Archive for Sunday, February 11, 2001

Edison: A true American hero

February 11, 2001


Today is Thomas A. Edison's birthday. When we were in grade school we learned about Feb. 11, to us one of the big February birthdays, and the boys who were my friends joined me in admiration of Edison. There were three heroes about then, Charles A. Lindbergh, who flew the Atlantic; Knute Rockne, who coached at Notre Dame, and Edison. What shocks in 1931, 70 years ago, when Rockne and Edison both died.

I discovered Edison when I went to the Carnegie Library in Preston and found little biographies of great inventors, Edison and the others. I sat in that magical place and read those inspirational books. I started collecting stamps, and one of the first, and most treasured, was the 1929 commemoration of Edison's invention of the electric light.

Later I would admire Edison for his invention of the phonograph and his contributions to the development of motion pictures. He invented a lot of other things, of course. In 1940 there were two pretty good movies, "Young Tom Edison," with Mickey Rooney, and "Edison the Man," with Spencer Tracy. Great inventors were being celebrated in the movies then, Bell by Don Ameche and Robert Fulton by, I believe, Richard Greene.

Thomas A. Edison was the very symbol of success, and in my boyhood we still believed in the Horatio Alger myths. Edison was an Alger hero come true. He really was a boy from the country who through pluck and luck achieved greatness.

He was born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. (See the postage stamp about Edison that came out in 1947.) His family moved to Port Huron, Mich. Edison went to school for only three months, but he learned at home, one of those great 19th century mothers there to teach him the great books. Not much history; Edison, like Henry Ford, was bored with such matters. In later years Edison said he had little use for education.

Edison became a "news butcher" on a train, and he actually published a little newspaper printed on the train. We read that he became deaf because a man on the train "boxed" his ears. He was most interested at first in the telegraph, and he read, and experimented.

He was the pure pragmatist; he didn't know much about theory but he knew how to try things out. Read the splendid sketch of Edison in John Dos Passos' "U.S.A."

He invented an automatic vote recorder, but Congress wasn't interested. He invented a universal stock ticker. He worked on a typewriter. He worked on a mimeograph machine. How Edison might have dominated the age of the computer! He was no mathematician; he could hire people to do his calculating.

He located himself in West Orange, N.J. There he worked on the later inventions. Have you heard the recording Edison made late in life of the words he read into his phonograph? "Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow." I did a radio hour about Edison years ago and used the voices of people to illustrate his work with the phonograph: the man who blew the bugle at Balaclava, Florence Nightingale, Guglielmo Marconi, Enrico Caruso, George Bernard Shaw.

How the world was changed with his invention of the incandescent light. I fumed when I saw a display in a London museum contending that an Englishman was the inventor. Fancy the darkness of a great city, or even a small town, before the dynamo could light an entire building. A recent Smithsonian has an article about "the night," and the terror it struck into the soul. Edison lighted the world. My memory of the Tracy film was that the dynamo was the grand climactic moment.

Edison worked on the kinetoscope, a primitive projecting machine for movies. With Eastman he developed this other remarkable invention. He once said something like this, when he looked out at a beautiful river valley. "See that beautiful valley. I'm going to make it really beautiful. I'm going to cover it with factories." When I drove the New Jersey Turnpike and the West Virginia interstate I thought of those words.

He palled around with Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs. The four camped out, and what a photograph, four old men sitting by a campfire in their black suits. He was alive for the Golden Jubilee of Light in '29. When he died in 1931, lights were turned off, briefly, all over America.

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