Before Thomas Alva Edison graced the world with his gifts, the only way to record a human being’s voice was in one’s memory. There was no way to preserve a moving image. Despite his intensive efforts to record his own life and the lives of others through his development of sound recordings and moving pictures, Edison met the same end we all will: he died. A visit to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, Thursday morning made me grateful for the man and also for my faith in a world beyond this one—a faith that Edison, for all of his brilliance, lacked.
To visit this recently reopened historic site,which I did with my family Thursday, is to be awed by the man and his gifts. Edison was born in 1847. His early life was not easy. Edison did not learn to talk until he was four. He left formal schooling after three months because a teacher found him “addled.” His mom home-schooled him after that. A bout of scarlet fever left him partially deaf.
His life was filled with material success. His friends, including Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, were wealthy and successful. His accomplishments include the invention of the incandescent light bulb, early motion pictures, and the phonograph. He won numerous accolades, including being elected the first honorary member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and a posthumous Grammy.
He amassed great fortune and fame during his 84 years. His laboratories in West Orange were the world’s first industrial research laboratory. He spent so many hours working there—up to 115 a week—that his wife put a bed in the laboratory library so he could rest.
It’s hard to discern exactly what Edison’s spiritual beliefs were. Some say he was an atheist, others that he was a deist, still others that he dabbled in the occcult. But it’s clear that his belief in the afterlife—or that our faith here on earth will affect our eternity—played no role in this rational man of science’s world view.
Death caught up to Edison, as it will the rest of us. The enormous clock in his three-story library stopped at the time of his death. The audio guide we listened to during the tour says it remains a mystery who exactly stopped the clock.
What struck me and Greg during our visit was Edison’s apparent obsession with preserving the memory of himself. He named dozens of companies and inventions after himself. Donald Trump, anyone? He had numerous photographs and films and recordings of himself. Oddest of all, when he lay dying, one of his sons held a test tube to his mouth to preserve his dying breath. That sealed test tube is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield, Michigan.
I found it ironic and sad to learn that Edison’s lifelong favorite poem was Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard.” His favorite stanza was the ninth: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power. And all that beauty all that wealth e’er gave, Alike awaits th’inevitable hour: — The paths of glory leads but to the grave.”
Since my husband survived the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he and I no longer fear death. Our Catholicism has led us to know in our hearts that our lives in Christ will endure beyond our last breath on this earth.