“Did Thomas Edison Die a Poor Man? (Jan, 1932)

“Did Thomas Edison Die a Poor Man?

By Remsen Crawford

The will of Thomas A. Edison, the world’s greatest inventor, who died in mid-October, disposes of property estimated to be worth $12,000,000. It would seem impossible, then, that he could have died a comparatively poor man—yet this is the amazing conclusion of Remsen Crawford, Edison biographer and close friend of the inventor, who here presents proof in Edison’s own handwriting which indicates the inventor was “property poor.”

AS THE last man in this world to have had a personal interview with Thomas A. Edison, I am going to set down here exclusively in Modern Mechanics and Inventions the reasons why that great wizard died a poor man. It seems most incredible that a man whose work was valued by Congress in 1928, when he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, at $15,599,000,000 should pass on from this earth as a poor man, comparatively speaking.

I am not writing for any dramatic flourish. I am stating plain facts, the same kind of facts which formed the basis of Mr. Edison’s experiments. In my possession I have kept the handwriting of the genius of Menlo Park to substantiate what I am jotting down here.

The proof is reproduced herewith from those originals.

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.”

I knew what he meant. That was the last time Mr. Edison ever spoke for publication. He never granted interviews. Mine was a rare good fortune. I had known him for many, many years.

And here is the story that I can now tell: For many years I had been let into the secret that Thomas Edison was not enriching himself by his wondrous inventions. Some day he would die a relatively poor man. The pay-check of genius unhappily is seldom commensurate with service to humanity. Trite the tale, but in Mr. Edison’s case it had always seemed to me like a deplorable, tragic calamity. This man should have been the Croesus of the modern world if rewarded in rightful ratio to the uses mankind had made of his incomparable wisdom.

Some months prior to his death, when a controversy arose over the question, “What did Edison ever really do for the making of moving pictures, etc?” and I saw an undercurrent of challenge to his greatness, I sought an interview: My acquaintance with Mr. Edison had until then never been more than what a newspaper reporter sometimes develops with a celebrity in the day’s work of chronicling the news. But thirty years ago, when I first went to interview him, he put aside his drafting board, and with it, all reserve and answered my questions about the expiration of some of his patents with such frankness and cordiality that a bond of sympathy arose between us.

Sitting there in his laboratory in West Orange, N. J., at nearly midnight on a Saturday night, clad in a shabby old linen duster and with a big floppy old straw hat pulled down over his eyes, the world’s greatest inventor told me that he had never had exclusive use of any of his great inventions.

He related to me that while a government is supposed to protect a patent for seventeen years, the expiration of a patent means but little to an inventor because in the case of an epoch-making invention, nine times out of ten somebody has bobbed up and challenged the real inventor’s right to his patent, and the real inventor always gets the worst of it in court, even though he may hold in his hand the patent of the United States Government.

“Take that little incandescent lamp hanging over my head, for instance,” declared Mr. Edison in that interview years ago and which I am now releasing in its entirety for the first time. “I fought for that in the courts of this country fourteen years, and my associates and I spent $1,000,000 trying to establish my claims to it which had been vouched by the Patent Office.

“At the expiration of the fourteen years there were but three years left for the patent to live.

“Thus, my opponents were able to keep me out of the profits of that particular patent until the rights to it were well-nigh useless.

“I am not saying this in a mood of complaint, for I can make money, anyhow. But it is a miserable system we have in this country that menaces a poor man starting out to invent something. I know of several inventors who are poor. Their ideas would have made them millionaires. But they were kept poor by the pirates who were allowed to usurp their rights in courts.

“The usurpation is particularly apt to result in the case of some extraordinary patent. I could invent a new monkey wrench which might go without infringement, but the moment I take certain forces and work out a moving picture for the first time in the history of the world, like that produced by the kinetoscope, mark you how the pirates rise up and call it their own.

“The seven patents expiring at midnight tonight are not fundamental patents. They were improvements rather than originations. The monopoly of their use will not be destroyed for the reason that there is no such thing in this country as the monopoly of any inventor’s creation.

“We have never had a monopoly of anything I have ever invented.”

With this old interview in my mind, I wondered how Mr. Edison had been faring all these years with “the pirates” whom he had so vividly, so forcefully depicted to me long before.

On my last visit to Mr. Edison not so long ago, I found him in his laboratory peering through a queer new camera. He chuckled good-humoredly as he hailed me with this: “Yes, we’ll take up where we left off thirty years ago, and we’ll complete the interview about the fellows I call ‘pirates’. Maybe it will help those young inventors who are coming after me.”

He spoke very frankly to me about his financial status when I asked him if he would take me into his confidence and tell me why he was not the richest man in the world.

Here is the first question I typed out for Mr. Edison, for this was the form our interview took: “In our interview Friday you answered one of my questions by saying that you had never made much money from your inventions and patents but your earnings had come from manufacturing and selling your products.

“You went further and said that you believe you have spent more defending your patents in court than you had ever derived from them on a royalty basis, excepting perhaps the moving picture rights. This is by far the outstanding point in this interview, since Henry Ford has corroborated these facts about you.

“Now, I would like for you to enlarge upon this. I have always thought you were never duly paid in money commensurate with your great service to the world. Millionaires have sprung up like mushrooms on your inventions, when to any normal mind it would appear that you should have been enriched more than you have been.

“How great is your fortune?

“What is your total annual income, roughly estimated?

“I don’t want to pry into your business, but what you have already said makes this the big point in this interview. Please go as far as you can on this.”

To which 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.”

There you have it—the last statement Edison made concerning the profits made from his inventions.

7 comments
  1. Matthew says: February 10, 20086:16 am

    The article doesn’t explain how if he died with an estate worth $12m he could have been poor.

  2. spayced says: February 10, 20089:46 am

    Well yes it’s a bit of a stretch that he was poor. But it does raise the interesting and true point that patents give little income compared to manufacturing and selling. He also complained that patents don’t last long enough. Which makes you wonder how Copyrights managed to get extended to 120 years but patents remain at 17. (The rationale for both long and short lengths that it will encourage innovation, wtf) The final point, that parties can litigate to drain your money is still an issue today.

  3. Stannous says: February 10, 200812:11 pm

    I meant to post this here but put it on the Menlo Park light page:
    According to today’s American Heritage Pic of the Day Edison’s also the world’s shortest person:
    http://www.americanheri…

  4. Mike Brisendine says: February 10, 20086:15 pm

    That’s a major meess-up on the American Heritage site. LOL!

  5. jmyint says: February 10, 20086:20 pm

    Well 12 million at the time of Edison’s death would be about 150 million today. That’s still a chunk of change but Edison was notoriously bad at making business decisions.

  6. jayessell says: February 11, 20083:33 pm

    He’s one to talk about piracy if the Tom Hanks mini series “From the Earth to the Moon” is to be believed.

    French filmmaker Melies “Le Voyage dans la Lune” was ripped off by the Edison company according to Mr. Hanks.

    But, according to other sources, the American producer Lubin pirated the film under the title A Trip to Mars.

    There was a movie in the 1970s about the Edison Patent Thugs. I don’t remember the title, but here is an article:

    http://findarticles.com…

  7. Tom Jerry says: October 24, 20097:55 am

    Thomas Edison and his suite of every time ultimately hasn’t died poor but miserable and loser on their scientific attitude, more precisely brute force method. I think he invented nothing basal, even also filament lamp as of today there is much more efficient versions of it that has nothing common in essence with his design out of conducting electric through which is nothing new in lamp lifetime if we think of halide, arc lamp or leds and their efficacy today. There is no medium to ratio between him and say Nikola Tesla on scientific grounds and application of them. With that much of capitalist/communist labor provided to Edison any real scientist would ultimately of course made not just better but superior achievement that shifts in comparison to his thingies. Nikola Tesla just achieved on multitudes of timeless eclectic singularity even throughout ultimate burden of ideologic mystics.

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