When Myth Obscures Understanding

ROBERT ROSENBERG

February 11, 1992|By ROBERT ROSENBERG

New Brunswick, New Jersey. -- Today is National Inventors' Day. Falling as it does in the middle of Black History Month, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the intersection of two themes, one that has dominated the second American century -- technological creativity -- and one that has recently dominated public and private intellectual discourse -- the way we write our history.

For more than a decade the historians responsible for organizing and publishing the papers of Thomas Edison have been fighting the historical canards surrounding inventors in general and those surrounding Edison in particular. Every year around his birthday (which by no coincidence is today), news media repeat the spurious tales told in too many histories: As a child, he was thrown out of school, was dyslexic and was considered addled; as an adult, he was the ultimate heroic inventor, the lone genius who invented the first stock ticker, the first electric light and the first motion pictures.

If the word ''genius'' means anything, then Edison was indeed a genius at inventing. But he was not first in any of those cases, nor did he work alone from the time he hung out his shingle as a professional inventor. Why cultures deify individuals as heroes is a question of sociologists and folklorists. But real invention is very rarely a solitary activity, and one of the principal goals of the Edison Papers project is to illuminate the community of technologists, entrepreneurs, scientists, workers, financiers and information involved in Edison's creative work.

In the last decades American history has broadened until now a politically charged debate rages over the protean term ''multiculturalism.'' In at least one case, multiculturalism means that you don't have to be Caucasian to have your life remade. An African-American inventor, Lewis Latimer, is being subjected to do the same sort of mythmaking as Edison.

Latimer was born in Massachusetts in 1848. He left public school at 10 to work various jobs, enlisted in the Union Navy for the last year of the Civil War, and then returned to Boston, where he entered the employ of a firm of patent attorneys.

Latimer was clearly a man of many talents. Within a few years he was creating patent drawings for the firm; he was eventually appointed head of the drafting department. In 1873 he received his first patent, for ''Water Closets for Railroad Cars'' (practical if not glamorous). In 1876 he drew the diagrams that accompanied Alexander Graham Bell's seminal telephone patent.

Latimer left his job at the patent firm after 11 years, and soon was working for Hiram Maxim. Maxim competed with Edison in the early years of incandescent lighting, and Latimer played an important role. In the early 1880s Latimer patented two valuable improvements in Maxim's lamps (like Edison, Latimer did not work alone; one of the patents was jointly issued). He must have been a remarkable administrator as well, for Maxim -- who was no racial progressive -- had him establish several manufacturing operations in the United States, Canada and England.

Latimer went to work in the mid-1880s at the Edison Electric Light Co. in New York as an engineer, draftsman and legal expert. Later in life he became a patent attorney himself, wrote a book on electric lighting and taught in the New York public schools. A co-worker fondly recalled Latimer as ''very literary and cultured,'' a man who in his retirement studied Latin and Greek and wrote poetry.

Latimer had, in short, a remarkable life. Unfortunately, in recent celebratory accounts his real attainments as an African-American Victorian America are rarely mentioned. Instead he becomes a victim. He is credited with two inventions he never claimed -- the carbon filament and the screw-in lamp socket -- supposedly produced by him in Edison's laboratory (where he never worked) and appropriated by Edison. He becomes a cartoon figure whose work is stolen by another cartoon figure. The Brilliant Worker and the Jealous Boss. Like Edison's fictional dyslexia, it is the kind of history that does nobody any good.

History gets condensed. That is an occupational hazard. But it shouldn't start as convenient, bogus archetypes. Just as the aggrandizing tales surrounding Edison obscure his real accomplishments and hinder our understanding of his (and our) times, so the distortions of Latimer's work diminish the true significance of his life and achievements. That significance is always a matter of interpretation, but interpretation must begin with accurate scholarship. History -- black, white, American -- can illuminate our common heritage, but only if we give it an honest chance.

Robert Rosenberg is an editor of the papers of Thomas A. Edison, based at Rutgers University.

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