This article was part of a series for the Lakeshore Guardian on various aspects of the Great Lakes.

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Tom Edison's Uncertain Future

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
        --Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"Tom Edison will never amount to anything. He's addled."
        --Alexander Crawford, Schoolmaster, 1855

Both of these predictions show spectacular shortsightedness, even though they were based on the best information available at the time. The latter quote, though, is connected with Michigan's Thumb.

IBM's Chairman was a good enough businessman to rise to the pinnacle of IBM. He knew all about the computers of his time. Alexander Crawford had founded what would become the Port Huron School System, and served ably as one of its first teachers and administrators. He based his evaluation on a few months trying to teach a 7-year-old child that was probably afflicted with ADD.

Alexander Crawford had come to America in 1831 at the age of nine. Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, he was raised in Armada Township, Macomb County, by his parents Robert and Janet (Dickie) Crawford. Alexander moved to Port Huron in 1844 to become the headmaster at the first two schools erected here. Although the first school was called the Old Brown School, it soon came to be called Crawford's School because of Alexander's strong personality.

Perhaps his strength was what the first school needed. He was an old-fashioned disciplinarian, and did not hesitate to use a harness strap to keep his charges in line. Outside the classroom, his rule was equally despotic. However, he was viewed as a benevolent dictator because that he treated everyone equally. According to available accounts, he was remembered and beloved by many of his students, despite his harsh ways.

In the mid-nineteenth century, students were schooled only when there wasn't pressing physical labor to be done around the farm. Classes were often held when the weather was too inclement or cold to permit outdoor work or heavy labor.

Alexander taught a variety of courses, including art. The Edison Depot Museum in Port Huron has a rare example of a 19th-century folk art, sandpaper painting, done by the headmaster himself. On the frontier, would-be artists didn't have the funds for canvases, brushes and paints. What they used instead were the available materials-charcoal from the fireplace, and whatever else was handy to sketch on. When sandpaper was used as the canvas, it gave a drawing a glistening look that is difficult to duplicate with oils or acrylics, even today. Alexander's painting, donated by his family, is a seagull's eye view of the St. Clair River of the era. It is of particular historic interest because it shows the layout of the town before the arrival of the railroad and the first big industries.

"We know of very few artworks of this kind that have survived," says TJ Gaffney, curator of the Port Huron Museum. "The only one we have in our collection is the sandpaper painting by Crawford in the Depot. I've never even seen another one."

Then as now, studying painting was a luxury. Most schoolwork consisted of the three r's, and that was what Tom Edison no doubt was learning. By the time the youngster arrived, Crawford had been teaching in Port Huron for over a decade. Things ran the way he wanted them to, and, like everyone else in the little town at the outskirts of civilization, he had difficulty seeing the seeds of genius in a restless, distracted seven-year-old.
After only three months in the classroom, Crawford told an inspector that Edison had no future in any organized classroom, using the word "addled" within earshot of the boy.

When Edison's mom heard the story from her son, she confronted the surprised instructor, telling him in how strongly she disagreed with his opinion. She yanked young Edison out of school and taught him at home. She had been a teacher before, in Canada, so she knew how to instruct. The scene of her quarrel with Crawford is depicted in a diorama at the Depot Museum Port Huron. It even has voices, and uses the same kind of language that was probably expressed that day.

Alexander Crawford is interred in Lakeside Cemetery in Port Huron, not far from his most illustrious student. Crawford was the first to recognize that that young Edison was not cut out to follow the herd, and that the little boy would have to make it on his own. But neither Crawford nor anyone else could have known at the time just how far the distracted little boy would go.
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