From “My Most Unforgettable Character” by Charles Edison.
Thomas Alva Edison never looked like a man whose inventions had changed the world. And he never acted like one either. Once, a visitor asked whether he had received many honours and medals, he replied, “Oh, yes. Mom has baskets of them up at the house.” “Mom” was his wife, my
He moved about his laboratory at Menlo Ibrk, New Jersey, with a funny walk that was more of a shuffle. His hair fell down over one side of his forehead.There were always chemical bums on his unpressed clothing. No, he didn’t look like man who had changed our world.
Yet every day, those of us who were close to him realized what a great man he was. His contributions to better living were 1093 inventions,but it is not for these that I remember him. It is for his courage, his imagination and determination, his humility, his wit.
Because he spent such long hours in the laboratory, he was at home very little. But he did find time to go fishing and take short trips with the family. And when the children were young, he often played games with us.
One thing 1 remember well was Independence Day at our home in New Jersey. This was father’s favourite holiday. He might start the day exploding a huge firecracker at dawn, awakening us and the neighbour», too. Then he would shoot off fireworks of different kinds all day long.
“Mom’s not going to like it,” he would say, but let’s put 20 together and see what happens.”
Always Father led us to experiment and explore for ourselves. He provided all sorts of material and got us to work with them laughing, joking,questioning. He had me washing bottles in his laboratory’ when I was six. When 1 was ten, he helped me start building a full-sized car. It never did get any scats, but it did have a fine engine by thetime I finished with it. It worked,too.
At home or at the laboratory.Father seemed to know’ how to get other people to do things. He could and did give orders, but he liked better to inspire people by his own example. This was one of the secrets of his success.
He was not, as many people believe, a scientist working alone in his laboratory. After he sold his fust successful inventions — for $40,000 — he began hiring chemists, mathematicians, engineers — any-one who knew things that he thought would helphim solve a difficult problem.
Often Father had money troubles and couldn’t pay his men. But, as one of them said later, “It didn’t matter. Wfe wouldn’t stay away.”
Father himself usually worked 18 or more hours a day. “Achievement provides the only real pleasure in life.” he told us. He slept only four hours each night, with a few additional short naps. “If you sleep too much,” he said, “you get dopey. You lose time and opportunities, too.”
His many successful inventions are well- known. Among them were the phonograph’, which he invented when he was 30; the incandescent bulb, which lighted the world; and moving pictures. These are only three of hundreds. He also made the inventions of other people into practical things that could be bought and sold. Without his work, live telegraph and telephone, for example, might have remained unknown.
It is sometimes asked, “Didn’t he ever fail?”The answer is yes. He failed quite often. But he never hesitated to act because he was afraid of failing.
”We haven’t failed,” he told an unhappy worker during one set of disappointing experiments. “We now know 100 things that won’t work. So we are that much closer to finding one that will.”
His feelings about money were somewhat the same. He never hesitated to spend every’ cent that he had. He considered money a material, like metal, to be used rather than kept. He put nearly all his money into his experiments. Several times he was almost completely without money, but that didn’t stop him.
I especially remember a freezing December night in 1914, when Father’s experiments on another invention of his were still a great disappointment. Father had spent ten years and a lot of money on it. Only the money from his motion-picture machines and photographs was keeping the laboratory open and his family alive.
On that December evening the cry “Fire!” was heard in the laboratory. Within moments everything was burning. Chemicals were exploding like fire-works. Firemen from eight nearby towns arrived, but the heat was so great and the water pressure so low that they could do nothing.
When I couldn’t find Father. I became worried. Was he safe? Would losing his laboratory make him losing his courage and determination? He was 67,too old to begin again, I thought. Then I saw him in the yard running toward me.
“Where’s Mom?” he shouted. “Go get her! Tell her to tell her friends! They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
At 5:30 the next morning the fire was still burning but under control. He called his workmen together. “We are going to build again.” he said. And he started giving orders.
One man was to find a building in which they could work while the new laboratory was being built. Another was to get men and machines to clear away the burned building. Suddenly Father said, “Oh!Does anyone know where we can get some money?”
“There is always some value,” he told the men,”in every trouble, even the destruction of everything we own. The fire has cleaned out a lot of things that were really no good. We’ll build bigger and better next time.” Then he rolled up his coat, shuffled over to a table, climbed up on it and went to sleep.
Because he was able to lose everything and start again, and because he invented so many practical machines both before and after the fire, he appeared to have a magic power. He was often called “The Wizard of Menlo Park”.
“Wizard?” he would say. “It’s hard work that does it.”
And Father never changed his sense of values.It has often been said that Edison had no schooling. And it is true tliat he went to school foronly six months. But his mother taught him at his boyhood home in Port Huron, Michigan. With her help, he was reading histories of the Roman Empire at the age of eight or nine.
After he started selling newspapers on Michigan trains, he spent whole days reading in the Detroit Free Library. In our home he always had books, magazines and a half dozen daily newspapers.
From childhood, this man who was to achieve so much was almost completely deaf. He could hear only the loudest noises, but this did not trouble him.
“I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was 12,” he once said. “But being deaf probably helped me.” He believed that it drove him to reading when he was young, provided silence in which he could think, and saved him from small talk.
People asked him why he didn’t invent a machine to help him hear. Father always replied, “How much have you heard in the last 24 hours that was important?” And he added: “A man who has to shout can never tell a lie.”
He enjoyed music, and he could “listen” by putting one end of a pencil between his teeth and the other end on the phonograph. The vibrations came through perfectly. The phonograph was his favourite of all his inventions.
Father never stopped working. And he was not afraid of grow ing old. At the age of 80, he began to study botany, a science new to him. He wanted to find a North American plant which would produce rubber. He experimented with 17,000 kinds of plants and finally got rubber from an ordinary roadside plant, the goldenrod.
Finally, at 84, his health started to fail. Newspapermen arrived at our door to keep watch. Every hour the news was sent out to them: “The light still bums.” But at 3:24 in the morning of October 18, 1931, word came: “The light is out.”
On the day he was buried, all electric lights in the nation were to be turned off for one minute in his honour. But this seemed too dangerous and costly. Instead, only certain lights were turned low for a minute. The work of the nation was not stopped, even for a second. Thomas Edison, I am sure, would have wanted it that way.