Journey into the world of a prolific inventor

The task turned out to be a tough one. About the turn of the century, Thomas Edison put his assistants to work on trying to invent a better storage battery. The principle behind it had been conceived much earlier, but it needed perfecting.

After 9,000 experiments, the technicians came back to him exasperated. All had failed. They wanted to quit.

``Failures?'' the wispy-haired Edison shot back. ``Those are not failures. Those are 9,000 things we won't have to do over.''

Some of the cells they eventually came up with -- 41,000 experiments later -- can be seen at the Edison Winter Home in this sun-dappled Gulf Coast city. They are among the dozens of other inventions -- and some of the tales of triumph and tribulation behind them -- that can be taken in on the 14-acre estate here, where Edison spent ``working vacations'' the last 46 years of his life.

If you've tired of safari rides at Busch Gardens and are too crimson for another day at the beach, a walking tour of the Edison home offers a nice alternative.

It's a botanical treat: Edison created one of the country's most extensive tropical gardens, with more than 300 plant species gracing the grounds. More important, though, it offers something of a journey into the mind of one of the most prolific inventors of all time.

Edison, of course, is well known for producing the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, and systems of electric power generation, versions of which are all on display here. Less well known are some of his other achievements, carried out en route to receiving 1,097 United States patents, including:

The first motion-picture camera.

The first electric hair curlers.

The first electric sewing machine.

The first financial stock ticker.

Better ways of making cement. He holds 62 patents on it. All the cement in Yankee Stadium and the Panama Canal came from his company.

The first wax paper (made from actual beeswax).

Edison settled in Fort Meyers in 1884, when it was a bustling town of 350. Since then, the city has embraced him as much as he did it. Today there is an Edison Park, an Edison Community College, an Edison Avenue, and an annual celebration called the Edison Festival of Lights -- Fort Meyers's more sedate version of Mardi Gras. Each year some 200,000 people visit the home, gardens, laboratory, and museum on his estate, nestled near the banks of the Caloosahatchee River.

The tour of the grounds begins under the shade of an African sausage tree, laden with fruit the size of the salami in a butcher shop. Visitors wend their way through several acres of exotic trees and plants. Edison was a botanist and horticulturist by hobby. His interest, however, wasn't so much in beautifying the landscape; plants were grown for their byproducts.

He planted varieties of bamboo, for instance, to test their use as light bulb filament. One species grows up to 14 inches a day. Some 90 percent of the vegetation on the grounds is foreign to the United States. Some examples: a South American dynamite tree, whose baseball-size seed pods, when ripe, explode with the sound of a small shotgun; a Cuban needle palm, whose needles were once used for sewing; a melaleuca tree sheathed in fireproof bark.

In the shade of a screw palm sits Edison's one capitulation to exercise, Florida's first modern swimming pool. He built it in 1890, but not for himself. It was for guests and relatives. Edison believed the body existed to carry the mind around. The pool was made with Edison's own cement and reinforced with bamboo. There are no cracks in it to this day.

The main Edison house, ``Seminole Lodge,'' is comfortably, but not ostentatiously, furnished. Among other things, it contains some of the inventor's earliest lighting fixtures. These include carbon filament bulbs that have burned an average of 12 hours a day since he made them in 1910. None have burned out.

Linked to the lodge is a guesthouse that Edison had built to for his frequent visitors, many of whom tarried a month or more at a time. He also built it to house the only kitchen on the grounds. Edison didn't like the smell of food, so he slept in the lodge and ate in the guest compound.

Apparently one smell that didn't bother him was rubber. He built a laboratory here specifically to find a new source of it about 1920. Backed by Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, a longtime chum and Fort Meyers neighbor, Edison set out to find a native plant that would produce the substance and help protect the US against a shortage in wartime. The most promising species turned out to be goldenrod. A few early car tires were made out of his crude creations. Some industrial belting, tubes, and other products are still made from goldenrod rubber.

On the inside, Edison's chemical laboratory today stands almost as he left it. No computers whirring here. Only hand-operated lathes, old vacuum pumps, and a forest of flasks and beakers, all of which were hand-blown in the lab.

In Edison's office, next to the lab, sits a cot where he often catnapped. When involved in an experiment, he would work almost around the clock, lying down maybe 15 minutes at a time. In the office is one of Edison's early phonographs, with teeth marks on the outside. Because he was almost deaf, he could not hear music. So he would bite the frame of the phonograph and ``listen'' to it through the vibrations picked up by nerves in his teeth, which are connected to the inner ear.

The other major attraction on the grounds is the Edison Museum. More than 1,000 items are displayed, including dozens of early light bulbs, motion-picture cameras, batteries, telephones, and small appliances and, on one wall, a field of wooden phonographs abloom with multicolored bell horns. All this is the product of a man who had only three months of formal education (though he could read a book in 15 minutes).

The array of inventions here is a reminder of the extent of Edison's genius, which researchers are still working to fully understand. New insights into his inventiveness, in fact, have recently come out of Rutgers University. They suggest, among other things, that his creativity flowed as much from an ability to reason through analogy than from any sudden flashes of brilliance.

A stroll through his home here, if not giving a feel for how that mind worked, certainly shows the results of it. Practical information:

Edison's Winter Home is at 2350 McGregor Boulevard. Tours run 11/2 hours and cost $4 for adults, $1 for children under 12. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 12:30 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

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