|EDISON'S LAST BREATH
by William Palmer
Henry Ford admired Thomas Edison so much he obtained Edison's last breath. You can see the breath in a test tube, corked and sealed in paraffin, at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. But is it really Edison's last breath?
The breath may be the most unusual bit of memorabilia in the Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, a sanctuary of history celebrating "authentic objects, stories, and lives from America's traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation" (taken from their stationery).
What is the story behind the last breath? No one seems to know for sure.
In the glass display case which contains the test tube is a card with the title "Edison's Last Breath?" That the title includes a question mark suggests the breath might not be authentic. Below the card is written this explanation:
Before I researched the matter, my imagination stirred a few scenarios. Perhaps Edison's wife, Mina, caught it. Grabbing a vial, she shouted into Edison's ear (he was almost deaf), "Honey, breathe into this. Give me your last breath as a reminder of our love." A wise woman, she knew that a person is not dead until his last breath is gone. Or Mina, an incurable romantic, caught her husband's breath as she kissed his dying lips. Then she blew it into the test tube and immediately corked it--sealing their kiss forever.
Or this: Two young technicians assigned to Edison as he lay dying had been ordered to catch his last breath for some obsessed superior. Tired of his wheezing, they dearly wished he would just get it over with.
"Get ready," one said. "He's sounding worse than ever."
"Not just yet," said the other, a test tube in hand, "we've got to make sure it is his very last one."
"Really, it's coming. I feel it!" the first stated again.
The other remained in his chair. "Not yet, not yet . . . "
Suddenly, the old man gave an enormous shudder and stopped breathing.
"Oh no!" the technician cried. "I've missed it! I've missed it! We're doomed!"
"Wait!" said the other. "Hold the vial! Hold the vial!" He then hurled himself onto the old man's body expelling whatever stale air was left in his lungs.
"Now THAT," he said nervously, "is Edison's VERY LAST breath!"
Seeking more factual information, I wrote to the Research Center at the Ford Museum. An assistant wrote back: "We have found little documentation concerning the test tube containing 'Edison's last breath.'" She explained that in February 1992 a Research Center staff member had made "a thorough search" of all available records: Henry Ford's Office Papers from 1931-44; Thomas A. Edison Papers which included Ford's correspondence with Edison's wife and children from Edison's death in 1931 to the 1940's; and the Fair Lane Papers. Nothing proved or disproved the event.
Then six months later when I visited the Ford Museum during the Christmas holidays, the Research Center found a letter written by Charles Edison on June 17, 1953 to the popular newspaper columnist Walter Winchell. Winchell had apparently contacted Charles to see if the last breath story was true. Charles wrote,
During Mr. Edison's last illness there was a rack of eight empty test tubes close to his bedside. They were from his work bench in the Chemical Room at the Laboratory in West Orange [New Jersey]. Though he is mainly remembered for his work in electrical fields, his real love was chemistry. It is not strange, but symbolic, that those test tubes were close to him at the end. Immediately after his passing I asked Dr. Hubert S. Howe, his attending physician, to seal them with paraffin. He did. I still have them. Later I gave one of them to Mr. Ford.
I found a reasonable answer to this last question in Greenfield Village. As I toured Menlo Park, the laboratory where Edison had invented his incandescent light, I asked the guide or "interpreter" working there if she knew anything about Edison's last breath. Yes. She knew that a doctor, upon Charles' request, had filled several test tubes in Edison's bedroom when he died. The doctor simply waved the tubes in the air, thereby catching Edison's final breaths. I asked another interpreter who was making caramel corn in the kitchen of Henry Ford's birthplace. She told me the same story.
To obtain more information regarding the last breath, I spoke with the chief archivist at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. Dr. George Tselos verified that the breaths were taken from the air in Edison's bedroom, but he told me nothing new, even though the Site in New Jersey is where Edison died. Tselos did not know the whereabouts of the other test tubes, but he recommended that I contact Dr. Leslie Marietta, director of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida where Edison and his wife spent their winters. (Ford built a home adjoining Edison's.)
Dr. Marietta laughed over the phone and then startled me with this information: the Edison Estate has a collection of 42 test tubes supposedly containing Edison's last breaths. When he began his job there thirteen years ago, Marietta assumed that someone had blown the Edison last breath story all out of proportion. I asked him if the test tubes were corked and sealed in paraffin. They are. "Might the seven missing test tubes be among the forty-two there in Fort Myers?" I asked. They could be. He did not know.
I asked Dr. Marietta if he thought it was Henry Ford's idea to have Edison's last breath collected, as the display at the Ford Museum suggests. Based on his knowledge of Thomas and Charles Edison, he believes Charles arrived at the idea. Charles, his mother, and other siblings were reportedly in a room adjoining Edison's bedroom. With the rack of test tubes near Edison's bed, Charles likely conceived the notion to collect samples of his famous father's breath. As Charles writes in his letter to Walter Winchell, he wanted the test tubes to symbolize Edison's devotion to chemistry.
Whether the idea for preserving Edison's last breath came from Charles Edison or Henry Ford, historians agree that Ford idolized Edison. Edison inspired him.
In 1891 Henry Ford worked at the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. He became the chief mechanical-engineer. In 1896 Ford attended the Edison Company's annual convention where he met Edison for the first time. They talked about Ford's efforts at making a gas car. As Ford described his work, Edison asked him many questions. In his book Edison as I Knew Him, Ford explains the impact this meeting had on his life:
"Young man, that's the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won't do either . . . ."
That bang on the table was worth the world to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. (Nye 100-101)
With the enormous success of the Model T and the development of the first moving assembly line, Henry Ford became another great man in the world. As Edison produced light for the masses, Ford produced affordable cars: lowering the price of his cars from $900 in 1909 to $360 in 1920 (Nye 23). Ford and Edison became friends and fellow industrialists, though Ford always addressed his hero as Mr. Edison.
Henry Ford demonstrated his greatest praise for Thomas Edison in 1929 when he staged a world-wide celebration of Edison's invention of the incandescent light. At Greenfield Village Ford had meticulously reconstructed Edison's first laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Menlo Park had deteriorated; people had taken boards from the building as keepsakes. Ford sent some of his staff to buy back as much as they could of anything original to the lab. He even transported three railcars of red New Jersey earth to pack around the sides of the building (Lacey 247).
On October 21, 1929 President Herbert Hoover and numerous scientists and celebrities such as Madame Curie, Orville Wright, and Will Rogers came to Greenfield Village for the "Golden Jubilee of Light" to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Edison's greatest invention. The proceedings were broadcast live around the world.
The high point of the evening occurred when Edison, 82 and frail, reenacted the great event. When he turned the switch, he said, "Let there be light!" (Josephson 480). And there was. In fact, Ford had instructed the radio audience to turn off their own lights at home and to turn them back on when Edison's light glowed.
After this reenactment, Edison returned to Independence Hall, Ford's replica of the historic building in Philadelphia, to attend a grand banquet in his honor. Overcome with emotion and fatigue, Edison collapsed in the doorway. His wife Mina revived him with a glass of warm milk and reminded him that millions of people were waiting for him to speak. Edison persevered and read a short prepared speech. At the end of it he said, "As to Henry Ford, words are inadequate to express my feelings. I can only say to you that, in the fullest and richest meaning of the term--he is my friend" (Josephson 481).
Two years later on October 18, 1931, Edison died at his home in West Orange. He had been ill with Bright's disease (a kidney disease with an ironic name in Edison's case), uremic poisoning, diabetes, and a gastric ulcer. As his death neared, he drifted into a coma. Many reporters camped around Edison's Glenmont estate. The garage became a press-room. Faith healers appeared. His death was a major event in the world (Conot 449-450).
According to Charles Edison's letter to Walter Winchell, Charles gave Henry Ford one of the test tubes. But we don't know when exactly. Perhaps at Edison's funeral Charles handed it to Ford. I imagine Ford carefully placing the vial in the inside breast pocket of his suit, over his heart.
Although Edison and Ford were applied scientists and practical men, they both were attracted to mystical ideas--especially reincarnation. This might account for Ford's fascination with Edison's last breath.
Edison, in his later years, believed that memory involves sub-particles of matter like electrons that travel in space. Combining into colonies, these particles--or "little people" as Edison called them--lodge in people's brains and form intelligence. Edison believed that these little people of intelligence stay united after a person dies; they travel, eventually settling into another person (Conot 427). As such a person's intelligence or personality never dies.
Similarly, Henry Ford believed that the human soul survives after death, carrying intelligence from one existence into another. He reasoned that the mind contains "millions of entities"--like Edison's "little people"--full of messages that are transmitted between lives. A few people, like Edison, receive more entities than most of us because they have, as Ford said, "a properly tuned antenna" (Nye 61).
Ford believed these mystical ideas because he experienced them. He said, "I never did anything by my own volition . . . . I was pushed by invisible forces within and without me. We inherit a native knowledge from a previous existence" (Nye 59). He felt certain, for example, that his early ability to repair watches came from a previous life: "My father was not a mechanic, nor was my grandfather. . . [Yet] When a boy of sixteen years of age, without mechanical training I was able to take a watch apart and put it together" (60).
Ford possessed keen intuitive powers. He said, "I've answered questions before they were asked; I've seen people approaching me and known before they reached me what they were going to propose" (Nye 96). Another story goes that Ford once determined which of six identical motors would function properly by simply looking at them (62).
Edison also possessed superior powers. Despite his deafness, he claimed he could hear by placing his head against the horn of a phonograph or by biting the horn. His brain would process the sound vibrations (Josephson 320). He also supervised recordings. One time he recorded a famous pianist, Hans von Bulow, and accused him of playing a wrong note. The story goes that Edison played back the record and when von Bulow heard the mistake, he fainted (323).
Given Ford's belief in mysticism, it is not so strange that he cherished the test tube of Edison's last breath. He cherished Edison. After Edison had reenacted the lighting in his Menlo Park laboratory, Ford instructed a worker to nail down the wooden chair where Edison had sat. Ford said, "As long as this building stands, this chair will never move." Years later after millions of footsteps had worn the Menlo Park floor, workers replaced the boards--but they kept the square of wood planks on which Edison's chair is still nailed. The chair remains in the same spot.
Ford liked to preserve beginnings and endings. In the entrance of his museum is a large square of cement, a foundation stone, in which Edison signed his name with a stick (Ford had the moment filmed). Edison made an arc connecting the capital "T" and "E" of his name--not unlike the horseshoe shaped filament he used in his lights. This signing took place on September 27, 1929 when Ford first introduced Edison to Greenfield Village which he also named "The Edison Institute." When you enter Greenfield Village, you can see these words in gold letters at the top of the wrought iron gate.
Because Henry Ford worshipped and celebrated Edison, preserving his original inventions and recreating Menlo Park, it seems natural that he would want a whiff of Edison's breath as a keepsake. While many people preserve a locket of hair, Ford preserved a locket of air.
Why? The test tube represents inspiration. Edison inspired Ford to succeed. What better way to capture the spirit of this great man? Perhaps the air in the tube contains some "little people" or "entities"--the cosmic stuff of reincarnation. Perhaps the air contains the essence of creativity.
What did Henry Ford do with the test tube Charles Edison gave him? I imagine Ford alone at home in his Fair Lane mansion. It is late at night. Depressed, he retrieves Edison's last breath. Sitting before a fire, he closes his eyes and holds the test tube in his hands. It feels electric with possibility.
After Edison's death, Ford and his company suffered. The stock market crash and Depression hit. The "Dearborn Massacre" occurred on March 7, 1932 when police shot four Ford workers who protested in a march calling for better pay and working conditions. On May 26, 1937 workers rallied against Ford in "The Battle of the Overpass" when Walter Reuther and three other labor organizers of the UAW were severely beaten near the Rouge Plant for distributing union pamphlets. In 1938 Ford accepted a medal, the Grand Order of the Great Eagle of Germany, sent by Hitler as a gift for Ford's seventy-fifth birthday and for Ford's history of anti-semitic remarks (Nye 91). Ford's only son Edsel died in 1943 of cancer; however, many people--including Edsel's son, Henry Ford II--felt he died of "a broken heart" because Henry Ford behaved like a tyrant with his son (Lacey 398).
No one knows whether in mystical ways Edison's last breath helped Ford. But we do know that he did not put it on display in his museum when he was alive. He kept it for himself until he died on April 7, 1947.
Ford was 83 when he died, Edison 84. Edison attributed longevity to the process of inventing: "Don't stop experimenting," he advised. "It's good for long life!" (Conot 448). Edison's purpose in life, he said, was "bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of man" (Josephson 435).
Thomas Edison remains the American king of invention with 1093 patents issued in his name (Conot xv). He not only created the incandescent light but also developed the complex system of distributing electrical power so people could enjoy his lights in their own homes and businesses. He created the mimeograph, the alkaline storage battery, the phonograph, and motion pictures. He also improved other people's inventions--the telegraph, typewriter, and telephone--making them more commercially viable. Called the "Wizard of Menlo Park" and America's "miracle maker," Edison created millions of jobs and enhanced people's lives.
Although Henry Ford was also a great inventor, no one apparently preserved his last breath.
Yet millions of visitors are grateful that Henry Ford created his museum and Greenfield Village to celebrate mechanical ingenuity. We can see the Wright brothers' bicycle shop where they worked on their airplanes. We can see George Washington's Camp Bed made of thin metal rods that fold neatly into a box. And although it doesn't seem to belong in this museum of inventions, we can see President Lincoln's Rocker in which he was shot; the dark stains of blood on its faded upholstery are hard to forget.
But mostly I thank Henry Ford for celebrating the mind of Thomas Edison and his spirit of inquiry. Edison valued thinking. His habit was "looking for things" to help him solve the countless problems he posed for himself (Josephson 274). He said, "The man who doesn't make up his mind to cultivate the habit of thinking misses the greatest pleasures in life" (Conot 456). Yet Edison always maintained that thinking alone was not enough. Genius, he said, is "99 per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration" (Josephson 161). Surely Edison's one percent was potent.
When I first saw Edison's last breath, I remembered the climax of the movie Young Tom Edison I saw as a boy. Tom, played by Mickey Rooney, ran about Port Huron gathering as many mirrors as he could to reflect light in his living room where a doctor needed to operate on Edison's mother. The room glowed; the operation succeeded. Although much of this movie was fictional, it inspired me.
It doesn't matter how many test tubes supposedly contain Edison's last breath. What matters is that Edison's son Charles and Henry Ford valued Edison's spirit so much they tried to preserve it, to honor and glorify it.
When you stand before Edison's
last breath at the Ford Museum, if you gaze at the test tube long enough,
you might notice a slight haze near the cork, a subtle mist, a glimmer.
It is like a snow flake after it first melts, a candle flame just as someone
blows it out, the echo of a musical note just as it grows silent. The air
in the tube is clear yet it's not. It is full of wonder.
Conot, Robert. A Streak of Luck. New York: Seaview Books, 1979.
Josephson, Matthew. Edison. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
Lacey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986.
Nye, David E. Henry Ford: "Ignorant Idealist." Port Washington, N.Y./London: Kennikat Press, 1979.
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