Saturday, February 11, 2006

11 February: Boreham on Thomas Edison

Possibility Thinker
In the most modest and unpretentious circumstances, Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio on February 11, 1847. He was scarcely out of his cradle when he formed the conviction that nothing thinkable is impossible; and, at the age of eighty-four, he died translating into concrete actualities the wildest and weirdest conceptions of his restless brain. Multitudinous and bewildering as were his countless inventions, it is impossible to lay down the list of his countless and almost incredible triumphs without feeling that the mind that could wrestle with such problems, and produce such wonders, was itself, far and away, the most miraculous piece of mechanism of them all.

Like Faraday, on whom, to some extent, he modelled his career, he owed practically nothing to his education. He spent three months at school. His mother, and his own sharp eyes, taught him all that he came to know. Having once learned to read, he felt that the world was at his feet. As a small boy he devoured the entire contents of an Encyclopedia, Hume's History of England, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Newton's Principia, and he one day entered the Public Library at Detroit with the avowed intention of absorbing the entire contents of the institution, book by book! Every experience that came his way became grist to his mill. He began life by selling newspapers and fruit on a railway train. He was soon printing a paper of his own on that selfsame train. A little later, to further some of his other experiments, he added a laboratory to his travelling equipment; had the misfortune to set the van on fire; was severely cuffed by the angry guard; and the blow burdened him with lifelong deafness.

Touching Life At A Thousand Points
The precise number of his inventions will never be known. More than a thousand of his amazing contrivances were patented in the United States alone. In his 24th year he had 45 distinct inventions simultaneously under way, and the Patent Commissioner described him as "the young man who keeps the path to the Patents Office hot with his footsteps. "He allowed no grass to grow under his feet. At four o'clock one afternoon he made an important discovery; he immediately rushed to his solicitor, who instantly cabled particulars to London; and, next day, he was informed that his idea was under serious consideration in England. In an essay on Edison, Mr. Lionel Elvin remarks that he himself is writing on a typewriter by the light of an incandescent electric lamp. The room contains a gramophone, a wireless set and a telephone. As soon as his manuscript is complete, he intends to ring up a cinema to reserve seats for the evening. He will find his way to the theatre by electric train and then go home by taxi. And for all these things—the typewriter, the lamp, the gramophone, the radio, the telephone, the moving pictures, the electric train and the automobile—he is indebted to Edison.

Thomas Edison represents in his own person the new trend in scientific thought. More than three centuries ago, Lord Bacon hurled the thunderbolts of his vigorous denunciation into the academies of the scientists and the portals of the philosophers, charging these learned speculators with making no real contribution to the practical welfare of the race. "Words, and more words, and nothing but words," he complained, "has been the fruit of the toil of the most renowned sages of sixty generations." The old philosophy had been singularly shy of meddling in matters that might serve some utilitarian end, lest it should be supposed that academic pursuits were simply followed for the sake of the vulgar purposes that they promoted.

Science Looks At Life, Transfigures Everything
For many hundreds of years the most capable thinkers were content to deal in nebulous theories, abstract speculations, mystifying hypotheses and occult disquisitions. Science was in the world like a spider in the water, with its own native atmosphere gathered closely about it and fearful lest any general admixture should take place between the element that was the breath of its own nostrils and the turbid body of affairs beyond it. Even Seneca ridiculed the thinkers who applied their powers to increasing the comfort of their homes. "The invention of such appliances," he said, "is drudgery for the lowest slaves; philosophy lies deeper. It is not for her to teach men how to use their hands; her mission is to form the soul." It was against this pernicious doctrine that, in season and out of season Bacon protested. And with good effect. In a telling essay Macaulay has shown how Bacon's gospel transfigured civilisation. It has lengthened human life, he says; has mitigated pain; has extinguished diseases; has increased the fertility of the soil; it has given new security to shipping; has spanned huge rivers, has guided the thunderbolt innocuously from heaven to earth; has lighted up the night with the splendour of the day; has extended the range of human vision, has multiplied the power of the human muscles; has accelerated motion; has annihilated distance; has facilitated intercourse; has enabled man to descend into the depths of the sea; to soar into the sky, to penetrate the noxious recesses of the earth; and to traverse land, sea and air at incredible rates of speed. In this cavalcade of achievement, no one scientist has played a braver part than Thomas Alva Edison. One of the most impressive pages of the New Testament describes the way in which the scientists of an earlier day laid their tributes of gold and frankincense and myrrh at the divine feet. Lives like those of Faraday and Edison prove that, when that act of adoration has once been sincerely performed, science turns from the presence of Deity to the service of Humanity, transforming every phase of human experience in the process.

F W Boreham

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