November 28, 2014
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Here & Now: Why Edison Chewed the Piano

Playing true or false with the inventor at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates

Illustration by PushArt

 

Thomas Edison and I were enjoying a pleasant Saturday afternoon tete a tete recently—with his genteel wife, Mina, of course—on the lawn of their Fort Myers winter estate. They were impeccably dressed in garden party whites with straw hats—he in black tie, white lab coat and silver-handled cane, and she in the sweetest handkerchief linen dress edged in Battenburg lace.

Mina rarely leaves her husband’s side these days. “Thomas is quite deaf, you know,” she says, “and a bit unsteady on his feet.” But I can see he’s still sharp as a tack. Which is one of the few inventions not credited to him. The tack, I mean. He holds a whopping 1,093 patents, and folks say he invented the movies, the telegraph, the X-ray machine … even wax paper and the electric chair. But DID he?

I can just hear you saying, “Don’t be ridiculous. Thomas Edison would be 167 years old and is most assuredly not still walking around his estate. And you left out his most important invention, the light bulb.”

Well, you’re half right. Thomas technically passed on to that great laboratory in the sky in 1931. My hosts were actually Jamie and Jan MaGirl, who have been channeling the famous couple for so long as impersonators/docents that I bet they fool each other sometimes. But about the electric light bulb, here’s the real shocker, if you’ll pardon the pun: Thomas Edison not only did not invent it; he didn’t invent a single one of the other things I mentioned.

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But please don’t kill the messenger. “The fact is,” he confided in me, “I never claimed to have invented these things. I just took clever but dysfunctional concepts and made them efficient. The first attempts at the light bulb were made before I was born. But I invented the first practical one. To make it work, by the way, I had to invent the parallel circuit, an underground conductor network, safety fuses, insulating materials and several other technical components I won’t bore you with, including, of course, the off-and-on switch.”

 

I checked it out, and it’s true. Edison had a keen eye for new ideas in the works and a gift for hiring brilliant associates to “muck around” with them in his laboratory. He had the business smarts to patent “improved” versions, then manufacture and market the heck out of them.

Once he refined the light bulb, he started a company to manufacture them. You may know of it: the Edison Electric Light Company. No? Well, in 1892 it got its current name (current, get it?), The General Electric Company.

Edison didn’t invent either the movie camera or the first projector. But he did get the first patent for the kinetoscope, a one-person peep show. For a quarter, you could watch girls in nightgowns having pillow fights, a strongman flexing his muscles, cock fights and, my favorite, a scandalous shoe-store scene involving wool stocking-clad ankles.

Edison thought the idea of projecting movies for a big audience was ludicrous. His exact words, according to motion picture historian Terry Ramsaye, were, “If we make this screen machine that you are asking for, it will spoil everything. We are making these peep show machines and selling a lot of them at a good profit. If we put out a screen machine, there will be a use for maybe about 10 of them in the whole United States. With that many screen machines you could show the pictures to everybody in the country—and then it would be done. Let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

To set another record straight, so to speak, the phonograph actually was his invention, although it borrowed heavily from the already-invented telegraph and telephone.

The myth that cracks Thomas up the most is that he invented the phonograph by chewing on its soft wood frame. Well, guess what—that one’s absolutely true. You can still see the bite marks on the one among his collections. It was perfectly logical, actually. Although nearly deaf, Thomas could “hear” the music through vibrations from his teeth to his eardrum. Once, he scandalized polite society by chomping down on a grand piano during a concert in a friend’s home.

The myths are never-ending. Did Edison really invent a vote-tallying machine so lightning-fast that legislators

 killed it? Yep. The sly politicians needed slow counts to stretch out their filibusters. “They told me, ‘If there is any invention on Earth that we don’t want down here, that is it.’”

Did Edison really nap on top of his desk and shelves in his laboratory? Did he leave his wife on their wedding night to check the progress on his product du jour, the stock ticker? Did he really get kicked out of school at age 7 for being too stupid to learn?

Did he really name his two kids Dot and Dash in honor of the telegraph, which he sorta-kinda invented?

I know, but I’m not telling. You’ll have to visit the Edison & Ford Winter Estates and find out for yourself. Please give my regards to Thomas and Mina.

 

Details

The Edison & Ford Winter Estates, on the Caloosahatchee River and encompassing the restored homes of Thomas Edison and his good friend Henry Ford along with gardens, a museum and Edison’s laboratory, is among America’s 10 most visited historic home sites.

2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers, (239) 334-7419, edisonfordwinterestates.org

 

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