Because Death Catches Up to All of Us, Even Thomas Alva Edison

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.

  • Julie Cragon

    I'm sorry for those who feel there is nothing more after this life. I see people work so hard day in and day out and for what? Like Edison, to wake up again and work some more? We are fortunate to know that we work for something more, that our time here is not a means to an end but only the beginning of something wonderful. Because of our belief in the Resurrection, we know "that our lives in Christ will endure beyond our last breath on this earth." Thank you for those words.

  • Elizabeth Mahlou

    Interesting post.

  • Allison

    @Elizabeth: A dear friend of mine implied he is uncomfortable with this post because he felt I was implying that smarts should get to understand the need for your salvation, when indeed we all will be redeemed only through God's grace. I would like to hear more of your thoughts…

  • Andy

    Hey Batgirl,Are you talking about me? I've given it some thought and now have something to add.Faith and Reason have always been a personal paradox for me. My parents named me Andrew Thomas because they were nice biblical names, but I took both names at my confirmation because I had grown to appreciate the dichotomy between the two apostles: Andrew, who was the first to follow Christ and who shared in his brother Peter's bold, almost reckless, commitment to faith; and Thomas, who demanded empirical evidence of the resurrection, and who was the namesake of the great thinkers Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, and Thomas Merton.By God's grace I was raised in a Lutheran family to believe in the infallible truth of Scripture. When I was old enough to think rationally about my beliefs, I realized that while I believed these things simply because my parents had taught them to me, they were also an inherent part of my being and experience of life. The biblical statement "God is Love" was true to me not only because it was contained in the text of Scripture, but also because of the love with which my parents had raised me in the Lutheran faith.If I had simply faith without reason, I wouldn't have joined the Catholic church. But as I studied biblical languages, church history, and textual criticism, I came to realize the extent to which Protestant beliefs and even the very text of their Scripture depended upon the Tradition of the early church, which in my view of history was continuous with the Catholic church and had not changed essentially. If those elements of the Catholic church which have existed since the apostles were false, I reasoned, then the Scripture upon which Lutheranism is founded would also be false. If I could not possibly conceive of the Gospel as false because of my initial faith, then contrapositively I could not hold Catholicism to be false either.A pure rationalist could argue the possibility that both Catholic and Lutheran doctrines are false, and that I should abandon traditional religion altogether. But as I said before, to do so would be to betray what I had always been. I could say as Peter did, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” because to me the words of Christ were essential to the only life I had ever known. So in the end, faith got the final say. But that faith is no less informed by reason than any other aspect of my life.The Joker

  • Webster Bull

    So glad the name Batgirl is catching on.Batman.

  • Allison

    Andy "Joker": (Hey I just "got" that) Yes, I was talking about you. As usual, you raise excellent points and give me something to think about. I do think my friends who have converted to the Church have much more "reason" for joining than I have for staying, in the sense that you all have studied church history, documents etc. I appreciate coming along for the ride!Faith and reason. Yes, we need them both. They interact with one another. I think my reasons for staying Catholic initially had more to do with Faith than with Reason.

  • Frank

    @Webster: That's what happens when you have your own theme-song! @Andrew:Mirroring your thinking (see 2BFrank)that is how I wound up in the recruiting office. Ain't it grand?! And take a look at our new bookshelf feature in the right-hand side bar.

  • Anonymous

    I do hope that Edison became a believer in Jesus as his Savior before he died. What a horrible feeling to have been so successful in life, and yet to hear the dreaded words from the Lord "Depart from me, I never knew you." Sue M.

  • Allison

    @Sue M. Agreed. One thought: we do not know how wide God's mercy is. It is a lot wider than ours (human's ) though, I do believe…