Thomas Edison is well known to all as the inventor of the phonograph and other electrical devices (as well as for his famous rivalry with Nikola Tesla). But behind him was the invisible man; two invisible men, actually.
Those men were Edward Johnson, with a little help from Charles Batchelor. “Batch,” as Edison called him, was the man in Paris who convinced Nikola Tesla to move to New York and work directly for Edison. Batch himself moved back to the states to help Edison develop many of his most famous inventions. One of those inventions was the tin foil phonograph.
Edison, Batch, and a dozen other men were working late one night when Edison suddenly had an epiphany. Within hours the group had developed a rudimentary phonograph. It wasn’t ready for prime time yet, but that didn’t stop Edison associate Edward Johnson, with a wink and a nod, slipping a note to the Philadelphia Record to let them know Edison had invented a device “by which a speech can be recorded while it is being delivered on prepared paper.” Johnson also wrote a letter under Edison’s name to Scientific American touting his success.
Scientific American was extremely excited about the phonograph and begged for a demonstration. On December 7, Edison and Batchelor carefully transported their tinfoil phonograph into New York City. The unveiling must have gone well, because Scientific American noted:
Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.
While the earlier story in the Philadelphia Record got little attention, the press fell over themselves to get the scoop after the Scientific American presentation. Batchelor helped the cause by writing to friends at the English Mechanic that “Mr. Thos. A. Edison of New York, the well-known electrician has just developed a method of recording and reproducing the human voice.”
Despite Batchelor’s assertion, Edison was not particularly well known at the time. He and his men toiled within the narrow corporate confines of telegraph executives and manufacturers, and he was essentially invisible to the general public. This was about to change.
As though a switch had been flipped, Edison’s name was splashed across all the major newspapers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. Edison had opened up the Menlo Park laboratory to any journalist that wanted to visit, and now that accessibility was starting to pay off. In April 1878, Edison’s longtime friend William Croffut wrote a glowing profile of Edison for the New York Sun in which he coined the nickname “the Wizard of Menlo Park.” Others picked up the mantra and began referring to Edison as the world’s most famous inventor. So many people flocked to the Menlo Park laboratory to see the wizard that “the Pennsylvania railroad ran special trains.”
All of this happened because two invisible men – Edward Johnson and Charles Batchelor – used their contacts to make Edison famous over night.
[Adapted from Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World]
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.