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April 30, 2024 9 mins

Being successful at what you do in business doesn’t seem to guarantee you’ll be a successful spouse or parent. Thomas Edison is a clear example of a genius businessman who was a bit of a failure as a father. Most of his children shared stories of their difficult relationship with the Wizard of Menlo Park.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Okay, we're getting close to Mother's Day and about a
month later Father's Day. We love celebrating the people who
gave us life and raised us with love and probably
way more patience than we even realized or maybe even deserved.
But how about having a famous parent who pays little
attention to you, and when they do, constantly tears you apart,

(00:20):
trying to shame you or hurt you. Why because you
just can't please them? I'm Patty Steele. Thomas Edison. When
being famous isn't enough? Next on the backstory. The backstory
is back. We've all grown up thinking that parents, if
they have enough success, money and acclaim, will pass the

(00:44):
gifts of that success onto their kids. But way too
often we know that doesn't happen. Money and attention just
don't give you inner peace, nor do they give you
the ability to pass that sense of peace onto your kids.
Take Thomas Edison, brilliant marketing guy and inventor, but most
of all, he was a genius businessman who knew how

(01:06):
to get what he needed out of people, and that
included his kids, or so he thought. Edison's parenting definitely
left something to be desired. His famously long work days
meant he wasn't home much. The mother of his first
three kids died when his oldest was twelve. When she
was fourteen, Thomas married twenty year old Mina and had

(01:28):
three more children with her, so the six kids altogether
were left with his very young wife while he basically
lived in his lab or at his mining operations. When
his oldest daughter, Marian, had issues with Mina, who she
felt was trying to replace her mother, and even Marian
herself with her dad, Thomas blamed Marian, and when he

(01:50):
was at home he was crazy demanding. He gave them
a beautiful home, expensive private schools, lots of stuff, but
no attention. According to his youngest daughter, Madeline, she said,
when I was six or seven, I wasn't really aware
I had a father. He was just this occasional presence,
mostly on a few saturdays. He was working constantly out

(02:12):
of town and tried to talk Mina into coming with
him and leaving the children with household staff and their grandmother.
He told her, you can speak with the children by
phone twice a day, it's just like being there. Imagine
that lack of understanding of his children, much less of
his young wife. The children later spoke of his lack

(02:32):
of attention except when it came to his unrealistic expectations
for them. Madeline said that when he was home, he
would often, without any warning, quiz them at the breakfast
table about everything from curt events to obscure pieces of history.
It was part of their daily quota of encyclopedia reading
and other intellectual tasks he set for them. And by

(02:55):
the way, if you worked for Edison, he also had
to pass a one hundred and forty six quest and
quiz about the same kind of stuff, because he felt
if you could answer those questions, it showed you were
intelligent enough to work for him. Funny thing is, when
that quiz got published in the press, Albert Einstein took
it and failed. Anyway, Madeline said that if the children

(03:18):
answered too slowly or incorrectly, their father would take a
hot spoon from the stove and press it into the
back of their hand. I'm guessing he didn't do that
with prospective employees, hopefully so. As the kids got older,
particularly the children from Thomas's first marriage, they went through
some tough times as teens and young adults. His oldest Marian,

(03:40):
felt neglected by her dad. She was having a rough
time in boarding school, and Edison decided she should leave
school and go on a tour of Europe with Mina's
younger sisters to get a taste of the world, probably
just to get him out of her hair. But from
the moment she met up with the three sisters, it
was clear Marian was completely dis interested in bonding with them.

(04:02):
She was sixteen years old, and they said she was
already entertaining boys in her hotel room and disappearing into
whatever city they were visiting. She had no parental guidance.
At one point she developed smallpox, a really serious illness.
Particularly then she said that during the seven weeks of
the illness, she got only two letters from her dad,

(04:22):
which hurt her deeply. Besides all of these issues, growing
up in Edison's shadow put pressure on the kids to
equal their father's accomplishments, and that's where things went really
bad for Edison's oldest son, Thomas Edison Junior. When Junior
dropped out of prep school at seventeen, his father said,

(04:42):
you only want fame, not accomplishment. So as a young adult,
Tom Junior tried to capitalize on his and his father's
name in a number of business ventures which went on
to be failures. There was the Edison Junior lamp, which
was supposed to generate electricity from ocean way eves, and
another company that tried to make iron out of steel.

(05:04):
On top of that, he sold the use of his
name to companies he wasn't even involved with, like one
selling a medical device called the Magnoelectric vitalizer. Edison Senior
was disgusted and actually used his power to get the
Post Office to refuse to deliver the devices to people
who'd bought them, effectively putting them out of business. Tomas

(05:26):
Senior constantly told his son how disappointed he was in him,
describing him publicly as absolutely illiterate, scientifically and otherwise. Imagine
that from your own dad. His father had never encouraged him,
and in fairness, Thomas Junior didn't really give him much
reason to try. Tom Senior told Life magazine that watching

(05:47):
his son use his name was causing him terrible grief.
He said, I'm thinking of a scheme to prevent persons
from using the name I have striven honorably to protect. Eventually,
fed up with tommss Junior's attempts, to make a name
for himself, Edison Senior offered to pay Junior thirty five
dollars a week if he would simply change his name. Well,

(06:09):
guess what, Junior agreed, and he started calling himself Thomas Willard. Eventually,
his dad raised the name change salary to fifty bucks
a week. Dad then set him up on a mushroom farm,
hoping he'd become self sufficient, but that was another failure,
and instead Thomas Junior wound up in a mental institution
for a period of time. Now, when Thomas Edison Senior

(06:32):
died in nineteen thirty one, he left Junior a seat
on his company's board of directors. While it gave him
some financial security, it did nothing for his mental and
emotional state, and Thomas Junior died in nineteen thirty five,
just four years after his father, allegedly due to his
substance abuse issues. Another son, William, studied science at Yale.

(06:55):
He had several businesses, including a car repair shop where
he invented new designs for spark plugs. But William also
didn't get along with his dad, who he later said
constantly shamed him painfully, so William finally became a chicken
farmer in New Jersey, but Edison did have some successful sons.
In nineteen twenty seven, Charles was made president of Thomas

(07:19):
Edison Incorporated. He ran it until nineteen fifty nine. He
briefly served as Secretary of the Navy under FDR, and
he was governor of New Jersey from nineteen forty one
to nineteen forty four. And Edison's youngest son, Theodore, graduated
from MIT with a degree in physics. He worked as
an Edison lab assistant and later was director of Research

(07:40):
and Engineering. Thomas Edison obviously had uncompromising standards for himself
and his workers. Was his personality type to blame for
his lack of support and understanding for his children. Edison
was famous for his quotes about business and hard work,
but maybe he should have applied this quote of his
own to his thoughts about his children. Just because something

(08:04):
doesn't do what you planned doesn't mean it's useless. Hope
you're enjoying the backstory with me Patty Steele, and please
subscribe if you would. And if you have a story
you'd like me to dig into and share, feel free

(08:25):
to dm me on Facebook at Patty Steele or on
Instagram at Real Patty Steele. I'm Patty Steele. The Backstories
a production of iHeartMedia, Premiere Networks, the Elvis Durand Group,
and Steel Trap Productions. Our producer is Doug Fraser. Our
writer Jake Kushner. We have new episodes every Tuesday and Friday.

(08:47):
Feel free to reach out to me with comments and
even story suggestions on Instagram at Real Patty Steele and
on Facebook at Patty Steele. Thanks for listening to the
Backstory with Patty Steele. The pieces of history no you
needed to know
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