The Life & Games of Thomas Edison

Every public figure is more than just a person – they’re that person’s public image as well, and this image is often far larger than the person themselves. A prime example is Thomas Edison. Of course, he made a few major inventions (and an immense number of minor ones). But Edison is not just an inventor – he is the symbol of technological and scientific progress, and his fame extends even into fantastical realms. As such, his life is also immortalized by a number of board games.

The Inventor

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847. He received little formal schooling (but was taught by his mother, a schoolteacher), so his life was dominated by tinkering and hustling from an early age on. The ample juvenile literature on Edison is full of anecdotes from this time – from Edison setting his father’s barn on fire out of sheer curiosity to Edison selling newspapers with great profit when they reported about the just-resolved Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War: Young Edison, a shrewd marketer, had the news of his coming by train with the papers telegraphed to all the stations ahead.

After several years of roaming the country as a telegraph operator, he arrived in New York City in 1869. There, he made his first commercially viable invention – a stock ticker. The profit allowed him to set up a business in New Jersey (first in Newark, then in Menlo Park, later to be moved to West Orange) which would become the world’s first research lab organized by modern principles: Edison invented the business of inventing. He and his employees conducted extensive empirical experiments in their search for commercially viable inventions, which were then patented (with over a thousand patents to his name, Edison topped the list of most prolific inventors up until the early 21st century). In Edison’s own words: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent transpiration.”

There he made the two inventions which would define his legacy – the incandescent light bulb (1879) and the phonograph (1877, majorly improved in 1889). Edison became the hero of the beginning electric age: His light bulb carried both Promethean and divine (“Let there be light!”) connotations. Still, this age was just at its very cusp – initially, the phonograph was much more identified with Edison than the light bulb because so many Americans had heard the phonograph (powered by a hand crank), whereas there were barely any places with electrical energy which could use a light bulb.

Edison set out to change that by setting up a system for the distribution of electric power. He began in New York City, but projects soon sprang up elsewhere in America as well. As Edison advocated for direct current (which he deemed safer) and his competitor George Westinghouse (supported by Nikola Tesla, a former Edison employee) for alternating current (which was more suitable for high-voltage, long-distance distribution), the “War of the Currents” followed.

Brush, Maxim, and Thomson are also playable, but nothing quite beats a good Tesla-Edison rivalry for marketing! Cover of Tesla vs. Edison, ©Artana.

That’s the setting for Tesla vs. Edison (Dirk Knemeyer, Artana), a game of engineering projects and stock market investment. Each player needs to decide if their company will invest in research on direct or alternating current – while direct current might give an advantage early on, alternating current is required for some of the more remote projects (like the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant).

Edison’s skills are pretty balanced between invention, manufcaturing, finance (his only 1-rating), and propaganda – where he shines, however, is the claiming of patents by his company. Card “Thomas A. Edison” from Tesla vs. Edison, ©Artana.

In addition to the engineering and stock market core of the game, the electrification of the American Northeast (and, at higher player counts, also Midwest) also requires the right PR for the company, and the claim of patents. Edison’s special ability makes it easier and cheaper for his employees to claim patents, an allusion to his his entrepreneurial spirit and his lab’s immense productivity.

On the other hand, Tesla, the other inventor eponymous for the game, is displayed as having a better engineering sense (scoring a whopping “3” for invention, whereas Edison – see image above – has 2). That falls in line with the popular sentiment that Tesla was Edison’s chief, more purely science-minded rival who won in the end because of the superiority of his system which relegated direct current to the history books. The role ascribed to Tesla in these narratives does not only overlook Edison’s honest conviction that direct current was safer (and safety was of the essence to win public acceptance for such a revolutionary technology) and the crucial role direct current plays in modern electronics, it’s also outright Westinghouse erasure! If you must have a rival for Edison, take Westinghouse!

The Symbol of (American) Scientific Progress

From 1890 on, Edison’s productivity as an inventor lessened (the battery, in 1909, being the only major exception). Instead, he encountered several failures – his electricity company was wrested from him by the investors, an ambitious ore-milling project took up several years and four million dollars without ever producing usable results, and his laboratory in West Orange burned down. Curiously, Edison’s importance as a public figure increased ever more during these decades. The reason is simple: As time went on, more and more American households had electricity installed at their homes (particularly in the 1910s and 1920s) and thus could experience the marvels of the electric age. When Edison died on October 18, 1931, president Herbert Hoover would ask the American nation to honor him in a corresponding way – by turning their lights off for a minute.

Edison had been a veritable celebrity in the last decades of his life. As a consequence of his public standing, he was called upon to chair the Naval Consulting Board during World War I, was interviewed every year by several newspapers for his birthday, and even asked to undertake a detailed reenactment of the invention of the light bulb for the fiftieth anniversary. Even Edison’s more fanciful ideas were taken seriously: His conviction that biological material contained “memory swarms” which allowed the material to recreate itself led him (and millions) to believe that they might communicate with their deceased loved ones through their chemical remains.

Is it a plane? Is it a bird? – No, it’s Edison’s racing machine! Cover of Edison & Co., ©Rio Grande Games.

Such a general belief that Edison might have discovered or invented anything is reflected in games as well: “Edison” is used as a stand-in for “inventor” or, even, for “somebody vaguely associated with technology”. Edison & Co. (Günter Burkhardt, Rio Grande Games) is a racing game of fantastical vehicles – never mind that only a small fraction of Edison’s work was ever concerned with vehicles (only 34 patents, compared to almost 400 related to electric light and power and almost 200 related to the phonograph), and never mind that the vehicles are already fully constructed at the beginning of a game (and only need to be piloted).

Other games have a less cheerful view of Edison-the-Symbol-of-Invention: The Fame and Fortune expansion for Sid Meier’s Civilization (Kevin Wilson, Fantasy Flight Games) cheekily brands Edison a mere copycat: He gives you a technological advance for free – but only if other civilizations have already researched it! That plays on the myth of Edison profiting of other people’s inventions, but being shrewder, often associated with the purported rivalry with Tesla.

Even more than Edison, the person, one of his inventions is used as a symbol: The light bulb represents insight, the “Eureka!” moment, and, of course, science and technology as such. Games also use it that way, for example, Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (Vlaada Chvátil, Czech Games Edition).

A science-related card from Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization. ©Czech Games Edition.

Edison is a particularly American icon as his rural, pre-modern upbringing and boyishness on the one hand and his technological inventiveness and mastery bring together two key ingredients of the American myth, innocence and power. Unsurprisingly, he is identified with almost all of the traits of the American hero: He is the self-made man, who succeeded by perseverance and hard work. His practicality and anti-intellectualism make him the standard-bearer of democracy and egalitarianism – at least in the early American sense of rugged individualism. No surprise that up until the 1970s, Edison typically ranked third or fourth in polls for the ”greatest American in history”, surpassed only by the few presidents who were commonly deemed great. In Discovery Channel’s The Greatest American (2005), he still ranked 15th – but had been eclipsed not only by Albert Einstein (14th, whose selection as the highest-ranking scientist signals that the traditional American preference for practice over theory wanes) and Ronald Reagan (who won the poll), but also by George W. Bush (6th), Walt Disney (13th), and even Billy Graham (11th).

The Science Fiction Icon

Edison’s legacy goes beyond the real world – there were science fiction stories about him as early as the last years of the 19th century. (In one of these, Edison, who’d always been proud that he had not invented anything whose purpose was to kill, reverse-engineers Martian weapons which allow mankind to conquer Mars.) In science fiction or steam punk settings, the ideas what Edison might have invented are boundless: 

Card “Thomas Edison” from Steampunk Rally. Edison’s chief attribute are no fewer than four incandescent bulbs. Image ©Roxley.

Steampunk Rally (Orin Bishop, Roxley) is another racing game, but unlike Edison & Co., the vehicle needs to be constructed first. Edison is one of 16 playable inventors (besides the inevitable Tesla, there are other luminaries of 19th and 20th century science and technology like Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, Santos Dumont, and Ada Lovelace). Thanks to Twitter user @statto99 for alerting me about this game!

Edison’s propeller-powered vehicle on theright is only in third place. Frontrunner Nikola Tesla delights in that. Cover of Steampunk Rally, ©Roxley.

In Tannhäuser (William Grosselin/Didier Poli, Take On You), Edison is the president of an alternative-history “Union” between North America and Western Europe, for which his inventive genius provides the futuristic weapons the Union uses in its struggles with the other world powers – the occult German “Reich”, the militaristic Japanese “Shogunate”, and the Russian “Matriarchy” – whose own weapons are invented by none other than, you guessed it, Nikola Tesla. That’s not the first time Tesla has to serve such purposes for a somewhat evil Russian-majority super power in pop culture (he’s also the inventor behind the Soviet Union’s technology in the Command & Conquer: Red Alert series of video games) – but while his name might sound vaguely Russian to western ears, Tesla was an ethnic Serb born and raised in Austria-Hungary. Get your Slavs right, people!

Finally, board games also adapt other forms of popular culture featuring Edison: There is a Ms. Marvel comic book storyline in which Thomas Edison is genetically reproduced – but alas, his DNA is mixed up with that of a bird! Notwithstanding beak and feathers, Edison sets up a research lab and engages in all kinds of mad scientist activities (until Ms. Marvel takes care of him). Thus, Edison is also a minion in Marvel Champions: The Card Game (Michael Boggs, Fantasy Flight Games). If a real-life person is turned into an avian villain in a superhero comic, that proves at least one thing: That person has been truly famous.

Is it a plane? Is it a bird? – Definitely not a bird. Card “Thomas Edison” from Marvel Champions: The Card Game, ©Fantasy Flight Games.

Games Referenced

Tesla vs. Edison (Dirk Knemeyer, Artana)

Edison & Co. (Günter Burkhardt, Rio Grande Games)

Sid Meier’s Civilization: Fame and Fortune (Kevin Wilson, Fantasy Flight Games)

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (Vlaada Chvátil, Czech Games Edition)

Steampunk Rally (Orin Bishop, Roxley)

Tannhäuser (William Grosselin/Didier Poli, Take On You)

Marvel Champions: The Card Game (Michael Boggs, Fantasy Flight Games)

Further Reading

For a discussion of Edison meant to American culture and popular mythology, see Wachhorst, Wyn: Thomas Alva Edison. An American Myth, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1981.

The close relationship between Edison’s technological and entrepreneurial dimension is examined in Millard, Andre: Edison and the Business of Invention, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD 1990.

5 thoughts on “The Life & Games of Thomas Edison

  1. Pingback: Leben & Spiele des Thomas Edison – Boardgame Historian

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