Category Archives: American History

Thomas Edison: Measuring the days of an extraordinary life

Guest post by Louis Carlat

“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day,” said American essayist Alexander Woollcott. Anything might happen. But of course, some days turn out to be more important than others. With the publication of its eighth volume, the Thomas Edison papers project has gone through the record of nearly 15,000 of the famous inventor’s days on Earth, some 50,000 documents. Having covered close to half the man’s life, we’ve published 3,127 of those records and crossed the halfway point in the planned series of volumes of his papers. What have we learned?

Edison 8 frontispiece

Plaster bust of Thomas Edison, made in Italy by American-born sculptor Longworth Powers in 1886.  Edison was born on February 11, 1847.

Anyone who’s followed the paper trail—letters, photos, clippings—of a parent or grandparent has mused on the connections between the stuff in hand and the breathing life that created it all. In the case of Edison, the amount of stuff accumulated over his eighty-four years is enormous. His life was exceptional not only for its ambitions and accomplishments but also for the detail in which he (and others) recorded it. There are shelves full of letters, telegrams, and notebooks, of course, but also grocery lists, receipts, contracts, architectural drawings, and the odd party invitation; in short, nearly anything you can imagine putting on paper. We’ve seen the drafts written in blinding haste, furious crossouts, meandering doodles, snatches of Shakespearean verse, and the phonetic spelling of a highly literate man who sometimes wrote the words as he heard them pulsing through his head.

The documents open a window onto American life. As unusual and privileged as Edison’s life was, they reveal him not simply as a lionized (or reviled) inventor but as a man fitting as best he could into the world of his day. He was a node in the networks of countless less famous people whose paths he crossed, whose lives we can glimpse through his. There are the skilled immigrant craftsmen in his shops, the Irish servant girls in his home, the doctors who delivered his children and tended his first wife, the undertaker who buried her, and the florist who delivered flowers to her grave (until he remarried). Not to mention hundreds of aspiring inventors, advice-seekers, and would-be hangers-on wanting to ride Edison’s coattails. All named and described, as best we can, through painstaking research.

Not the isolated genius of storybooks, Edison had an ecology of relationships that defined his work and life. Long before anyone used the term emotional intelligence, he had the ability to form strong connections with men who could help him as assistants, colleagues, or mentors. A beguiling storyteller, he had warmth and something we would now call charisma—a quality that drew men to him with intense loyalty. He also had persistence and an infectious confidence that, by mid-life, were souring into obstinance and arrogance that drove some of them away. His legendary devotion to work came with a disregard for his family’s emotional needs that seems reckless, even by the standards of his day.

No one better embodied the American enthusiasm for inventiveness and entrepreneurship than Edison. The iconic incandescent light bulb is still a staple of children’s books and social studies curricula, even as that hot globe of glass becomes a museum piece. The phonograph was the first device for recording and playing back sound. Coming like the proverbial bolt from the blue, it launched Edison into worldwide fame as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” It promised a form of immortality to anyone able to impress his or her voice onto a small cylinder for the ages. The phonograph drew to his laboratory flocks of reporters whom Edison would welcome back to write up for insatiable readers his latest work in electric lighting or whatever he happened to be doing. Edison designed the things but depended on wide networks to elevate them to the status of “inventions.” He had model makers, draftsmen, and lawyers to get them through the Patent Office; financiers, agents, friendly reporters, more lawyers, and at least one notorious political fixer to bring them to buyers. He personified America beyond its shores, as he cultivated close business ties in Great Britain and continental Europe, especially, but also Asia and through the Americas.

The act of inventing is a close cousin to other forms of intellectual or artistic creativity, and it was a stream of ideas, more than anything else, that defined Edison’s restless days and filled his pages. He thought with his fingers in the act of drawing and writing. He had “innumerable machines in my mind,” as he put it, and he poured them onto paper. Browsing his notebooks now, a reader can imagine the mechanisms in motion, clattering in the head of the increasingly deaf inventor. Sometimes the stream became a torrent: dozens of ways to attain the same motion or effect, and long lists of materials to experiment with. There were lists even on the honeymoon with his second wife: experiments and things to make, from the practical (lamp filaments) to the fanciful (a “Larynaxial piano”). His mind was fecund, in the ornate language of his day; in the more clinical view of our time, he can seem manic.

As editors, we get to see it all with sometimes spine-tingling intimacy. But despite the sheer volume of information and our best research efforts, we have questions. Like where did all those ideas come from? Sometimes we can name a source, like the conversation that sparked Edison’s interest in electric lighting. Or a passage in Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches, which he re-read repeatedly. Oftentimes it’s not clear. Edison read widely and took dozens of technical and scientific journals. He had networks of business and scientific contacts, men (always men) willing to share information; one rival claimed that the Patent Office had “leaks” that flowed in his direction.

Even 50,000 documents can’t capture 15,000 days full of life. Sometimes we don’t even know what city Edison was in, much less what an assistant or rival might have told him, or the tone he used with his wife. In Edison’s days, as in our own, we expect the unexpected. No day is unimportant, and anything can happen.

edisonpapers#8Louis Carlat is an associate editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University.  Along with Paul B. Israel, director and general editor; Theresa M. Collins, associate editor; Alexandra R. Rimer and Daniel J. Weeks, assistant editors; he is part of the editorial team that recently completed volume 8 of The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: New Beginnings, January 1885–December 1887.

 

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Filed under American History, American Studies, Biography, History of technology

Podcast with Paul R. Josephson

josephson
New Books in Science, Technology, and Society featured Fish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans: The Politics of Everyday Technologies in an article and podcast interview with author Paul R. Josephson.  Read the article and listen to the podcast here.

Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount when you order your copy.

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Filed under American History, Business History, Cultural Studies, History of technology, Popular Culture

Spring books preview: Maryland Historical Society

We’re excited about the books we’ll be publishing this spring—and we’re pleased to start off the new year with a series of posts that highlight our forthcoming titles. Be sure to check out the online edition of JHUP’s entire Spring 2016 catalog, and remember that promo code “HDPD” gets you a 30% discount on all pre-publication orders. Today we feature spring books from the Maryland Historical Society; click on the title to read more about the book or to place an order:


brownThe Road to Jim Crow
The African American Struggle on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, 1860–1915
C. Christopher Brown


digginsStealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line
Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland
Milt Diggins


deutschA Woman of Two Worlds
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte
Alexandra Deutsch


Use discount code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount on pre-publication orders for JHUP’s spring 2016 titles.
To order, click on the book titles above or call 800-537-5487.

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Filed under African American Studies, American History, Cultural Studies, Publishing News, Regional-Chesapeake Bay, Women's History

Spring books preview: history & culture

Seasonal catalog cover spring 2016We’re excited about the books we’ll be publishing this spring—and we’re pleased to start off the new year with a series of posts that highlight our forthcoming titles. Be sure to check out the online edition of JHUP’s entire Spring 2016 catalog, and remember that promo code “HDPD” gets you a 30% discount on all pre-publication orders. Today we feature spring books on history and culture; click on the title to read more about the book or to place an order:


oconnellThe Mediterranean World
From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Napoleon
Monique O’Connell and Eric R Dursteler


gloverThe Fate of the Revolution
Virginians Debate the Constitution
Lorri Glover


halperinThe Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
Testing the Constitution
Terri Diane Halperin


schmellerInvisible Sovereign
Imagining Public Opinion from the Revolution to Reconstruction
Mark G. Schmeller


follettPlantation Kingdom
The American South and Its Global Commodities
Richard Follett, Sven Beckert, Peter Coclanis, and Barbara Hahn


George_C._Marshall,_U.S._Secretary_of_StateThe Papers of George Catlett Marshall
Volume 7: “The Man of the Age,” October 1, 1949–October 16, 1959
George Catlett Marshall
edited by Mark A. Stoler and Daniel D. Holt


armyEngineering Victory
How Technology Won the Civil War
Thomas F. Army, Jr.


misaFastLane
Managing Science in the Internet World
Thomas J. Misa and Jeffrey R. Yost


lucskoComps.inddJunkyards, Gearheads, and Rust
Salvaging the Automotive Past
David N. Lucsko


luttwakThe Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire
From the First Century CE to the Third
revised and updated edition
Edward N. Luttwak


cayleffNature’s Path
A History of Naturopathic Healing in America
Susan E. Cayleff


ackerknechtA Short History of Medicine
revised and expanded edition
Erwin H. Ackerknecht
foreword and concluding essay by Charles E. Rosenberg
bibliographic essay by Lisa Haushofer


robertsFrom Music to Mathematics
Exploring the Connections
Gareth E. Roberts


Use discount code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount on pre-publication orders for JHUP’s spring 2016 titles.
To order, click on the book titles above or call 800-537-5487.

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Filed under American History, American Studies, History, History of Medicine, History of technology, Publishing News

Browse our new History catalog!

History catalog cover 2016


Our 2016 History catalog is in the mail
and we cordially invite you to browse the online edition here.

Use code “HZNA” to receive a 30% discount when you order!

Visit the JHUP exhibit at the American Historical Association
annual meeting in Atlanta from January 7–10, 2016.

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Filed under American History, American Studies, Conferences, Higher Education, History, History of Medicine, History of science, History of technology

Is it “propaganda” if it advocates for something you want?

Guest post by Jonathan Auerbach

auerbachBecause I recently coedited a collection of essays on the subject of propaganda, I sometimes get approached by journalists asking me to weigh in on current events. How effective is Putin’s “propaganda” against the West in promoting the separatist movement in Ukraine? How best to counteract gruesome ISIS videos, aimed to entice recruits to jihad, but often described in shorthand as “propaganda”? And lately my inbox has been bombarded with emails urging me to “keep the pressure on” by fighting against the vile “propaganda” of warmongers in Congress who would reject the international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

In all of these cases, “propaganda” is assumed to be a self-evident concept, inherently false and sinister, against which urgent countermeasures and messages (but certainly nothing we would want to call propaganda!) need to be taken. If we step back a minute and try to put this matter in historical perspective, certain insights come into focus.

A century ago, right at the start of World War I, the term was frequently use to refer to any sort of mass advocacy, such as “propaganda” for suffrage or “propaganda” for conservation. In these instances, propaganda in both meaning and practice simply referred to efforts designed to sway public opinions and feelings on a large scale. During and immediately following the war, the meaning and practice of such mass persuasion took on an increasingly negative cast, leading Progressive political commentator Walter Lippmann in 1919 to ominously announce a crisis in democracy triggered by this unregulated “manufacture of consent.”

But what’s the difference between coercion and persuasion, especially in a democracy that relies on a vibrant public sphere and the free flow of information to debate and contest policies and ideas? Who is in charge of such information dissemination? What’s the difference between educating citizens, directing them, and indoctrinating them? How to distinguish among teaching, preaching, and selling, especially when your nation is at war and seeks to boost patriotic morale? Left to their own devices, how can citizens be trusted to sort through such an overwhelming avalanche of factoids and truthiness (as Stephen Colbert put it) to arrive at some rational conclusions about the world we live in? These are the key questions Progressive intellectuals, reformers, and politicians such as Lippmann, John Dewey, Julia Lathrop, and Woodrow Wilson grappled with a century ago, not to mention public relations gurus like Edward Bernays who were intent on engineering and managing the tastes and spending habits of citizen-consumers.

Clearly, these troubling questions remain very much with us today. My new Johns Hopkins University book, Weapons of Democracy: Propaganda, Progressivism, and American Public Opinion, seeks to shed light on our current state of affairs by tracing the changing face and fate of American public opinion in the early decades of the twentieth century as they unfolded before, during, and soon after World War I. By closely looking at Progressive era propaganda in thought and practice, including the inevitable entanglements between social reform and social control that emerged during this period, we put ourselves in a better position to understand how the United States continues to deploy its current weapons of democracy at home and around the globe.

Jonathan Auerbach is a professor of English at the University of Maryland–College Park. He is the author of Weapons of Democracy: Propaganda, Progressivism, and American Public Opinion and the coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies.

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Filed under American History, American Studies, Politics, Popular Culture, Washington

Rebecca Seib and Mott Greene speak at the Johns Hopkins Club, November 3 & 4

Next week, JHU Press will host two special programs in our lunch and lecture series at the Johns Hopkins Club on the university’s Homewood campus. Descriptions are below, along with links to more information about the books and authors. Reservations are required, and the cost is $20 per person for each lunch and talk. Books will be for sale before and after the programs, and the authors will be signing copies. Hopkins Club members may contact the Club to make a reservation; non-members may arrange to attend by contacting Jack Holmes at JHU Press at 410-516-6928 or jmh@press.jhu.edu.


seibMDHSNovember 3 / 12:30 p.m.
Lunch & Lecture: “Indians of Southern Maryland
with MdHS author Rebecca Seib

An important new book from the Maryland Historical Society Press tells the story of Southern Maryland’s Native people from the end of the Ice Age to the present. Rebecca Seib, a cultural anthropologist and one of the book’s authors, joins us to explore this remarkable history of human and environmental change, adaptation and survival, and the surprising truths beyond the stereotypes.

Read more about the book here. Rebecca’s coauthor, Helen Rountree, discussed the book on WYPR earlier this year.

Rebecca Seib is an applied anthropologist and has worked with Indian people throughout the United States for over 30 years. She has assisted Indian communities in rebuilding their economies in a culturally appropriate manner.


greeneNovember 4 / 12:30 p.m.
Lunch & Lecture: “Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift
with JHU Press author Mott Greene

Written with great immediacy and descriptive skill, Mott Greene’s new biography of Alfred Wegener is a powerful portrait of the scientist who discovered continental drift and pioneered the modern notion of unified Earth science. Wegener deserves to be much better known, and Prof. Greene (a MacArthur fellow and award-winning historian of science) joins us to tell a fascinating story of a wonderfully adventurous life and the ongoing impact of one of the great minds of modern science.

Read more about the book and watch a video with Mott here. Read an amazing review of the book in the journal Nature.

Mott T. Greene is an affiliate professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington and John Magee Professor of Science and Values emeritus at the University of Puget Sound. He is the author of Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing View of a Changing World and Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity.

 

 

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Filed under American History, Biography, Book talks, Cultural Studies, History of science, Regional-Chesapeake Bay