A letter to Thomas Edison

October 17, 2020

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, October 17, 2020)

So, Mr. Edison, (can I call you Thomas?), it was at the Westdale Theatre, and I was washing my hands, and this gentleman in the men’s room declared, “That’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

I actually thought it was a good show. Character driven. A bit dark, yes, but don’t we all, from the very womb, know darkness? True, the ending was abrupt. But good it wasn’t some ridiculous bow tie ending.

This is what I tell my literature and writing students. “Get in late. Leave early. This is how good stories work. Less is more, especially in endings. Let readers engage your story with their imaginations. Leave them wanting just a bit more. Don’t patronize or spoon-feed your readers. Trust them.”

Not that I’m any movie guru, Thomas. I’m not. But a couple evenings before that Westdale film, someone else, it was near the bayfront, told me that with beard and glasses I look like Steven Spielberg. Thomas, I can tell you that I’m no Spielberg. I’m just saying, story is story. Onscreen or on-page, there are similarities. This much I know.

Today is a good day to write about it. Really, how would this old world manage, especially in pandemic days, without the movies? So this is an overdue thank you, today, when you got things rolling by patenting the first moving film camera. I doubt I’m alone in my thanks for that Oct. 17, the one in 1888.

I can also tell you that I finally hung some movie posters in my home office. The walls were sparse. They needed something. A few years ago I’d brought posters from my old Ugandan office. Last week some went up on the walls here. This is when I told myself, Thomas, you need to write to your namesake. You need to write Thomas Edison.

The last time I was in Uganda, by the way, I watched “The Current Wars,” about you and Westinghouse and your rivalry. Watched the DVD on my laptop. And I thought the film was fair, although you’d know better.

In either case, thanks for turning on the lights, so to speak, for us. For all of us. I mean, the incandescent light bulb, Thomas. It’s like you invented the wheel! And the phonograph. And so many things. The phonograph’s making a comeback, you know, vinyl records and all, with other vintage things. Wallpaper. Stained glass. Film cameras. I think the carmakers will reintroduce the horse soon. For sure, vintage is in.

But I digress. The point is, I personally couldn’t live without movies any more than I could live without light. And, no, I’m hardly alone. Worldwide, about 500,000 movies are now out there.

The first one I saw in Africa was a German film called “Nowhere in Africa.” Watched it with my bride. Then I negotiated for the poster with a Kampala theatre manager. The other freshly-hung poster (I’d negotiated for it with former newsroom colleagues) is of “Amistad,” the Spielberg film about the slave ship of that name. A true story that’s good to revisit in days of racial reckoning.

Between these two here in my office you’ll also see Dr. King and his thoughts on freedom. You know, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I’m free at last!” Yes, a good movie can make a searching person a little more human, and free — with all our strengths and weakness, our successes and failures — as we search for, if nothing else, home.

Because so much of life is about imagination. Imagining how things can be different. This, it seems to me, is what you did. You lived the truth of what Einstein said, that imagination is more important than knowledge. Such a fine story.

And aren’t we, each of us, a story? A story authored with both great imagination and great care. I tell my students this, too. Whether you have 1,093 patents (1,093 patents!), like Thomas Edison, or whether you just have patent leather shoes like some character walking along some road, you’re a story. Appreciate it.

I could write more, but, Thomas, maybe sometime you and I will have the pleasure in person. You never know. I’d look forward to that. Very much. Until then, thanks again.


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October 17, 2020 • Posted in ,
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2 thoughts on “A letter to Thomas Edison”

  1. Well, I carve in wood as a hobby, and when you look at a piece of wood, what do you see? I see a figure, a shape and object that I carve out of the wood — and animal, a figure, a person. That is a gift, a talent given from God. But to say there are starving artist is true. Society needs to respect the artists of the world before they’re dead.

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