The Parrot and the Igloo Notes

The Promise

Books and other sources consulted for this chapter


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


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


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


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


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


Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Plea for Gas Lamps,” 1878, collected in Virginibus Puerisque, and Other Papers, C. Kegan Paul & Co., 1881; quoted in Jonnes, Empires of Light.


Henry Collins Brown, The Story of Old New York, E. P. Dutton, 1934.


Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days, Macmillan, 1898.

Watchmen patrolled the streets: “Lanthorn, and a whole candell-light. Hang out your lights!” These men were known as the rattle-watch: observing criminal activity, they would alert the populace with a rattle.


W. W. Pasko, ed., Old New York: A Journal Relating to the History and Antiquities of New York City, Pasko, 1890.


Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Burrows and Wallace offer the reason for the lanterns: New York street crime. “At night,” the two explain, “footpads were so common that pedestrians were obliged to travel in pairs.”

Highwaymen chased marks in carriages and on horseback; footpads’ preferred quarry went around on foot.


Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale, Harper and Brothers, 1851.

The Pequod sailors bunk, essentially, in a giant lampworks. As the whaleman “seeks the food of light, so he lives in light,” writes Melville. “He makes his berth an Aladdin’s lamp, and lays him down in it.”

Chapter 97, “The Lamp,” in its glowing entirety.

Had you descended from the Pequod’s try-works to the Pequod’s forecastle, where the off-duty watch were sleeping, for one single moment you would have almost thought you were standing in some illuminated shrine of canonized kings and counselors. There they lay in their triangular oaken vaults, each mariner a chiseled muteness; a score of lamps flashing upon his hooded eyes.

In merchantmen, oil for the sailor is more scarce than the milk of queens. To dress in the dark, and eat in the dark, and stumble in darkness to his pallet, this is his usual lot. But the whaleman, as he seeks the food of light, so he lives in light. He makes his berth an Aladdin’s lamp, and lays him down in it; so that in the pitchiest night the ship’s black hull still houses an illumination.

See with what entire freedom the whaleman takes his handful of lamps—often but old bottles and vials, though—to the copper cooler at the try-works, and replenishes them there, as mugs of ale at a vat. He burns, too, the purest of oil, in its unmanufactured, and, therefore, unvitiated state; a fluid unknown to solar, lunar, or astral contrivances ashore. It is sweet as early grass butter in April. He goes and hunts for his oil, so as to be sure of its freshness and genuineness, even as the traveller on the prairie hunts up his own supper of game.


Richard Rhodes, Energy: A Human History, Simon & Schuster, 2018.


James Burke, Connections: From Ptolemy’s Astrolabe to the Discovery of Electricity: How Inventions Are Linked—And How They Cause Change Throughout History, Little, Brown, 1978; with a new preface, Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Essentially, a new lighting source was becoming necessary, for the classic and awful reason: whalemen were hunting their living staple into scarcity.


By 1800 the American whalers were having to go as far as the North Pacific to catch their dwindling supply of whales. More than 700 vessels were engaged in this enterprise, because the whale was in demand for the oil which was extracted from its blubber as a means of lighting. By 1840 the Greenland whales had almost all gone, hunted to depletion, and the cost of going as far as the Arctic was pushing the price of whale oil so high that there was urgent need for an alternative source of illumination.


Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XI Clater–Condell, Macmillan & Co.; Smith, Elder & Co., 1887.

The earl seems to share some habits of misfortune with the accursed Samuel Morse. “His unbusiness-like management led only to ruin. An explosion of one of his kilns, and the combustion of the escaping gas, suggested to Dundonald the possibility of applying coal-gas as an illuminating agent. The result of all these schemes was failure.”

The Bloomsbury recognition bells ringing above? Leslie Stephen was the father of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.


James Burke, Circle: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, Culture, Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Essentially, the earl’s idea got nicked. “He roasted up some coal (he owned a tinpot mine and not much else), lit the fumes that came off, and made one of history’s great discoveries without realizing it.”

Burke continues: “Like an idiot, he mentioned the fumes to William Murdoch, James Watt’s sidekick, who promptly snitched the idea. Dundonald eventually died destitute in a Paris garret and Murdoch went down in history as the inventor of coal gas. (And who said science was honorable?)”


Harry Granick, Underneath New York, Henry Holt 1947; Randall Sullivan, Introduction, Fordham University Press, 1991.


Sidney Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. LXII Williamson–Worden, Macmillan & Co.; Smith, Elder & Co., 1900.


Anthony Ridley, Living in Cities, John Day, 1971.


Rebecca Busby, ed., Natural Gas in Nontechnical Language, PennWell Books, 1999.


Walter Mugdan, “Gaslight: Beautiful . . . But Dirty,” The EPA Blog, June 18, 2012.

Accessed 1-15-23.


Ernest Freeberg in The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, The Penguin Press, 2013


Throughout history, the wealthy always enjoyed the privilege of artificial light, able to spend lavish sums to burn candles or oil late into the night and to hire the servants who worked long hours the next day cleaning and trimming the lamps. In the pre-industrial age, farmer and artisans used light much more sparingly, and most often not for leisure hours but as a necessary tool of production, a way to extend working hours, especially in the short winter days. To avoid the expense of candles, many toiled as long as possible in the gathering dark, a practice some called “keeping the blind man’s holiday.” The spread of gas for home lighting in the mid-nineteenth century began the slow but steady democratization of light, turning an evening of illumination from a luxury into a middle-class comfort. . . “Sundown no longer emptied the promenade,” as Robert Louis Stevenson put it.


People outgrew, Freeberg continues, “what Harper’s Weekly called ‘any prejudice that may have heretofore obtained in favor of the garish day.’”

He quotes a journalist from the 1892 Chicago Tribune. The past did not have more disciplined habits; it simply lacked entertaining competition for sleep. “The old idea of going to bed with the chickens and rising with the larks grew out of the fact that in old times the opportunities for pleasure at nights were not as great as they are now.”

Freeberg goes on, “Better street lighting made night travel safer [goodbye, footpads] and guided pleasure seekers to a growing number of entertainment venues, each one beckoning with a blaze of light.”


Saba, Lady Holland, A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith by His Daughter, Lady Holland, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855.

To Lady Mary Bennett    Dec. 20, 1821

. . . And here I ask, what use of wealth so glorious and delightful as to light your house with gas? What folly, to have a diamond necklace or a Correggio, and not to light your house with gas! The splendour and glory of Lambton Hall make all other houses mean. How pitiful to submit to a farthing-candle existence, when science puts such intense gratification within your reach! Dear lady, spend all your fortune in a gas apparatus! Better to eat dry bread by the splendor of gas, then to dine on wild beef with wax candles.

Sydney Smith was founder of the Edinburgh Review. And, per The Washington Post’s Eve Auchincloss, “one of the most delightful men who ever lived.” Auchincloss, “The Waggish Wig,” The Washington Post, March 1, 1981.


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


J. Lacassagne and R. Thiers, Nouveau système d’éclairage électrique, 1857, quoted in Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, University of California Press, 1988.


The demonstration took place in Lyon “near the Chateau Beaujou [at] about 9 p.m. . . . One could in fact have believed that the sun had risen . . . The light, which flooded a large area, was so strong that ladies opened up their umbrellas—not as a tribute to the inventors, but in order to protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun.”


Reported the Gazette de Lyon, “Like everyone else we, too, were surprised by the brightness of this light.


“Science Against Superstition,” Electrical World, August 2, 1884, quoted in Carolyn Marvin’s fascinating When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1988.


Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, New Directions, 1954.


Public gaslight posed collective hazards. As noted in Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, an 1887 fire burned through one Paris opera house, causing two hundred deaths—“actors and dancers caught in the flames and others trampled in the mass panic that erupted when the gaslights blew out. Only months later a gas fire gutted a brand-new theater in Exeter, England.”


“The Paris Morgue,” The Electrical Engineer, March 16, 1888.


Michael Waters, “Death as Entertainment at the Paris Morgue,” Atlas Obscura, January 11, 2018.

Accessed 1-16-23.


“Electrical and Scientific,” Electrical Review, April 14, 1888. Quoted in Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New.


Marie Corelli, Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, Richard Bentley and Son, 1890.

One of the big sellers its year. Corelli had obviously researched her city, inserting special effects visits to spice up the mise en scène. The novel is a sort of urban thriller, composed the year of the illuminated morgue.

“Come!” he cried presently. “Let us do something amusing! Let us go to the Morgue! . . Because it is dusk, mon ami—and because the charm of the electric light will grace the dead!”

. . . With these words and an affable nod he disappeared,—and something—I know not what, caused me to carelessly hum a tune, as I pressed my face against the glass screen, and peered in at the death-slab before me. Suddenly the light flashed up with a white glare,—hot, brilliant, and dazzling, and for a moment I saw nothing.

That was the arc: hot, dazzling, glaring, brilliant.


“Edison’s Newest Marvel,” The New York Sun, September 16, 1878, and “Power Flashed by Wire,” The New York Sun, September 17, 1878, quoted in Charles Bazerman, The Languages of Edison’s Light, MIT Press, 1999.

The company vice-president told a Tribune reporter the same thing. Light was to electricity what books would later be for Amazon: the initial attraction, the spark that kicks off the relationship.

We shall have a larger revenue there [the downtown district] from power than light. Power will be supplied for industrial and domestic purposes; for instance, for small machine shops, elevators, printing presses, lathes, and all sorts of domestic contrivances, such as sewing machines, house elevators, pumps for elevating water, forced draughts of air for ventilation, fans suspended from ceilings, etc. Beside there will be furnished an arrangement for heating water, so that a bathtub of cold-water can be warmed by electricity almost instantly and almost at no expense.

“Plans for Using Electricity,” New-York Tribune, March 28, 1881. Quoted in Bazerman.


“A Great Triumph,” The New York Sun, September 10, 1878, quoted in Josephson, Edison, 1959. The inventor’s visit was commemorated in style. “They shook hands in friendly fashion and, with a diamond-pointed stylus, Edison signed his name and the date (September 8, 1878) on a wine goblet served by his host at dinner.”


Robert Friedel, Paul Israel, Bernard S. Finn, Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention, Rutgers University Press 1987.


M. A. Rosanoff, “Edison in His Laboratory,” Harper’s, September 1932.

These recollections appeared when memories of Edison were still fresh: before the features became filtered and standardized by history.

A word about Edison’s personal appearance among us. In recent years you have seen him in the movies. But there he looked like a benevolent wreck, freshly raised from the dead, shaking his head as in blessing upon all the Thursday-night housemaids being civilized by his inventions. At the time of my association with him he was handsome. No creased trousers, no swanky ties, nothing like that, to be sure. Yet to appreciate his fine head, his strong features, the happy-hooligan light out of his gray eyes, it was not necessary to possess the artistic penetration of the little girl who discovered that Abraham Lincoln was beautiful.

Charles Bazerman, The Languages of Edison’s Light, MIT Press, 1999.

It was carbonized bamboo that became Edison’s final filament; this extended service life to six hundred hours.

Bamboo, per Freeberg’s Age of Edison, remained the loop of choice until 1893.


“Edison’s Electric Light,” The New York Times, December 23, 1879.


Robert Friedel and Paul Israel, in Edison's Electric Light, offer a wonderful Currier and Ives of the Menlo Park holiday atmosphere.

“As December [1879] drew to a close, the publicity rose to new heights,” they write. The newspaper “described growing crowds at Menlo Park, wealthy men and ordinary people alike thronging to the New Jersey village to exclaim ‘Wonderful!’ at every turn.”


Liz Sonnenborn, The Electric Light: Thomas Edison’s Illuminating Invention, Chelsea House, 2007.


Harold Evans, Gail Buckland, and David Lefer, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovation, Little, Brown, 2004


George William Sheldon, Artistic Houses, D. Appleton and Company, 1883, quoted in Jonnes, Empires of Light.

Morgan’s setup included “a light specially designed for his desk—the world’s first desk lamp.” In Freeberg, Age of Edison.


Edison remarked upon this, the improvement in professonal and social circumstance, to a friend: “We’re up in the world now! I remember ten years ago—I had just come from Boston—I had to walk the streets of New York all night because I hadn’t the price of a bed. And now think of it! I’m to occupy a whole house on Fifth Avenue!”

New York Tribune, February 14, 1881, quoted in Josephson, Edison: A Biography; in Jonnes, Empires of Light; and in Sonnenborn, The Electric Light.


Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin were the Edison Laboratory general counsel and former president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, respectively. They collaborated on one of the first-ever Edison biographies, with the inventor himself contributing reminiscences and comment: Edison: His Life and Inventions, Harper and Brothers 1910.

The two explain that Edison used an advertising classic to market his product: first three months free.

For people who collect such things, the world’s first electric bill was dated January 18, 1883; presented to the Ansonia Brass and Copper Company, 17 & 19 Cliff Street, New York City, in the amount of $50.40.

The first disputed electric bill, Dyer and Martin tell us, was contested by Edison sponsor J. P. Morgan. (Nineteenth-century tycoons were indeed penny squeezers.) Like many challengers since, Morgan proved to be in error.


“Improved Illumination,” The New York Times, May 17, 1879; “Edison’s Light,” The New York Times, September 7, 1879; “Edison and the Skeptics,” The New York Times, January 4, 1880.


“Edison’s Electric Light: ‘The Times’ Building Illuminated by Electricity,” The New York Times, September 5, 1882.

This was the start, Ernest Freeberg notes in Age of Edison, of the Steve Jobs/Jony Ive ideal: pure, smooth tech, no visible backstage:

Although Edison’s incandescent lighting system was one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology yet created, all the complexity had been engineered out of sight, invisible to the consumer. Each light socket, as one of his new customers explained, “contains a key whereby the lamp may be turned on or off at pleasure.” Oil lamps and candles required wick trimming and soot cleaning, while gas burners demanded even more technical skill from consumers[.] But the electric light required no maintenance, while the source of power hummed out of sight, sometimes many blocks away.

Plus a hard bit of Edison humor: “Thus Edison’s system realized from the start an essential feature of any modern invention aiming to win a mass market: it was safe enough for a child, and simple enough for all to use.” Freeberg continues, “Not just fool proof, as Edison said, but ‘damned-fool proof.’”


Charles Dudley Warner, “The Electric Way,” Harper’s, June 1892.

Warner was Mark Twain’s old writing partner. (They collaborated on 1872’s The Gilded Age; we’ll see Warner briefly again, rhapsodizing about Stephen Stills California.) “We begin to apprehend,” Warner writes, “that we are electric beings.”

Mr. Edison should turn his attention from physics to humanity electrically considered in its social condition. We have heard a great deal about affinities. We are told that one person is positive and another negative, and that representing socially opposite poles they should come together and make an electric harmony, that two positives or two negatives repel each other, and if conventionally united end in divorce, and so on. We read that such a man is magnetic, meaning that he can poll a great many votes; or that such a woman thrilled her audience, meaning probably that they were in an electric condition to be shocked by her.

In Age of Edison, Ernest Freeberg notes that as of 1892, 3 million incandescent bulbs had been sold. (Eighteen years later, per Dyer and Martin, there were 3,818,899 lamps in New York City alone.) The 45,000,000 and 100,000 numbers come from Rudolph Valier Alvarado’s Thomas Edison. Edmund Morris puts that number at 41,000,000 bulbs (in his great Thomas Edison, Knopf, 2019). A General Electric ad from the period has the total number of all Edison bulbs, manufactured from 1879 to 1914, at a round half billion.


“Another Big Reduction in Miniature Lamp Prices” (advertisement), The Automobile, October 15, 1914, Edison Lamp Works of General Electric Company.

“The continuance of this superior quality is assured by our over 35 years of experience in manufacturing over 500 million Edison lamps.” It is nicely rustic to see a date that’d grow in significance for historians—1879, when crowds toured the Menlo Park campus—here alluded to workaday-style, van decal style, as “35 years of experience.”


Edison was lighting about one square mile of the Financial District. Day-one customers seem to have numbered around eighty-five, with current fed to perhaps four hundred lamps. Edison told reporters that he’d held off lighting the entire district at the request of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters. Edison proudly noted, Morris adds, that “the lights in the office of Drexel, Morgan & Co., half a mile away, are burning as brightly as the lights here.” He’d also illuminated streetlights that day on the walk to the Brooklyn Ferry.

Josephson notes within a decade and a half of throwing that Pearl Street switch, Edison would come to seem so powerful, such a totem of ingenuity and magic, that the inventor was on tap as the hero of a pulp story—Edison Conquers Mars. Our equivalent might be Steve Jobs Defeats the Kaiju.

Josephson, Edison: A Biography:


In 1898 the Hearst newspapers, for example, published a serialized “scientific romance” entitled Edison Conquers Mars, which was read by millions. It pictured a war of the future between invaders from our neighboring planet and the men of Earth, who are commanded, naturally, by “General” Thomas A. Edison. In the nick of time, he invents a new flying machine which directs the power of a “disintegrator” upon the hideous enemy. Edison made vigorous protests at the use of his name in such a penny dreadful, but to the minds of simple beings everywhere there were no limits to his capabilities.


Edison later said something wonderful about September 4, 1882; Edmund Morris, in his playful way, buries it in a footnote. The inventor “wrote in old age that starting up the system was ‘the most thrilling event of my life.’”

The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky