I had no idea that Thomas Edison’s family were United Empire Loyalists, refugees fleeing to Canada in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War. Thomas’ grandfather Samuel Sr. even took part in the Canadian conquest of Detroit during the war of 1812. But frustrated with inequalities in Canada, his son Samuel Jr. joined in Mayor William Lyon Mackenzie’s 1837 unsuccessful plot to liberate Toronto from Canada. As Samuel Edison Jr. fled with his family to Ohio, Canada lost one of the world’s greatest inventors: Thomas Alva Edison.
In talking to many people, I have not met one yet who hasn’t heard of Thomas Edison. But few of us have realized just how prolific an inventor Edison really was, with 1,069 different inventions patented! Edison of course is best known for the creation of the world’s first usable lightbulb. Realizing that a lightbulb needed a power source, he went on to create the world’s first electrical power station, a revolutionary act that transformed modern technology, and created ten of millions of jobs. Henry Ford once commented: ‘To find a man who has not benefited by Edison and who is not in debt to him, it would be necessary to go deep into the jungle.’
It was also interesting to discover that his own father and his teachers saw this unique genius as unintelligent. He irritated his superiors by continually asking questions. He also had trouble hearing which made learning difficult in school. Years later, Thomas said, ‘My father thought I was stupid, and I almost decided I must be a dunce’. Thomas was afraid to tell his mother how difficult school was, in case she too would lose her confidence in him. His mother Nancy, who always stood up for him, eventually pulled him out and home-schooled him herself. Edison later said: ‘My mother was the making of me; she let me follow my bent’. At one particularly low point, he realized that his mother was ‘the most enthusiastic champion a boy ever had.’ At age 12, he began selling newspapers and snacks from 6am-11pm to railway passengers. During his spare moments, he used to conduct chemistry experiments in the baggage cars until one day he was fired for setting the train car on fire. As the last of seven children, Thomas was always a kid at heart, seeing life as one big experiment.
Edison’s next job as a telegrapher allowed him to create his first invention, an automatic telegraph dispatcher that allowed him to work on his experiments and sleep the rest of the time. His invention worked like clockwork until one day sleepy Edison was fired for not forwarding an unusual message warning of a narrowly-averted head-on train collision.
Thomas Edison changed his world before he even reached age 40. His success in the fields of telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and the electric light were achieved between the ages of 20 to 39. He continued inventing right up until his death at age 85. Edison aimed to produce one minor invention every ten days and one major one every six months. Inventing for Edison was as natural as breathing.
One co-worker said of Edison that ‘His genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep anywhere, any time on anything.’ Always a night bird, Edison would often start work at nightfall, break for ‘lunch’ at midnight, and then go until daybreak. Because Edison believed that changing clothes was bad for creativity, he often slept fully clothed. His wife Mary was so irritated by this habit that she often encouraged him to sleep elsewhere. Sadly time for his wife and children often became lost in his passion for creativity and invention.
Edison created and patented both the gramophone, the ancestor of our modern CD and Tape Player, as well as the Kinetoscope, the ancestor of movie cameras. As well as creating the world’s first Movie Studio in New Jersey, he indirectly created the Hollywood film industry by ‘driving’ his competitors right across the country in their efforts to avoid Edison’s subpoenas and court orders. Edison struggled all his life with lawsuits over people stealing or imitating his inventions. But it never stopped Edison’s creativity in bringing new light to age-old technological problems.
As Edison brought physical light, so Jesus brings spiritual light to the darkness and confusion that we all face on a daily basis. Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’. As you are reading this article, it may be very dark outside, but you are directly benefiting from Edison’s enlightening breakthrough with workable light bulbs.
My prayer is that in the same way that each of us benefit from the light that Edison has brought into our lives, so too we may be willing to benefit from the light that Jesus is waiting to bring into our lives.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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