This past week I spoke with a friend about encountering failure. His business was going south, and I reminded him of the many people who were able to use failure in a positive way, indeed some that would tell you their later success was precisely due to their experience of failure.
One particular story about Thomas Edison came to mind. While many know Edison as an inventor, he was a businessman as well. After all, investors only survive when they sell their inventions. And Edison was good at both — inventing and selling. He invented the motion picture camera, the microphone, the electric light bulb and approximately 1,000 other things in fields ranging from fluoroscopy to mining.
But in December 1914, Edison was at his wits' end. He had been working on the development of a storage battery for 10 years, and he was going broke financing it. On one particular evening, all this power-producing material caused something to go awry and a spontaneous combustion occurred. It quickly spread to the “film room,” and within minutes all his battery compounds, chemicals, film and records were in flames.
Eight different towns in the area sent their fire departments, but none were able to extinguish the flames. Soon, everything was destroyed. There sat Thomas Edison, at 67 years old, watching all his assets go up in smoke.
But it got worse. The damage was estimated at over $2 million (and that was back in 1914), but he was only insured for $238,000 because the buildings were concrete and presumed to be fireproof.
When Edison’s 24-year old son, Charles, arrived at the scene, he found his father sitting, calmly watching the blaze. Charles later wrote, “My heart ached for him. He was 67 — no longer a young man — and everything was going up in flames.”
“When he saw me,” Charles continued, “he shouted, ‘Charles, where’s your mother?’ When I told him I didn’t know, he said, ‘Find her. Bring her here. She will never see anything like this as long as she lives.’”
The next day, Thomas Edison looked at the charred remains of his life and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”
But there is more. Twenty days after the fire, Edison produced the first phonograph.
Yes, there is great value in disaster. Thank God we can always start anew.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.