Thomas Edison is remembered as one of the outsized figures of American history, his invention of the phonograph and development of practical lighting systems helping to usher in a modern way of life.
Branching out of his comfort zone in the early 1890s, Edison had the idea to churn out a novel, only to abandon it after realizing how utterly time-consuming the process can be.
Edison agreed to a collaboration with an interviewer
As recalled in Edmund Morris' Edison, the inventor's novel was spawned by his interactions with George Parsons Lathrop, the son-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne and a prominent writer and editor in his own right during the late 19th century.
After sitting with Lathrop for an interview that ran in the February 1890 edition of Harper's magazine, Edison agreed to collaborate on a futuristic novel in the mold of Edward Bellamy's best-selling Looking Backward – their joint work to be titled Progress. Dismissing any talk of payment, Edison said he would supply the ideas and illustrations, leaving the professional to do the actual writing.
Lathrop promptly secured serial-publication rights with McClure Newspaper Syndicate and set up camp near Edison's lab in West Orange, New Jersey, in September 1890, eager for the chance to dive into work.
The inventor refused to elaborate on his futuristic concepts
Things got off to a promising start when Edison sent him 33 pages of notes the following month. Lathrop went through the scribbled descriptions of "screwless steamships," "hypnotizing machines" and other oddities and returned the pages, asking for further explanation of the terminology.
But Edison had bigger fish to fry, as he was hard at work on a groundbreaking motion picture camera called the Kinetograph. He sent Lathrop another set of hastily scrawled notes, along with drawings of an "air-ship," but offered little clarification on his fanciful musings.
His advance money drying up, Lathrop appealed to McClure for an extension and attempted to get the story moving with the available information. He banged out a few chapters and relayed them to Edison for approval, waiting for the feedback that never arrived.
He did hear from his elusive colleague in early January 1891, after the New York newspaper the Sun wrote of an exciting new work of fiction to come from the famed inventor and co-writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. Edison blasted Lathrop for his "act of bad faith" and threatened to end their partnership. Lathrop pleaded innocence, pointing out that he wasn't even named in the story.
Edison was focused on his motion picture camera and mining complex
That spring, as he sought to get out in front of the race to develop motion picture technology, Edison asked Lathrop to write a piece on his still-secret Kinetograph. He then leaked the story to the Sun, as he had accused Lathrop of doing months earlier, robbing his collaborator of the scoop when his article appeared in Harper's shortly afterward.
By summer, the ever-busy inventor had turned his focus to building an electromagnetic mining complex in western New Jersey. Upon learning that Edison was living there, Lathrop poured his pent-up frustration into a letter that August, writing, "I will ask you to try to realize what it is to me to be forced to hang around like a dog waiting for a bone — & not even getting the bone."
His subsequent pleas to return to Progress were tamer, but the "Wizard of Menlo Park" was ready to move on. Turning down Edison's offer to compensate him for the wasted time, Lathrop spent the next few years trying to pull a coherent story out of the rambling notes and muddled memories.
The story appeared in newspapers as 'In the Deep of Time'
The fruits of their stilted collaboration finally saw the light of day when the now renamed In the Deep of Time surfaced in newspapers in 1896, with Lathrop's foreword explaining how the story grew from "conversations" with the great inventor.
In the Deep of Time tells the tale of a heartsick Gerald Bemis, who undergoes "vivification" to enter a state of suspended animation and awakens to the wonders of the 22nd century. But beyond its depictions of antigravity ships, communications with intellectually superior Martians and factories that take up entire cities, the story wasn't strong enough to stand out in an era of robust science fiction readership and In the Deep of Time vanished from the public realm after its syndicated run.
Lathrop also faded into obscurity following his death from alcoholism in 1898, at age 46. And Edison continued plugging on with his Kinetograph, his electromagnetic mine, his alkaline battery and so much more, his detour into science fiction a minor chapter in an overflowing life story.