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Edison’s Light Bulb: Fact or Fiction?

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In previous “Postcards,” we explored Thomas Edison’s 1878 hunting, fishing and camping trip to Battle Lake, high in the Sierra Madre Mountains, above the present town of Encampment, and facts or fiction surrounding “invention” of the light bulb. This week the debate continues in an article written by a Will Yakowicz. The headline reads: 

A Total Solar Eclipse Inspired Edison’s Light-Bulb Moment (but It Had Nothing to Do with Science)

The story reads, in part:

In the book American Eclipse, author David Baron explores how the total solar eclipse of 1878 helped Edison discover public relations, while past astronomical events led to a slew of modern inventions. Among them is Thomas Edison’s light bulb, but his big breakthrough had more to do with learning how to handle people than science.

“If it wasn’t for the eclipse, Edison would not have made the incandescent light bulb,” says Baron.

The article continues:

Edison joined astronomer Henry Draper’s group to observe the solar eclipse in Rawlins. Edison traveled with a long-time supporter, physicist George Barker and Edwin Marshall Fox, a journalist for The New York Herald.

Baron writes that although Edison’s trip to Wyoming was a “bust” scientifically, it “helped foster the creation” of Edison’s incandescent bulb. In Wyoming, as Edison bunked with Fox, he learned how to master the art of public relations, a skill he would need as he entered the race to create an electric light bulb.

In September 1878, Edison announced that he had an epiphany and his incandescent bulb was weeks away. There was one issue – Edison was lying.

But Edison’s hype paid off. Gas stocks plummeted after his announcement, and he raised $300,000 after incorporating the Edison Electric Light Company. Edison was not close to a finished product and delayed the release for a year.

“People began to wonder if the Wizard was a sham,” Baron writes.

But as his investors and the public started to doubt Edison, he leveraged his relationship with Fox to prevent his investors from withdrawing their support and capital. Edison gave Fox shares in his company in exchange for glowing coverage.

In 1879, Edison finally released his bulb, and Fox broke the news with a flattering headline: “The Great Inventor’s Triumph in Electric Illumination.”

Baron says Edison’s success did not hinge on what he learned about filament technology. It hinged on how he handled, and manipulated, the press and how he used self-confidence to create hype and to get people to believe in him.

Yakowicz contends:

If Edison hadn’t gone West in 1878 to see the eclipse, it is quite likely he would not have been the one to invent the first successful light bulb. In his time in the West, he was with these other academic scientists who were encouraging him to take on the problem of electric lightning. But more than that, when Edison went West, he was mastering his skills at public relations. He had the newspapermen wrapped around his little finger. And that was a key skill that was critical to his success with the light bulb, to be able to keep the press on his side, to get investors excited about what he was working on during those long, hard months when honestly, he didn’t know what he was doing, but he was trying to tell the world that he had solved the problem of electric lighting. I just love Edison as a character. He was such a colorful, folksy genius.

Adding to this account is an item in the program which was used at the 1949 dedication ceremony of a plaque honoring Edison and his role in developing the light bulb. It states, “A newspaper correspondent sent a statement to the New York Herald . . . and it is reported he (Fox) and the Associate Editor came near losing their positions for publishing such ‘rot.’”

A headline in the Aug. 26, 1949 issue of “The Saratoga Sun,” reads, “Edison Monument and Plaque to be Dedicated at Battle Lake Sept. 4,” but we’ll explore that next time.

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