American Experience
American Experience

Tonight on American Experience: Edison

American Experience
American Experience

Airing tonight (January 27, 2015) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Edison, a documentary following Thomas Edison's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. Here's a 30-second preview:

Edison: Inventor

In American Experience's new documentary Edison, we see a two-hour exploration of Thomas Edison's life of invention, rivalry, success, and tragedy.

Although presumably everyone reading this has heard of Edison, it may not be clear what exactly he did (aside from something to do with lightbulbs), or when, or how much it mattered. This documentary examines the strengths and weaknesses of this self-taught inventor whose strong intellect was paired with intense stubbornness, a combination that often resulted in great work, but sometimes disaster.

When we think "Edison," most of us think "lightbulb." It's true that Edison made the first commercially viable lightbulb, though he didn't invent the lightbulb; he perfected it. A patent was granted for the incandescent lightbulb six years before Edison was born (as the documentary explains). The problem was that the bulbs burned out rapidly, or used too much current, or were too expensive to be practical. Giant electric arc lights were used to light some public spaces prior to Edison's lightbulbs, but using arc lights in the home was basically impossible (unless you lived in a stadium).

Edison's major contributions here included finding a viable way to make the bulbs last, plus installing the infrastructure (power plants and transmission lines) to provide home electricity in an era when that kind of utility simply didn't exist. The lightbulb was about bringing light into homes, to move people from light sources that burned fuel (read: open flames in your house) to those that were contained within glass bulbs.

Edison speaking into a cylinder phonograph, West Orange, New Jersey, 1888. Photo Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historic Site.

More interesting, though, is everything else Edison was involved with. For instance, he invented the phonograph before his famous lightbulb work (though he didn't perfect it until much later). He also invented the stock ticker (based on his experience in telegraphy) before his work on the lightbulb. He worked on early motion pictures, including sound-sync movies. He invented the carbon microphone used in Bell telephone handsets for roughly a hundred years (!). His full list of patents exceeds 1,000 entries. The man did a lot of work.

In the first half hour or so of Edison, we learn how Edison was raised in Michigan and got his first job running a telegraph at age 15. Here's the first 9 minutes of the documentary to give you a taste:

Edison: Stubborn Rival

Some nerds (especially Tesla fans) are aware of the War of Currents, in which Edison declared that Direct Current (DC) power was superior to Alternating Current (AC). Edison lost the war, though it was hard-fought. He did some awful things in an attempt to demonstrate why the DC system was better; most ghastly among them was electrocuting animals using AC current. He also advocated using AC electricity for the electric chair, despite having disavowed the death penalty previously—the idea being that he wanted to associate AC power with death, apparently at any cost. Edison was extremely competitive, and would kill (animals) to win.

Ultimately, after the market settled on AC current, Edison conceded defeat and a business merger created General Electric. In a pattern that repeated throughout his life, Edison's inventions were made practical in large part by business and infrastructure; it was not enough to simply make a lightbulb—he had to make business deals to generate electricity, run wiring, bill people for using it, and deal with all the problems inherent in installing and maintaining brand-new infrastructure. While it took him years longer than he had hoped, he was eventually successful in illuminating one square mile of Manhattan, an achievement that truly changed city life.

Edison also failed spectacularly at times. The documentary details his incredible experiments with mechanized mining that ultimately crashed and burned. He also missed the boat on projecting motion pictures for quite a while, until he could no longer ignore progress made by other inventors. In general, a strong theme of Edison's life is competition with other inventors, and a desire to get to an invention first.

Here's an exclusive clip from before the Manhattan light project occurred; it describes the electric lighting Edison installed in his laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, and a special night when he invited the press to experience his lights in the dark. Cast your mind back to the late nineteenth century and enjoy this:

Edison: Celebrity

As Edison settled into old age, he was a major celebrity, and he hung out with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs. They named their little club The Vagabonds, traveling and camping together in grand style, and the press began to follow along, reporting on a bunch of dudes camping.

Henry Ford, Edison, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone at Yama Farms Inn (undated). Photo Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historic Site.

Edison also protected his personal brand (long before that concept was commonplace), and paid his son Thomas Edison Jr. $25/week to change his name for business reasons (so no product could be endorsed by a "Thomas Edison" except the elder). This is just one example of Edison's complex relationship with his family.

Portrait of Thomas Alva Edison, circa 1922. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress.

When Edison died, President Hoover asked radio listeners to turn off their lights at a coordinated moment, to remember what life was like before Edison brought practical electric light to the masses.

It's hard to imagine these days what life would be like without electric light, sound recordings, motion pictures, and the many other things Edison brought to the market. Everyone reading this was born long after these inventions became commonplace. This documentary gives us two solid hours to understand who Edison was, the world that shaped him, and how he shaped the world. He was not without flaws, and the documentary shows that. But he did invent many tremendous things.

Where to Watch

The documentary airs tonight (January 27, 2015) on PBS stations around the U.S. It's an American Experience documentary, so if you're setting your DVR, search for "American Experience" with the episode title "Edison." Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. Depending on your PBS station, the show may repeat later in the week at odd hours, so if you miss it tonight, you may still be able to catch it (or stream it later).

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Watch: Stanley Kubrick's Boxes
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Getty Images

In 1996, author/documentarian Jon Ronson received a phone call from someone representing Stanley Kubrick, requesting a copy of Ronson's Holocaust documentary. Ronson figured that was a bit weird, but it was Kubrick, so he'd go along with it.

After Kubrick's death in 1999, Ronson gained access to Kubrick's legendary boxes, the more than 1,000 vessels of ephemera hoarded by the master. So, uh, what's in the boxes? Lots of photographs, memos, letters, you name it.

Ronson made a 45-minute documentary about the boxes, including a tour of Kubrick's estate and the various box storage locations. He even interviews the writer of one of the "crank letters" sent to (and kept by) Kubrick. Kubrick had simply written "crank" on it and filed it away.

This is a terrific watch for anyone interested in filmmaking, Kubrick, or—let's face it—storing stuff in boxes. There's even a segment about half an hour in about how Kubrick worked out the optimal size for a box and its lid, then had them custom-made. Enjoy:

If you're not into the whole video thing, check out Ronson's feature for The Guardian on the same subject.

[h/t: Kottke.]

YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
Tuesday on American Experience: Tesla
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS

Airing Tuesday night (October, 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Tesla, a documentary following Nikola Tesla's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. (It will also be on PBS's streaming channels starting October 19.) Here's a 30-second preview:

In American Experience's new hour-long documentary Tesla, we see a portrait of Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor who is now known as "the patron saint of geeks."

As a lifelong geek, I went into this documentary with a sudden realization: I don't actually know much about Tesla as a person. Sure, I've seen Tesla Coils and I've read about all the wireless energy stuff, but who was this guy? Where did he come from? An hour with this PBS special answers those questions and many more. Here's the first seven minutes of the documentary, just to get you started:

The first thing that jumped out at me while watching this film is that I've been pronouncing Nikola Tesla's first name incorrectly. Watch the clip above—it's properly pronounced "nih-COLE-uh," though some of the experts in the film use the more typical American pronunciation stressing the first syllable.

Aside from learning the man's name, I was surprised to learn that his first invention was a hook designed to catch frogs (and an invention soon after was a "motor" powered by June bugs). But his first breakthrough invention was of course the AC (Alternating Current) motor, and much of the AC-related infrastructure to go with it.

The documentary paints Tesla as a man of great talent and vision, but with fundamentally flawed business sense. Time after time, he makes bad business deals or wastes money, then finds his technical progress stymied by lack of funding. Perhaps as a consequence of this frustration, he goes off the rails mentally from time to time, as in his later years claiming to have received communications from Mars, or falling in love with a pigeon. It also seems clear that he suffered from psychiatric disorders that today could probably be treated, but in the 1800s and early 1900s forced him to engage in repetitive behavior and avoid much human contact.

In any case, Tesla is a fantastic exploration of the human story behind the legend. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. (Okay, one more complaint: I would've loved to learn why he often posed for pictures with his right hand to his face.)


Tesla premieres Tuesday night (October 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S. It will then begin streaming on October 19 on the PBS streaming apps.


You should really watch Edison online (for free, legally!) for a counterpoint. Edison and Tesla were contemporaries, and Tesla actually worked for Edison early on, both in Paris and the U.S. These two films together give us a view of the importance of an inventor's vision paired with his ability to run a business. The two men are fundamentally different both in their approach to invention and business, and it's worthwhile to compare and contrast. (Incidentally, Open Culture has a roundup of the 23 American Experience documentaries you can currently stream online—that's one way to fill up your lunch breaks for the next month!)


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