The Vault

Edison’s Last Breath (Or Is It?)

The Vault is Slate’s brand-new history blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatevault. Find out more about what this space is all about here. This standard-issue test tube, held at the Henry Ford Museum, was for years believed to contain Thomas Edison’s last exhalation.

Ford and Edison were friends. Ford greatly admired the older inventor, who had encouraged him to continue his work on a gas-powered car. In Edison’s last years, Ford bought a home next door to his winter estate, in Fort Myers, Fla, and the two tooled around the grounds in wheelchairs.

Edison passed away in 1931; Ford in 1947. The test tube was found in a lot of hundreds of items that the Museum received from Ford’s home after his wife Clara died in 1950. The tube arrived packed with Edison’s hat and shoes.

Some museum staff remember seeing a note attached that said “This is the test tube that you requested from my father’s bedroom.” The tube was on display in the museum for years, with a note that read, in part: “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.”

Some writers have hypothesized that Ford believed he could preserve Edison’s soul in a test tube for future resurrection. Given Ford’s love of exacting recreations, and belief in reincarnation, this speculation almost seems plausible.

Later, however, the museum staff discovered a letter from Charles Edison to the columnist Walter Winchell. Charles said that the test tube had simply happened to be in the room where Edison, who was an avid chemical experimenter, had died. After his father passed away, Charles had asked that the tubes be sealed with paraffin; he then gave one to Ford as a memento.  

Thanks to Henry Ford curator William S. Pretzer, whose post on the Henry Ford’s site explores this story thoroughly. Follow the Henry Ford on Facebook or Twitter.