As the August 21 total solar eclipse approaches, it's inspiring to consider how the study of past astronomical events led to a slew of modern innovations. Among them is Thomas Edison's light bulb, but his big breakthrough had more to do with learning how to handle people than science.
The nation's top astronomers and professors traveled to the American West by railroad to catch the celestial occurrence on July 29, 1878, and to collect data and test new technologies. Congress funded the journey to help America flex its scientific and intellectual muscles, as the young nation vied for a more respected position in the world. The experience profoundly affected Edison in particular, says David Baron, author of the recently published American Eclipse (Liveright). Baron's book follows Edison and others on their journeys to view the 1878 total solar eclipse.
"If it wasn't for the eclipse, Edison would not have made the incandescent light bulb," says Baron.
Edison, who was 31 at the time, had just invented the phonograph, which wowed the scientific community and the public. But Edison, who wasn't formally educated, was driven to continue to prove himself a respected scientist.
As the eclipse of 1878 approached, Edison created the tasimeter, an instrument to measure the sun's heat. Edison would test the tasimeter in Wyoming, but it would be a failure.
Edison joined astronomer Henry Draper's group to observe the solar eclipse in Rawlins, Wyoming. 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.
"It was what he learned about people," says Baron.