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Author: Michael Tager
Title: Charles Bazerman's The Language of Edison's Light
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2001

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Source: Charles Bazerman's The Language of Edison's Light
Michael Tager

vol. 4, no. 2, August 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Charles Bazerman's The Language of Edison's Light

Michael Tager

The Language of Edison's Light

  • Charles Bazerman, The Language of Edison's Light, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999.

Charles Bazerman in The Languages of Edison's Light takes a fresh look at a familiar story: how Thomas Edison developed the technology of incandescent lighting and successfully introduced it into American culture. Instead of focusing on the science or economics of electric light, Bazerman examines the symbols and discourses associated with it. He shows how Edison and his colleagues "represented light and power to themselves and to others" to give the new technology "meaning and value and incorporat[e] it into our existing systems of cultural meanings" (1-2). Bazerman does cite evidence suggesting the powerful inherent appeal of Edison's invention. For example a company pamphlet instructed Edison's local agents canvassing towns of under 20,000 people to build a power station and then light three or four prominent places, after which they should "stop soliciting orders for light, but run along quietly and wait. The customers will gradually come in and ask to be connected…" (275). But to get to that point, Bazerman demonstrates how much persuading and selling Edison had to do of investors, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, scientific and technical authorities, and the public, to win acceptance for electric light. His book reminds us that no technology spontaneously appears and spreads solely because of its merits.

Bazerman claims that "communication… is heterogeneous" (334) and he considers a wide variety of communicative "texts": newspaper stories, patent applications, Menlo Park lab notebooks, Edison's letters, telegrams, and technical publications, company forms, Menlo Park and world fair exhibitions, the Pearl Street station, the shape of early lighting fixtures, etc. Abundant illustrations of these texts throughout the book allow the reader to directly appreciate the many realms that Edison inhabited. The catholicity of Bazerman's approach is a source of both strength and weakness. It enables him to illuminate lesser known parts of the story, such as Edison's manipulation of news coverage, which was crucial to keeping his early investors happy before he had solved the technological problems involved and gained patent protection from his competitors. It might surprise readers raised on the mythic "Wizard of Menlo Park" to learn that Edison occasionally gave journalists reporting on his inventions stock options in his company and resorted to telling them outright lies. One 1878 newspaper article reproduced in the book brings to mind a comparison of Edison to Jesus Christ performing technological miracles for his followers, surely not a harmful image to have disseminated among uncertain customers or nervous investors. Fascinating too is Bazerman's analysis of how ornate, floral patterns of the earliest incandescent light fixtures adapted prevailing ideas of class and gender in Victorian America to make electric light more attractive to the target market. But the heterogeneity of Bazeman's texts also weakens the book by at times making it disjointed, and because the communications perspective works better in some cases than others. For example for this reviewer treating patent applications as "speech-acts" (98) designed to persuade a key audience did not produce obviously greater insight about Edison's project than a more conventional legal or business perspective would have done. Bazeman implies almost anything can be considered a discursive text to be read, including Edison's dealings with Tammany Hall politicians to get his first power station on Pearl Street constructed and generating power to light selected nearby buildings. Like a carpenter who only has a hammer and so treats everything like a nail, he sometimes applies his communications perspective to phenomena that seem better suited to other kinds of analysis.

Because the book's individual chapters are extensively researched, creatively pose important questions, and generally yield interesting results, the concluding chapter is somewhat disappointing. There Bazerman locates his study within modern communications theory, and the academic jargon that in previous chapters he had harnessed to his substantive investigations becomes more pronounced and gives the conclusion the tone of a Ph.D. written exam. This non-specialist reader would have preferred more reflection on his provocative final claim that Edison's technology of electric light was simultaneously revolutionary and conservative, or that for all its newness and disruptive potential, it succeeded due to the assimilation of old discourses and systems of meaning. Here one can't help but think of current technologies like the personal computer and the internet and wonder whether Bazerman's claim would apply with equal force. Would the way the internet rapidly became a mall for click-and-buy shoppers using credit cards, with sex and pornography among the most profitable commodities, exemplify the success of a new technology due to its fit with pre-existing cultural values? Reading Bazerman's book should make us treat claims about the wholly revolutionary nature of the internet more cautiously, and begin to take notice of all the diverse forms of persuasion that have accompanied the personal computer to convince us of its necessity.

Michael Tager
Marietta College