Another and second characteristic of Edison's personality contributing so strongly to his achievements is an intense, not to say courageous, optimism in which no thought of failure can enter, an optimism born of self-confidence, and becoming--after forty or fifty years of experience more and more a sense of certainty in the accomplishment of success. In the overcoming of difficulties he has the same intellectual pleasure as the chess-master when confronted with a problem requiring all the efforts of his skill and experience to solve. To advance along smooth and pleasant paths, to encounter no obstacles, to wrestle with no difficulties and hardships--such has absolutely no fascination to him. He meets obstruction with the keen delight of a strong man battling with the waves and opposing them in sheer enjoyment, and the greater and more apparently overwhelming the forces that may tend to sweep him back, the more vigorous his own efforts to forge through them. At the conclusion of the ore-milling experiments, when practically his entire fortune was sunk in an enterprise that had to be considered an impossibility, when at the age of fifty he looked back upon five or six years of intense activity expended apparently for naught, when everything seemed most black and the financial clouds were quickly gathering on the horizon, not the slightest idea of repining entered his mind. The main experiment had succeeded--he had accomplished what he sought for. Nature at another point had outstripped him, yet he had broadened his own sum of knowledge to a prodigious extent. It was only during the past summer (1910) that one of the writers spent a Sunday with him riding over the beautiful New Jersey roads in an automobile, Edison in the highest spirits and pointing out with the keenest enjoyment the many beautiful views of valley and wood. The wanderings led to the old ore-milling plant at Edison, now practically a mass of deserted buildings all going to decay. It was a depressing sight, marking such titanic but futile struggles with nature. To Edison, however, no trace of sentiment or regret occurred, and the whole ruins were apparently as much a matter of unconcern as if he were viewing the remains of Pompeii. Sitting on the porch of the White House, where he lived during that period, in the light of the setting sun, his fine face in repose, he looked as placidly over the scene as a happy farmer over a field of ripening corn. All that he said was: "I never felt better in my life than during the five years I worked here. Hard work, nothing to divert my thought, clear air and simple food made my life very pleasant. We learned a great deal. It will be of benefit to some one some time." Similarly, in connection with the storage battery, after having experimented continuously for three years, it was found to fall below his expectations, and its manufacture had to be stopped. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on the experiments, and, largely without Edison's consent, the battery had been very generally exploited in the press. To stop meant not only to pocket a great loss already incurred, facing a dark and uncertain future, but to most men animated by ordinary human feelings, it meant more than anything else, an injury to personal pride. Pride? Pooh! that had nothing to do with the really serious practical problem, and the writers can testify that at the moment when his decision was reached, work stopped and the long vista ahead was peered into, Edison was as little concerned as if he had concluded that, after all, perhaps peach-pie might be better for present diet than apple-pie. He has often said that time meant very little to him, that he had but a small realization of its passage, and that ten or twenty years were as nothing when considering the development of a vital invention.
These references to personal pride recall another characteristic of Edison wherein he differs from most men. There are many individuals who derive an intense and not improper pleasure in regalia or military garments, with plenty of gold braid and brass buttons, and thus arrayed, in appearing before their friends and neighbors. Putting at the head of the procession the man who makes his appeal to public attention solely because of the brilliancy of his plumage, and passing down the ranks through the multitudes having a gradually decreasing sense of vanity in their personal accomplishment, Edison would be placed at the very end. Reference herein has been made to the fact that one of the two great English universities wished to confer a degree upon him, but that he was unable to leave his work for the brief time necessary to accept the honor. At that occasion it was pointed out to him that he should make every possible sacrifice to go, that the compliment was great, and that but few Americans had been so recognized. It was hope- less--an appeal based on sentiment. Before him was something real--work to be accomplished--a problem to be solved. Beyond, was a prize as intangible as the button of the Legion of Honor, which he concealed from his friends that they might not feel he was "showing off." The fact is that Edison cares little for the approval of the world, but that he cares everything for the approval of himself. Difficult as it may be--perhaps impossible--to trace its origin, Edison possesses what he would probably call a well-developed case of New England conscience, for whose approval he is incessantly occupied.
These, then, may be taken as the characteristics of Edison that have enabled him to accomplish more than most men--a strong body, a clear and active mind, a developed imagination, a capacity of great mental and physical concentration, an iron-clad nervous system that knows no ennui, intense optimism, and courageous self-confidence. Any one having these capacities developed to the same extent, with the same opportunities for use, would probably accomplish as much. And yet there is a peculiarity about him that so far as is known has never been referred to before in print. He seems to be conscientiously afraid of appearing indolent, and in consequence subjects himself regularly to unnecessary hardship. Working all night is seldom necessary, or until two or three o'clock in the morning, yet even now he persists in such tests upon his strength. Recently one of the writers had occasion to present to him a long type- written document of upward of thirty pages for his approval. It was taken home to Glenmont. Edison had a few minor corrections to make, probably not more than a dozen all told. They could have been embodied by interlineations and marginal notes in the ordinary way, and certainly would not have required more than ten or fifteen minutes of his time. Yet what did he do? HE COPIED OUT PAINSTAKINGLY THE ENTIRE PAPER IN LONG HAND, embodying the corrections as he went along, and presented the result of his work the following morning. At the very least such a task must have occupied several hours. How can such a trait--and scores of similar experiences could be given --be explained except by the fact that, evidently, he felt the need of special schooling in industry--that under no circumstances must he allow a thought of indolence to enter his mind?
Undoubtedly in the days to come Edison will not only be recognized as an intellectual prodigy, but as a prodigy of industry--of hard work. In his field as inventor and man of science he stands as clear-cut and secure as the lighthouse on a rock, and as indifferent to the tumult around. But as the "old man"-- and before he was thirty years old he was affectionately so called by his laboratory associates--he is a normal, fun-loving, typical American. His sense of humor is intense, but not of the hothouse, over- developed variety. One of his favorite jokes is to enter the legal department with an air of great humility and apply for a job as an inventor! Never is he so preoccupied or fretted with cares as not to drop all thought of his work for a few moments to listen to a new story, with a ready smile all the while, and a hearty, boyish laugh at the end. His laugh, in fact, is sometimes almost aboriginal; slapping his hands delightedly on his knees, he rocks back and forth and fairly shouts his pleasure. Recently a daily report of one of his companies that had just been started contained a large order amounting to several thousand dollars, and was returned by him with a miniature sketch of a small individual viewing that particular item through a telescope! His facility in making hasty but intensely graphic sketches is proverbial. He takes great delight in imitating the lingo of the New York street gamin. A dignified person named James may be greeted with: "Hully Gee! Chimmy, when did youse blow in?" He likes to mimic and imitate types, generally, that are distasteful to him. The sanctimonious hypocrite, the sleek speculator, and others whom he has probably encountered in life are done "to the queen's taste."
One very cold winter's day he entered the laboratory library in fine spirits, "doing" the decayed dandy, with imaginary cane under his arm, struggling to put on a pair of tattered imaginary gloves, with a self- satisfied smirk and leer that would have done credit to a real comedian. This particular bit of acting was heightened by the fact that even in the coldest weather he wears thin summer clothes, generally acid-worn and more or less disreputable. For protection he varies the number of his suits of underclothing, sometimes wearing three or four sets, according to the thermometer.
If one could divorce Edison from the idea of work, and could regard him separate and apart from his embodiment as an inventor and man of science, it might truly be asserted that his temperament is essentially mercurial. Often he is in the highest spirits, with all the spontaneity of youth, and again he is depressed, moody, and violently angry. Anger with him, however, is a good deal like the story attributed to Napoleon:
"Sire, how is it that your judgment is not affected by your great rage?" asked one of his courtiers.
"Because," said the Emperor, "I never allow it to rise above this line," drawing his hand across his throat. Edison has been seen sometimes almost beside himself with anger at a stupid mistake or inexcusable oversight on the part of an assistant, his voice raised to a high pitch, sneeringly expressing his feelings of contempt for the offender; and yet when the culprit, like a bad school-boy, has left the room, Edison has immediately returned to his normal poise, and the incident is a thing of the past. At other times the unsettled condition persists, and his spleen is vented not only on the original instigator but upon others who may have occasion to see him, sometimes hours afterward. When such a fit is on him the word is quickly passed around, and but few of his associates find it necessary to consult with him at the time. The genuine anger can generally be distinguished from the imitation article by those who know him intimately by the fact that when really enraged his forehead between the eyes partakes of a curious rotary movement that cannot be adequately described in words. It is as if the storm-clouds within are moving like a whirling cyclone. As a general rule, Edison does not get genuinely angry at mistakes and other human weaknesses of his subordinates; at best he merely simulates anger. But woe betide the one who has committed an act of bad faith, treachery, dishonesty, or ingratitude; THEN Edison can show what it is for a strong man to get downright mad. But in this respect he is singularly free, and his spells of anger are really few. In fact, those who know him best are continually surprised at his moderation and patience, often when there has been great provocation. People who come in contact with him and who may have occasion to oppose his views, may leave with the impression that he is hot-tempered; nothing could be further from the truth. He argues his point with great vehemence, pounds on the table to emphasize his views, and illustrates his theme with a wealth of apt similes; but, on account of his deafness, it is difficult to make the argument really two-sided. Before the visitor can fully explain his side of the matter some point is brought up that starts Edison off again, and new arguments from his viewpoint are poured forth. This constant interruption is taken by many to mean that Edison has a small opinion of any arguments that oppose him; but he is only intensely in earnest in presenting his own side. If the visitor persists until Edison has seen both sides of the controversy, he is always willing to frankly admit that his own views may be unsound and that his opponent is right. In fact, after such a controversy, both parties going after each other hammer and tongs, the arguments TO HIM being carried on at the very top of one's voice to enable him to hear, and FROM HIM being equally loud in the excitement of the discussion, he has often said: "I see now that my position was absolutely rotten. "