Thomas Edison came of age just as the American industrial order was burgeoning, and his lifetime coincides with the heyday of American big business. The latter half of the nineteenth century, when Edison was doing his greatest work, was a time of incredible innovation on behalf of inventors–nearly one million patents were registered with the United States Patent Office from 1870–1910. But perhaps the invention with the greatest effect on the American economic order was the invention of the modern corporation.
It is impossible to consider the life of a man like Edison without placing him in the context of the economic order that was dominant at the time. It is important to think about how America's chief business concerns of the time–the dominance of the corporation, the "robber barons," and questions of how unchecked capitalism were affecting labor and the poor–affected innovation. In this world, inventions were useless if they did not make money, and Edison planned accordingly. He never invented a product if he did not believe there was a market for it.
This was the era of the telegraph and the railroad, of John D. Rockefeller's oil empire and Andrew Carnegie's steel industry. Transportation and communications made great leaps and bounds during this period. The transatlantic telegraph and the Suez Canal made the world much smaller than it had been in the past. And the rise of colonialism in Asia and Africa made it possible for Europe and America to fund all these costly ventures.
As production and manufacturing became more important in America, cities began to form a crucial role in American social and economic life. Frederick Jackson Turner's famed 1893 work, "The Frontier Thesis," was nostalgia for a past world: all of the new industries were concentrated in urban centers. And where the industries were, the inventors were as well: finding fertile ground to test new ideas and raw materials with which to manifest them.
While business was booming, the American political system had not quite caught up. The country was still run, in large measure, by smaller, less centralized state and local governments. Toward the end of the century, this began to change as it became clear that a new industrial order would require changes in the political system as well. Federal laws such as the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) made it clear that while capitalism might foster tremendous growth, it would not go unchecked. The agitation of labor unions, as evidenced in events such as the Haymarket Riot of 1886, also made it clear that American capitalism would be subject to limits. In the beginning of the twentieth century, new laws about child labor and the ten-hour workday (later the eight-hour workday) placed limits on the sprawling wealth of future Rockefellers and Carnegies.
Under these circumstances, it was possible for inventors to amass tremendous personal fortunes (as Edison, and others including George Westinghouse and Henry Ford, did) while producing inventions. Because of this opportunity, many of them invented only for the marketplace. Did this stifle some of the creativity, as former Edison employees complained? Perhaps. But it also made it possible for businesses, and consumers, to enjoy a range of products and services that revolutionized work and leisure.
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