I've always thought that Thomas Edison was an asshole. He was a brilliant and prolific inventor, but still, anyone who electrocutes animals, including Topsy the elephant at Coney Island (gruesome film, shot and released by Edison, here), while claiming that alternating current (which he didn't favor) was more dangerous than direct current (which he did favor) is, basically, an asshole (in the end, Tesla and Westinghouse won out with AC anyway--that's what comes out of wall sockets these days, and it's current--AC or DC--that kills). But yesterday, thanks to the New York Section of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), I got to visit the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, NJ, months before it is scheduled to re-open to the public after a six-year renovation. And my view was tempered, at least a little bit.
First, he had the coolest office I've ever seen. His desk sat in the middle of a massive, three story library (no photos were allowed inside, so this is a scan of a postcard):
This literally took my breath away (and it takes a lot to do that!). His office/library contained a film projector, and was steps away from two machine shops, a chemistry lab, and a facility that eventually employed 10,000 people making phonographs.
Also, he invented a creepy talking baby doll in 1877:
There's actually audio here:
This thing bombed in the marketplace so they are exeptionally rare to find today, but basically it had a mechanical phonograph in the back of the doll. Here's a picture of one with no clothes:
More details here.
Edison's shear tenacity and breadth of experience and invention was truly stunning, and the West Orange facility only represents his work after he created a successful electric light bulb. He went on to do amazing work in sound recording, motion pictures, batteries, electrical equipment. OK, so maybe he was just a jerk, not an asshole, after all.