You’ve seen them — the stories on the Internet purporting to explain some everyday term or aphorism in some weird way, totally off the wall. Well, we’ll begin with one…
In his laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ, back in the 1870s, Thomas A. Edison was hard at work developing an efficient artificial source of light. (It is not commonly known that his chief assistant was a Native American. Because he had mastered a veritable arsenal of technical skills, his tribal name was Many Hands — a tribute to all that he displayed.)
In 1877 Edison came up with the ideal combination of materials and source of energy.
After many preparations he scheduled a press conference where his new ‘incandescent lamp’ would be announced and demonstrated. The day came, as did many reporters. On the dais, Edison made a speech announcing the new device, and threw back a curtain to display a large glass globe with a filamentous center. He ceremonially flipped a large electric switch and — nothing happened.
There was instant consternation (and some derision) from the attending reporters. His assistant immediately jumped behind the dais and whipped out a screwdriver from his pocket. He worked on something back there and then said, “Try it again, Boss!” Edison once again flipped the switch and the room was bathed in a bright glow that illuminated the entire room.
Edison had done it again! — A whole new and popular invention. But he did not take all the credit for himself. Rather, he spent some time telling the reporters how much of this was a group effort, and singled out his assistant for his last-minute contribution.
So the event was headlined as “Many Hands Make Light Work.”
That’s the story on the Internet and of course you saw it coming. But there is some small amount of truth in it. Edison really did have a Native American chief assistant who made major contributions to the effort. And Edison was indeed grateful to him, and told him that as a reward he could ask for anything he wanted within his power to give him.
Many Hands pondered this for a while, then said he was satisfied with what he had and did not want anything more for himself. “But,” he said, “You know that I come from a small tribe which was displaced and now living in Oklahoma. Being still a part of the tribe, I wonder if you could perhaps do something for them in my name. I propose that they be among the first groups to actually have an Electric Light installed there.”
Edison spent a moment thinking about this, seeing the suitability of it, and realizing the publicity possibilities. So he readily agreed to the proposal.
It took some time to assemble everything, but finally a private train left New Jersey including with it a flatcar loaded with wires, cables, hardware and tools, a large incandescent lamp and a Dynamo. A few days later, the train pulled up onto a siding at the reservation.
It was a broad, treeless very dry plain. Here and there were some ramshackle buildings, obviously dwellings, a few not much better buildings for governmental functions, stores, etc. At the center of the community was a huge circular tent-like edifice. One could see many persons entering or leaving this structure.
Soon, at a meeting in one of the government buildings, Many Hands introduced Edison to the Tribal Council, and he explained to them what he desired to do to honor his assistant. The Council listened attentively. Edison then inquired where they would like to have the light installed.
The Elders spoke privately among themselves for a few moments, then reconvened.
They formally thanked Edison for his offer and accepted it, saying they greatly appreciated the honor done to Many Hands and to their tribe. They said they found they had two considerations to fulfill.
One was to ensure every member would witness the honor given to Many Hands and the tribe and, from a practical point of view, to have the light placed where it could be of greatest use to the tribe. They’d arrived at a solution but apologized in advance if it seemed a bit impolite…
For the first, they realized there is one thing that every inhabitant of the reservation must do, and because of the arid and primitive conditions of their land, the tribe designated one and only one place to carry it out. That is the communal latrine.
It was that huge tent they saw when they arrived. Being so huge, it was also very dark within. The Elders reasoned that this is the one place on the reservation every resident is sure to visit, and a lamp in such a place not only would remind them all of Many Hands’ contribution, but also provide a much needed service that could only enhance the significance of his contribution.
Edison realized the wisdom of this unusual decision, and readily agreed to install the light up in the apex of the tent. Within a few days he installed the Dynamo, strung power cables up to the main light, and placed a number of other lamps at strategic spots within the tent. There was a ceremony and the lighting system was dedicated and turned on.
Thus, Thomas Edison became the first man in history to Wire a Head for a Reservation.