The Parrot and the Igloo Notes

The Jubilee

Books and other sources consulted for this chapter


Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention, John Wiley & Sons, 1998.


Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography, McGraw-Hill, 1959.


Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, Crown, 2007.


Edmund Morris, Edison, Random House, 2018.


Alva Johnston, “Profiles: The Wizard—I,” “The Wizard—II,” and “The Wizard—III,” The New Yorker, December 28, 1929, January 4, 1930, January 11, 1930.

The only two Alvas this reader has ever heard about; how nicely unlikely that one should profile the other. Johnston’s lede shows the gratitude and fondness Thomas Alva Edison now generated around himself:


Edison has not yet been debunked. It ought to be his turn next. The debunker should do his work by the Edison electric light. He could either use the typewriter, on which Edison put some of the finishing touches, or dictate to the phonograph, which is wholly an Edison invention. The news could be flashed over the country on the Edison quadruplex or sextuplex telegraph, and shot abroad by the Edison automatic cable. The old man could be exposed in the movies, which he invented, and in the talkies, which were first synthesized in his laboratory. The debunker could tell his tale to the make, which is the lineal descendent of the Edison carbon transmitter, and broadcast it by the radio tube, which is based on the electric valve or “Edison effect.” The telephone, which was first brought to a commercial state by Edison, might also be useful somewhere in the process of picking the Edison bubble.


For a sense of just how general the admiration had become: a 1923 courtship letter from the 24 year-old Vladimir Nabokov. To Vera Slonim, his eventual wife:


I simply want to tell you that somehow I can’t imagine life without you—in spite of your thinking that it is “fun” for me not to see you for two days. And you know, it turns out that it wasn’t Edison at all who thought up the telephone but some other American, a quiet little man whose name no one remembers. It serves him right.


Vladimir Nabokov, Letters to Vera, Knopf 2015.


Jill Jonnes, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, Random House, 2003.


Henry G. Prout, A Life of George Westinghouse, Scribner, 1926.


Quentin R. Skrabec, George Westinghouse: Gentle Genius, Algora, 2007.


Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Prentice Hall, 1981.


Marc J. Seifer, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius, Citadel Press, 1996.


John O’Neill, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, Ives Washburn, 1944.


In Tesla: Inventor of the Modern (W. W. Norton, 2018), Richard Munson includes a portrait of old Tesla—Tesla once again duplicating a phrase of Edison’s, as if the two, occasionally, spoke a kind of inventors’ code. Edison, dislodged from General Electric, had told his secretary re: electricity, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I never did know anything about it.”

Here is Munson:


Electricity [elicited] Tesla’s most intense interest, and he claimed that his beloved cat, rather than school classes, introduced him to its wonders and mysteries. During a very cold and dry spell, he stroked Macak’s back and it became “a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of sparks.”

To Tesla, the static-electricity effect “was a miracle which made me speechless from amazement.” The cat’s body, he observed, became “surrounded by a halo like the aura of Saints!” His usually curious mother became alarmed, saying “Stop playing with the cat, he might start a fire.”

Such flashes prompted Tesla’s childish imagination. “Is nature a gigantic cat and if so who strokes its back?” he asked. “It can only be God, I concluded.” Decades later he added: “Day after day I asked myself what is electricity and found no answer. Eighty years have gone by since and I still ask the same question, unable to answer it.


The document Munson quotes is “A Story of Youth Told in Age,” which Tesla dictated at age eighty-three from Room 27, on the thirty-third floor, in the Hotel New Yorker. And there is in that story, accidentally, a whole life of electricity. From Thales’s static-and-fur experiments in B.C.E. Greece to the lives and works of both inventors—to both men, in later life accepting that their works had somehow remained a mystery. Nikola Tesla, “A Story of Youth Told in Age,” Hotel New Yorker, 1939, collected in John T. Ratzlaff ed., Tesla Said, Tesla Book Company, 1984.


“Nikola Tesla Dies; Prolific Inventor; Alternating Power Current’s Developer Found Dead in Hotel Suite Here,” The New York Times, January 8, 1943.


John Winthrop Hammond, “Electricity Has Built an Empire in America: In Fifty Years Since the Incandescent Lamp Was Invented It Has Brought About a Revolution in Life and Industry,” The New York Times, June 22, 1930.


D. M. Diggs, “The Entering Wedge,” General Electric Digest, July–August 1922. Quoted in David E. Nye, Image Worlds: Corporate Identities at General Electric, 1890–1930, MIT Press, 1985.


Harold L. Platt, The Electric City: Energy and the Growth of the Chicago Area, 1880–1930, University of Chicago Press, 1991.


Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004.

De Botton notes a curious shift after 1800: “During the nineteenth century, for the first time in history, a majority of people ceased working on their own farms or in small family businesses and began bartering their intelligence or their strength for a wage.”


In 1800, just 20 percent of American workers had an employer other than themselves; by 1900, the figure was up to 50 percent; and by 2000, 90 percent.


We had commuted from farm nation, freelancer’s nation, to factory world and office park. It wasn’t just that people disliked ironing. There was now lots more ironing to do.


David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, MIT Press, 1990.


Thomas Parker Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930, John Hopkins University Press, 1993.


Roland Marchand, Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business, University of California Press, 1998.


Warren I. Susman, Culture As History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century, Pantheon, 1984.

Bruce Barton’s father, William, was a circuit rider “working out of a small church in Robbins, Tennessee.” (Some accounts propose William as brother to Red Cross founder Clara Barton. No relation.) “We were not poor,” the adult Bruce Barton liked to say, “We just didn’t have any money.”


Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1925.

To get the believer-and-insider, church-and-martini vibe: Barton called the New Testament parables “the most powerful advertisements of all time.”


Alice Payne Hackett and James Henry Burke, 80 Years of Best Sellers, 1895 to 1975, R. R. Bowker Company, 1977, 99–101.

The Man Nobody Knows was 1924’s #4 bestselling nonfiction work; and for 1925, #1. Barton eventually helped found the global ad agency BBDO. From Faulkner through Righteous Gemstones to Mad Men, all in one generation. There is a movie waiting around in this source note somewhere.


George Monteiro, “Grace, Good Works, and the Hemingway Ethic,” in Alicki Barnstone, Michael Tomasek Manson, and Carol J. Singley, eds., The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, University Press of New England, 1997.

William F. Barton was reverend at the Hemingway family parish, First Congregational Church.

Bruce Barton eventually reviewed Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, at a time when the business-caroler was perhaps the most successful writer in America; Barton reviewed it for The Atlantic. In his gruff, biblical cadence: “A writer named Hemingway has arisen.” In the course of a rave, playful gestures aimed at someone he had grown up near. “When I first heard about him I was prejudiced”; “I ask him to please take care of his health”; and re the characters, “they are alive. Amazingly real and alive.” For a reader of the April 1927 Atlantic, a standard review—and underneath, the particular message: I know you.


Richard R. Fried, The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America, Ivan Dee, 2005.


Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940, University of California Press, 1985.


“Value of Edison’s Genius Is Put at Fifteen Billion; His Ideas So Capitalized; Long List of Industries Founded Upon His Inventions Traced; 1,500,000 Men Employed; His Influence on Many Other Lines of Endeavor Vast Beyond Calculation,” The New York Times, June 24, 1923.


The Library of Congress has a nice Jubilee page. It features the elegant L. Frank Baum-looking Golden Jubilee commemorative stamp. None of the histories had mentioned it.

Cary O’Dell, “Light’s Golden Jubilee” (October 21, 1929), added to the National Registry: 2005, Library of Congress.
Accessed 1-25-22.


Rudolph Valier Alvarado, Critical Lives: The Life and Work of Thomas Edison, Alpha/Pearson, 2002.


“Edison Sells Peach to Hoover on Train: Inventor, Once Again a News Butcher, Relives the Days of His Youth,” The New York Times, October 22, 1929.


“Edison Re-Creates His Electric Lamp as Hoover Leads in Tribute to Him; World by Radio Joins Anniversary Fete; Old Notebook Guides Him; Debt of Mankind Voiced,” The New York Times, October 22, 1929.


“Edison Tries to Flee Dinner; Returns When Wife Insists,” The New York Times, October 22, 1929.


“Einstein Pays Tribute by Air: First International Hook-Up Also Carries Hoover’s Voice Across the Oceans,” The New York Times, October 22, 1929.


“Old Kickapoo Wins the Edison Jubilee,” Associated Press, October 23, 1929.

By three lengths. Old Dutch placed; and Andromeda, who’d spent the first half off the pace, finished in the money.

And Edison might have appreciated it. News of his namesake horse race—who expects a namesake horse race?—going out over the wire, past all the plugs.


Philip F. Schewe, The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World, Joseph Henry Press, 2007.


Richard Munson, From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity, Praeger, 2005.

Munson, Director of Midwest Clean Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, expounds on the fund’s site: “Electricity generation and delivery constitute our nation’s largest industry in terms of capital investment. Less flattering, electric generators are the biggest source of harmful pollution.”

Richard Munson, “New President, New Electric Grid?” Energy Exchange, Environmental Defense Fund, January 20, 2017. 
Accessed 1-27-23.


The first fission plant was Dresden I, in Morris, Illinois; the second—up and running months later—was Yankee Rowe, in the very small town of Rowe, Massachusetts.

Some atomic historians credit Shippingport as going first. This was a fuel rod’s throw from Pittsburgh, and designed by Westinghouse; others credit Vallecitos, outside San Francisco—a General Electric affair.

Both observed a kind of rough decorum as to how near a major city a nuclear plant might unthreateningly stand. Shippingport was twenty-five miles from its city; Vallecitos, thirty. The third commercial plant, Indian Point—which during its service life would include components manufactured by both Westinghouse and General Electric—was about that same half-hour drive from midtown New York City.

Energy Conservation, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Energy of the Joint Economic Committee, 94th Congress, 2nd session, February and April 1976. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977.

United States Atomic Energy Commission, Progress in Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, July–December 1957, U.S. Government Printing Office 1958, 22.

The AEC saw Vallecitos as both a pilot plant and the first commercial reactor; Dresden and Indian Point, the commission reports, were already under construction. There’s also a cool spot of inside phrasing: “Vallecitos went critical in August 1957.” Go critical is nuclear slang for when a fission reaction becomes self-sustaining; when your plant is switched on.


William Tucker, “Environmentalism and the Leisure Class,” Harper’s, December 1977.

William Tucker, incidentally, credits Indian Point as the first true commercial plant, where both Westinghouse and General Electric had installed components and turbines.


Federal Power Commission, Annual Report Fiscal Year 1967: Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1967. Vol. 47. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.

Per the report, the change came for the contiguous United States in summer 1964.


Jaws: The Shark Movie That Changed the World: 45th Anniversary,” Life, June 19, 2020.

A fascinating tidbit—one of those clawed factoids that get latched in the head. Movies, big-budget releases, used to arrive in winter. Jaws changed that; and two summers later, Star Wars permanentized the change. Now the summer release period runs from April through August and is the big tentpole-raising season for motion pictures.

Here’s Life, from their special Jaws-themed 2020 issue. What was the change? Peak demand: air conditioning.


On the business side, Jaws, released on June 20, 1975, was one of the first “summer blockbusters.” Traditionally Hollywood studios saw those months as a dead zone, for a diet of low-budget B-grade cheese. One reason was that movie houses were just plain hot—who wanted to sweat for two hours or more in a leather or otherwise upholstered seat? By the late 1960s, however, more and more theaters were air-conditioned, which no doubt played a part in the summer releases of Bonnie and Clyde, in 1967, Easy Rider, in 1969, and American Graffiti, in 1973. When Jaws hit screens, multiplex cinemas were proliferating around the country, many of them in air-conditioned shopping malls—which were soon swarming with teens and tweens, a mine of potential moviegoers.


Jaws became the top-grossing feature in history. Until, two years later (summer release: May 25, 1977), the fin got eclipsed by Star Wars.

That is, the summer movie—the Marvel installment, the Pixar fable—is a technology story, an air-conditioning story; a warming story.


U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2009, Department of Energy, Office of Scientific and Technical Information. August 19, 2010.

Accessed 1-7-22.

The EIA goes on:


The reasons may not be easy to appreciate for those who have never known the filth, toil, and danger historically associated with obtaining and using such fuels as wood, coal, and whale oil. By contrast, at the point of use electricity is clean, flexible, controllable, safe, effortless, and instantly available. In homes, it runs everything from toothbrushes and televisions to heating and cooling systems. Outdoors, electricity guides traffic, aircraft, and ships, and lights up the night. In business and industry, electricity enables virtually instantaneous global communication and powers everything from trains, auto plant assembly lines, and restaurant refrigerators to the computers that run the New York Stock Exchange and the automatic pin-setting machines at the local bowling alley.


That is, what Tesla staked his reputation and all the rest upon; what Edison predicted for electricity when he first sat down to work on his bulb.

The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky