19th Century: Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

His inventions not only reshaped modernity but also promised a future bounded only by creativity

In 1926 the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "The greatest invention of the 19th century was the invention of the method of invention." That method, Whitehead added, "has broken up the foundations of the old civilization." Thomas Alva Edison never thought of himself as a revolutionary; he was a hardworking, thoroughly practical man, a problem solver who cared little about ideas for their own sake. But he was also the most prodigious inventor of his era, indeed of all time, and he was recognized as the spirit of a new age by his contemporaries. They observed the amazing new products streaming...

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