How Thomas Edison Jr. Shamed the Family Name

avalon-collectibles via eBay
avalon-collectibles via eBay

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.”

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Nintendo

- Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $199 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

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- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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'Jingle Bells' Was Originally Written as a Thanksgiving Song

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash
Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

Thanksgiving has got nothing on Christmas when it comes to songs that are specific to the holiday. Beyond Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song” and ... "The Thanksgiving Song" remix, there aren't a ton of songs you associate with Turkey Day. Unless you count "Jingle Bells."

Back in 1850 or 1851, James Lord Pierpont was perhaps enjoying a little holiday cheer at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, when Medford’s famous sleigh races to neighboring Malden Square inspired him to write a tune. The story goes that Pierpont picked out the song on the piano belonging to the owner of the boarding house attached to the tavern because he wanted something to play for Thanksgiving at his Sunday school class in Boston. The resulting song wasn’t just a hit with the kids; adults loved it so much that the lyrics to “One Horse Open Sleigh” were altered slightly and used for Christmas. The song was published in 1857, when Pierpont was working at a Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia.

Another bit of trivia for you: Mr. Pierpont was the uncle of banker John Pierpont Morgan, better known as J.P. Morgan. Despite this, and despite the fact that his famous holiday composition should have made him a millionaire, Pierpont struggled to make ends meet. Even after his son renewed the copyright on "Jingle Bells" in 1880, 13 years before his father’s death, it was never enforced enough to produce any real income.

Though lyrics about turkey and the Pilgrims aren’t as abundant as tunes for certain other holidays, they’re out there. Here are a couple:

“Over the River and Through the Wood”

They might as well crown Medford, Massachusetts, the Thanksgiving Capital of the United States, because the song “Over the River and Through the Woods” was born there, too. Lydia Maria Child wrote the poem “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day” about a trip to her grandfather’s house, which, yes, really does sit near the Mystic River in Medford, Massachusetts. It’s still there today, owned by Tufts University and used as a home for Tufts dignitaries. The poem was later set to music and became the classic we know today.

"Alice’s Restaurant Massacre"

It doesn’t have much to do with Thanksgiving, except that the real-life events that inspired the song took place on Thanksgiving. After dumping some litter illegally on Turkey Day in 1967, Arlo Guthrie was arrested. When he later went to the induction center to find out about his draft status, Guthrie realized that he had been declared ineligible for the draft due to his lack of moral conduct. The song, which is 18+ minutes long, became a huge hit amongst war and draft protesters.

This story has been updated for 2020.