To him who has ears

Aug. 1, 2000
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Fort Myers, Fla. – besides the sun and the sand – is the Thomas Edison winter home museum

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Fort Myers, Fla. – besides the sun and the sand – is the Thomas Edison winter home museum. Each year it sees thousands of visitors who drop in for a brush with the inventive spirit that helped make America great.

Edison began wintering in the south in 1885, a year after his wife, Mary, succumbed to typhoid fever. He was 38 and, at that point in his life, had already invented the light bulb, phonograph, stock ticker, and the little gadget that serves as the mouthpiece in telephones, the carbon button transmitter.

With a friend, Edison purchased land just outside Fort Myers and there he built a plantation-style home, laboratory, and tropical garden. To see the property today is to see it as it was at the turn of the century. Light bulbs that Edison himself built still burn in some of the buildings. The lush botanical gardens, including a huge banyan tree some 400 feet in girth, still yield exotic fibers and resins of the type Edison experimented with in his laboratory.

The past is also preserved in the many artifacts on display throughout the complex. Among the exhibits are some of the earliest incandescent lamps, wireless transmitters, kinetoscopes (movie cameras), and phonographs. These are the things that the inventor spent most of his time on, and give us the best picture of what the man, and the invention process, are all about.

In that light, no other exhibit is more revealing than a certain contraption said to be one of the first working models of the phonograph. Like most of Edison's handiwork, this particular prototype wears a sturdy wooden box as its outer shell. But the wood is dingy and unfinished, and seems to have rotted away in places, especially along the lip of one side.

The poor condition of the wood is not a sign of neglect, but a reminder of Edison's handicap. Edison began losing his hearing after a bad bout with scarlet fever. He was nearly deaf by the time he began inventing. When he tinkered with his phonograph, he would "listen" to it play by clamping his teeth on the most substantial component, usually the wooden chassis.

A large gouge in the old prototype's chassis tells of the countless hours Edison spent in solitude with his invention, patiently making one adjustment after another. It tells of the persistence and sacrifice required to accomplish anything out of the ordinary.

Edison always said his "handicap" was an asset – it helped him work with uninterruptible focus and catch naps anytime, anywhere – but in the case of the phonograph, it may have been a necessity. The inventor, you see, didn't evaluate his progress based on what he heard, but on the vibrations he felt through the sensitive nerves in his teeth and face. So, when others might have been discouraged – even to the point of giving up – by the awful, scratchy noises the early prototypes undoubtedly made, Edison kept going strong because he knew he was on to something. The old phonograph tells a classic story that to succeed, we have to be able to recognize progress, even if it isn't obvious to everyone else.

Given this brief history, it's no wonder that, of all his inventions, Edison was most fond of the phonograph. In the phonograph, his weakness became strength. In the phonograph, he overcame his greatest challenge. And in the phonograph, during those late-night working sessions, he probably experienced his most enjoyable moments as an inventor.

If Edison was alive today, and in the employment of a typical engineering firm, I wonder if he could repeat his best invention. Being deaf, would he even get picked for the project? And if so, how long would it be before reports of his odd behavior – chewing on wood and drooling on his work – filtered up to his superiors? Perhaps the question to ponder is not whether Edison could do it, but would we let him?

Larry Berardinis
[email protected]

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