Thomas Edison’s Last Invention

 

By Richard McCallum

 

Thomas Edison’s film clip concludes with his narration. “My phonograph and movie camera capture your voice and image and record them for future viewers. It may be possible to invent a device so sensitive that those on the other side can send warnings to us.”

The lights come up in the newsroom as the end piece of the film flaps around and around the reel. My fellow reporters stir, stretch, and light up smokes.

One of them asks me, “What do you think, Jake?”

“A premonition transmitter?” I answer.

“Jake.” My Movietone News producer, nicknamed The Bull,  turns toward me. “Your steadfast support of Edison and your interest in psychic research persuades me to give you first shot at this assignment. He’s scheduled to speak at a lighting convention. Try to get a personal interview before then.

He adjourns the meeting.

I approach the Edison house for my interview, and after knocking quite loudly for a time, Mrs. Edison opens the door. She invites me in, and I ask about Thomas. She walks over to the closed door leading down to his workshop and raps on it with the curved portion of a heavily ornamented walking cane.

She calls out to him in a shrill and nagging voice. “Thomas, Thomas.”

The old man reacts in the conditioned response of husbands who have long ago given up the battle with a domineering wife. “Yes, dear?” I hear him call out from down in the cellar.

Though she hears him respond, the big-boned, strong-featured, woman gives a few more raps with her cane. “Thomas, Thomas. There’s a newsman here. Get up here, right now, or I’ll send him away.”

Thomas calls out, “Coming dear.”

I stir uncomfortably in the chair and am relieved to see Thomas entering the room. Mrs. Edison controls the situation. “Thomas, this young man, Jake, comes recommended by Sarah. He’s from Movietone News.”

I rise and shake Thomas’s hand as he crosses over to a chair.

She continues to dominate the introduction. “Now, Jake will take notes on your speech tonight at the lighting convention. Remember, no answers to any questions about those silly rumors. Your inventions alone have caused enough evil in this world. The things those decadent people do in the record and movie business, disgusting!”

Thomas and I nod to each other.

“Now, get dressed: no, you wait here while I pick out the clothes you’ll wear.”  She stands up with much labor. “You two get acquainted. Jake promised to write a nice story about you that will make me proud.”  She walks out, leaning heavily on her cane.

“Mr. Edison what of the psychic research rumors?” I ask.

“All my inventions move man forward into the future.”

Not the answer I was looking for, so I try again, “But, have you invented a psychic device allowing you to talk with the dead?”

He hesitates, then, says in a voice low enough to assure that Mrs. Edison cannot hear him, “I have invented an apparatus so sensitive it allows a psychic power to communicate with me.” 

Shocked, I ask, “How?”

“It absorbs my consciousness, something like the reverse of a movie projector.” He tries to simplify, “Instead of pictures projected onto a screen for me to see, my consciousness enters into a funnel of images and sounds.”

“What’s the message?”

His face darkens. “Something, or someone, sent me a warning … sent humanity a warning of an evil force gathering strength, and will soon engage the whole world in a monstrous, murderous, struggle.”

“But, who?”

Mrs. Edison’s cane raps on the railing as she calls down to Thomas. “Thomas, come up here right now, I’ve picked out the clothes for you to wear tonight.”

“Yes, dear.” He obediently starts to get up.

“Can I see this invention, sir?”  I say as we rise.

“Yes, after the speech tonight. You can ride back here with us, and I will let you participate. Perhaps you can better interpret the images then I … old, and slow, you know.”  He winks at me as he leaves to get dressed. I scribble notes.

*

At the conference, I sit in the front row with the other correspondents from various news outlets, but I am the only Movietone News Reporter. During Edison’s speech to the conventioneers, I keep my eye on his overbearing wife, as best I can. She sits in the crowd behind me, monitoring its responses.

The audience shows interest in his views on AC versus DC electricity and his competitive remarks about Tesla. The crowd’s focus on him pleases her. One old man, though, snoozes off, and Mrs. Edison taps him with her cane and snarls.

At the end of the speech, Thomas receives a standing ovation, and the journalists begin questioning him.

“What role do you see for religion in our modern scientific world?” asks the first reporter.

I flinch, knowing Mrs. Edison must be shooting threatening looks in her husband’s direction. He glances at her, then turns away.

“None,” Thomas says.

The crowd murmurs and makes notes. Mrs. Edison’s cane taps the floor, in rhythm with the beating of my heart.

Another reporter known to cover religious issues, asks, “Do you believe man has an immortal soul?”

I cringe, not daring to face Mrs. Edison. The tapping gets louder.

“An immortal intelligence,” Thomas answers.

In the few moments of verbal silence, while the audience absorbs what he just said, the tapping of the cane increases in speed and volume. Then everyone starts talking at once.

I look back and see Mrs. Edison roll her eyes and shake her head. The glare she gives me could melt iron. She awaits my question. I take a deep breath.

“Many of your inventions,” I say, “the phonograph, the movie projector, in essence, immortalize personalities. Do you put any stock in psychic research or mechanisms that claim to communicate with the dead?”

I feel Mrs. Edison’s eyes burning a hole in the back of my head. The tapping stops. Her weight must be shifting to the cane.

“Yes,” Thomas nods at me. “I do.”

I glance back. Mrs. Edison rises, stomps her cane and screams her husband’s name.

“Sir,” I shout over the clamor, “have you attempted to invent such a gadget?”

“All my inventions have resulted from my attempts to create the device. I can now report, I have succeeded.”

A collective gasp, then the shouting begins.

The old lady pushes her way up onto the stage. She drags Thomas out the door. The newshounds follow, laughing and shouting cruel jokes about ghosts. Mrs. Edison fends them off with her cane.

“Thomas has been sick and feverish,” she screams. “To blazes with you for repeating the mumblings of a great man suffering from old age and illness.” She herds Thomas toward the waiting limousine. I sidle up alongside.

The old lady shoos me away with her cane. “You’re no better than the rest of them,” she hollers. “Sarah was wrong about you. I’ll have to have a word with her!”

Over his wife’s shoulder, Thomas Edison mouths, “Cellar. Monday.”

I sneak into the Edison’s basement workshop, late Monday afternoon.

“Thomas,” I whisper.

He signals me to come over to the glass projection screen.

Wires and vacuum tubes connect behind it. Edison switches on the device, and when it warms up, the inventor tunes in a signal. He sits, and I stare over his shoulder.

Images play of swastikas, military marches, and a mustached man shouting. Sounds like German. I witness passenger ships torpedoed, cities bombed, families herded onto trains, starving masses—living skeletons—huddled together. Bodies pile up in huge mounds. Then, from the apex where the pictures originate, a massive flash erupts and spreads, to fill the entire screen with the image of a huge cloud, rising in the shape of a monstrous mushroom.

All these images swirl into a cosmic whirlpool.

Just then Mrs. Edison clatters down the stairs, faster than anyone would have thought possible. “I warned you!” she says to me, and wielding her cane, hits me and knocks me down. She starts smashing the equipment around us.

“No!” Thomas and his psyche—I must protect the screen. I lunge and utter a piercing cry, trying to muster the strength to stop her. She knocks me back.

*

Ambulance attendants have placed the unconscious Thomas Edison upstairs on his bed. I hear a car screech to a stop. I go to the window and see The Bull double-park in front of the house. Emergency lights from the police cars and ambulance flash the entryway. A small crowd of neighbors stands outside of the iron post fence. As my producer walks by the folks gathered on the sidewalk, one of them shouts out to him, “Hey, Newsy, what happened to Thomas?”

The Bull pulls the unlit cigar out of his mouth, and calls in his loud recognizable voice, “Wait for the newsreel.” He pops it back in and enters the yard. I go down to meet him.

In the entranceway, detectives analyze broken pieces of glass and electrical components. A police officer comes up the cellar stairs, then places more broken items on a table. The curved head portion of an ornamented, wooden, walking cane, sharply broken off just below the bend, catches their attention.

Detective Morgan scrutinizes the debris, “Top part of old lady Edison’s cane. Guess this proves Jake right.” He looks up at the producer and then at me. “She smashed up all this electric stuff.”

Morgan and The Bull have a long history. I sense the detective would love to implicate my boss and myself in this mess.

“Hey, Copper,” my boss bullies the law officer, “Where’s Edison?” He reaches down for the Detective’s lighter. The cop knocks The Bull’s hand away, must think he’s going to snatch the cane head. The Bull pushes the policeman’s fist back, grabs the igniter, then puffs. “What the hell happened here?” He blows smoke into the cop’s face.

Morgan coughs, fans the air, and barks back, “I ain’t about to break protocol and tell you police business. You figure out what occurred. If you want to keep us from locking up your reporter give me the truth. And don’t let me catch you releasing any information you ain’t cleared with me first. Follow Jake upstairs to the top. It’s the first bedroom on the right.”

I lead the way up the narrow winding stairway to the upper bedrooms. At the first landing, Mrs. Edison sits attended by the ambulance crew. She clutches the remains of the broken, walking cane.

“Jes….” The Bull starts to take the Lord’s name in vain. He catches himself. “Mrs. Edison.” The doctor descends from the second landing. My producer asks him, “How’s Thomas?”

“His wounds from the glass are minor,” the medical person says, “but, he drifts in and out.”

The Bull and I huff up the next flight of winding stairs. I bend over Edison. He stirs, swallows, and tries to utter something.

I strain to catch any word, but he lapses. Darn. I pick up my sketch pad and draw the image of Thomas’ face trapped in the now-shattered device.

“Unbelievable!” The Bull taps my drawing, then walks over to the window and looks out.

“I used to think all man needed was scientific advances to defeat evil,” I say, “but terror and hatred advance at the same rate and transform scientific inventions into powerful tools of destruction. Now, I dread the future and science.”

Thomas opens his eyes. I lean in close to him. “Mr. Edison? Thomas, Thomas?”

“Fear not…,” he answers.

I wait in anticipation. I touch the old man’s wrinkled face. Will he be able to continue? The Bull joins me at Edison’s bedside.

“The future,” Edison whispers. “Wondrous.”

 


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