February 11: Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison (1847)

Thomas Edison

It was on this date, February 11, 1847, that Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio. In his entire life he had only three months of formal education. His mother educated Edison at home. At the age of twelve he vowed to read the entire contents of the Detroit Public Library, foot by foot. He succeeded in reading fifteen feet, including Newton’s Principia, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Hume’s History of England and, significantly, Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason: “I can still remember the flash of enlightenment that shone from his pages,” said Edison. As for education generally, Edison said, “I do not believe that any type of religion should ever be introduced into the public schools of the United States.”

Edison set up the first commercial research laboratory and invented the first successful incandescent electric light, the phonograph, the movie projector, the carbon telephone transmitter, and eventually held 1,093 U.S. patents. His parallel skill at commercializing his inventions made “the wizard of Menlo Park” a wealthy man. Edison is famous for saying, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” (Harper’s Monthly, 1932)

“All Bibles are man-made,” said Edison, an Agnostic from his youth. Beginning in 1910 he gave candid newspaper interviews which drew the wrath of the religious. Asked “What does God mean to you?” Edison replied, “Not a damn thing.”[1] To the magazine in which a cleric discounted his religious views as those of “a mere mechanic,” The Columbian, Edison said,

I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God. … I work on certain lines that might be called, perhaps, mechanical. … Proof! Proof! That is what I have always been after. I do not know the soul, I know the mind. If there is really any soul, I have found no evidence of it in my investigations. … I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence, I do not doubt.[2]

Biographer Wyn Wachhorst echoes that sentiment, writing, “Edison rejected three fundamental tenets of Christianity: the divinity of Christ, a personal God, and immortality.”[3] Josephson relates that “the skeptical writings of Darwin, Huxley and Tyndall were the favorite reading of Edison’s youth.” He was fond of pointing out religious inconsistencies, too: when President McKinley publicly thanked God for victory in the Spanish-American War, Edison wrote, “But the same God gave us yellow fever, and to be consistent McKinley ought to have thanked him for that also.”[4]

In a New York Times interview, Edison said,

I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul. … No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life — our desire to go on living — our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it, though. Personally, I cannot see any use of a future life.[5]

“So far as religion of the day is concerned, it is a damned fake,”[6] said the famous inventor. “Religion is all bunk.”[7]

In his later years, as with many others who lost their mental edge with age, Edison was duped by Spiritualists. He died on 18 October 1931 at age 84. It was Thomas Edison who said, “When a man is dead, he is dead! My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it.”[8]

[1] Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography, 1959, p. 437. [2] Edison to Mina Miller, his second wife and a devout Methodist, 1898; quoted in Josephson. [3] Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth, 1982. [4] Josephson. [5] New York Times, 2 October 1910, sect. 5, p. 1; quoted in Josephson. [6] Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945, repr. 1972. [7] George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, 1960. [8] Thomas Edison, essay Do We Live Again?, date unknown; quoted in James A Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 1996.

Originally published February 2004 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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John Mill

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