My view is that if we are going to strongly malign the character of one who brought us so much good (Edison), we should do so based on stronger evidence than the brief casual opinions of Linda Simon.
On my “to do” list is to read a biography or two on Edison. When I do so, I will comment again on this issue.
(p. 130) By 1877, when he started his quest to make a commercially successful light, Edison was already well on his way to becoming known as ‘the Wizard of Menlo Park’. Edison was not a wholly attractive human being. He didn’t scruple to cheat or lie, and was prepared to steal patents or bribe journalists for favourable coverage. In the words of one of his contemporaries, he had ‘a vacuum where his conscience ought to be’. But he was enterprising and hard-working and a peerless organizer.
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.