Edison: His Life and Inventions HTML version

The Social Side Of Edison
THE title of this chapter might imply that there is an unsocial side to Edison. In a sense
this is true, for no one is more impatient or intolerant of interruption when deeply
engaged in some line of experiment. Then the caller, no matter how important or what his
mission, is likely to realize his utter insignificance and be sent away without
accomplishing his object. But, generally speaking, Edison is easy tolerance itself, with a
peculiar weakness toward those who have the least right to make any demands on his
time. Man is a social animal, and that describes Edison; but it does not describe
accurately the inventor asking to be let alone.
Edison never sought Society; but "Society" has never ceased to seek him, and to-day, as
ever, the pressure upon him to give up his work and receive honors, meet distinguished
people, or attend public functions, is intense. Only two or three years ago, a flattering
invitation came from one of the great English universities to receive a degree, but at that
moment he was deep in experiments on his new storage battery, and nothing could budge
him. He would not drop the work, and while highly appreciative of the proposed honor,
let it go by rather than quit for a week or two the stern drudgery of probing for the fact
and the truth. Whether one approves or not, it is at least admirable stoicism, of which the
world has too little. A similar instance is that of a visit paid to the laboratory by some one
bringing a gold medal from a foreign society. It was a very hot day in summer, the visitor
was in full social regalia of silk hat and frock-coat, and insisted that he could deliver the
medal only into Edison's hands. At that moment Edison, stripped pretty nearly down to
the buff, was at the very crisis of an important experiment, and refused absolutely to be
interrupted. He had neither sought nor expected the medal; and if the delegate didn't care
to leave it he could take it away. At last Edison was overpersuaded, and, all dirty and
perspiring as he was, received the medal rather than cause the visitor to come again. On
one occasion, receiving a medal in New York, Edison forgot it on the ferry-boat and left
it behind him. A few years ago, when Edison had received the Albert medal of the Royal
Society of Arts, one of the present authors called at the laboratory to see it. Nobody knew
where it was; hours passed before it could be found; and when at last the accompanying
letter was produced, it had an office date stamp right over the signature of the royal
president. A visitor to the laboratory with one of these medallic awards asked Edison if
he had any others. "Oh yes," he said, "I have a couple of quarts more up at the house!"
All this sounds like lack of appreciation, but it is anything else than that. While in Paris,
in 1889, he wore the decoration of the Legion of Honor whenever occasion required, but
at all other times turned the badge under his lapel "because he hated to have fellow-
Americans think he was showing off." And any one who knows Edison will bear
testimony to his utter absence of ostentation. It may be added that, in addition to the two
quarts of medals up at the house, there will be found at Glenmont many other signal
tokens of esteem and good-will--a beautiful cigar-case from the late Tsar of Russia,
bronzes from the Government of Japan, steel trophies from Krupp, and a host of other
mementos, to one of which he thus refers: "When the experiments with the light were
going on at Menlo Park, Sarah Bernhardt came to America. One evening, Robert L.
Cutting, of New York, brought her out to see the light. She was a terrific `rubberneck.'
She jumped all over the machinery, and I had one man especially to guard her dress. She