In a vast Victorian mansion in West Orange, New Jersey, the great inventor Thomas Edison is taking his final breaths. As the end draws closer, those present gather to hear what final wisdom he might impart. But for a man who has always valued science over religion, his last words come as something of a surprise.
After achieving fame as the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park, Edison moved his family to the sprawling Glenmont estate. Over the years, he perfected many groundbreaking ideas in his nearby laboratory. But by October 1931 his health was failing, and his reign as one of America’s greatest inventors was coming to an end.
Almost 50 years after purchasing Glenmont as a family home, Edison lay dying of diabetes complications in one of its many rooms. But on his last day, the story goes, he awoke from a coma and uttered five simple words. Hours later, he was dead – leaving behind a strange legacy that continues to inspire debate to this day.
But while Edison’s final days are shrouded in mystery, the details of his life are as well known as that of any famous figure. Born in the Ohio village of Milan in February 1847, the future inventor moved to Michigan with his family when he was seven years old. And there, he spent the remainder of his childhood – receiving little in the way of formal education.
Despite only spending a few months in school, however, young Edison soon proved himself to be bright. As well as learning math, reading and writing from his mother, he also took it upon himself to expand his education. Later, at just 13 years old, he entered the world of work and took a job as a newsboy on a local railroad.
In his spare time, Edison continued to expand his mind – devouring a variety of technical and scientific works. Then, at 16, he was able to secure a job as a telegrapher after teaching himself how to operate the relevant technology. At the time, the industry was burgeoning, and people were embracing the ability to communicate across long distances for the first time.
In this new role, Edison was able to travel extensively across the United States, and he eventually ended up in Boston, Massachusetts. There, he began pursuing the career as an inventor that would come to define him. And it was in that city that he received his first patent, which was for an electronic device designed to count votes.
Edison’s first invention failed commercially, but he was undeterred. Then in 1869 he relocated to New York City, where he experienced success as an inventor at last. There, he developed a type of stock ticker which helped him earn the healthy sum of $40,000. With that money, he went on to establish a laboratory in Newark, New Jersey.
For the next five years, Edison pursued a career as an inventor in Newark, and he developed a number of devices that improved on telegraph technology. Elsewhere, in 1871 he met and fell in love with Mary Stilwell – his then-16-year-old employee. And on Christmas Day of that year, the pair tied the knot.
Edison’s first child Marion arrived in 1873 and was soon followed by two sons, Thomas and William. Three years later the inventor packed up his Newark home and relocated his family to village of Menlo Park in New Jersey. There, he built a new and improved laboratory – so advanced that it would continue to inspire similar facilities for decades to come.
At Menlo Park, the history books tell us, Edison really hit his stride. In 1877 he completed his first ground-breaking invention – the phonograph. Crafted from tin foil wrapped around a cylinder, it was the first device that could record and play back sound. And as such, it brought its creator international recognition.
Fresh from this success, Edison turned his hand to the invention that he would become most famous for. But despite what many believe, he wasn’t actually the first person to discover electric light. In fact, the concept had been around for many years – although nobody had developed a safe way to use it around the home.
However, in 1879 Edson created a lighting system capable of illuminating his laboratory at Menlo park by fitting a carbon filament inside a glass bulb. On the back of this invention, an entire new industry was launched. Three years later, the first commercial power station opened in Manhattan, and the world has never been the same since.
But while Edison’s career was at its peak, his private life suffered a terrible blow. In August 1884 Mary passed away at the age of just 29. In the years preceding her death, the inventor had eschewed family life – often choosing to spend time at work rather than with his wife and children at home. And after becoming a widower, he spent even more time away from Menlo Park.
One year after his wife’s death, Edison traveled to New England. Here, he met and fell in love with Mina Miller, the daughter of a renowned inventor. In February 1886 the couple married and relocated to West Orange, New Jersey, where they settled on the sprawling Glenmont estate.
In West Orange, Edison established an even bigger and better laboratory, where he continued to work on his inventions. Initially, he returned to the phonograph – producing devices for use by businesses and in the home. At the same time, he also developed the equipment necessary to record sound and launched an industry that continues to this day.
Then, in 1891 Edison unveiled the kinetoscope – the forerunner of modern motion pictures. Using a strip of film mounted inside a device, the inventor was able to create the illusion of movement. And in the grounds of his West Orange laboratory, he began producing some of the first movies ever filmed.
Soon, however, motion picture technology took on a life of its own, and Edison stepped away from the emerging industry. Meanwhile, in the background, his career had been taking an entirely different turn. Throughout the 1890s the inventor had been applying his unique mind to the mining trade – with less than spectacular results.
Although Edison managed to develop a new method of mining ore, it was not a commercial success. As a result, after investing millions of dollars into the project, the inventor was forced to shut it down. Though thankfully his earlier patents continued to bring in money, and he was able to avoid bankruptcy.
After the failure of his mining venture, Edison then turned his attention back to the world of electricity. By this time, the automobile industry was burgeoning, and the inventor himself owned vehicles powered by various methods of propulsion. However, he was keen to develop a battery that would allow for an efficient, electrically powered model.
For ten years, Edison worked on an alkaline storage battery – hoping that it would play a key role in the motor industry. But by the time that he had completed it, vehicles powered by gasoline had become the norm. However, the device had other applications, and today it is considered one of the inventor’s greatest achievements.
As the years passed, Edison’s laboratory grew into a huge industrial complex employing thousands of staff. And by 1915 the inventor was respected enough to be invited to head the Naval Consulting Board. With the United States on the brink of war, this organization was an attempt to use the country’s greatest minds to gain a military advantage.
During World War I, Edison traveled to Long Island Sound where he attempted to track enemy submarines. Ultimately, however, the Naval Consulting Board played little role in the conflict, and the inventor soon returned home to Glenmont. By this time, he was no longer churning out revolutionary ideas and had settled into the role of American icon instead.
In 1928 Edison was awarded a special Medal of Honor by the United States Congress in recognition of his achievements. And the following year, the nation celebrated 50 years since the inventor had brought electric light into the world. However, he was not quite ready to rest on his laurels just yet.
By the late 1920s Edison had become close to Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford – manufacturers of tires and automobiles respectively. And when the rubber necessary for both industries became costly to obtain, the two men asked the inventor to come up with a solution. Eventually, he discovered a type of native weed that appeared promising, but his health failed before he could complete his work.
Today, Edison is remembered as one of history’s greatest inventors – a man as prolific as he was groundbreaking. According to the New Yorker, he lodged a patent every 11 days on average throughout his adult life. And on one particular day in 1888, he is said to have noted down 112 different ideas.
As well as his more famous inventions, however, Edison also developed a number of devices that never quite caught on. For example, in 1890 his company began marketing a doll equipped with a phonograph that played nursery rhymes. Unfortunately, the toys proved impractical and easy to break, and ultimately the venture was a commercial flop.
Elsewhere, some of Edison’s designs were simply ahead of their time. In 1899 the inventor founded the Portland Cement Company and set about constructing houses entirely out of the hardy material. But while this idea was practical and economical, it never caught on. In fact, it would be another 100 years before a similar innovation emerged.
Although Edison is remembered with admiration today, his legacy is not without controversy. In fact, there are many who believe that the inventor was not solely responsible for the ideas that brought him fortune and fame. Particularly popular, it seems, is the notion that his Serbian-American rival Nikola Tesla was really behind many of his successes. However, the reality of how inventions tend to emerge makes the truth somewhat murky.
In his later years, an ailing Edison preferred to spend his time at Glenmont rather than in his laboratory – a stark contrast to his earlier life. But in August 1931 his health took a turn for the worse. After collapsing at home, he was confined to the estate, where he spent his last two months in a rapidly declining state.
On October 18, 1931, Edison finally succumbed to complications associated with diabetes. But according to a number of sources, he left behind a startling message before he passed. Apparently, just hours before drawing his final breath, he awoke from a comatose state and uttered some incredible words.
In his 1995 book Edison: Inventing the Century, Neil Baldwin recorded Edison’s final words. He is reported to have said, “It is very beautiful over there.” But what could it mean? Might the man who became so famous for his science have had a religious revelation as the end approached?
Many have pondered over the exact meaning of Edison’s last words over the years. Could the famous inventor have been making reference to some kind of afterlife? Many believe that we glimpse a world beyond our own at the time of death. And if true, Edison’s statement seems to indicate that what he saw was a pleasant place.
In fact, although he is known today as a man of science, Edison was no stranger to notions of the afterlife. Spiritualism was in fashion in the 1920s and it was relatively common for people to try and communicate with those on the other side. However, it is believed that the inventor was initially skeptical of such activity.
According to reports, however, Edison’s outlook changed as he got older. And towards the end of his life, he came to consider the possibility that the soul could survive after the death of the physical form. But rather than a religious phenomenon, he believed, it was one that could be explained by science.
In the 2017 book Edison vs. Tesla: The Battle over Their Last Invention, authors Joel Martin and William J. Birnes described Edison’s attitude towards the afterlife. Apparently, the inventor believed that some part of the self might be able to survive death. And according to the authors, he attributed this miracle to “a collection of entangled electrons representing what remained of the departed.”
In time, Edison also came to believe that the right invention could facilitate communication between these departed souls and our own world. And, true to form, he began to consider how one might produce this type of “spirit phone.” According to the book by Martin and Birnes, he actually succeeded in developing a prototype device.
Birnes and Martin claim that Edison even got to the point of testing out his device for talking to the dead. Apparently, he invited a group of mediums to summon ghosts in order to trial the equipment. But unfortunately, he failed to receive any messages from the departed.
Allegedly, Edison came to believe so strongly in the afterlife that he once made a pact with an audio engineer. Between them, they agreed that whomever passed first would attempt to communicate a message to the other. But there is no record as to whether or not the men were successful in their bid to bridge the gap between the worlds.
Could Edison’s ideas have been vindicated in his final moments, when he spotted a “beautiful” realm beyond that of the living? For some, this interpretation of the inventor’s last words is a little too fanciful to be believed. It has also been noted that the inventor may simply have been referring to the view outside his window, rather than any otherworldly sight.