Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Thomas A. Edison

You might know that Thomas A. Edison held more than 1000 patents for such inventions as the incandescent lightbulb and the phonograph, but did you know:

10. Edison had a tattoo. A design of five pips in a pattern resembling a die adorned his left forearm.

9. Edison experimented on himself. He obliterated a fingerprint to demonstrate the life force (the “immortal units” he believed inhabited all humans and animals) asserting itself, and the lines and whorls indeed did reappear as the skin grew back. But one series of experiments nearly cost Edison his eyesight—after he subjected himself continually to X-rays, his focus was off by a foot. (His assistant was not so lucky—Clarence Dally lost both arms to amputation after years of exposure to radiation.)

8. Edison was almost entirely deaf by age twelve, the aftereffects of an early bout with scarlet fever. His deafness allowed him “to work with less distraction and to sleep deeply, undisturbed by outside sounds.”

7. Edison was homeschooled. After a teacher deemed him “addled” (perhaps because of his deafness, insatiable curiosity and hyperactivity), his mother, an accomplished schoolteacher, pulled him out and taught him the three Rs.

6. Edison invented an “electrographic vote-recorder,” the electric car, the pneumatic stencil pen (the ancestor of the tattoo gun), the magnetic iron-ore separator, a vacuum food preserver, the concrete house filled with concrete furniture, and the talking doll. (As Simpsons fans know, Edison’s estate gave the Wizard of Menlo Park credit for the tippable chair and electric hammer Homer invented but left behind at the Edison museum in New Jersey.)

5. Edison and Henry Ford were BFFs. Ford worked for an Edison lighting company as an engineer and met the Wizard at a convention where he explained his gas-powered car. “Young man,” Edison said, “that's the thing! You have it! Your car is self contained and carries its own power plant.” Ford credits this encouragement for motivating him to continue. The carmaker admired the inventor and felt Menlo Park, the first industrial research lab in the US, should be preserved. He reconstructed it in Greenfield Village and named the institute that operates the village and his own museum after his friend.

Ford bought the estate next door to Edison’s in Florida and when Edison became confined to a wheelchair Ford got one, too, so they could race around the neighborhood together.

From The Detroit News:
Together with John Burroughs, naturalist Luther Burbank, Harvey Firestone and occasionally, President Harding, Ford and Edison participated in a series of camping trips…En route to a new campsite on a rainy day, the Lincoln touring car carrying Harding, Ford, Edison, Firestone and naturalist Luther Burbank bogged down in deep mud on a back road in West Virginia. Ford's chauffeur went for help and returned with a farmer driving an ancient Model T. After the Lincoln was yanked from the mire, Ford was the first to shake the farmer's hand.

 “I guess you don't know me but I'm Henry Ford. I made the car you're driving.”

Firestone chimed in, “I'm the man who made those tires.” Then he introduced two of the campers: “Meet the man who invented the electric light -- and the President of the United States.”

Luther Burbank was the last to shake hands. “I guess you don't know me either?” he asked.

“No,” said the farmer, “but if you're the same kind of liar as these other darn fools, I wouldn't be surprised if you said you was Santa Claus.”

4. Edison did not allow clocks in the workroom. “I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom.” He worked a 90-hour week himself and urged his teams of “muckers” to invent something minor every ten days and something major every six months.

3. Edison’s love for telegraphy and Morse code showed up in some eccentricities. He nicknamed his first two children “Dot” (Marian) and “Dash” (Tom, Jr.) and proposed to his second wife in Morse code.

2. Edison suggested many uses for the phonograph besides its primary purpose—business dictation. He foresaw letter writing, phonographic books for the blind, a family record (recording family members in their own voices), toys, clocks that announce the time, and a connection with the telephone so communications could be recorded. The only use he left out was for recording music.

1. Edison was a ghostbuster. Although often called an atheist because he had contempt for organized religion, Edison believed humans and animals were endowed with “immortal units” that survive death. In a 1920 essay he wrote, “I have been at work for sometime building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us” and that same year told American Magazine he was working on a device so sensitive it could record communication with the dead. Because no schematic or prototype for such a device was ever found, however, many speculate he was joking.

It's possible, though, that Edison kept his notes and blueprints for such a radical invention hidden until he could announce a successful device to the world, as he publicized only his successes.

Then there’s the article in a 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix that describes a bizarre evening when Edison gathered a group of spiritualists who tried to lure ethereal forms to register their presence on a photo-electric receiver. “It does not matter how slight is the effort, it will be sufficient to record whatever there is to be recorded.” Although nothing happened that night, Edison's interest in the afterlife continued.

On his deathbed he said to his doctor, “It is beautiful over there.” A rack of empty test tubes from his workbench in the Chemical Room sat close to his bedside and were sealed as soon as he passed on. They were given away as memorials and possibly contain some of the life force he believed could never be destroyed.
Edison commented frequently about hard work and persistence. In addition to the familiar “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” he said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work,” “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” “To have a great idea, have a lot of them,” and the delightful “Hell, there are no rules here–we're trying to accomplish something.” But my favorite has to be, “I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun.”