Steve Canavan: Bright spark’s invention still lighting up our lives

Young Wilf Canavan has begun to appreciate the genius of inventor Thomas Edison

Friday, 19th March 2021, 4:08 pm
Updated Friday, 19th March 2021, 4:10 pm
Whether Thomas Edison actually did invent the lightbulb is hotly disputed

Some inventions are so undeniably wonderful it’s hard to imagine living without them.

Take penicillin, for example, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, or no-drain tuna (thank god they invented that last one; it means John West can charge an extra 50p for putting slightly less brine in a can).

Into the category of world-changing inventions very definitely comes the lightbulb.

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I mean think about it. When all you have is the natural light created by the sun, without the humble lightbulb we wouldn’t be able to do anything after dark. Well, we would but we’d keep bumping into things.

The gas light came before the electric one, obviously, but these involved lamp-lighters trawling the streets each night, laboriously lighting each lamp then returning at dawn to put it out.

Light bulbs changed the world by allowing us to truly establish social order after the sun went down. They changed industry by extending the working day into the night, and allowed us to navigate and travel safely in the dark. Suddenly we could do things like read without having to rely on a flickering candle. We could build lighthouses to stop ships sinking, watch a floodlit football match, go to Blackpool illuminations and marvel at a flashing neon pirate … the list is endless.

All these thoughts occurred to me as I watched my son Wilf – who turns two tomorrow; I’ll pass on your regards to him – methodically sliding a chair over to the other side of the kitchen, clambering shakily on top of it (as I, for about the millionth time in the last two years said, ‘careful Wilf’), then reaching up and starting to turn the light switch on and off.

Every time the kitchen light went off he looked truly astonished, giggled in delight, and shouted ‘off’. When he pressed the switch again and the light came on, he looked equally astonished and screamed ‘on’ – all the while looking at me wide-eyed as if he’d just discovered the secret to life itself. He’s either backward or very easily pleased.

It was actually, I confess, quite cute and I reacted as every parent does when their child achieves something for the first time and felt an odd, rather pathetic feeling of pride. (“Aw, he’s worked out how to turn the light on, what a talented boy”).

Ten minutes later, though, by the time Wilf had turned the light on and off around 400 times - effectively turning the kitchen into a nightclub with strobe-lights and leaving me on the verge of an epileptic fit - it had got a little tiresome and left me with no option but to scoop him up and lock him in the coat cupboard for 10 minutes until he promised not to do it again.

(Let me just clarify, before I receive any complaints, that last bit wasn’t true. We locked him in for 20 minutes).

But back to the lightbulb.

The man credited with inventing it (although it’s quite hotly disputed given about two dozen people were involved) is Mr Thomas Edison, a bloke I’m very fond of because he was a fascinating chap.

Despite going on to change the world, as a youngster he was berated by his teachers, who labelled him “addled” and complained his mind wandered too much.

His mother clearly didn’t care for these comments about her dear son because she responded by taking him out of school and teaching him at home.

Mrs Edison was one hell of a home-schooler for her son went on to become a prolific inventor, holding, at his peak, 1,093 patents.

He was a mysterious chap in his youth, combining doing menial jobs like selling sweets and newspapers on trains and flogging vegetables at the local market, with studying qualitative analysis, as you do.

When he eventually packed in flogging broccoli and kale, he was responsible for greatly advancing the fields of electricity, x-rays, sound, mining, telephones, rechargeable batteries and motions pictures and was a true genius.

On the off-chance you’ve not already got bored and stopped reading, here are two little known facts about him worth recounting.

First, he had a lifelong hearing problem caused by a conductor lifting him onto a train in his home state of Ohio by his ears. Edison was 12 at the time and was near-deaf from that point onwards – he would listen to a piano by clamping his teeth into the wood to absorb the sound waves into his skull, which must have been a bit off-putting for the person trying to play it (‘hey, why’s that kid trying to eat my piano?’)

Secondly, Edison’s final breath (and I just love this) is supposedly contained in a test tube at the Henry Ford Museum. Edison was friends with Ford, who apparently convinced Edison’s son Charles to seal a test tube of air in the inventor’s room as he died as a memento. What use that bit of breath is no one knows, but apparently it is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Edison died in 1931, at the age of 84, possibly not helped by the fact that in his final few years he adopted a popular diet of the day (the only liquid he drank was a pint of milk every three hours – he must have spent a fortune on the stuff).

I’ll tell all this to my Wilf at a later date. In the meantime he can continue to happily turn the lights on and off to his heart’s content, blissfully unaware of just what a truly amazing thing it is.