Monday, March 12, 2007

Another childhood hero bites the dust

As a kid, I loved biographies and, though I don't remember why exactly, one of my favorite subjects was Thomas Alva Edison. Maybe it was that Edison was a real-life version of the quintessential Horatio Alger character, you know, the poor kid whose creativity and hard work leads to larger-than-life entrepreneurial success. Maybe it was the Jersey connection or that he was a lowly paper boy, too.

Of course, I've become disillusioned with many of my heroes from those days. (It turns out that biographies written for children forty-odd years ago were not always entirely forthcoming about character flaws.) I figured that Edison had plenty of flaws -- after all, this is the guy who enjoyed hanging out down in Fort Myers during the winter months with Henry Ford, a brilliant entrepreneur with plenty of loose screws. But, I had managed to maintain my lopsided image of Edison...until now.

On Sunday, The New York Times ran an article adapted from Randall Stross's new bio of Thomas Edison, The Wizard of Menlo Park, which manages to suggest in a few short pages that Edison's reputation as an inventor is overblown, he was a less-than-savvy CEO with an outsized talent for self-aggrandizement, and his work/life balance was seriously skewed. (Stross, by the way, is a professor in the Organization & Management Department at San Jose State, a historian, and a NYT columnist. He's also written several good books about instrumental players in today's high-tech arena.) I've added the new bio to my tower o' reading, but it already seems clear that another childhood hero is going to bite the dust.

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