Genre-bending bio of Thomas Edison is illuminating

"Edison," Random House, by Edmund Morris (AP) — The late Edmund Morris, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer known for his willingness to brush aside the norms of his genre if it suited his narrative ends, does it again in his final book: a fresh look at Thomas Alva Edison, perhaps America's most prolific and consequential inventor.

Morris, who died in May at age 78, opens "Edison" conventionally enough with a prologue highlighting the inventor's world-changing accomplishments. Starting in his teens as a precocious telegraph operator, the man known as "the Wizard of Menlo Park" invented and patented nearly 1,100 machines, systems and electrical devices until his death in 1931 at the age of 84. Beginning with lower Manhattan in 1882, Edison lit up entire cities using long-burning incandescent lightbulbs and electrical dynamos. He invented the phonograph and a host of other sound devices that brought recorded voices and music into living rooms and cinemas. Besides those signature accomplishments, Edison was responsible for, among many other things, the first universal stock ticker, movie camera, alkaline reversible battery, the first industrial research and development laboratory (at Menlo Park, New Jersey), even the world's biggest rock crusher, invented while spending years on one of his least successful ventures trying to mine iron ore from a western New Jersey mountain.

He did all this on a lifelong diet consisting mainly of plain milk and a brutal work regimen of 18 hours a day, often at the expense of his personal life with his two wives and six children. Nearly deaf since age 12, Edison found a blessing in the silence as a way to shut out distractions. And while he relished and promoted his worldwide fame, he never cared for labels like "genius" or "wizard."

"I never had an idea in my life," he once told a reporter. "I've got no imagination. ... My so-called inventions already existed in the environment — I took them out. ... The industrious one coaxes it from the environment; the drone lets it lie there while he goes off to the baseball game. The 'genius' hangs around his laboratory day and night."