The further adventures of Thomas Edison, asshat


Say you were curious about what happened when a human brain came into prolonged contact with a strong magnetic field. To find an answer, you might learn more about the nature of magnetism and the biology of the brain and make some hypotheses. Later, you'd run some experiments using dead tissue, or perhaps live animal models. This is because you are a good person.

If you were Thomas Edison, on the other hand, you'd find the nearest street urchin and keep him inside a giant electromagnet. It's OK, though, science writers would later say, because there turned out not to be much of an effect, and, anyway, the boy liked it.

Many years ago, Mr. Thomas Edison made the following interesting experiment in his laboratory. Wishing to see what, if any, influence is produced by the passage of strong magnetic flux through the brain, he kept a boy for a long time inside a huge electro-magnet with his head placed between the poles so that the flux passed directly through his brain. If now a magnet is capable of producing any effect whatever on the body it should certainly have done it in this case. But as far as could be seen no effect whatever was felt by the boy. When asked privately how he felt he replied confidentially, "The experiment is bully. I am all right in the magnet. I like to be here for I do not have to work while the experiment is going on and I can take a nap occasionally. But don't tell Mr. Edison. I hope he will keep me here for a long time."

Anecdote taken from The Wonder Book of Magnetism, by Edwin James Houston. Published in 1908.

Thanks to Alexis Madrigal for this fabulous find!


  1. Among those with special contempt for Edison are the admirers of Tesla:

    Another of Edison’s assistants was Nikola Tesla, to whom Edison promised $50,000 if he succeeded in making improvements to his DC generation plants. Several months later, when Tesla had finished the work and asked to be paid, Edison said, “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.” Tesla immediately resigned.

    Tesla himself was not a great admirer of Edison:

    “He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene.”

    But apparently Edison had deathbed regrets:

    When Edison was a very old man and close to death, he said, in looking back, that the biggest mistake he had made was that he never respected Tesla or his work.

    Source: Wikipedia

  2. What the book doesn’t say is that after the experiment failed Edison sent the young Max Eisenhardt off to Germany out of shame. This set in motion the events that made Max become the supervillain Magneto.

    1. Yes, it’s too bad Tesla himself was so crazy (in that good kind of way – correct me if I’m wrong of course). Seems like Edison was able to master the same kind of PR machine that currently dictates public policy in this country. I;m starting to get – maybe irrationally – a little frightened that Jon Boehner and co. is gonna have my head in a magnet field. Glad it won’t hurt any but I can’t say I’ll be saying, “I hope he will keep me here a long time.” BTW, MK-B, do you really think this translates into that, “the boy liked it?” My facetious-meter is broken.

      1. Yes, it’s too bad Tesla himself was so crazy (in that good kind of way – correct me if I’m wrong of course).

        No, it wasn’t really in any good kind of way. Tesla’s severe obsessive-compulsive disorder not only made his life rather sad and difficult, it prevented him from reproducing, and thus the human race has lost his genes.

        I’ve never seen any evidence that his mental illness “helped” him, but rather his extreme genius partially mitigated the effects. Some people disagree, and see his craziness as a necessary component of his genius.

        Anyway, you are right, it is indeed too bad Tesla was crazy.

        1. I don’t think that there’s any doubt that insanity is a necessary component of genius. Especially since, for the most part, insanity is defined as any deviation from the statistical average without any examination of it’s utility to anyone: if it’s different it’s bad.

          There’s no such thing as an improvement without a corresponding problem: especially in the field of mentality and how you get along with the (usually fanatical conformist) rest oft the population. There are only trade-offs.

          Take just one component: an absolutely perfect memory. This is something that Tesla had. How do you have conversations with people who, to you, seem to have Alzheimer memory problems? Time heals? Not if memory doesn’t dim. Every moment in time is the same as any other moment, right down to it’s emotional impact. (This is why Batman is still going on about his parent’s murder.) How do you figure out where you put your glasses when you remember every single place you ever put your glasses in your entire life: all with equal clarity?

          This last often causes people to mistakenly apply a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s only practical to only put your glasses down in the ONE TRUE PLACE for them: otherwise they’re immediately lost.

          Anyway, it’ll all become a moot point. After human-genome project fuelled eugenics we’ll have no more inconvenient deviations from statistical averages such as “insanity”: and no more genius; nor much creativity period.

          1. “Take just one component: an absolutely perfect memory. This is something that Tesla had.”

            I’m not sure I’d like perfect memory … I think I prefer a little bit of flexibility, a touch of randomness.

            What saddens me about Tesla’s psyche — well, one of the things that saddens me about Tesla’s psyche — is how he couldn’t eat a bowl of soup without first calculating the volume of the bowl … as if his neocortex was running too fast, getting between the body and its basic nutritional needs.

          2. “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that insanity is a necessary component of genius. Especially since, for the most part, insanity is defined as any deviation from the statistical average without any examination of it’s utility to anyone: if it’s different it’s bad.”

            I don’t think either of those statements are true. Nobody called Einstein insane. “Eccentric,” sure, but not in any debilitating way. Or Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger. (At least not for how they acted!) I can’t think of a single realm of human achievement where the majority of “great” figures were considered “insane.” It’s just that your Teslas and Beethovens disproportionately give that impression.

            Now, that’s not to say that Tesla’s craziness wasn’t a necessary component of his achievements.

          3. “Nobody called Einstein insane. “Eccentric,” sure, but not in any debilitating way. Or Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger.”

            Godel, on the other hand…. On one hand you have a man that Einstein, after he retired, would go to the institute to witness the man’s intellect in action. On the other, a man who thought the Nazis were trying to poison him decades after the war. He could only trust his wife to check his food for poison – she went into the hospital, he starved to death. Pretty tragic.

            There are plenty of people involved with inventing practical things that weren’t insane yet created things of great awesomeness. Philo T. Farnsworth and Edwin Armstrong are two pretty amazing examples. “I did not kill Armstrong.” Yeah, right, Sarnoff, whatever helps you sleep at night.

            Whatever evil Edison is guilty of, David Sarnoff is orders of magnitude worse. At least Edison invented things.

          4. It has happened that some people have virtues which outweigh their faults when one comes to place their life in the balance…if one has the right to place such in the balance, that is.

            We all have our faults. But we would not care a thing about Edison’s faults, or the man himself, if his virtues did not shine as brightly as they do.

            PS What is a person’s virtue? Well, answer the question: What are they good for?
            The answer, is their particular, individual virtue(s) – it needs an (s), for often a person has more than one.

            Some of us may have some. But unlike faults, not everybody does.

          5. I am not sure that the inventions count toward his virtues. As I understand most were ‘his’ invention in that he bought the inventor and had them assign the inventor slot on the patent to him. He was an intelligent man but he was more of a visionary manager and ego freak than an actual creator of new things.

          6. I see this as a prioritization problem — I myself have a near-perfect memory for foundational aspects of my life, certain early-learned facts (like times-tables etc) and well-considered theories, but most actor’s names (not all) fall out of my head, whether I like them or not.

            I think this happens because they have low priority and are easily researched, but childhood precedent means I feel stupid if I can’t retrieve them. For those who prioritize differently as children, their rock-solid dataset is different. Comics or cartoons might dominate over academic subjects, but most commonly social function predominates.

            ‘Neurotypicals’ are people who learn social skills to function well in a group, without which we might have not had a society at all.

            @anon edison-fan,

            Edison was the Steve Jobs of his day. He employed an army of engineers and inventors, paid them for their ideas, and presented it all as the results of his personal genius.

            He was a genius, of course, in marketing and lobbying and business. Invention and streamlining was his employees’ job.

            Edison vs. Tesla, which was actually Edison vs. Westinghouse, mirrors Jobs vs. Gates very well.


        2. So, what we’ve learned here:

          On the scale of genius, the cutoff line for when you are too smart/obsessed to get laid pass on your genes lies somewhere in between Nicola Tesla and Paul Dirac.

        3. Tesla’s severe obsessive-compulsive disorder not only made his life rather sad and difficult, it prevented him from reproducing, and thus the human race has lost his genes.

          Even if he hadn’t chosen a life of celibacy you’re making a leap to assume he would have fathered children. He may have been gay, sterile, or even asexual (some people out there just aren’t interested in sex, period).

          Besides, had Tesla chosen to raise a family it’s still unlikely that we’d now have a master race of techno-wizards. Stephen Hawking has three children who are now in their 30s and 40s, and while I’m sure they are wonderful people none of them have yet to dramatically change the course of history or revolutionize humanity’s understanding of anything.

  3. Could’ve been worse:

    Despite Edison’s contempt for capital punishment, the war against AC led him to become involved in the development and promotion of the electric chair (using AC current) as an attempt to portray AC to have greater lethal potential than DC.


    1. Mr Chan
      IIRC Edison once electrocuted an elephant as part of that AC/DC feud.

      I tend to read anything about the Tesla-Edison feud with a certain amount of skepticism from both sides as the partisans of the two men tend to show their bias.

      It wasn’t just the first standards war, in some ways it was the first flame-war.

  4. The $50,000 story came from Tesla himself with no other evidence to support it. Especially in later life, Tesla was a Self-Promoter who didn’t mind stretching the truth if it served his ends.

    Two of the better books on the subject of Tesla & Edison are “Empires Of Light” and “AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War”. They explain a lot more, and debunk a number of, the standard mythologies surrounding Tesla.

  5. Heck, at least the kid didn’t have to operate heavy machinery, the standard for a street urchin during the Industrial Revolution.

  6. Good thing he wasn’t a sufferer of some sort of ‘electromagnetic field hypersensitivity’. According to some (with a healthful dose of ignorance towards biology and physics), the boy should have been a giant depressed schizophrenic tumor when he emerged.

  7. …and who does the author believe participates in modern clinical trials? Do you think the well-heeled are collecting their $200 “compensation” for being injected with and/or subjected to who knows what at the local clinic?

    1. There’s a much more detailed and ethical system at work there. With the caveat that the system can and does break down, especially in the face of modern Big Pharma vileness, clinical trials are not first level of research that happens on a whim of curiosity.

      Test build up, first through test tube research, then animals and then on to people…if the previous two levels showed no signs of serious danger to the subjects.

      Like I say, the system doesn’t always work like it should (see: the recent controversy over unnecessary trials asking useless questions done mostly for marketing purposes), but those problems are not across the board. Clinical trials, even with their problems, are light years removed from, “Hey, I think I’ll just test this shit out on a person and see what happens.”

      1. Well, exactly how many researchers were practicing informed consent with their subjects at the turn of the 20th century anyway. I’m not going to vilify Edison for perpetuating the cultural norms of almost every scientist of the day.

        Scamming Tesla out of $50k is another story. OCD beats Asperger’s FTW!

    1. The elephant was one that had killed a handler (maybe more than one- I’m too lazy to look it up), but Edison filmed it in the battle with Westinghouse.

  8. It was not until I became a big admirer of Tesla did I come to really despise the sort of person Edison was. He truly had no ‘natural affection’ for his fellow man.

  9. I already thought Edison was an asshat for poaching all the credit for the invention of the light bulb, when really he only bought the patent for it from Torontonians Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans.

    This story just makes him more of an asshat.

    at least we can point to this experiment as a counterargument when people complain that magnetic fields are somehow dangerous to human health.

    1. “I already thought Edison was an asshat for poaching all the credit for the invention of the light bulb, when really he only bought the patent for it from Torontonians Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans.”

      There were a lot more than those two, but all of them were effectively useless. Edison created the first practical lightbulb, and therefor gets the credit. It’s not his fault theirs were craptastic.

      Marconi bought patents from Edison’s previous work, too, in developing radio. That doesn’t mean Edison developed radio, even if he dabbled in it for a while.

    2. Interesting aside… The only thing on Woodward Ave. in Toronto today is a McDonald’s, a place that may contain NO incandescent lights but only fluorescents, a Tesla innovation.

  10. Love Thomas’ adventures with George Westinghouse, trying to fuck him over. Thom might be the first Asshat in our glorious history. The electrocution of the circus elephant was a part of that, and I think the battle with Tesla in later years was as well. Thom’s insistence that DC power stations every mile in a city was just plain stupid, but Westinghouse was the guy that said A/C was the way to go, and Edison’s ego would not let that go by. The electric chair was just a part of the battle that Edison lost thank god.

    Look up any reference to War of the Currents or Battle of the Currents.

  11. Tesla was an absolute genius. The more you read about him the more you realize his genius. I truly believe that his “mad” elements were absolutely necessary, as obsessive behaviour is almost necessary to do the sort of inventive work he did. This obsessive element did him no favours in his personal life, however.

    Edison was a bully, and the more that surfaces (or becomes publicly known) about him shows Edison as a bit of an, well, asshat..

  12. Be fair, now. Edison really did want to improve the condition of the human race, and he succeeded. He just wanted more to get rich and famous doing it, even if that involved trampling over a bunch of other people (and one elephant).

  13. The amount of mis-information being peddled here in the comments about Edison is hilarious. I think I’ll add to the INFORMATION instead of the disinformation by just mentioning two advances of his:

    The nickel-iron alkaline battery, perfected by him in 1915, had no improvements made on it for around 60 years. IOW, something he developed was so far ahead of its time that all the chemists and all the metallurgists in the world made no appreciable improvements in it for that long.

    We can also look at his invention of the carbon button microphone in 1876, which was still being used essentially unchanged in telephones over 100 years later.

    I guess that “old thug” Edison had some brains. The worship paid to Tesla is somewhat deserved, but I laugh at all the people overstating his importance who don’t understand even such simple electrical facts as, say the difference between a wye and delta three phase system.

    BTW, looking things up on wikipedia and cuttin’ n’ pastin’ them doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you an idiot.

  14. And if you were a young boy named Erik with a science project due, you might build the biggest electro-magnet you could out of your friend’s dad’s spare parts and wire it to your head.

    It didn’t win at the science fair, but I can confirm Edison’s results.

  15. (I am the anon at #31 & #4; maybe I should get a sign in name :-)

    There seems to be a lot of ill-will directed at Edison for some reason. Probably just human nature to disparage somebody who didn’t fit the mold of “Eureka Based Genius” (in contrast to the experimentalist he was).

    But don’t mistake his experimentalist nature for a lack of genius – anybody can do thousands of experiments, but in most cases his starting point was pretty advanced, and the result of innovative thought.

    As for the phrase (in reference to inventors) “who did what first?”, it should really be “who wrote the history book?”. I have a book that claims to list the worlds’ 1001 most important inventions, and they give the electric light to the Scotsman Lindsay in 1835 (!) Anything to avoid Edison, or even Swan, I suppose. But later in the same book they credit Ford with the conveyor belt in 1913, even though conveyor belts were being used for literally centuries before that. In the same book they credit the automatic transmission to a crude prototype in 1904, when the first working automatic was by GM just before WWII.

    What a mess the numerous non-technical writers have made with the History Of Science/Technology.

  16. A fun fact, Edison MADE Hollywood what it is.
    Edison would not license his new motion picture recording equipment to the filthy filthy Jews so they had to go outside of New York state.
    The Jewish film directors found great locations for shooting and little regulation in California. The TEAA (Thomas Edison Association of America) was a tough guy from a rougher time where lawsuits were for sissies. Thomas Edison hired snipers to shoot out the cameras out west in Cali.
    And that is how Edison put the Jews back in their place and kept their Christless immoral influence out of todays New York centric movie industry.
    Who needs Hollywood Jews eh’ Tommy?

  17. Marconi bought patents from Edison’s previous work, too, in developing radio. That doesn’t mean Edison developed radio, even if he dabbled in it for a while.

    Telsa invented radio. See Bill Beatty’s informative post here: (Hi Bill!).

    Thomas Edison, asshat, worked hard to make sure that Marconi, and not Tesla, got the credit; as soon as Tesla died Edison stopped spending money on perverting the US judical system and Marconi’s patents were overturned. This allowed Edison to cut Marconi out of the profit picture as well!

    1. With the right spin, Tesla invented radio, yes. He was aiming for something different and failed. Marconi made something practical that was a finished product.

      If you’re going to be like that, then the truth is that radio was invented before Tesla even cared. It was demonstrated well before Tesla’s demonstrations, even if it wasn’t recognized for what it was.

      The article you linked to has a severe case of victim. No one “ignores” Tesla.

      1. “With the right spin, Tesla invented radio, yes. He was aiming for something different and failed.”

        Incorrect! Tesla made and demonstrated a radio-controlled submarine at the World’s Fair years before Marconi sent a dot across the ocean.

  18. (I am the anon at #36, #31 & #4; I’m really weighing getting a sign in name now :-)

    Amazing amount of undocumented rumors since my #36!

    #39: Swan’s patent was only granted in England, and although his is arguably the first “practical” light bulb, if you go by reliability & durability Edison’s was. There are still 100+ year old Edison bulbs working. As some might know, Swan was convinced to form a joint venture with Edison for marketing bulbs in England.

    # 40, #43: Ford was, indeed, an anti-Semite. But Edison was at times a theosophist, at times an atheist. He did not bear hatred for Jews.

    #45: Edison did work on inductive radio in the 1880s, the first kind that actually worked (transmitting msgs to moving trains). Tesla is in no way the original radio inventor, as Loomis had his system working decades earlier.

    I love debunking lies about Edison, and have researched his (true) history a fair amount (including from original sources). I have a lot of respect for Tesla, too – but on a much more realistic level as opposed to his wide-eyed “What does V=IR mean?” sycophants and the “Tesla invented an endless power source that has been covered up!” conspiracy theorists.

  19. Just to show a different side of Edison and Ford (who were admittedly in general both big bastards) they were really good friends and Ford was very sweet to Edison until the day he died. Also they totally had wheelchair races together!

    “When Edison’s doctors ordered him into a wheelchair in the last years of his life, Ford, still brisk and active, bought one too so they could race around the grounds together.” (From The Detroit News:

    So cute. It’s like Darth Vader and Mr. Potter playing hopscotch together.

    Edison’s “last breath” is held in a test tube in the Ford Museum in Michigan, given to Ford by Edison’s son Charles.

  20. (I am the anon at #47, #36, #31 & #4 – and I finally got a log in!)

    GimpWii (#46) simplifies the question of the genius of Edison by a factor of about 1x10E6.

    All of the principals mentioned – Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla – were inventive geniuses of one level or another. All three were SOLELY or 95%+ responsible for their earliest inventions, for example:

    Tesla: concept of AC induction motor
    Westinghouse: air brakes
    Edison: telegraph improvements including quadriplex transmission

    Later all three INCLUDING Tesla had many craftsmen & engineers working for them. In most cases the inspiration for the later developments came from one of the three principals, probably least from Westinghouse. Edison frequently rewarded his best people with high positions in his manufacturing plants or gave them part of the royalty stream from something they worked on that became a profitable item.

    Anybody who is stuck on the “Eureka!” lone-genius model is stuck in 1830, about the last time that this type of inventor was able to make earth-shaking advances (in complex technology at least; things like safety pins are another matter)

    As for being anti-social, the mythology around Edison is huge. Edison never worked, except for a very brief period on the WWI Naval torpedo board, on weapons of any kind. He was proud to never work on killing machinery, and said so. Imagine how many more people would have been killed in wars if his interdisciplinary genius had gone the way of Nobel or Maxim.

  21. Ziggo, thanks for your contributions to the discussion. Commentors like you, who actually give informed opinions, are what make it worthwhile to slog through these things.

  22. Edison was a sadistic bastard who electrocuted dogs and horses to try to prove AC was more dangerous than DC. This article doesn’t surprise me at all. Psychopathic asshat!

  23. I didn’t know Tesla, nor does anyone here, nor – since he was a genius – did anyone in his time.

    I call bullshit on the ‘obsession’ label. What’s the difference between intense focus and “obsession”? Life is short, there’s a lot of maintenance to do (food, house, etc), people you -have- to deal with. And it’s not enough to be inspired, you need to perspire. If you’ve got great ideas that noone can understand, guess who’s got to cut through all the gordian knots to realize them?

    I remember a time when the world wasn’t full of amateur psychologists obsessed with spouting psychobabble. I desperately hope that time returns ASAP.

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