FROM my grandfather’s first wife, four children were born – two boys and two girls. One of the boys was my father. The other boy, whose name was Peruwa, was killed in tribal warfare.
My grandfather’s second wife brought uncle Ene into the world. He married Paula, whose brother Imaipi Apai was not present during the bride price distribution. He was working on a copra plantation on the coast. When he came home, Paula and I went to see him at Kanawaingi village.
A red box he had brought back attracted my attention. He placed a circular disc on a circular surface and wound a handle on the side of the box. Music started to play. I was left in awe.
Later at Pausa High School, our English teacher, Joan Everingham, an Australian, encouraged us to read a book about the life of one of the world’s greatest inventors – Thomas Alva Edison. I found from the book that the name of the red box that played the music was ‘phonograph’. Edison had invented it.
When I was in America, I heard that Edison’s birthplace was in Milan, a small town near Cleveland, Ohio. I wanted to visit it. Lt Barney Nelson, a friend I’d met along the way, offered to drive me there.
We entered a neat town and parked the car in the public square in front of a statue of a woman and a boy. It was young Thomas Edison and his influential mother Nancy.
We viewed the figures a while and then drove past galleries and antique shops and along tree-lined avenues with attractive old homes. We came to a little red brick building with an old tree alongside it.
This was a cherry tree, now bare of its leaves in the autumn. It was planted about the time Edison was born. And the little brick house was the birthplace of one of history’s most famous inventors. It’s now the Edison Birthplace Museum.
The first thing I did was take a lot of pictures of this charming cottage where on a cold 11 February 1847, Thomas Alva Edison was born. The main door still had the iron knocker placed there by Samuel Edison, Tom’s father.
An elderly lady, who was the curator, patiently showed us the displays – an incandescent lamp, an early model phonograph, Edison’s father’s hat, cane and great coat resting on his favourite chair.
As I entered the bedroom where Thomas Edison was born, I was almost certain I heard a baby crying. Having left behind a two month old son of my own, I was moved with awe. Leaving the bedroom, I walked to the lobby and bought three books on the life of the famous inventor.
Outside, we looked around an old canal and walked through the neighbourhood. Thomas Edison’s story intrigued me particularly because he never went to school.
But his life was consumed by a passion for self-education and the number of his patents – 1,100 – far exceed that of any other inventor.
He invented more than the phonograph. Try the motion picture, electric motor, alkaline storage battery, light bulb and so many more important contributions to people’s lives.
One US President described him as a ‘rare genius’ but he didn’t act like one. His clothes were always untidy and dirty, his hair tousled and he rarely found time to shave. But he did more than any other man to influence the industrial civilisation in which we live.
Edison was a good example of what a person can do with imagination and total commitment to the project.
Sometimes Edison found himself rich and at other times as poor as a man can be. But he never lost hope in himself and simply worked harder to accomplish what he believed he could do with his own two hands.
The subjects taught at schools in the US in Edison’s time were the old regulars reading, writing and arithmetic. The stick was freely used to beat slow or naughty children. Edison was one of these. Eventually his teacher reported to an inspector, “That boy is addled and is not worth keeping in the school any longer.”
Overhearing this, Thomas complained to his mother, Nancy, who was filled with rage and confronted the teacher.
“You don’t know what you are talking about and the real trouble is that my boy has more brains than you. I will take him home and teach him myself. I will show you what can be done with him.”
And so his mother never let him go to school again but taught him everything she knew at home.
With many thoughts in my mind, I left the little red brick building. Its humble size and simple design serves as a constant reminder that in America, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere in the world, a humble beginning does not prevent the rise to success.