The First Electronic Church of America
Thomas Alva Edison
Most people believe Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio. But there is a legend in Mexico that "Tõmas" Alva was born in Lagos de Moreno, then taken to the U.S. as a toddler and adopted into the Edison family. The legend, true or not, testifies, at least, to the international veneration that this most prolific inventor enjoys, even today. Who wouldn't want to claim Edison as a native son?
Edison was born in 1847, a year when Michael Faraday practically invented alternating current (passing a magnet through a coil of wire, he found, generated electricity). When Edison died in 1931 (at the age of 84), the whole world was running its industry on power plants fashioned after Edison's own design, and reading its books and magazines and newspapers under light bulbs of Edison's invention. The man held 1093 patents, including several for the first motion picture camera (called the kinetescope), and the phonograph, the invention he was most proud of, made of tinfoil and wax cylinders. He invented the carbon button transmitter, which is still being used in most of our microphones and telephones, the first alkaline storage battery, the mimeograph machine, flexible celluloid film and the first movie projector. Later, he would make the movies talk.
Young Tom Edison grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, after his father (or, perhaps, if you prefer to go along with Mexican legend, foster-father) was hired on as a carpenter at the Fort Gratiot military post. But, because of hearing problems that made it difficult for him to follow the class lessons, his teachers considered him to be a dull student and his school attendance became sporadic. Nevertheless, Edison became a voracious reader and at age 10, he set up a laboratory in his basement.
When his mother could no longer stand the smell of his chemistry lab, Edison took a job as a train boy on the Grand Trunk Railway, selling magazines and candy. He spent all he earned on books and apparatus for the chemical laboratory he set up in an empty freight car. He was twelve at the time. (Go to your local video store and rent a copy of the MGM movie, "Young Tom Edison," starring an Oscar-winning Mickey Rooney. Some of that movie is myth, but it is myth that captures the spirit of this budding genius, who, at age 13, was printing his own weekly newspaper for the train's passengers, which he called the Grand Trunk Herald. )
While Edison was working for the railroad, something happened that changed the course of his career. Edison saved the life of a station official's child, who had fallen onto the tracks of an oncoming train. For his bravery, the boy's father taught Edison how to use the telegraph.
From 1862 to 1868, Edison worked as a roving telegrapher in the Midwest, the South, Canada, and New England. During this time, he began developing a telegraphic repeating instrument that made it possible to transmit messages automatically. By 1869, Edison's inventions, including the duplex telegraph (which sent messages in opposite directions at the same time on the same wire) and the message printer, were progressing so well, he left telegraphy and began a career of full-time inventing and entrepreneurship.
At age 22, Edison moved to New York City, and there he perfected a telegraph printer used by the New York financial community now known generically as a "stock ticker." That ticker made the financial world go round. Brokers decided to buy Edison's patents on it. How much did he want? He stammered, thought he'd ask for $3,000, then said, "Suppose you make me an offer." They gave him a check for $40,000. It was equivalent to several million in today's dollars.
Stunned, he staggered to a bank with the check, and, after some misunderstandings, finally got the $40,000, in ten- and twenty-dollar-bills, stuffed them in his overcoat pockets and repaired to the room at his boarding house, where he spent a sleepless night thinking that someone would surely murder him for his hoard. He was so naive he didn't know he could deposit the money in that same bank, and draw on it at will. Which he shortly did. With this windfall, Edison was able to establish a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and later in West Orange, where he continued to turn out a prodigious amount of work for the rest of his life in what would become a model of the modern industrial research laboratory.
Soon, he would marry Mary Stillwell, who bore him three children. Edison made fortunes for himself and others, but he was a poor financial manager. He seemed indifferent to wealth, except as a means of further invention, further knowledge, and further triumph. Once, when a new employee checked in at Menlo Park, he asked Edison for a copy of the lab rules. "There ain't no rules around here," said Edison. "We're trying to accomplish something." Accomplish he did. He worked 24 hours a day, taking fifteen-minute cat naps when he was tired, and eating on the run, when he was hungry.
In 1878, Edison began work on an electric lamp and sought a material that could be electrically heated to incandescence in a vacuum. During these experiments on the incandescent bulb, Edison noted a flow of electricity from a hot filament across a vacuum to a metal wire. This phenomenon was known as thermionic emission, or the Edison effect, and it led one of Edison's engineers, William J. Hammer, into the discovery five years later of the vacuum tube, later adapted by Lee de Forest and called "the audion tube" -- a key component of something Billy Marconi ended up calling "radio." Edison, therefore, was one of the godfathers of radio -- and of television.
In the late 1870s, backed (at first haltingly) by leading financiers including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, Edison established the Edison Electric Light Company. In 1879, he publicly demonstrated his incandescent electric light bulb. In 1882, he supervised the installation of the first commercial, central power system in lower Manhattan.
In 1915, though he had been determinedly against all war, he agreed to help Pres. Woodrow Wilson bring the combined efforts of the nation's scientists to bear on the U.S. effort in World War I -- to the vast disappointment of his friend, car maker Henry Ford, who had begged Edison to join him on his quixotic efforts to take a ship to Stockholm in December 1915, in order to end the war. Ford planned to bring leaders of the world's most powerful nations, in the full course of battle, to lay down their arms. When Edison saw Ford off at the dock in New York, the story goes, Ford shouted an offer to Edison: a million dollars if he would get on board. Edison didn't hear him. Ford returned from his well-intentioned cruise, embittered at Europe's leaders, who never came to Ford's meeting in Stockholm. But Edison's refusal to join the "Peace Ship" never sullied Ford's affection for Edison.
Ford had become a staunch believer in the after-life. And so he was delighted when he heard of Edison's metaphysical speculations about life after death. "The greatest thing that has occurred in the last fifty years," said Ford, "is Mr. Edison's conclusion that there is a future life for all of us."
What led to this encomium from Ford? This. In 1920, Edison said that he had long believed that the cells of the human body possessed "intelligence," and, taken together, constituted "a community made up of its innumerable cells or inhabitants." A man, he concluded, was not merely an individual, but also "a vast collection of myriads of individuals." The intelligence of a man, then, consisted of the combined intelligence of all the cells, or "entities" within him, "as a city is made up of the combined intelligence of its inhabitants." After death, those cells were separated and diffused, yet persisted in some new form, served over and over again, lived forever, and could no more be destroyed than matter. Thus, he demonstrated, he had burned his thumb. But the skin was perfectly formed and replaced. "The life entities," he said, "rebuilt that thumb with consummate care."
Edison told a writer for American Magazine, that he was "at work on the most sensitive apparatus I have undertaken to build, and await the results with the keenest interest." Such an apparatus, he said, "might be operated by personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us; it will give them a better opportunity to express themselves than ouija boards or tilting tables."
We cite these speculations of Thomas Alva Edison not because we believe he was propounding a thesis that had any scientific, or even theological, certitude, but because Edison was a great man with great intuitive powers. In positing "the intelligence of cells," we believe Edison was on to something -- something that would be elaborated at much higher and more serious speculative levels decades later by Jean-Emile Charon, a French atomic scientist and, in his later years, a philosopher who explored the frontiers between physics and metaphysics.