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The glass test tube from Edison’s bedroom is on display in Henry Ford Museum.

July 2004

Edison's Last Breath?

Henry Ford considered Thomas Edison his personal hero and friend. Did his admiration for Edison provoke the admittedly idiosyncratic Ford to request the capture of Edison’s last exhalation when the great inventor died at 3:24 a.m. on October 18, 1931?

Acknowledging Ford’s interest in reincarnation, one source claims that “Henry Ford believed that the human soul exited the body with its last breath. Ford somehow convinced Thomas Edison’s son to sit by the dying inventor’s bedside, clap a test tube over his mouth, then plug it with a cork. Maybe Ford’s intentions were noble, and he expected future scientists to reconstitute Edison from the aether.”

The real story actually is more mundane—yet more poignant and laden with meaning. Ultimately, it is not about some bizarre capturing of a “dying breath” but, rather, about the very common process of memorializing deceased heroes. The sealed test tube, removed from the room where Thomas Edison passed away, was offered to his good friend, Henry Ford, as a symbol of Edison’s life and breath.


MORE: Edison's Last Breath?

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were good friends in their later years. 188.5610

The first evidence of the test tube appears in a May 1951 inventory of hundreds of personal and historical items transferred to Henry Ford Museum from Henry Ford’s Fair Lane residence after his wife Clara’s death in September 1950. Among the items was a “glass case containing Mr. Thomas Edison’s hat, shoes, and sealed test tube containing (?).”

No more was heard about the test tube until 1978, when it was discovered in its cardboard mailing tube along with the hat and shoes under one of the display cases in an exhibit entitled, “Henry Ford—A Personal History,” that had been installed in Henry Ford Museum in 1953. Some, but not all, of the museum staff involved remember a note tied to the cardboard tube stating, “This is the test tube you requested from my father’s bedroom.” No such note has been found in the museum’s archives. Still, the test tube and cardboard mailing tube went on display with the following label:

Edison’s Last Breath?
It is alleged that Henry Ford asked Thomas A. Edison’s son, Charles, to collect an exhaled breath from the lungs of Ford’s dying hero and friend. The test tube was found at Ford’s Fair Lane mansion, along with Edison’s hat and shoes, after Clara Ford’s death in 1950.

In the late 1980s, the museum acquired a photocopy of a letter from Charles A. Edison, the inventor’s son, to prominent national radio commentator Walter Winchell. The whereabouts of the original are unknown. Dated June 27, 1953, the letter reads:

During Mr. Edison’s last illness there was a rack of eight empty test tubes close to his bedside. They were from his work bench in the Chemical Room at the Laboratory in West Orange. Though he is mainly remembered for his work in electrical fields, his real love was chemistry. It is not strange, but symbolic, that those test tubes were close to him at the end. Immediately after his passing I asked Dr. Hubert S. Howe, his attending physician, to seal them with paraffin. He did. Later I gave one of them to Mr. Ford.

Does this deathbed scene ring true? Photographs of Edison’s bedroom at his Glenmont estate show small tables at either side of his bed and a desk filled with mementos and photographs. Edison had, indeed, treasured his work with chemistry since his youth. Hubert S. Howe was Edison’s doctor during his last days and Charles Edison was making all the arrangements upon his father’s death. Following long tradition, James Earle Fraser, a family friend and noted sculptor, was even allowed to make a plaster death mask and casts of Edison’s hands.

It seems not out of character for Charles to have asked that those test tubes be sealed as memorials. Neither Charles nor Henry Ford is known to have referred to the test tubes as the great man’s “last breath.” That embellishment was left to others.

As Harvey Rachlin has written in his book Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, and Einstein’s Brain, “Historical artifacts make physically manifest the dreams and ideas, the great deeds and events, of human history. They symbolize the glorious triumphs of human endeavor, its humiliating defeats and just about everything in between. Steeped in legend, artifacts forge an indelible link with the past.”

Or, as a woman visitor told the Wall Street Journal in 2003 after seeing the test tube on display, “It connects me to Edison’s life. It makes me realize that he was a living person who breathed.”


William S. Pretzer


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