Monday, June 28, 2010

Edison's Last Breath

Left to right: Henry Ford, Bishop William F. Anderson, Harvey Firestone (stooping). Thomas A. Edison and President Warren G. Harding.
(Click on pics to enlarge)

Getting ready for work on Monday morning with Sunrise on in the background, I heard Grant Denyer talking about Thomas Edison’s last breath. Denyer was doing a tour of the Broadsmeadow Ford plant in honour of 50 years since the first Ford Falcon rolled off the assembly line.

What about Edison’s last breath?

We’ll get to that. Denyer showed the assembly line, including futuristic robots with extended arms carrying out spot welding, and mentioned that the assembly line had been developed by the Ford Motor Company.

What about the last breath?

Denyer also said that Thomas Edison was Henry Ford’s idol, so much so that when Edison was on his deathbed he asked Edison’s son Charles to catch Edison’s last breath in a test tube for him, which Charles did.

Surely not, I thought. Would a loving son try to catch his father’s last breath in a test tube on the point of death to satisfy a request from a fan?

So I looked it up. And it’s true. Or at least partly true.

Ford was a great admirer of Edison, having joined Edison’s company as an engineer in 1891 when he was aged 28, advancing to Chief Engineer in 1893. Edison encouraged Ford’s experimentation with automobiles and the two became firm friends. Edison remained Ford’s idol and it is fair to say that Ford revered him. It is generally accepted that with Edison near death, Ford did ask Edison’s son Charles to catch Edison’s last breath. Both Ford and Edison were eccentric, with Ford having an interest in reanimation and spiritualism. There is considerable conjecture that Ford believed that the soul left the body with the last breath and that his wanting to capture the last breath was an attempt to catch the soul for reanimation later. Others believe that he simply wanted something to remember his friend by.

There are also stories that Charles held a test tube close to his father’s mouth when it was clear that the end was near but the reality is more prosaic.

According to Charles Edison:
“Though he is mainly remembered for his work in electrical fields, his real love was chemistry. It is not strange, but symbolic, that those test tubes were close to him at the end. Immediately after his passing I asked Dr. Hubert S. Howe, his attending physician, to seal them with paraffin. He did. Later I gave one of them to Mr. Ford."
The test tube turned up again in 1950 when Henry Ford’s widow Clara died and it was catalogued as part of her estate, being then lost until 1978 when it was discovered in a cardboard box, along with Edison’s hat and shoes under a display case in an exhibit entitled, “Henry Ford—A Personal History” in the Henry Ford Museum.

The test tube remains on display in the Henry Ford Museum:


Edison and Ford would go on camping trips along with naturalist John Burroughs, botanist Luther Burbank creator of the Russet Burbank potato, Harvey Firestone of Firestone tires and occasionally, President Harding, as in the photo at the beginning of this item.

There is a story that on one of these camping trips the men got into an accident on the way back. A farmer pulled the car from the mud with his old Model-T. Starting with Ford the men introduced themselves to the farmer as "the man who invented that tractor,""the man who made those tires,""the man who invented the lightbulb," and as the President of the United States". The farmker is supposed to have replied by pointing to Burbank and saying "and who is he, Santa Claus?"

 Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and Henry Ford

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