How Thomas Edison Jr. Shamed the Family Name

avalon-collectibles via eBay
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Consumption. Rheumatism. Kidney trouble. Lost manhood. Womb displacement. Nagging congestion. Lady troubles. No matter what the ailment, magazine and newspaper readers in 1903 saw they had the ability to obtain a device that was presented as a modern medical marvel. It was called the Magno-Electric Vitalizer, and it harnessed the power of electricity to stimulate the nerves, inciting the body’s own natural healing powers.

But that wasn’t all the Vitalizer could do. In rigorous "scientific" study, the device—which consisted of two copper plates that could be applied to the head or torso, with optional nose plugs—was found to improve mental function, allowing test subjects to respond to difficult questions five to 10 seconds faster than the control group. One ad in the Los Angeles Herald promised that the Vitalizer “enabled the wearer to think much more quicker.”

Like a lot of dubious-sounding health devices peddled at the turn of the 20th century, the Vitalizer was complete bunk. The United States Patent Office rejected an application for it on two separate occasions because it was “inoperable.” By 1904, the U.S. Postal Service charged its distributor with postal fraud.

Quackery was nothing new, of course. But the Vitalizer’s exploitation of the public desire to cure their ills was unique. It was sold by the Thomas A. Edison Jr. Chemical Company, an outfit ostensibly owned by the son of famed inventor Thomas Edison. The family name had become synonymous with innovation; most people found it easy to believe the so-called “Wizard” had offspring who could deliver similar life-altering technology to the masses. (One ad read that the elder Edison "could not accomplish everything, and he left one room in the House of Science in which Thomas A. Edison, Jr. has labored and experimented for years in perfecting the Magno-Electric Vitalizer.”)

In reality, Thomas Edison Jr. had very little in common with his famous father. Rather than hone his craftsmanship, he preferred to sell his last name to a series of unsavory and unprincipled businesses. The practice so bothered his father that he once told a friend that his son was “absolutely illiterate, scientifically and otherwise.”

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No mention of the senior Edison seems complete without crediting his most impressive contributions to the world. In 1877, he used his phonograph machine to record “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a piece of tinfoil, introducing the first voice recorder/player. He ushered in the era of modern electricity, perfecting the incandescent light bulb and championing a system that would wire homes to power grids. From his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, Edison developed more than half of the 1093 patents he was granted during his lifetime.

Edison was married twice, once to Mary Stilwell from 1871 to 1884 and again to Mina Miller in 1886. Edison loved Morse Code: He proposed to Mina by tapping out the words. Of his six children, he nicknamed daughter Marion “Dot” after the messaging system. Thomas Jr., who was born in 1876, was “Dash.”

Some accounts of Edison’s parenting approach are less than flattering. According to one Thomas Edison biography, with daughter Madeline, he’d reportedly present impromptu quizzes at the breakfast table and apply a hot spoon to the back of her hand if she answered too slowly, or incorrectly. Edison's kids were issued a daily quota of encyclopedia-reading and other intellectual tasks.

It’s believed that Thomas Jr. found this environment to be oppressive, having neither the ambition nor the aptitude to sharpen his mind with formal education. He dropped out of an elite prep school at age 17 before earning his diploma, prompting his father to observe that his son desired fame more than a sense of actual accomplishment.

In 1898, Thomas Jr. settled in New York. He was the subject of a flattering newspaper profile that appeared to do little in the way of fact-checking, particularly over claims that the younger Edison had invented a better light bulb. (He had not.) The publicity led to a high-profile appearance at an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden that same year. Although he had no real responsibilities—he was put in charge of the decorating committee—Thomas Jr. held court with journalists and presented himself as an inventor on the cusp of major breakthroughs at the risk of his own life.

“I never expect to die a natural death,” he told reporters. “I feel confident I will be blown up some day.”

Despite his lack of laboratory experience, Thomas Jr. knew his last name held considerable value. Thanks to both the press he received in New York and the name on his birth certificate, Edison was able to entice individuals to invest in a series of ill-conceived ventures. In 1901, he peddled “Wizard Ink” tablets, a very deliberate way of invoking his father’s nickname. The globs of ink could be plopped in an ounce of water without “clot, lump, or sediment.” Ads claimed the ink had been tested in leading banks.

If the elder Edison fumed at his nickname being used to market unremarkable writing tools, the Vitalizer would soon send him over the edge. A totally useless fabrication, the device capitalized on the public’s fascination with electricity and was said to deliver mild impulses via the head or back. Thomas Jr. asserted that it had been tested on second graders to promote intellect, could provide relief from menstrual pain, and would clear clogged nasal passages. “There seems to be no limit to its sphere of action,” the ad copy read.

Once received, the Vitalizer’s instructions promised relief from virtually any disorder or complaint of which the user could conceive. Depending on the issue, the Vitalizer could be positioned over any major organ. For problems related to one's genitalia, it promised to be “the only sure and sensible cure.”

Anyone who ordered the $8 Vitalizer was only relieved of both their money and any hope of assistance. By 1904, at the behest of his father, the Post Office had successfully ordered Thomas Jr. to halt shipments of the product. Although the younger Edison was probably just selling a name and had nothing to do with the company itself, his father bemoaned to LIFE magazine that such use of his name was causing him terrible grief.

“I am thinking of a scheme to prevent persons from using the name I have striven honorably to protect," Edison said.

Fed up with Thomas Jr.’s ventures, Edison offered to pay his wayward son a $35 per week allowance if he would simply change his name. He agreed, and began calling himself Thomas Willard. The senior Edison then set him up on a mushroom farm with the hope that he would eventually become self-sufficient.

Instead, Thomas Jr. wound up in a sanitarium.

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It’s not known whether the pressure of being Thomas Edison’s namesake led to Thomas Jr.’s personal struggles. According to his second wife, he abused alcohol and was briefly admitted into a mental institution to address his depression. The mushroom farm provided only modest financial relief, so Edison raised his allowance to $50 a week.

At some point, Thomas Jr. decided he wanted to live up to the family name and spent seven years trying to perfect his Ecometer, an automobile addition that would help conserve fuel. At the same time, his father was toiling on efforts to perfect an electric car with Henry Ford; it’s believed Ford subjected the Ecometer to a battery of tests so that he wouldn’t risk offending Edison.

Thomas Jr. dreamed of his invention being installed in every car in the nation. It failed to pass basic performance tests.

When Thomas Edison died in 1931, he left his son a seat on his company’s board of directors. While it provided some measure of monetary relief, the success was short-lived: Thomas Jr. died in 1935, allegedly due in part to his substance abuse issues.

Despite his efforts, Thomas Jr. remains little more than a footnote in accounts of Edison’s life—the selfish, attention-seeking son who resented living in the shadow of his famous father and used any means available to him in order to escape it. Unless, of course, he could profit from it.

Before the Vitalizer was pulled from the market, Thomas Jr. asserted that he was putting the public’s health first and claimed he turned down a $750,000 offer to buy his company. “I am determined,” he said, “that this invention shall not fall into the hands of those who would regard it only as a money-making business.”

14 Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu Pandemic

National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Over a century ago, a deadly flu pandemic swept across the globe. The first cases of the so-called Spanish Flu—named because that’s where early news reports of the disease originated, though research has put its actual origin anywhere from China to Kansas to France—are traditionally dated to Kansas in March 1918. The disease ultimately infected some 500 million people, and estimates put the death toll anywhere from 20 to 50 million. The people on this list contracted the deadly flu and lived to tell the tale.

1. Walt Disney

Walt Disney sitting in a chair.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

If Walt Disney hadn’t contracted the flu, we might never have had Mickey Mouse. Even though he was only 16 at the time, Disney lied about his birth year to sign up for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps at the tail end of WWI. Then he got sick. By the time he was ready to ship out, the war was over.

2. Mary Pickford

A close-up photo of silent film star Mary Pickford smiling.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star was at the height of her fame when she fell ill; thankfully, Pickford’s bout with the flu was uneventful, but as the disease spread, many movie theaters were forced to close. Irritated theater owners in Los Angeles, claiming they had been singled out, petitioned for all other places that people gathered together (except for grocery stores, meat markets, and drug stores) to be forced to close as well. While stores were not forced to close, schools were and public gatherings were banned.

3. David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George sitting outside with his dog and reading a newspaper.
Ernest H. Mills // Getty Images

Weeks before the end of World War I, Lloyd, Prime Minister of the UK at the time, came very close to dying of the flu. He was confined to his bed for nine days, had to wear a respirator, and was accompanied by a doctor for over a month. Because it was thought that news of the Prime Minister’s illness would hurt the morale of the British people and “encourage the enemy,” his condition was kept mostly hidden from the press.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Portrait of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

In 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had been in Europe for two months before contracting the flu on the boat home. The New York Times described his illness as “a slight attack of pneumonia caused by Spanish influenza.” Roosevelt convalesced at his mother’s New York City home until he was well enough to head back to Washington, D.C.

5. Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson circa 1912.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Considering Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States and he was dealing with the end of WWI, early 1919 was a seriously inconvenient time to get sick. Not only did he get the flu, but he fell ill so violently and so quickly that his doctors were sure he had been poisoned. When Wilson was well enough to rejoin the “Big Three” negotiations a few days later, people commented on how weak and out of it he seemed.

6. Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II in his uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the German Kaiser was undoubtedly upset to get sick himself, he had reason to be happy about the flu epidemic, or so he thought. One of his military generals insisted—despite the fact that the surgeon general disagreed—that the illness would decimate the French troops, while leaving the Germans mostly unharmed. Since Germany needed a miracle to win the war, the flu must have seemed like a godsend. In the end, it ravaged all armies pretty much equally, and Germany surrendered.

7. John J. Pershing

John J. Pershing in uniform sitting on a horse.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

While the great American general got sick himself, the flu gave him a much larger problem. His troops were dying at a faster rate from illness than from bullets. Soon there were more than 16,000 cases among U.S. troops in Europe alone. Pershing was forced to ask the government for more than 30 mobile hospitals and 1500 nurses in just over a week.

8. Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie sitting in a chair drinking tea.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The future emperor of Ethiopia was one of the first Ethiopians to contract the disease. His country was woefully unprepared for the epidemic: There were only four doctors in the capital available to treat patients. Selassie survived, but it's unknown how many people the flu killed in Ethiopia; it killed 7 percent of the population of neighboring British Somaliland.

9. Leo Szilard

A black and white photo of Leo Szilard in a suit and tie.
Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You may not have heard of him, but the atomic scientist Leo Szilard might have saved the world. While he survived the flu during WWI (he was supposedly cured by spending time in a humid room, the standard treatment for respiratory illness at the time), what he should be remembered for is his foresight before WWII. When he and other physicists were discovering different aspects of nuclear fission, he persuaded his colleagues to keep quiet about it, so that the Nazis wouldn’t get any closer to making an atomic bomb.

10. Katherine Anne Porter

Author Katherine Anne Porter sitting in a chair wearing a hat with a bow on it.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The author turned her experience with sickness in 1918 into a short novel called Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The story is told by a woman with the flu who is tended to by a young soldier. While she recovers, he contracts the disease and dies.

11. Alfonso XIII

The King of Spain working at his desk.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfonso was the King of Spain when the “Spanish” flu hit, and he was not immune to its outbreak. The flu was no worse in Spain than anywhere else, but unlike most journalists in other countries—who were under wartime censorship—the Spanish media actually covered the pandemic, leading to an unfair association that persists to this day.

12. Edvard Munch

A portrait of Edvard Munch standing in the snow.
Nasjonalbiblioteket, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Munch, the artist behind The Scream, had an apparent obsession with sickness and death long before he came down with the flu—he painted many works on the subject. But the flu obviously affected him especially: He painted a few self-portraits of both his illness and shortly after his recovery.

13. Lillian Gish

A portrait of Lillian Gish.
General Photographic Agency // Getty Images

The silent film star started feeling sick during a costume fitting and collapsed with a 104-degree fever when she got home. Fortunately, she could afford a doctor and two nurses to attend to her around the clock. While she recovered, it wasn’t all good news. Gish complained later, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns—have to wear them all winter—horrible things.”

14. Clementine Churchill

Clementine Churchill speaks at a microphone.
Arthur Tanner/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

While Winston was in France in 1919, the Churchill household—including his wife Clementine and their nanny Isabelle, who was looking after their young daughter Marigold—contracted the flu. According to Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames, Isabelle grew delirious and took Marigold from her cot despite being sick herself. Clementine grabbed the child and was anxious for days about Marigold’s condition. Isabelle died of the flu, but Clementine and Marigold survived. (Sadly, Marigold would die from a bacterial infection that developed into sepsis in 1921.)

During World War II, Clementine served as a close adviser to Winston. She was also the “Chairman” of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, which raised 8 million pounds during WWII and resulted in her being awarded the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labor, being made a Dame, and being given a 19th century glass fruit bowl from Stalin. Churchill’s Chief Staff Officer, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, would later comment that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story.”

In the 1800s, Drinking Too Much Tea Could Get a Woman Sent to an Insane Asylum

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

If you were a woman in the 19th century, virtually anything could get you committed to an insane asylum—including drinking too much tea.

NHS Grampian Archives, which covers the region around Scotland’s Grampian mountains, dug up an admissions record from the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum while looking into the institution’s annual reports from the 1840s. The table contains data on causes of admissions categorized by sex. In addition to those admitted to the asylum for “prolonged nursing,” “poverty,” or “disappointment in love” (one man and one woman admitted for that one!), one woman arrived at the asylum only to have her issues blamed on “sedentary life—abuse of tea.”

Intrigued by the diagnosis, someone at the archives tracked down more details on the patient and posted the case notes on Facebook. Naturally, her condition involved more than just a little too much Earl Grey. Elizabeth Collie, a 34-year-old factory worker, was admitted in November 1848 after suffering from delusions, specifically delusions about machines.

Her files state that “she imagines that some species of machinery has been employed by her neighbors in the house she has been living in, which had the effect of causing pain and disorder in her head, bowels, and other parts of the body.”

Asylum employees noted that ”no cause [for her condition] can be assigned, except perhaps the excessive use of tea, to which she has always been much addicted.” She was released in June 1849.

A letter to the editors of The British Medical Journal in 1886 suggests that the suspicion of women’s tea-drinking habits was not unique to Aberdeen mental health institutions. One doctor, J. Muir Howie—who once served as a regional president for the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh, so we can assume he was relatively respectable—wrote to the publication:

Would you kindly allow me to draw attention to the fact that, among women at least, the abuse of tea frequently leads to the abuse of alcohol! My experience in connection with a home for inebriate women has led me to this conclusion. Many of the inmates, indeed, almost all of them, were enormous tea-drinkers before they became victims to alcoholic dipsomania. During their indulgence in alcohol, they rarely drink much tea; but, as soon as the former cut off, they return to the latter. In many instances, alcohol was first used to relieve the nervous symptoms produced by excessive tea drinking.

Ah, women. So susceptible to mania and vice. It's a miracle any of us stay out of the madhouse.

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