Souvenirs of the Dead: Edison’s Last Breath

Thomas Edison (left) with Henry Ford.

With only three months of formal education, Thomas Edison made a pretty good account of himself. He held over a thousand patents, invented or commercialised an array of world-changing devices, coined the word hello as a telephone greeting (displacing Alexander Graham Bell’s choice of ahoy) and left a technological legacy withoug which the world would be a very different place. (On the other hand, he did once electrocute an elephant as part of a feud with business rival George Westinghouse.)

In the 1890s, Edison took an interest in one of his employees, an innovative young man of similarly humble beginnings by the name of Henry Ford. Edison’s encouragement gave Ford the impetus to create the Detroit Automobile Company, forerunner to the Henry Ford Company. The two men had much in common and they became lifelong friends.

As Edison neared death, the story goes that Ford asked his son, Charles Edison, to capture his last breath. As his father exhaled for the last time, Charles held a glass test tube to his lips and sealed the air inside. The motive for the request is unknown, although it has been linked to Ford’s interest in reincarnation and the belief that the soul exits the body with the last breath.

Many years later, the tube was put on display at the Henry Ford Museum with the label ‘Edison’s last breath?‘, the question mark implying some doubt about the story’s veracity. The museum’s website states that it has since acquired a 1953 letter written by Charles Edison giving a more mundane explanation for the test tube memento.

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