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The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Progress: The Meaning of the Machine
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Progress
Text 1. Memory and Machines
Text 2. Brooklyn Bridge
Text 3. Human Machines
Text 4. Christine Frederick
Text 5. Thomas Eakins
Text 6. Thomas Edison
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Text 7. Wealth and Weightlessness
Text 8. Southern Statis
Text 9. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago

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Reading Guide
Thomas Edison
Edison, 1898
Thomas Edison
- Theodore Dreiser, "A Photographic Talk with Edison," Success, February 1898, excerpts
- Thomas Edison, Observation, 13 Feb. 1921, with photograph of Edison and Charles Steinmetz, n.d. Discussing Art

If Dr. Gross was the hero in the operating theatre, Thomas Alva Edison was the hero in the lab. The public image he cultivated, largely through articles in popular magazines, attributed his inventions less to formal education—he had only three months of schooling—than to native curiosity, ingenuity, and hard work. He was Ragged Dick with a genius for tinkering. Behind the image, however, was a cool, rational scientific entrepreneur. He established the first modern research laboratory, the prototype for full-scale industrial research and development operations. He hired university-trained scientists and set them to work on inventions that possessed commercial potential. From his lab emerged the first successful electric light bulb. To make sure his bulbs got used, he created the first electrical power distribution company. He attributed his invention of the phonograph and his refinement of the telephone to his deafness. He also improved the telegraph and motion picture technology. A fierce competitor, he even created companies to manufacture and market his inventions.

The photograph offered here shows Edison and General Electric's resident genius Charles P. Steinmetz, the Prussian immigrant who invented a way to distribute alternating current, probing machine parts strewn across a table. Comparing it with The Gross Clinic might generate some useful class discussion. The interview from Success magazine illustrates the public image-making machinery at work. Theodore Dreiser—who in novels like Sister Carrie, The Titan, and The Genius explored the nature of success, creativity, and wealth—was an apt choice as an interviewer. Finally, Edison's brief observation from 1921 offers insight into his ideas about progress, history, and truth. 12 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. How is the Edison-Steinmetz photo like The Gross Clinic? How does it differ?
  2. How do chance and deliberate calculation shape Edison's career?
  3. How would Edison define progress?
  4. What image of Edison do the photographs in the Success article convey? Consider such details as posture, setting, and clothes.
  5. What does Edison's image suggest about the nature of science and technological change?
  6. What does the existence of a magazine called "Success" suggest about the age?
  7. What for Edison is history, and what verifies its truthfulness? How is it recoverable?
  8. How is Edison emblematic of his age?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Americans of this period define progress?
  •  What did progress mean to them?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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