Visionary failed to see the future

SUN JOURNAL

Edison: For a man accustomed to success, the inventor's effort late in life to find an alternative source of rubber marked one of his few failures.

October 04, 1999|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Beneath the branches of a towering banyan tree, tucked away in what was once a jungle on Florida's Gulf Coast, is a place where one of the world's top scientists spent his final days working on an obscure and unusual project.

For a half-century, Thomas Alva Edison had been a household name. But as his hearing faded to near-total deafness and his health began to fail, he headed to his retirement home near the Gulf of Mexico for one final experiment -- turning plants into rubber.

"It was his last hurrah," says Jim Niccum, a retired chemist turned Edison aficionado who gives tours of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates with a twinkle in his eye and a passion for the life of a man who changed history.

While most people can easily list Edison's major inventions -- the light bulb, the phonograph -- less widely known is that he spent his final days working as a botanist on what now seems to be an odd experiment. For nearly four years until his death in 1931, he toiled in a laboratory deep in the tropics, trying to find an alternate source of rubber for his own business interests and those of his best friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, and for the nation.

It's a tale not widely told, and for a man accustomed to success, it marked one of his few failures.

Edison's Florida estate

The story is carefully guarded on the neatly landscaped grounds of Edison's Florida estate, where curators are planning to restore the property to its appearance a century ago. They hope to move several nonhistorical buildings from the grounds next year. The plan is to relocate them a block north on a site that would be called Edison-Ford Square, says Judy Surprise, director of the estate.

Edison's estate, called the Seminole Lodge, recalls the days of Great Gatsby capitalism, when people such as Edison, Ford and Cornelius Vanderbilt made millions and built homes in some of the country's most desirable places.

As a testament to Edison's attention to detail and quality, the electrical switches, light bulbs and ceiling fans he crafted and installed more than 100 years ago are still working in his Florida house today.

The Edison-Ford Winter Estates sit along the Caloosahatchee River by a boulevard lined with royal palms. On one side of the property stands the largest banyan tree in the continental United States. The circumference of the root system is more than 400 feet. Beneath the banyan is Edison's tropical laboratory, perfectly preserved for the nearly 325,000 tourists who visit the estate each year.

The story of Edison's botany experiments begins in the late 1800s, when the inventor bought 14 acres for $2,750 in a virtually unknown town called Fort Myers. Sections of his house were built in Fairfield, Maine, placed aboard a schooner, shipped to Florida and reassembled near McGregor Boulevard in 1886, then a cattle road and the only way to the islands of Sanibel and Captiva.

Ten years later, Edison met a young engineer named Henry Ford, who was working in one of Edison's illumination plants in Detroit. Ford was developing an automobile, and Edison encouraged the concept.

As their business relationship flourished, so did their friendship. They became so close that Ford established his own winter retreat on Edison's property in 1916.

Near-monopoly on rubber

After World War I, Edison, Ford and Firestone were deeply troubled that the British held a near-monopoly over world rubber production -- at a time when the United States was consuming nearly 70 percent of the world's supply. Edison used rubber to insulate his electrical components. Ford needed it for his cars. And Firestone needed it for his tire company.

"We were considering what this country would do in case of a war," Edison told Popular Science magazine. "We decided that the thing for us to do was to find a source of rubber, so that we can produce it quickly, right here."

In 1927, the men formed the Edison Botanic Research Corp. By then, the 80-year-old Edison had become fascinated with botany and had set aside 9 acres in Fort Myers to grow plants, weeds and vines capable of producing rubber.

Using his vast connections in the world of science -- and sending messages to Western Union telegraph stations around the nation -- Edison requested information about species that might produce rubber. He eventually collected 17,000 plants. And as he did with all his experiments, Edison began to work day and night, trying to coax rubber from stalks and leaves.

He set up a laboratory inside a large, wood-frame building with open-beam ceilings on his Fort Myers estate. Today, the lab appears as it did the day Edison died -- an eerie time capsule of sinks and stills, Bunsen burners and beakers, and machine-shop tools powered by an electric motor perched in the rafters.

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