Thomas Edison. On 25 March 1878, in an unsigned editorial, The New York Times dragged a public figure through the mud They wrote about this person ‘Something ought to be done about this person’ and ‘there is a growing conviction that it had better be done with a hemp rope’. They alleged that it was a public figure ‘of the most deleterious character hell-bent on the destruction of human society’. But the Times wasn’t skewering a corrupt politician, or even a rival newsmaker. Their target was Thomas Edison, and the provoking incident was his recent invention of the phonograph.
Although he had his fair share of scandals—the War of Currents, the Great Phenol Plot [the patent disputes] — his modern reputation paints him as a man who single-handedly invented the 20th century with an electric-light halo around his head. But a trip back into the archives reveals that he was not always so revered. Although Edison elicited reams of fawning and excited coverage, the publications of his time also occasionally painted the great man and his inventions as creepy and dangerous, or, more often, just plain laughable.
Edison was a big player in the 1878 era of discovery. Throughout the winter of 1877 and the spring of 1878, he traveled the world demonstrating his newest invention, the phonograph. Scientific American describes a typical show: Edison put the machine on a table and turned the crank, and the phonograph proceeded to ‘talk’, introducing itself and exchanging various pleasantries with gaping onlookers. The news media responded swiftly and variously. While plenty of outlets sung the praises of this new techno-talker, others took the opportunity to poke fun.
The New York Times leaned equally on humor and scaremongering.
They switched between over-the-top mockery and genuine fear. “He has been addicted to electricity for many years,” the editorial points out – tongue firmly in cheek – before more seriously alligations that the phonograph, with its ability to record speech, ‘will eventually destroy all confidence between man and man’.
Cartoonists had an especially good time with the phonograph.
On 21 March 1878, the front page of the illustrated newspaper The Daily Graphic featured ten separate sketches of ways phonographic technology might go wrong: greedy thieves might trick elderly millionaires into vocally amending their wills, sketchy neighbors might use opera recordings to lure women out of their homes and wives might frighten their husbands out of sleep by cranking a record that yells ‘Police! Fire!’ over and over again.
Needless to say, this mockery failed to stop Edison, who continued to put out earth-shaking inventions. By the summer of 1878, he had introduced the megaphone, an instrument which, he promised, would vastly expand the scope of what the average human could hear. Although he marketed this as a wholesome device—one that could help the hearing impaired, surveyors, and opera-goers—the press once again latched onto its more scandalous and ridiculous possibilities.
Today smart fridges and private moon journeys are seen as megaphone-esque playthings of the errant rich. One enduring tragedy is clear though: after all these decades, we still don’t have anti-gravitation underclothing.