Did Edison die poor?

The January, 1932 issue of Modern Mechanix invited us to weep for poor Thomas Edison, who allegedly bankrupted himself with dumb real-estate deals before dying, going to his grave a poor man. Edison was a notorious rip-off artist (he once told Nikola Tesla that the money he'd been promised would never come to him, and that Tesla just "didn't understand American humor) and liked to electrocute animals for kicks, so a pauper's death sounds like pretty reasonable karma to me.

Mr. Edison secretly expressed to me the hope that some day I would write just this kind of a story so that it might form a sort of guidance to inventors who would pick up the threads of science where he left off.

During our last meeting I distinctly remember how he placed his arm around my shoulder and said, “I have told you all. Be discreet. Do not tell everything until after I am gone. Then, after I have departed, you can do inventors and scientists a great duty by telling the rest..."

Mr. Edison replied, in his own handwriting: “Would not like to do this for many reasons. At present my income has nearly disappeared on account of the depression in business.”


See also:
Edison electrocuted an elephant 105 years ago today
Edison and the music biz: nothing's changed
Edison's mistakes recapitulated by RIAA



  1. It never ceases to amaze me how gullible and/or un-savvy many highly intelligent people are outside their area(s) of specialty. It’s almost like their intelligence makes them more susceptible to major mistakes because they believe they know enough.

    I could also be way off base on this one.

  2. I think you paint a rather unfair picture of Edison in terms of electrocuting animals. He did not stand over them, giggling as they fried. He was, however, a desperate man who saw that the form of current he was trying to push — direct current — really didn’t have the commercial appeal or usefulness that alternating current had.

    The electrocutions were a means of trying to convince people of the dangers of alternating current, not to gain some twisted pleasure. While I don’t agree with what he did (it was an employee of Edison’s, hired to research electrocution, that eventually led to the development of the electric chair), I don’t think it’s fair to say “electrocute animals for a kick”.

    Then again, I could be wrong — in that case, [citation needed].


  3. While I’m not an expert on T.A. Edison’s personal finances, I do that there’s a huge difference between “income” and “Net Worth”.

    It may be that Edison was just experiencing a temporary downturn in cash flow.

    I know that at the time of his death he owned several very nice homes that still exist as museums. I’m sure if he was broke they would have been sold –

  4. Thomas Edison was a puppy killer because he was too selfish and arrogant to accept that his model was the worse of the two.

  5. I think OutlanderSCC got the point.

    This item presented zero evidence for the proposition that Edison died poor. It only presents evidence that Edison had almost no income in 1931, which was perhaps the lowest point of the Great Depression.

    In fact, Cory, I’m surprised that you missed this.
    I suggest that you check the Wikipedia article on Edison to see what he was up to in 1931: he invested a lot of money in a train service in New Jersey that operated successfully for many years: “As another tribute to his lasting legacy, the same fleet of cars Edison deployed on the Lackawanna in 1931 served commuters until their retirement in 1984.” Many investments don’t make money their first year.

  6. I have strange feelings about Edison. When I was in grade school decades ago, I did a report on him. It was probably the biggest report I’ve ever done in terms of pure research and time on a subject. The books I had access to at the time (school library) painted a picture of Edison as a plucky, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of guy with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and research, who led a creative (small) team of researchers trying to create a “better” world.

    It wasn’t until much later I found out about a lot of things that really took the shine off my image of him. Things like he wasn’t really all that nice a guy. Actually, I should qualify that. It seems that when he was an up and comer with no real successes yet, he was a nice guy. Once he’d sold a couple of his inventions and gotten enough money to start Menlo Park, he turned into a dick. His “small” team at Menlo Park was more like a a huge lab that was a patent sweatshop, and he would patent other peoples’ inventions in his name or the name of his lab. His dealings with Tesla were horrifying in how far he would go to take advantage of someone whom he perceived to be vulnerable.

    Then there’s the movie/audio stuff, his feelings on rights for records and movies were, shall we say, interesting. If he were alive today he’d probably be the head of the RIAA and MPAA both, calling for filesharers to be executed in public, and was fiercely protective of his Intellectual Property, yet at the same time was more than happy to copy films that were made in Europe and distribute them in America, similar to the business model of today’s DVD pirates. It’s noted he drove Georges Méliès into bankruptcy by doing this.

    And him trying to discredit AC power as dangerous by electrocuting animals was just the icing on the cake. Acipolone, I don’t believe he derived pleasure from the killings either, but the sheer amorality of killing animals to attempt to discredit a competing product is appalling, particularily when you consider that DC wasn’t all that much safer.

    I’d like to think that the karmic scales got balanced at least a little in light of how Edison acted.

  7. Recently, I wrote an article about Edison for Neatorama and ran across the explanation of his finances: Edison lost a lot of money trying to extract iron from low-grade ore (he went so far as to build a large plant and a surrounding town to support it, only to find that you could mine iron for less money).

    But he wasn’t poor in the end. Henry Ford wrote that Edison was comfortable financially, though he wasn’t as rich as he used to be.

  8. In addition to the other points already made, I wonder if we really want to take Edison at his word about his finances. We know he lied and obfuscated about other things, and money is definitely the sort of subject people get cagey about anyway.

  9. Edison, he was a thief
    And Tesla nuts beyond belief
    But Alexander was a gent
    So philanthropic, so well meant

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