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The Home of Thomas Edison in Fort Myers, Fla.

January 12, 1986|GORDON E. ROWLEY | Rowley is an Esmond, R.I., free-lance writer.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — "This is a piece of rubber that Thomas Edison made from goldenrod," said Austin Stokes, standing in the inventor's winter laboratory.

"Ordinary rubber dries up and gets brittle. But this is still resilient after more than 57 years." Stokes bounced the misshapen piece on Edison's desk. "See!"

"That cot in the corner was where Edison took his 5- or 10-minute catnaps," the guide continued. "Because he was deaf, his sleep was undisturbed and relaxed him so much that 15 minutes' sleep to him was as good as several hours to anyone else.

"And here is his phonograph in a wooden frame. Because he couldn't hear, Edison would bite on the wood to feel the vibrations of the music."

Anecdotes, Insights

If you like tours full of anecdotes and insights into the lives of famous people, don't miss the Edison Winter Home and Museum when you're near this Gulf Coast city.

Edison "discovered" Fort Myers in 1885, when he was 38 and suffering from poor health and the death of his first wife, Mary (Stilwell). He liked the climate, but he was also attracted by the wild bamboo growing on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River.

He hoped the plant would make an improved filament for his light bulb. In the end, the bamboo that proved best came from the Orient, but Edison would spend every winter here until his death in 1931.

He bought 14 acres along the Caloosahatchee and built a cottage where he honeymooned with his second wife, Mina (Miller), in 1886. Soon after, he built a larger home and a laboratory where he worked 18 to 20 hours a day.

He turned the grounds into an experimental garden with 400 varieties of trees and shrubs from all over the world, plants he hoped would prove useful to man. He grew the 12-foot goldenrod that produced the rubber he sent to Harvey Firestone (Firestone turned it into tires for Edison's Model-T, now in the museum). Here, too, is the "dynamite tree" from South America, whose tomato-size fruit explodes like a shotgun shell, scattering its seeds up to 200 feet. Its sap has been used to treat spinal meningitis.

A Sausage Fruit

You'll see a tree with a seed pod shaped like a human ear. Another has a fruit like a sausage, while a third has a blossom like a fried egg.

The swimming pool was reinforced with bamboo rather than steel and has not leaked since it was installed in 1900. But Edison never swam in it; he believed exercise was a waste of time.

The home, with wide verandas that allow its French doors to be left open even in subtropical downpours, is thought to be the first prefabricated house in America. It was built in Maine and shipped to Fort Myers in 1886 aboard four schooners.

Because Edison disliked the smell of cooking, he designed the house as two units with a breezeway connecting his living quarters with the kitchen and dining room. The second unit was also a guest house.

Before the railroad, the only access to Fort Myers was by monthly sailboat, and guests had to stay at least 30 days. Relationships between guests and hosts were better, Edison said, if each had privacy.

Home Kept as It Was

Furnished in early American, wicker and chintz, the home is just as Mrs. Edison left it when she deeded it to the city in 1947. The interior is lighted with its original carbon filament bulbs, which have never burned out.

The laboratory, too, has been left intact, with all its chemicals, test tubes and other apparatus. Edison produced some of his greatest inventions here and worked on his toughest, the storage battery. But after five years and 50,000 experiments, the nickel-alkaline version he developed was so efficient that it was used in streetcars in both New York and London and in U.S. Navy submarines.

Each time he invented a product, Edison formed a company to manufacture it. All told, he started more than 30 companies, which at his death were valued at $25 billion.

The guided tours are hourlong, and, in the museum, there is a treasure of Edison inventions: the light bulb, of course, but also the stock ticker, the fluorescent light, the electric fan, toaster, hair curler, percolator, water softener, Mimeograph machine and 170 models of the phonograph, one of which is powered by water and had to be installed by a plumber.

Movie Studio

Also here is a model of the Black Maria, the gigantic tar-papered chamber Edison designed as a movie studio. The roof opened and the entire contraption revolved. Every half-hour the actors and crew had to come out of the studio and push it around to face the sun, but it allowed many of Edison's 2,000 motion pictures to be made by controlled daylight.

At his death at 84, Edison left behind more than 3.5 million pages of notebooks and letters, many of them documenting his 1,093 patents. Not bad for a boy who was thrown out of school because, the teacher said, he was too stupid to learn.

The Edison Winter Home and Museum, at 2350 McGregor Blvd., is open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Sundays, 12:30 to 4 p.m.). Admission: adults $4, children $1.

From Feb. 5-15, Fort Myers will hold its annual Edison Pageant of Light, a series of celebrations culminating in a parade honoring its famous resident whose birthday was Feb. 11, 1847.

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