A Visit With Thomas Alva
by Joseph Lewis
December 3, 1929
from Atheism and other Addresses
I have just had the rare privilege of a visit with Mr. Thomas A. Edison at his laboratories in Orange, New Jersey.
When I arrived at the office of the series of buildings in which Mr. Edison had perfected so many of his marvelous inventions, I was met by Mr. W. H. Meadowcroft, Mr. Edison's loyal secretary, who has been with him for more than half a century. He saw the birth of the phonograph, the electric light, and hundreds of others of Mr. Edison's achievements.
On my previous visit to Mr. Edison nearly five years ago, I had met him in his private office which is sometimes referred to as "The Library," and which contains many of Mr. Edison's original inventions. Particularly noticeable is the first model of the phonograph which stands on a table directly in front of his desk. Today, however, Mr. Meadowcroft led me into the chemical laboratory building which is across the alleyway from his private office. As I walked towards the end of the hall, I caught a glimpse of Mr. Edison seated comfortably in a swivel chair slightly tilted back and found myself greatly moved. No one can enter Edison's presence without feeling the effect of the nearness of a supremely great personality.
As I approached, Mr. Edison looked up, recognized me, smiled as only Thomas Edison can smile, and extended his hand in welcome. He clasped mine firmly as I told him how happy I was to see him well again. Apparently he understood what I was saying and smilingly nodded his thanks. Mr. Edison is now almost completely deaf, this condition no doubt aggravated by his recent illness.
I noted that he looked fairly well in view of the severity of his recent illness, except that he was slightly thinner than when I had last seen him. Thomas A. Edison has a majestic head crowned with a diadem of snow-white hair. His keen blue eyes are bright and sparkling. His is the noblest face I have ever seen. It is an inspiration merely to see and talk to this man who has wrested from Nature so many of her guarded secrets.
When I first visited Mr. Edison, I spoke directly into his ear and he heard me distinctly. In fact, he told me that my voice penetrated better than anyone else's he had ever heard. Today, however, I found it rather difficult to make myself understood and so Mr. Meadowcroft suggested that I write my questions.
I repeated in writing what I had previously told him, and also that I considered it a privilege to be able to see him and personally bid him a safe voyage on his annual trip to the South for the winter. He smiled graciously in reply.
I had brought with me a copy of my little book on Voltaire and presented it to him. He looked at my inscription, smiled, and after turning a few pages gave it to Mr. Meadowcroft, telling him to be sure to put it into his brief case so he could take it with him on his trip.
I then asked Mr. Edison what he thought of the Freethinkers' campaign to send copies of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason to high school and college students throughout the country. When he finished reading the question, he looked up. "That is simply fine," he said emphatically. "It is the best book ever written on the subject. There is nothing like it! The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from six to seven years of age and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them." Mr. Edison was very much interested in the subject. "Incurably religious," he continued, "that is the best way to describe the mental condition of so many people." He repeated "incurably religious" many times, saying the great task was to get people to read.
Of course, Mr. Edison paid his respects to the preachers. It is needless to repeat what he thinks of them. At the celebration in Mr. Edison's honor, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the electric light which Henry Ford held at Dearborn last October, it was particularly noticeable that no clergyman was present either to render an "invocation" or to give a "benediction."
Not very long ago the Board of Education of a city in New York State decided to name a new school the "Thomas A. Edison High School" and the preachers of the community rose in a horrified protest because, they said, Mr. Edison was an infidel! I wonder how many people would go to their churches today if there were no electric lights.
This incident recalls to my mind Benjamin Franklin's invention of the lightning rod. The preachers would have none of it. They called it the "heretical rod" because Franklin, too, was an infidel. Yet despite "God's protection, their churches, having no lightning rods, were invariably struck by lightning. Now the "heretical rod" rises higher than the church steeple!
I do not know what man the religious believers have who can compare with Thomas A. Edison. Perhaps I am doing Mr. Edison an injustice in merely suggesting such a comparison. He has done more for the human race than all the rabbis, priests and preachers, more than all the patriarchs, monks and saints, more than all the Bibles and creeds. He has revolutionized the life of man. He has brought light to dark places and given man the torch that illuminates his path; he has preserved music and events for posterity and given to future generations the voices of the past. By his electrical devices he has freed labor from the burden of ceaseless toil. He has wrought wonders upon wonders and has done more than any other man who ever lived to emancipate the human race from the drudgery of life. His greatest delight is in accomplishing things for the happiness of his fellow man. He is a real savior. Upon his noble forehead belongs the palm as a symbol of the everlasting gratitude of all mankind. The next time religionists ask what are the fruits of Freethought, we need but answer, "Edison."
Mr. Edison was forcibly struck by the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of deluded people making a pilgrimage to the grave of an obscure priest in Malden, Massachusetts, a Father Powers who had died of consumption, in the hope of effecting "miraculous cures." He seemed rather discouraged at this pitiful exhibition and after expressing himself at length the subject, nodded his head and said, "What fools."
The Wizard of Menlo Park told me of his interesting experiments with rubber plants. He spoke of their similarity to human beings. He said that the plant lives very much as we do. It breathes and eats and converts the things it eats into carbon and energy. He concluded by saying, after intimating that he had made some important discoveries, that the more he studies plants the more he understands men. Luther Burbank knew this great truth, too.
Realizing that Mr. Edison had but recently recovered from a severe attack of pneumonia, I did not want to overstay my visit. Nor did I want to remain longer than I should with a man whose time is so valuable and who is engaged in so many important experiments.
Just as I was bidding him goodbye, I remembered an important question I had forgotten to ask in the half hour of this absorbing visit. I told him that I was publishing a little brochure on Luther Burbank and wanted to include an appreciation of Mr. Burbank by him. He laughingly protested that he could not "write." I said all I wanted was a paragraph or two of what he thought of the man who had given his "fellow passengers on the road" such an immense variety of fruits and flowers, and who had brought so much color and beauty and happiness to the human race. Mr. Edison promised that he would do the best he could. Within a short time I received his appreciation of the lovable Burbank. (See the address, Burbank, the Infidel in this collection -- Editor.)
After mutually cordial greetings were exchanged, he put one arm affectionately around my shoulder, saying, "Lewis, you have a tough job ahead of you, but don't give it up." Who could surrender the fight against bigotry, ignorance, and religious intolerance with encouragement from such a man!
I followed Mr. Meadowcroft through the chemical laboratory building with its slab-top tables, test tubes, bottles of chemicals, cabinets, peculiar apparatus and strange instruments, to the main building of Edison's laboratories and into his private office, which familiar surroundings brought back vividly the impressions of my first visit.
After leaving the building a vision of Edison constantly rose before me. The impressions of this visit I shall never forget. I can still see the kindly face, hear his strong mellow voice, and feel with a thrill the clasp of his firm hand.
The news of Mr. Edison's death fell upon me like a pall. I felt as if a great void had been left in the world. What a pity that he could not have stayed the hand of death so that he could continue to unravel the secrets of Nature. What sort of "design" can there be in life when this grandest of all men is cut down unceremoniously by the Grim Reaper's scythe while idiots and imbeciles live on? This great genius is irreparably lost to the world.