I was probably 10 or 12 years old when Mom, Dad and I arrived at Ft. Myers, Florida, our vacation destination that summer. I climbed out of the car and ran to the display of tourist brochures in the hotel lobby. Being a frightening mix of geek, nerd and dork, I grabbed only the pamphlets advertising nearby museums, cemeteries and historical sites.
Inventor and entrepreneur, Thomas Edison, had become a hero of mine when I first learned about him in school, so, I had to see the Edison Museum. Ft. Myers had been Edison’s winter home, and more importantly, the site of his famous research laboratory. I wasn’t kidding about the frightening mix of geek, nerd and dork. I don’t remember much about the city of Ft. Myers, the museum, or the layout of Edison’s estate, but over 35 years later, I still have two vivid memories of the visit.
The first memory is of Edison’s laboratory. The room was full of bottles, beakers, flasks, test tubes and graduated cylinders of all sizes and shapes. As I write this, I’m wondering if this memory isn’t responsible for all of my wet plate collodion cabinets, work benches, and shelves looking like this:
My other memory is of the museum’s display of Edison’s phonographs he invented and built. A tour guide pointed out indentations along the wooden frames of the phonographs. The tour guide said they were Edison’s bite marks.
Edison was almost completely deaf (100% hearing loss in one ear and 80% in the other), so the megaphone speakers were useless to him. He heard his phonographs by feeling the sound waves vibrating through his teeth. He bit into his phonographs hard enough to leave visible permanent marks. That cannot be overstated. Edison didn’t just place his teeth against a solid surface. He used his jaws as clamps! He literally bit into the wood, and with single-minded stubbornness, he held on.
I went back to see the bite marks again before we left the museum, and I’ve stared at them in my mind ever since. It’s the best example of inspiration and dedication I’ve ever seen. After the tour, we probably went to the beach, where I guess I tried to enjoy playing in wet sand. I don’t remember.
Do I think Edison was an artist? In every sense of the word. He made stuff that never existed before his imagination conceived it. He was more creative and harder-working than most of us will ever be. Edison honored his passion and the calling behind it, and our society still reaps the benefits. He wore out his muse, and became a little more of one himself with each new creation.
Edison had over 1,000 patents in the U.S. alone, but his favorite invention was the phonograph. I know why. He invented devices to record and playback sounds he didn’t hear. Then he spent 40 years improving them, one bite at a time. Deafness was not a valid-enough excuse to stop or even slow down. Edison was deaf and never finished grammar school. I’m healthy with two engineering degrees and an art degree, and I complain and make excuses.
What did I learn from Thomas Edison’s bite marks? I learned that every time I quit a difficult project, every time I throw in the towel and walk away, I dishonor my passion. Every time I make an excuse, I become a little less of the artist (and the person) I should be.
Let’s make stuff and see what happens!