Rosemead Kiwanis Club

   "Serving the Community Since 1945"






The Fax of Life

A weekly inspiration, courtesy of the Kiwanis Club of Scott's Valley

September 28, 1997                                                                  Vol. 2,   No. 46


Great Value in Disaster


Thomas Edison's laboratory was virtually destroyed by fire in December, 1914. Although the damage exceeded $2 million, the thirteen destroyed buildings were only insured for $238,000 because they were made of concrete and thought to be fireproof. Much of Edison's life's work went up in spectacular flames that December night.


At the height of the fire, Edison's 24-year-old son, Charles, frantically searched for his father among the smoke and debris. He finally found him, calmly watching the scene, his face glowing in the reflection, his white hair blowing in the wind.


"My heart ached for him," said Charles. "He was 67- no longer a young man - and everything was going up in flames.


When he saw me, he shouted,  "Charles, where is your mother?"  


When I told him I didn't know, he said,  "Find her. Bring her here. She will never see anything like this as long as she lives." "


The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, "There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew."


Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to deliver his first phonograph.


[Editor's note: The story of destruction and rebuilding is essentially correct.  However, the phonograph angle is not true.  Edison's first commercial phonograph was produced in 1896 using cylindrical media; he began disc production in 1912.


The oft-repeated misunderstanding is explained by Edison biographer Glen Van Ekeren:


"With the onset of World War One, Edison found himself in danger of being compelled to close his phonograph record factory.  Edison needed carbolic acid to make the records, and was the largest user of carbolic acid in the United States.  Edison’s primary supply was imported from England and Germany, and both countries had placed an embargo on carbolic acid because it was in great demand for making explosives.


"With no other sufficient supply available, Edison was faced with one of two choices.  Close the factory or invent something that could solve the problem.


"Edison chose the latter and invented an alternative method for making carbolic acid synthetically and put crews to work twenty four hours a day to build a carbolic acid production facility.  By the eighteenth day the factory was producing carbolic acid, within four weeks it was turning out a ton of it per day.


"Crisis averted, but the year was not yet over.......


"Three weeks after the fire Edison Industries was manufacturing phonographs.  By December 31st of the following year, 1915, Edison had sold 95,889 phonographs on his way to what would become 845,228 phonographs sold and over 48,000,000 records."


Thus it was not production of the first phonograph but rather a rapid resumption of existing production that occurred after the great fire.]


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