Andre Millard Expert Andre Millard Discusses Edison.
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Andre Millard

Expert Discusses Edison's Ideas and Beliefs

Excerpt 1: You Need Thick Skin and Talent

Only Available in Archive Formats.

Excerpt 2: Complete Devotion to the Job

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Excerpt 3: A King among His People

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Excerpt 4: Competing for the Perfect Sound

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Dr. Andre J. Millard is Director of American Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A historian of American technology, Dr. Millard has participated in the project to edit Edison's papers, and wrote the official history of Edison's West Orange laboratory for the National Park Service. His book Edison and the Business of Innovation (Johns Hopkins Press, 1990) is the first scholarly analysis of the entirety of Edison's career, and the first to make use of the millions of documents in the Edison archive. An expert on the early phonograph, Professor Millard is also the author of America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound (Cambridge University Press, 1995). Dr. Millard has won a long-term research contract with the National Park service to find out more about the life and work of Thomas Edison, and has completed a project involving scholars and engineers to recreate the interior of the great Edison laboratory of 1914.

Thick Skin and Talent

Excerpt 5: Is It Live, or Is It Edison?

Only Available in Archive Formats.

"Coming in [to the West Orange lab] with a degree didn't mean anything to Edison. It wasn't like in the GE lab, where the hierarchy was on scientific education: Edison lab, you proved yourself. It was a workplace, primarily, a workplace that was producing ideas. And so, "mucking inn" was a kind of factory floor. When people think research laboratory, they think guys in white coats, not people smoking cigars and spitting on the floor and telling dirty jokes and having fun. But that was a real workplace for Edison. Edison loved practical jokes. They loved teasing, and of course if you came in with a higher degree, that meant that it would be worse."

Complete Devotion to the Job

"Becoming a mucker might be beyond your physical and mental capabilities. To achieve those goals that he had set for you. I mean, look at the sort of thing that he gave William Kennedy Dixon: the job of turning a phonograph, a tin-foil phonograph that could just barely save and reproduce sound, into a machine that could save sight and sound on the same axis. Dixon had a breakdown trying to do this -- because it could not be done. But Edison said, hey, do it, that's your job.

"You can't help but like him because he's so direct. He'd never make it in business today. There'd be a thousand harassment suits or whatever. But he's just direct. His faults have all been chronicled: that he didn't have a very high opinion of many of the workers, and that he was slow to pay his bills, and stuff like this, but this was the way business was done in the 19th century. So some of those accounts of Edison, yes, they make Edison look a little bad, but when you compare what he was doing with what Andrew Carnegie was doing, it was no worse.

"And if you could do the job, which meant 100% devotionā€¦ You couldn't work at the Edison lab and have a family life, I think. Edison, maybe subconsciously, was a master at motivating people, at encouraging competition and envy between workers -- of choosing people who maybe didn't get on to work together -- he managed to get the most out of these people."

A King Among His People

"The Edison that I know and love is not a nice man. Edison was a very difficult man, and a hard man to work for. But then you've got that egalitarianism with Edison. I mean, here's a guy who ate and slept with the workers, and went through the disappointments that they did, and everything else. And there's something in that that's very appealing to people."

Competing for the Perfect Sound

"Edison always stayed by the cylinder because that was the original format he used when he invented the phonograph. But Berliner comes along and patents the revolving disc. So there's this cylinder vs. disc competition. It was like Beta vs. VHS, but with a lot more differentiation between the products. Beta's just a little smaller than VHS. But there was a real difference between cylinder and disc. For one thing, rather than a three-minute cylinder, you've got two four-minute sides on a disc.

"Also, cylinders have a couple of problems: they're hard to store, whereas discs can be just piled on top of one another; as people began to get libraries of recordings, the difficulties of storing cylinders became more. And they're a little harder to put on the machine -- a disc you just put it on the turntable and then you put the needle at the edge -- cylinders were a little harder to do. If you mess this up, of course, you hurt the recording and you can hear your mistake.

"But Edison had absolutely no interest in handling discs. We're looking at a piece of technology here. Why are the customers bitching and whining and complaining about putting on a cylinder, locking it down and putting a needle on it? Everyone in my lab is a master mechanic/machinist. They can all thread needles with wire -- they can all do this stuff. It's like 'hell, they should just learn how to do it.'

"But of courseā€¦ he's forced to develop a disc. Edison, being the inventor, the originator, had to have the best sound, and the truest reproduction, because he was Edison. Working for Edison would be very difficult; he only wanted the best, and anything short of the best, he'd throw it back at you. The workmanship had to be the best. If an edge hadn't been sanded and buffed, he'd throw the whole thing back. And we think about it now, there's kind of a "good enough" element. But with Edison, there's his pride in what he was doing, and maybe his vanity. Thus the Edison Diamond Disc."

Is It Live, or Is It Edison?

"Now they're playing catch-up in the marketplace; the Edison company have to attack, convince people who've got Victor Victrolas in their house and Red Seal records of Enrico Caruso that here's a better system. So the tone-tests are all built into this tremendous marketing effort that they had to go about to get the public to accept what they portrayed as the top of the line in sound recording. "The tone test was one way of marketing recorded sound products. The issue was, from day one, the fidelity of the recording. That's what you have to promote. So the tone tests were a little bit of showmanship and promotion. They traveled all around the country. They took over an auditorium, they advertised it, then they provided some entertainment, and they filled it up with people. There are photographs of auditoriums with a huge lot of people listening to a specially chosen singer and a diamond disc."

"But what does all this mean? It means that we are now equating machines with humans. The tone tests are an event in the history of recorded sound -- in my book, a footnote, but in the relationship of humans and machines, it's a very important event. I mean, the tests for artificial intelligence that Alan Turing developed: one of them was that you wouldn't know it was a machine that you were communicating with. It's the basic test: am I listening to a fellow human being, or am I listening to a machine that's programmed, that's designed to sound like a human being? And as they needed to sell Edison diamond disc machines, it wasn't going to be a fair test."

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