How Thomas Edison Jr. Shamed the Family Name
Consumption. Rheumatism. Kidney trouble. Lost manhood. Womb displacement. Nagging congestion. Lady troubles. No matter what the ailment, magazine and newspaper readers in 1903 saw they had the ability to obtain a device that was presented as a modern medical marvel. It was called the Magno-Electric Vitalizer, and it harnessed the power of electricity to stimulate the nerves, inciting the body’s own natural healing powers.
But that wasn’t all the Vitalizer could do. In rigorous "scientific" study, the device—which consisted of two copper plates that could be applied to the head or torso, with optional nose plugs—was found to improve mental function, allowing test subjects to respond to difficult questions five to 10 seconds faster than the control group. One ad in the Los Angeles Herald promised that the Vitalizer “enabled the wearer to think much more quicker.”
Like a lot of dubious-sounding health devices peddled at the turn of the 20th century, the Vitalizer was complete bunk. The United States Patent Office rejected an application for it on two separate occasions because it was “inoperable.” By 1904, the U.S. Postal Service charged its distributor with postal fraud.
Quackery was nothing new, of course. But the Vitalizer’s exploitation of the public desire to cure their ills was unique. It was sold by the Thomas A. Edison Jr. Chemical Company, an outfit ostensibly owned by the son of famed inventor Thomas Edison. The family name had become synonymous with innovation; most people found it easy to believe the so-called “Wizard” had offspring who could deliver similar life-altering technology to the masses. (One ad read that the elder Edison "could not accomplish everything, and he left one room in the House of Science in which Thomas A. Edison, Jr. has labored and experimented for years in perfecting the Magno-Electric Vitalizer.”)
In reality, Thomas Edison Jr. had very little in common with his famous father. Rather than hone his craftsmanship, he preferred to sell his last name to a series of unsavory and unprincipled businesses. The practice so bothered his father that he once told a friend that his son was “absolutely illiterate, scientifically and otherwise.”
No mention of the senior Edison seems complete without crediting his most impressive contributions to the world. In 1877, he used his phonograph machine to record “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a piece of tinfoil, introducing the first voice recorder/player. He ushered in the era of modern electricity, perfecting the incandescent light bulb and championing a system that would wire homes to power grids. From his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, Edison developed more than half of the 1093 patents he was granted during his lifetime.
Edison was married twice, once to Mary Stilwell from 1871 to 1884 and again to Mina Miller in 1886. Edison loved Morse Code: He proposed to Mina by tapping out the words. Of his six children, he nicknamed daughter Marion “Dot” after the messaging system. Thomas Jr., who was born in 1876, was “Dash.”
Some accounts of Edison’s parenting approach are less than flattering. With daughter Madeline, he’d reportedly present impromptu quizzes at the breakfast table and apply a hot spoon to the back of her hand if she answered too slowly, or incorrectly. Edison's kids were issued a daily quota of encyclopedia-reading and other intellectual tasks.
It’s believed that Thomas Jr. found this environment to be oppressive, having neither the ambition nor the aptitude to sharpen his mind with formal education. He dropped out of an elite prep school at age 17 before earning his diploma, prompting his father to observe that his son desired fame more than a sense of actual accomplishment.
In 1898, Thomas Jr. settled in New York. He was the subject of a flattering newspaper profile that appeared to do little in the way of fact-checking, particularly over claims that the younger Edison had invented a better light bulb. (He had not.) The publicity led to a high-profile appearance at an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden that same year. Although he had no real responsibilities—he was put in charge of the decorating committee—Thomas Jr. held court with journalists and presented himself as an inventor on the cusp of major breakthroughs at the risk of his own life.
“I never expect to die a natural death,” he told reporters. “I feel confident I will be blown up some day.”
Despite his lack of laboratory experience, Thomas Jr. knew his last name held considerable value. Thanks to both the press he received in New York and the name on his birth certificate, Edison was able to entice individuals to invest in a series of ill-conceived ventures. In 1901, he peddled “Wizard Ink” tablets, a very deliberate way of invoking his father’s nickname. The globs of ink could be plopped in an ounce of water without “clot, lump, or sediment.” Ads claimed the ink had been tested in leading banks.
If the elder Edison fumed at his nickname being used to market unremarkable writing tools, the Vitalizer would soon send him over the edge. A totally useless fabrication, the device capitalized on the public’s fascination with electricity and was said to deliver mild impulses via the head or back. Thomas Jr. asserted that it had been tested on second graders to promote intellect, could provide relief from menstrual pain, and would clear clogged nasal passages. “There seems to be no limit to its sphere of action,” the ad copy read.
Once received, the Vitalizer’s instructions promised relief from virtually any disorder or complaint of which the user could conceive. Depending on the issue, the Vitalizer could be positioned over any major organ. For problems related to one's genitalia, it promised to be “the only sure and sensible cure.”
Anyone who ordered the $8 Vitalizer was only relieved of both their money and any hope of assistance. By 1904, at the behest of his father, the Post Office had successfully ordered Thomas Jr. to halt shipments of the product. Although the younger Edison was probably just selling a name and had nothing to do with the company itself, his father bemoaned to LIFE magazine that such use of his name was causing him terrible grief.
“I am thinking of a scheme to prevent persons from using the name I have striven honorably to protect," Edison said.
Fed up with Thomas Jr.’s ventures, Edison offered to pay his wayward son a $35 per week allowance if he would simply change his name. He agreed, and began calling himself Thomas Willard. The senior Edison then set him up on a mushroom farm with the hope that he would eventually become self-sufficient.
Instead, Thomas Jr. wound up in a sanitarium.
It’s not known whether the pressure of being Thomas Edison’s namesake led to Thomas Jr.’s personal struggles. According to his second wife, he abused alcohol and was briefly admitted into a mental institution to address his depression. The mushroom farm provided only modest financial relief, so Edison raised his allowance to $50 a week.
At some point, Thomas Jr. decided he wanted to live up to the family name and spent seven years trying to perfect his Ecometer, an automobile addition that would help conserve fuel. At the same time, his father was toiling on efforts to perfect an electric car with Henry Ford; it’s believed Ford subjected the Ecometer to a battery of tests so that he wouldn’t risk offending Edison.
Thomas Jr. dreamed of his invention being installed in every car in the nation. It failed to pass basic performance tests.
When Thomas Edison died in 1931, he left his son a seat on his company’s board of directors. While it provided some measure of monetary relief, the success was short-lived: Thomas Jr. died in 1935, allegedly due in part to his substance abuse issues.
Despite his efforts, Thomas Jr. remains little more than a footnote in accounts of Edison’s life—the selfish, attention-seeking son who resented living in the shadow of his famous father and used any means available to him in order to escape it. Unless, of course, he could profit from it.
Before the Vitalizer was pulled from the market, Thomas Jr. asserted that he was putting the public’s health first and claimed he turned down a $750,000 offer to buy his company. “I am determined,” he said, “that this invention shall not fall into the hands of those who would regard it only as a money-making business.”