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Published: Friday, 12/18/2009

Grammy-winning Edison deserves spot in statuary hall

HE WAS no singing sensation compared to Michael Jackson although he did produce a recording that made history. It didn't come close to Thriller in theatrics but when Thomas Alva Edison recited "Mary had a little lamb" into his phonograph, creating the first recorded sound the world had ever heard, it was a hit.

And 78 years after the prolific inventor died, Edison, like Jackson, is being posthumously honored this year by the recording industry with a Grammy.

Imagine him giving an acceptance speech among the glitterati of Hollywood. It could be a tad different from one the late pop star might give with "Off the Wall" references to "Bad" singles and impromptu dance moves to enliven delivery. Picture instead a white-haired award recipient in staid period attire ambling up to the microphone - which he also invented - and musing about the awesome but unforeseen consequences of his favorite creation.

The tinfoil tabletop phonograph may not have looked like much back in the day but it performed like nothing ever had before to record and reproduce his words. And, in contrast to other Edison inventions perfected through painstaking trial and error, his 1877 phonograph worked the first time.

Of the nearly 1,100 U.S. patents Edison held - including the one for the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb - the recording device he created at Menlo Park was the most original. And it was the genesis for all that follows today in an age where recorded sound is so ubiquitous.

The Ohio native, born in the wee village of Milan, about an hour east of Toledo, would be as giddy as an eclectic century-old inventor could be about the idea of recorded music being shared instantaneously around the globe through file transfers, MP3s, i-Tunes, and downloads.

Yet after the shock subsided, he'd undoubtedly take deep satisfaction in knowing that every recorded sound, from differentiating cell phone rings to infinite iPod selections, was made possible by an inventor's hunch more than a hundred years ago. After all, it was he who created the technology for music artistry to flourish.

That's why, unlike the black vinyls of my youth or the CDs of my adulthood, Edison will never be passe. The still-evolving recording industry continues to draw inspiration from his innovations as do others in broader entertainment and communication circles.

Among the luminaries being honored with Grammys this year, he stands out not for his moonwalk or music compositions or best-selling albums, but for successfully recording a childhood rhyme on a patented phonograph that changed everything. The Grammy Recording Academy honors Edison for far more than commercial success, it honors him for making the recording business possible.

From recorded sound to motion pictures and medical technology, numerous Edison inventions played integral roles in transforming the rudimentary to revolutionary. You turn on a light, or electric stove, go for an X-ray, pop an alkaline battery into a toy, or listen to a world famous orchestra at home because an extraordinary visionary was once driven by the possibilities.

Beyond this Grammy, Edison should ultimately be recognized by his home state with enshrinement in the U.S. Capitol's hallowed Statuary Hall. What greater tribute can Ohio give its famous son, whose inventive contributions to the world are unsurpassed?

In a few months, a state legislative committee, headed by Republican Sen. Mark Wagoner of Toledo, will identify a deserving historical figure from Ohio to replace the statue of a 19th century pro-slavery politician. Why not a 19th-century superstar who's been called The Man Who Invented the 20th Century - not to mention a Grammy winner with enduring relevance in the 21st century?

If ever the hard-hit Buckeye State needed to embrace an inspirational character who overcame adversity and deafness in youth to become a brilliant innovator with irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit, it is now. The Edison example of persevering until failure gives way to success is a lesson every generation struggling through tough times can take to heart.

"I have seen many depressions in business," said the venerable inventor. "Always America has emerged from these stronger and more prosperous. Be brave. Have faith. Go forward."

Not a bad speech for the 2009 Grammy honoree whose recording genius and timeless legacy of creating what was needed continues to influence dreamers pursuing huge hits.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com

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