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Light Bulb Inventor Tried to Create Fake Rubber

  • Ted Landphair

Thomas Edison’s lab in Fort Myers, where he tried to create an artificial rubber-like substance. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Thomas Edison’s lab in Fort Myers, where he tried to create an artificial rubber-like substance. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Plants were more than a hobby to Thomas Edison

At the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, the prolific American inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison developed devices that changed industry, communication, and everyday life - from a practical electric light bulb to the motion-picture camera.

Edison perfected much of this work in his famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. But he was almost as busy at his winter home in Fort Myers, Florida, where his work took some interesting twists.


Fort Myers is now a stylish and expensive place to live. But in 1885 when Edison fell in love with it, it was little more than a cow town on the Gulf of Mexico. It had about 200 people and several thousand head of cattle.
Fort Myers, Florida, was where Thomas Edison set up his winter home. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Fort Myers, Florida, was where Thomas Edison set up his winter home. (Carol M. Highsmith)


Over the years, Edison became good friends with automobile titan Henry Ford, who was a guest at the Edisons’ winter home and eventually bought his own place across the street.

Today both houses are part of the same museum complex. Edison, Ford and tire executive Harvey Firestone set up a laboratory there at Edison’s place in Fort Myers.
Thomas Edison’s banyan tree looks like something out of a scary movie. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Thomas Edison’s banyan tree looks like something out of a scary movie. (Carol M. Highsmith)


Unlike the Menlo Park lab, it had few motors, gears and belts, but lots of test tubes and, of all things, trays of flowers. Thomas Edison, the pioneer of electricity, was experimenting with goldenrods.

At the time, automobile tires were made from real rubber, imported from Africa. One company had a monopoly on the shipments, so Firestone and Ford asked Edison to come up with something they could make in the United States.

Edison was trying to perfect a rubber-like substance made of goldenrods when he died in 1931. As it turned out, others went on to develop artificial rubber, made of purely chemical compounds.

So you won’t see big electrical sparks at Edison’s laboratory in Florida.

But you will see evidence of that goldenrod research and, just outside the door, a huge banyan tree, as big as a house. Harvey Firestone brought what is now a massive tangle of trunk and branches and roots to Edison from Calcutta, India, in 1925.

Thomas Edison came to love plants - the goldenrods, the banyan, and palm trees. He gave tiny Fort Myers hundreds of palm saplings to plant along the main road. Today they form a beautiful canopy for which Fort Myers is famous.
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