Thomas Alva Edison
by Thomas S. Vernon
"I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill."
THERE IS AN interesting disparity between people who have achieved greatness in science and technology and those who have achieved greatness in art and literature. In both cases one can see a fortuitous matching of talent and historical setting which in retrospect makes their careers seem inevitable. There is a difference, however. It seems likely that the scientific insight of an Einstein and the technological inventions of an Edison would have come about in time even if these persons had not arrived on the scene; someone would have hit upon the theory of relativity, and someone would have invented the electric light bulb and phonograph. It does not seem likely, however, that the Seventh Symphony would have been composed or The Merchant of Venice written if Beethoven and Shakespeare had not lived. Works of art and literature have a uniqueness and individuality that the results of scientific investigation and technological creativity do not have. This by no means diminishes the stature of the giants in the fields of science and technology; their genius is no less remarkable. It is just that uniqueness resides more in their persons than in their works.
Few men or women have come as close to actualizing the American Horatio Alger myth as Thomas Alva Edison. His father, Samuel Edison, Jr., was involved in the abortive Mackenzie revolt in Canada and fled to this country. He settled in Milan, Ohio, where Thomas Alva was born on February 11, 1847. He grew up in a family where parental discipline was practiced with what we today would regard as a shocking degree of severity. At the age of six he started a fire which destroyed the family barn. For this he was whipped publicly by his father after advance notice to the community. Although the incident left an indelible impression, it seems not to have diminished either his mischievousness or his lively curiosity. A year later the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. Due to illness, Al (as his family called him) was unable to attend school until he was eight years old. The schoolmaster thought Al a stupid and intractable boy, but his mother, who thought otherwise, took him out of the school and undertook to teach him the "three Rs" at home.
This was as close as Edison ever got to formal schooling, but his mother introduced him to such books as Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Hume's History of England, as well as to works of Shakespeare and Dickens. He became captivated by R.G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy, a sort of science primer that described experiments, many of which the nine-year old Edison was able to perform at home. At the age of eleven, he established a laboratory in the corner of the basement. Here he would immerse himself for long hours, when other children were playing. His interests were not entirely confined to science. He read Paine's Age of Reason when he was twelve. In later years he remarked, "I can still remember the flash of enlightenment that shone from his pages."
He was fascinated by the recently-invented telegraph in particular and by the mysteries of electricity in general. At the age of twelve, however, his family's fortunes were at such a low ebb that Al was obliged to go to work. He secured a job as "candy butcher" on the newly-established Grand Trunk Railway that made daily runs between Port Huron and Detroit. As "candy butcher," he was an entrepreneur who sold food, sweets, and newspapers to passengers. The train would leave Port Huron at 7:00 in the morning and took a little over three hours, at the speed of 30 mph, to reach Detroit. It would make the return trip in the evening, arriving back in Port Huron around 9:30. During the long lay-over in Detroit, he was able to further his education, becoming one of the first patrons (for a fee of $2.00) of the Detroit Free Library. He later claimed to have gone systematically through their entire stock of books. He also persuaded the train officials to let him set up a laboratory in a corner of the baggage car. He was careful, however, to see that his mother got a dollar a day out of his earnings.
One morning he was delayed in getting aboard and as the train started to pull away he struggled to clamber aboard the freight car with both arms full of newspapers. He started to climb the first step but could not keep his balance. A trainman grabbed him by the ears and hauled him up. Edison felt something snap inside his head, and this marked the beginning of a deafness which grew progressively worse throughout his life. He later remarked, "I haven't heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old." In an autobiographical account, however, Edison catalogues numerous advantages that he claimed accrued to him as a result of this handicap. It forced him to do more reading; not being able to hear the "small talk" at social gatherings, his mind was free to occupy itself with thought; he was less distracted by the cacophony of urban life. He wrote: "Most nerve strain of our modern life, I fancy, comes to us through our ears." Edison never indulged in self-pity and maintained a detached sense of humor throughout his many ups and downs.
At the age of fifteen he struggled unsuccessfully with Newton's Principia. One result of this was to give him a permanent dislike of mathematics. Throughout his life he professed a disdain for theoretical science, though this was probably a defensive pose. Some of his closest friends and co-workers were theoretical scientists. He pursued a vigorous course of self-cultivation and by no means scorned intellectual labor. Joshua Reynolds once wrote: "There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking." Edison made a framed copy of this quotation to hang in his laboratory for all to see.
During his years as a train boy, major events were occurring -- the hanging of John Brown, the election of Lincoln, the beginning of the Civil War. Edison observed that his newspapers sold faster on days when big news was breaking. When an account of the Battle of Shiloh reached Detroit by telegraph, it occurred to Edison that he could sell more of his papers on the return trip to Port Huron if the people along the line had advance notice of this big news. He arranged for a short dispatch to be sent by wire to stations along the way and persuaded the editor of the Detroit Free Press to provide him with a very large consignment of papers. This issue contained details not yet known to the towns along the return route. At each stop he found crowds of people eager to buy his papers, and he raised the price from one stop to the next. The result was an unprecedented bonanza. It was his first display of the business acumen which characterized his later years.
The Mount Clemens station master taught him the art of sending and receiving by telegraph. He became adept at the Morse code and was soon an expert telegrapher. At the age of sixteen, he left his home and his work as a train boy to take up the itinerant life of a telegraph operator. In 1868 he settled briefly in Boston before deciding to try his luck in New York City. The twenty-one year old Edison arrived in the metropolis flat broke. He knew only one person, and from this friend he was able to borrow an initial capital of one dollar. He had no place to sleep and spent the first night walking the streets. The Gold Indicator Company on Broad Street was a firm that, by means of a primitive telegraph system, kept the New York financial world informed of fluctuations in the price of gold. He was offered employment here, and a place to sleep in a corner of the basement. During the first few days he lived on that one-dollar loan, eating five-cent meals of apple dumpling and coffee.
Shortly after his arrival there was a break-down in Gold Indicator Company's cumbersome equipment. In the midst of the ensuing panic, the young Edison was able to locate the source of the trouble and make the necessary repairs. His fortunes then took a turn for the better. Western Union hired him as an inventor; here he designed and built what became known as the "stock ticker." Within two years after his arrival in New York, he was a man of considerable substance, engaged in manufacturing as well as inventing, and able to send substantial sums of money to his family in Port Huron. His enterprises kept him too busy to visit them and, in 1871, his mother, after a long illness, died before he could reach her bedside.
He became owner and manager of two manufacturing shops, one in Newark and one in Jersey City. He was attracted to the sixteen-year-old Mary Stilwell, a worker in one of his shops. He reported later that his deafness was an asset in courtship because he had to get quite close to the young woman in order to hear her, a tactic which his shyness would not otherwise have allowed. They were married on Christmas Day, 1871. His non-stop work schedule, however, left him with little time for family life. His mental ability and power of concentration were extraordinary. Matthew Josephson, a biographer, writes:
Like one possessed, he would carry in his head the entire plan of some new and elaborate invention, in all its complex details, for days on end. He had the gift of total recall. His memory was so extensive that he would work out many aspects of a difficult problem in his mind, oblivious to his surroundings, forgetting the time, the place, and even his own identity.
Edison's career was by no means one of uninterrupted success. Though he was highly competent in business affairs as well as in the area of technology, he was frequently baffled by the world of high finance as it operated in the early days of America's industrial revolution. Josephson states:
What Edison did not then [the early 1870's] realize, except dimly, was that the decision as to the commercial acceptance or refusal of inventions, and much of the control of industrial technology, turned not upon the question of merit or usefulness, but upon the outcome of intermittent wars or peace negotiations between the rival "barons" in the railroad and telegraph fields, such as the Goulds and Vanderbilts.
The next major stage of Edison's career began in 1876 when Edison established what was probably the world's first "invention factory" in the little hamlet of Menlo Park, New Jersey, about 25 miles from New York City. A large barn-like structure was built into which $40,000 worth of equipment was installed during the first two years. Here Edison was able to concentrate on what he most wanted to do, the making of inventions. The industrial research laboratory Edison created here is now itself regarded as being one of his most remarkable inventions. It was here that Edison developed the phonograph and the first commercially practicable electric light bulb.
Before he started to work in earnest on the bulb, Edison worked out in his mind the entire plans for strategically located power plants and commercially feasible methods for delivering the necessary electric power to individual businesses and homes. The actual creation of the bulb was only the last step in the process. It was, however, the longest and most difficult step. The problem was to find a filament that would burn with sufficient light without being destroyed in the process. He had to devise a method for creating a bulb with near-perfect vacuum, a major feat in itself. More elusive was the problem of the right material for the filament. It was Edison who coined the description of genius as being "99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration."
A similar prolonged and intensive effort resulted in the phonograph, a device which Edison thought useful mainly in business for taking dictation and keeping records. He was slow to realize its enormous potential in the field of home entertainment. This was partly because his enjoyment of music was severely limited by his deafness. He was obliged to test his machines by picking up the sound through his teeth! It was the phonograph that first brought him national and even world-wide fame; he was becoming known as "the Wizard of Menlo Park," and Menlo Park was becoming a tourist attraction.
Edison was a cigar smoker, and one of his minor annoyances was that reporters helped themselves from the box in his office and kept depleting his supply. He tried keeping the box in his safe, but fellow workers would get it out. As a measure of desperation, he conspired with his cigar-maker to prepare a box of "cigars" whose filler consisted of old paper and hair. One day, he noticed that these were all gone. Upon investigation he discovered that he had smoked them all himself" This story gives one some idea of the degree to which Edison's mind was absorbed in his work. Needless to say, his eventual triumph with incandescent electric lighting increased even more his stature as a popular American hero.
His wife Mary was stricken with typhoid and died in 1884. Edison was thirty-eight. A few years later he found himself attracted to Mina Miller, whose father was a co-founder of Chautauqua, a devout Methodist, and quite different in his religious views from Edison, who never attended church -- his deafness providing a plausible excuse. In a diary which Edison kept during these days, he wrote: "My conscience seems to be oblivious of Sundays. It must be encrusted with a sort of irreligious tartar." Edison taught Mina the Morse code, and they enjoyed communicating secretly by tapping out messages on each other's hands. Edison claims that he proposed and was accepted in this manner.
His prolonged search for a vegetable fiber suitable for use as a filament took him to Florida; he liked Florida so well that he built a winter home at Fort Myers. Shortly after, he purchased the Glenmount mansion in West Orange, New Jersey, and took up residence there after his marriage to Mina in 1886. Half a mile from this residence he created a new industrial research laboratory much larger than the one at Menlo Park. He was now engaged, not only in inventing, but also in the management of several manufacturing enterprises, as well as the promotion of his inventions abroad. Among the celebrities of England who recorded their voices on the Edison phonograph was Arthur Sullivan, who engraved the message:
I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening's experiments -- astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever!
Josephson writes that "by 1888 [Edison] was actually one of America's ranking industrialists, employing between 2000 and 3000 workers." Not all of his enterprises were successful. He spent five years devising machinery for mining iron ore in the wilds of Ogdensburg, New Jersey, machinery which could grind chunks of rock the size of a piano down through various stages to a fine powder. The discovery of a much richer source of iron ore in the Mesabi Range in northern Minnesota put an end to the Ogdensburg project. Although he lost money in such ventures, he never lost enthusiasm, and would plunge immediately into some new endeavor. His pioneer work in cinematography was more successful, but his efforts to construct an improved storage battery and to discover an economical native source of rubber brought only limited success. None of these ventures were complete failures, for useful lessons were always learned, and new insights often came about by serendipity. When a fellow worker expressed discouragement over the lack of progress on the storage battery, Edison exclaimed: Why, man, I've got a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work!" When his West Orange laboratory complex was destroyed by fire in December, 1914, Edison remarked: "I am 67; but I'm not too old to make a fresh start. I've been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui."
Henry Ford helped to finance the rebuilding of the plant. By then, these two had become good friends. It was Ford who spurred Edison in his search for a native vegetable source of rubber (goldenrod turned out to be the best candidate) -- until the development of synthetic rubber turned out to be a better approach. Economically and politically, Edison was conservative; he and Ford agreed on most matters, though Edison shied away from some of Ford's more irrational binges, such as the latter's rabid anti-Semitism, which Ford himself later repudiated. Josephson remarks that Ford was "dangerously ignorant." While Edison had little sympathy with labor unions, he believed his efforts were leading to the emancipation of humankind from the slavery of drudge labor. "Human slavery will not be abolished," he wrote, "until every task now accomplished by human hands is turned out by some machine. He was strongly imbued with the "Protestant work ethic," but he believed that labor should be a meaningful discipline, not a deadening monotony.
One area in which Edison was decidedly not a conservative was that of religion. He was a freethinker from the time he first read Paine's Age of Reason as a boy. Josephson makes the interesting observation that "nonconformity was more widely respected in America, and religious freedom more honored, fifty years ago than now." Josephson's biography was published in 1959. His observation, sadly, is as true thirty years later.
Even so, Edison stirred up a storm when, in a 1910 interview with journalist Edward Marshall, Edison rejected the idea of the supernatural, along with such ideas as the soul, immortality, and a personal God. "Nature," he said, "is not merciful and loving, but wholly merciless, indifferent." Edison was denounced by many. A prominent psychologist exploded that "people who do not believe in immortality are abnormal, if not pathological." There were, of course, religious liberals who did not feel threatened by Edison's bluntness, but their opinions did not make good press copy. Edison believed that religion should place emphasis on morals rather than theology, that churches should "become true schools of ethics and stop teaching fables ... which keep them from the proper emphasis on that one great Truth, the Golden Rule." Wyn Wachhorst, a biographer, points out, "Edison rejected three fundamental tenets of Christianity: the divinity of Christ, a personal God, and immortality;" and Josephson remarks:
For a while the controversy threatened to be as heated as those provoked during the Victorian era in England by the skeptical writings of Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall, which were the favorite reading of Edison's youth.
Edison was a great admirer of Robert Green Ingersoll and offered the extravagant tribute of suggesting that Ingersoll had all the attributes of a perfect man. He also admired other contemporary freethinkers, such as Luther Burbank, and his good friend John Burroughs, the naturalist.
Edison did apparently believe in a "Supreme Intelligence," in which respect he was a typical 19th century deist. "I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence I do not doubt." Toward the end of his life, Edison toyed with a sort of quasi-Leibnizian conception of microscopic "life entities" (which Ford referred to as "enities"); this line of thought led nowhere, though it encouraged Ford and others to hope that the great inventor would discover scientific evidence for a belief in immortality.
During his courtship of Mina Miller there was a brief period when Edison kept a diary. In this one finds many interesting and novel turns of phrase. Edison could write! He bought some peaches in Boston from a vendor who assured him that they had been grown in California. Edison wrote: "Think of a lie three thousand miles long." In the entry for July 17, 1885, he wrote: "Hottest day of the season. Hell must have sprung a leak." On the 29th of that month he reported that he had "slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine." When urged to follow a fitness regime of exercise and calisthenics, he declined, saying, "I use my body just to carry my brain around."
Wachhorst notes that Edison, in the course of his life, took out 1093 patents, "the most ever granted to any one person." During the elaborate pageantry that Ford arranged for celebrating the 50th anniversary of the light bulb, a radio announcer solemnly intoned, "And Edison said: 'Let there be light!'" At the evening banquet at Dearborn in his honor, the aging Edison collapsed, and it was feared that he was dying. This was in October, 1929, and Edison was 82. He rallied, however, and lived for two more years, but his stints in his beloved laboratory became briefer and less frequent. He still set problems for himself, such as a fog-penetrating light for aviators (after Lindberg's flight), and he speculated about the awesome possibilities of atomic energy:
There will one day spring from the brain of Science a machine or force so fearful in its potentialities, so absolutely terrifying, that even man, the fighter who will dare torture and death in order to inflict torture and death, will be appalled, and so will abandon war for ever.
In August of 1931, he took a turn for the worse, and it was clear to everyone that he was slipping away. Someone asked him if he had thought about a life hereafter, and he replied, "It does not matter. No one knows." He passed away early Sunday morning, October 18, 1931. Josephson comments: "The electromagnetic telegraph, the telephone, the radio, with all of which his life had been bound up, flashed the news to all corners of the world."