(Copyright 1997, 2000, 2010, 2019, and 2022 by René Rondeau. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the copyright holder, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.)
Thomas Edison, the "Wizard of Menlo Park," ranks among the legends
of American history. Such now-commonplace items as the phonograph, the movie camera, and even the vacuum tube (which later evolved through transistors
into microchips) owe their conception to Edison's inventive genius. Thomas Edison's
story is well-known, if now embellished by the haze of myth. However there is another
Thomas Edison whose story is tragic but virtually unknown -- Edison's first-born
son, Thomas A. Edison, Junior.
Tom Junior is a bit of an enigma. Most Edison biographies mention him only in passing, and no one has ever attempted a serious study about Edison's first son and namesake. It would be an understatement to say that Thomas A. Edison, Jr. was a complex and troubled individual.
Thomas A. Edison, Jr. was born on January 10, 1876 to Edison's first wife, Mary Stilwell. Like most fathers of the Victorian era, Edison was not actively involved in the upbringing of his children. But Edison's remoteness went even further than the typical father of the times, and his daily contact with his son was minimal. After Mary's death, when Tom Jr. was only 8, the younger Edison was largely raised by relatives while his father worked impossibly long hours. In his teenage years Tom Edison Junior lived in boarding schools, where he was a mediocre student with few friends.
During his exile at school Tom Junior maintained a close relationship with
his stepmother, Edison's second wife Mina Miller Edison. His correspondence hints
that his infatuation with Mina may have not have been just the healthy admiration
of a son to a mother, but that's perhaps understandable when you consider that when
Tom was a teenager, stepmother Mina was in her mid-twenties — barely older than he
was. On the other hand, his profusions of love could also stem simply from his loneliness
and sense of isolation. Mina did her best to play the role of an understanding mother
but made little headway in breaching the gulf between father and son.
At the age of 17 Tom Junior quit school and went to work for his father at his mining operation in Ogden, NJ. However, he was given only menial jobs. He still had little contact with his father, toward whom he grew increasingly bitter and hostile. He continued to live at the mine even after it was shut down in 1895.
It is easy to imagine what a difficult time Tom Junior had when he was growing up. Motherless at an early age, with a remote and unloving father, he was also burdened with the fact that everyone held very high expectations of the boy who carried the same name as his world-renowned father. Unfortunately, Junior did not have the same temperament nor intelligence, and was an immature, sickly, and sensitive boy who tried, as he reached adulthood, to mask his insecurities with bravado — and alcohol. In reading an extensive private correspondance he maintained with a school friend when he was in his early twenties, a distinctly psychotic element in his personality becomes obvious. Tom Junior was not well, physically or mentally.
In 1899 Tom Junior married a young actress named Mary (aka Marie) Touhey, a chorus girl on the New York stage with a reputation as a lush and a low-life. The courtship was brief but the marriage was even shorter. They returned separately from their honeymoon and immediately announced their separation. Ironically, Mary criticized Tom for being a drunkard. Despite their short marriage she took every advantage of Tom's name, until her unexplained death in early 1906 at the age of 27.
His name, of course, was golden, and once he was of age it didn't take long for other unscrupulous people to capitalize on it. Tom Junior became the figurehead for many enterprises. It was a heady experience but one which ultimately made his inadequacies even more obvious. Starting in the late 1890's he was the ostensible head of such companies as the Thomas A. Edison, Jr. Chemical Co. (makers of "Wizard Ink" tablets as well as the "Magno Electric Vitalizer", a patent cure-all for everything from rheumatism to deafness), the Edison Jr. Electric Light and Power Company, the Thomas A. Edison, Jr. and Wm. Holzer Steel Process Company, and the Thomas A. Edison, Jr. Improved Incandescent Lamp Company. "The Brain of Edison Has Achieved Another Triumph" and "The Latest Edison Discovery" were typical of the misleading advertising claims used by these companies.
The notoriety fueled his false feeling of importance and he concocted all sorts of wild ideas, none of which came to fruition. As his father said of him, "his head is now so swelled that I can do nothing with him, he is being used by some sharp people for their own ends. I could never get him to go to school or work in the Laboratory, he is therefore absolutely illiterate scientifically or otherwise."
Despite his hostility, Tom Junior still emulated his father to such a degree that his handwriting, and even his signature, were modeled very closely after the elder Edison. His spelling and grammar, however, were terrible.
By the turn of the century the situation was out of control. Tom Jr. was passing bad checks, drinking heavily, and was under investigation for mail fraud. The Edison name was being used for all sorts of shady enterprises. Edison finally went to court and obtained an injunction to forbid his son from using his name in commercial enterprises, and legally disowned him for a short time. In 1903, however, Edison's lawyer negotiated a peace treaty between the estranged father and son, by which Edison agreed to give Tom Junior an allowance of $35 a week (raised to $50 in 1906) in return for which his son was to stop using the famous Edison name altogether. (Ever the control freak, the senior Edison required his son to sign receipts for each weekly allowance payment.) For several years Tom Junior lived under a pseudonym, calling himself Burton Willard or Thomas Willard. Edison set his son up on a mushroom farm in New Jersey, where Junior lived with his second wife Beatrice as he sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism, depression and ill health.
Tom Junior didn't give up his dreams of grandeur during this time, however. He still aspired to be a great inventor like his father, and he did manage to set up a tiny laboratory. His new ambition was to create an improved automobile carburetor, and with the generosity and indulgence of family friend Henry Ford he worked on this invention whenever he was not consumed by drink or depression. Unfortunately this was not very often, as can been inferred from the many letters Tom's ever-supportive wife wrote to Ford (archived at the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn, MI). "Tom has suffered most pathetically with his head almost the entire week, and has spent nearly all of this time on the couch. ...Poor boy, he sobs by the hour, he is so discouraged." It took Tom seven years to finally complete his invention, the "Ecometer", which was a dismal failure in the market.
In the mid-1920's he tried to salvage his wasted life, and thanks to his half-brother Charles he managed to get a menial job in the Edison laboratory. After their father's death in 1931 Charles promoted Tom to a position of some authority, at the same time appointing him to the board of directors of the various Edison companies. Tom had finally attained some of the importance he craved, but it wasn't to last very long.
On August 25, 1935 Thomas A. Edison, Jr. died under an assumed name in a hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts. Although some Edison biographers contend that he committed suicide, others blame heart disease. The circumstances of his death are curious but there is no evidence that it was self-inflicted. Tom was travelling from Charles Edison's estate in Lake Sunapee, NH back to his home in East Orange, NJ. when he stopped in Springfield along with two companions. He registered under the name J.J. Byrne, ostensibly "to avoid public notice." Allegedly he was already feeling ill upon his arrival, and a doctor was called for. He died only a few hours later, with his death certificate listing the causes as "Coronary Thrombosis, Pulmonary Edema (terminal), Sudden death." It was a tragic end to a tragic life. Whether there was actually anything sinister that was covered up by cooperative authorities can never be known, and the controversy continues to brew in Edison biographies. Like so much of Tom Junior's life, his death remains shrouded in mystery.
Tom Junior once wrote "if my name was Smith — I would be a rich man today." While that boast is another sign of his unfounded bravado, one has to wonder how his life might have differed it he hadn't been burdened with one of the most famous names in the world.
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