Geniuses seem to inhabit a world apart from mere mortals like us. But they don’t, as the irreverent and entertaining Edison’s Ghosts makes clear. Debut author and science writer Katie Spalding has mined history, biography and psychology to turn the cult of genius on its head, shining a sassy light on the idiosyncrasies of some of history’s greatest minds. People traditionally held up as geniuses, she demonstrates, still fit under the heading of “everyone is an idiot.” Although, “Maybe it’s just the apparent contrast between what we expect from these figures and what we get.”
Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, whom Spalding compares to a modern child star with an extremely pushy stage dad. After a childhood under his father’s thumb, Mozart turned out to be “kind of a handful.” Spalding unearths unusual bits of trivia about the musical prodigy, including the fact that Mozart apparently never outgrew a juvenile sense of bathroom humor, and that he believed babies should be fed on water. (Only two of his six children survived to adulthood.)
As for the title essay, “Thomas Edison’s Lesser-Known Invention: Dial-a-Ghost,” it turns out the prolific inventor had a formidable PR presence. “Basically, you can think of Edison as a sort of proto-Elon Musk,” Spalding writes. But unlike the Tesla, the rubber never met the road on Edison’s “Spirit Phone” for communicating with the dead. That didn’t keep Edison from claiming that the device would operate solely by scientific methods, however. And while he was ridiculed during his life for this idea, and biographers later claimed he couldn’t have been serious, Spalding unearthed a French version of a book of Edison’s writings that includes actual sketches for his design.
Edison’s Ghosts can certainly be read from front to back, but you may find yourself so intrigued by some of the chapter titles that you decide to skip around. For what burgeoning philosopher can resist plunging right into “Confucius Was an Ugly Nerd With Low Self-Esteem”? Likewise, biology enthusiasts will hardly be able to resist turning first to “Charles Darwin: Glutton; Worm Dad; Murderer?”
Spalding includes chapters (and hilarious footnotes) about many other historical figures, including Leonardo da Vinci, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud. While the essays are tongue-in-cheek, they’re also well researched, informative and absolutely fun. Edison’s Ghosts will delight any science or history lover with a sense of humor.