How Henry Ford Tried To Keep Thomas Edison’s Last Breath

“My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it. What a soul may be is beyond my understanding.” —Thomas Edison

In A Nutshell

One of Henry Ford’s first jobs was working for the Edison Illuminating Company, and once he finally got to meet his mentor, the two became fast friends. When Edison died, Ford ended up with a test tube taken from his room and sealed, a poignant reminder of the life that had quite literally changed the way we see the world. There’s another (wildly embellished) story that goes along with it, too, that suggests Ford believed that he had captured Edison’s last breath (and perhaps his soul) and hoped that one day, scientists would figure out how to put him back together again.

The Whole Bushel

Henry Ford (pictured above at left) was a weird guy, lauded for revolutionizing industry at the same time that he had some pretty dark ideas about just what the world should have looked like. He hated Jews, people who sent their children to others outside the family for day care, and he most certainly hated Jewish car manufacturers. One person he really loved was Thomas Edison (pictured above at right).

Ford’s humble beginnings are well documented, and one of the first jobs he had was at the Edison Illuminating Company. By the time he was 33, he was building his first automobile prototype and still working for Edison, whom he finally met at a company party. According to the story, Edison was so impressed with Ford’s idea that it inspired Ford to continue down the road of car manufacturing.

Their first meeting grew into a friendship, where they would vacation together, go camping together, and even hold wheelchair races together. (Ford bought several of his own to compete with the wheelchair-bound Edison.)

Edison died in 1931, and in May 1951, hundreds of personal items were transferred to the Henry Ford Museum. Written on the inventory of items was a rather odd notation that simply read, “glass case containing Mr. Thomas Edison’s hat, shoes, and sealed test tube containing (?).”

No one was quite sure what was in the test tube at the time, and it was shoved away into storage until 1978. Someone seemed to remember something about a letter stating that it was the test tube from Edison’s bedroom that Ford had requested. No letter was ever found, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that another letter turned up. It was from Charles Edison to a radio personality, starting that when his father was suffering from his last illness, he had a set of test tubes sitting in his room. After Edison died, his son had sealed the test tubes with paraffin in a symbolic gesture, capturing that moment in time in a very poignant way. He also said that he gave one to Henry Ford.

It seems that this part of the story is absolutely true. Embellishment came later. (It’s not enough that we’re told a good story; we want to be told a great one.)

The test tube was reported to be filled with “Edison’s last breath,” and according to the embellished retelling, Edison’s son had held the test tube to his father’s mouth to capture his last breath before sealing it. One of the ideas that goes along with it is Ford’s belief in the soul and reincarnation, and some say that he had hoped that one day, scientists would be able to bring Edison back using the breath—and potentially, the soul—that had been captured in the test tube.

The Henry Ford Museum still has the test tube filled with air from the room where Thomas Edison died, and according to visitors, it’s one of the most poignant pieces on display. It’s a weirdly personal thing that somehow serves to remind visitors that the men whose names are known in conjunction with revolutionizing the world were still simply men, for better or worse.

As a final footnote, there are more such test tubes in Edison’s estate—42 more.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via The New York Times
Atlas Obscura: Edison’s Last Breath At The Henry Ford Museum
The Henry Ford Museum: Edison’s Last Breath?