As the inventor of the phonograph, incandescent light and motion pictures, Thomas Edison is renowned for illuminating the darkness. But did his greatest invention ever see the light of day?
Hiding in plain sight between the lines of history, Thomas Edison and the Purgatory Equation imagines the Wizard of Menlo Park’s decades-long quest to penetrate the veil between life and death.
While a work of fiction, the novel is inspired by the mysterious circumstances of Edison’s actual, month-long disappearance in February 1918, and features a cast of imagined and historical characters, including his assistant John Dawkins; Mark Twain; Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Emily Auburn; President Woodrow Wilson; the Russian spiritualist Madame Helena Blavatsky; and the teenage George Gershwin.
The book—the first of a planned trilogy—recently received a Pinnacle Book Achievement Award as one of the Best Books in the category of Science Fantasy. Learn more at www.edisontrilogy.com.
A former advertising executive, David Church has written for publications as wildly diverse as Soap Opera Digest and Interview; authored an environmental children’s book, Larue and the Brown Sky (illustrations by Toby Bluth); co-authored the award-winning cult musical Judy’s Scary Little Christmas (with James Webber and Joe Patrick Ward); and developed a variety of films for United Artists, CBS and NBC, including Psychic Housewife and Saving Grace. He first became fascinated with the idea of Thomas Edison as the unlikely hero of a historical novel when he accidentally discovered the Wizard of Menlo Park’s decades-long passion for creating a machine that would communicate with the dead.
David is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America, and lives and works in Palm Springs.
Here is an excerpt from Thomas Edison and the Purgatory Equation.
“Every failed experiment,” proclaimed Thomas Alva Edison, “is still a step forward.” It was a noble maxim and expressed with regular determination by its celebrated author. Yet, on those rare occasions of crippling doubt, his fine words seemed little more than a pose. Edison prayed that today would not be one of those occasions. To be precise, the 73rd day of a relentless exploration into his latest invention, the fluorosight; a fusion of fluoroscopic screens and cathode ray lamps that corralled the new phenomenon of “unknown” or “X” rays in a quest to discover the cure for blindness.
Now on the cusp of his 40th year, Edison had re-invented the world time and again with an assembly of miraculous inventions, the most prominent being the phonograph and the incandescent light. In turn, he had been universally hailed as a genius, and while he reveled in the hurrahs, a nagging watch-cry of doubt never strayed far from his mind: The natural habitat of genius is failure. It was a lesson he had been hard taught, first as a boy whose eccentricities were judged to be those of an imbecile, then as an aspiring inventor who was mocked as a shiftless dreamer.
With his first successful creation, a telegraph repeater, he experienced a sudden reversal from derision to praise and grasped a keen understanding of the tenuous skin that separated the two. Destiny was arbitrary. The grindstone of failure was rarely leavened with success, and it had reduced many of his peers into sorry figures of resignation or even madness. But not him! At least, not yet.
Alongside a team of his most trusted assistants, including Charles Batchelor and the Ott brothers, John and Fred, he had toiled nonstop at the laboratory these past months with only a few hours each night devoted to rest on a nearby cot. It was his nature to drive himself in so dogged a fashion, but now his experiments were fraught with additional pressures. Outwardly he remained the same as before and refused to be seduced by the gross affluence that usually infects the nouveau riche. His only real interest in money was to make enough to make more inventions. However, he was no longer a mere tinkerer flirting on the edge of “what if?” He had realized his promise and the pressure to do right by his extraordinary gifts proved to be a crushing duty. What steadied his path was a wary disposition that could best be termed as that of a “pragmatic optimist.” He expected nothing yet hoped for something. Today, as on every day, he hoped for a breakthrough.
By sunset his hopes were diminished. He had spent the day examining some three dozen subjects from a local home for the blind. The afflicted had caned a path to his door to confront a gauntlet of fluoroscopes and willingly subject themselves to the eerie glow emanating from the electrified tubes as the X-rays parted the veils of their flesh.
Between sessions, adjustments were made to the amperage levels, equipment repaired, and the biography of the next subject reviewed for any unique characteristics. On occasion, the process ground to a halt when a subject jubilantly cried, “I can see!” Further investigation proved the opposite, for the subject had merely been captive to the desperate hope that the “Wizard of Menlo Park” could perform his magic on their behalf.
Edison was preparing for their next subject when a figure adorned in white appeared in the laboratory’s doorway. It was not an angel. It was Twain. Yes, that Twain. Mark Twain. The two friends—Twain the sage mentor, Edison the aspiring arrival—greeted each other warmly for they were bound by the common bond of success and the repercussions that came with the kudos. Twain had achieved popular acclaim for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, yet his critics dismissed him as a cracker-barrel scribbler of children’s books. As for Edison, the business combines of the world hailed him as a visionary, but had not yet determined how to harness his incandescent revolution for worldwide distribution—or how much they could get away with charging for it.
“Sam, you rascal,” said Edison. “What brings you here?”
“Our engagement,” snapped Twain gregariously. “Supper at Delmonico’s?”
“Oh … yes,” fumbled Edison. “My apologies … I forgot … as you can see I … well … .” His attention was scattered. Then: “Here … sit.”
Intrigued, Twain took a chair as Batchelor briefed Edison on their next subject.
“Mary Bowen, 6 years, 7 months. Contracted rubella fever two years ago, incurred severe damage to both corneas.”
Edison nodded and continued to study her chart—so young—as Batchelor escorted the child into the laboratory. She was a petite brunette with a trusting smile, whose once-blue eyes were now scarred with puddles of milk.
“Hello, Mary. I’m Tom.”
“Hello, Tom,” she responded politely in a tiny, unsure voice.
“I’m going to examine you now.” He guided her to a seat behind the tower of fluoroscopic screens where the Ott brothers gently strapped her in.
“You’re going to hear some very odd noises,” continued Edison. “You might even feel some sparks. But you’re perfectly safe and I don’t want you to be frightened. Do you understand?”
The child nodded stoically.
Edison smiled wanly and signaled his team. “Begin.”
The surge of high-voltage current flushed into the dynamos and tentacles of electricity flexed menacingly throughout the room. The child gasped in fright and shivered as a violet glow began to emanate from the battery of fluoroscopic screens that surrounded her petite figure.
“Would you like me to hold your hand?” offered Edison.
Edison took her palm in his and pressed it reassuringly as the amperage increased to an ear-splitting cacophony and a torrent of sparks erupted from the dynamos, dusting the room with hot flakes of hellfire. Electricity filled a series of Crookes tubes that were connected to a jumble of photographic plates. The plates came alive with a gray fog that sundered Mary’s flesh and illuminated the yearning sockets of the child’s dead eyes.
Twain observed the proceedings in silent concern. Edison and his men were more than exhausted, they were wounded; scant of breath and hollow-cheeked, their pale skin studded with dark, charring blisters. And this was only now. Who could say how their continued exposure to these strange rays might eventually manifest itself? While Twain admired Edison’s zeal in obliterating the boundaries of known science, he was also alarmed. The last prophet who had brought light to the world was Jesus Christ—and look what happened to him.
The experiment ended. The roar of current subsided and the screens withdrawn. The team waited in breathless anticipation as Edison held up a mirror to the child’s face.
“Mary, can you see?” asked Edison.
Mary paused, uncertain. She opened her eyes wide and strained desperately against the darkness. Then she retreated, lowered her head with a shame that had no cause to claim her, and hot tears tumbled down her cheeks.
“No.” The small voice hung heavy in the twilight.
Edison released the girl’s hand. If any of the hundreds he had examined most deserved the gift of sight it was this sweet child.
“Thank you, Mary. I wish I could have been of more service.” His voice broke on the word “service” and then trailed off. He ran his hands through his hair and was startled to find his palms littered with strands of dead follicles.
The child heard the hurt in his voice and, as she was being ushered out, stopped to place a comforting hand on his. “Don’t be sad for me, Tom. I remember stars.”
“I remember stars.” Her words cut Edison to the quick. He nodded feebly as she departed and then peered up at his men through eyes rheumy with regret. They’d been stricken by this last encounter and John Ott, usually his most stolid associate, ground his knuckles against his mouth to smother his dismay.
“Go home,” Edison softly ordered. The men did as they were told.
“You go on, too, Sam” he waved vacantly to Twain. “I’m not a suitable companion for dining. Or anything else.” He gestured in disbelief. “I’ve gone dry.”
Twain gave his young friend a long, hard look and then gently offered: “Oh, surely not. The two most important days in a man’s life are the day he’s born—and the day he finds out why.”
“Empty, done, finished!” wailed Edison in defeat.
“You know why,” Twain firmly retorted. “You’re a born inventor! Never forget it.” Then he winked mischievously. “Besides, I’ve arranged an amusement for this evening’s appetizer. A séance with Madame Blavatsky.”
Edison looked up sharply, intrigued. “The Russian medium. I’ve heard tell of her. She summons spirits?”
“Spirits and idiots,” amended Twain. “It’s all nonsense but do come.”
“I believe I will.” It was an impulsive decision that took even Edison by surprise. “Give me a moment to … .” He crossed to a sink and began the necessary ablutions.
“Certainly,” offered Twain. “But don’t tarry. Who can say? Perhaps one of the Madame’s hobgoblins has a message from beyond for you.”
Naturally, it was a jest. But Twain didn’t realize the possibility of a missive from beyond was the only reason Edison had agreed to join him. Because he’d received just such a message once before.
Excerpted from the book Thomas Edison and the Purgatory Equation, with permission. Copyright 2021, David Church.