The 1880s are a somewhat mysterious and poorly documented period in Norwich history. It was during this time period that the university was temporarily renamed Lewis College after being saved from financial distress by Charles Lewis, Class of 1855.
It’s a shame that we know so little about Norwich in the 1880s, because that decade holds a little-known gem: Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph and the lightbulb, was (briefly, it would seem) a faculty member and honorary degree recipient at Norwich.
There are only a few small traces of Edison’s connection with our university. He is listed as a lecturer on electricity and sound in the catalog for the 1881-82 academic year. He is also listed in the handwritten Register of Degrees as having received an honorary Ph.D. from Norwich in 1881. Both of these documents are available in the Norwich University Archives. They were presumably the source for the university historian, William Arba Ellis, who cited the same two connections between Edison and Norwich in his 1911 university history.
Edison’s name does appear a third time in Ellis’ work. In the section of Volume I that describes the Lewis College years (p. 177), this tidbit is thrown in with no other context: “Thomas A. Edison became interested in the proposition of founding an Electrical Department.” Electrical engineering would be added as a course of study some 30 years after the time Ellis is describing—coincidentally, around the same time that Ellis’ work was published.
A handful of 1883 articles in the Reveille, one of our earliest student newspapers, shed a bit more light on this intriguing episode. It appears that Thomas Edison expressed willingness contribute $10,000 toward an institution that would establish a school of electrical engineering. Through Grenville Dodge’s connection with Western Union Telegraph Company, he was introduced to Lewis College, which was understandably eager to take him up on the offer.
The timing was fortuitous; a movement to seek a new location was afoot in tandem with the campaign (which would eventually succeed) to change its name back to Norwich University. The $10,000 from Edison would provide the funds needed for such a move, and Brattleboro was fixed on as an ideal location. But for reasons we may never know, the idea never came to fruition.
Apparently, we are not alone in being fascinated by this chapter in Norwich history. A 1929 Guidon article described a speech given by President Plumley honoring the 50th anniversary of the incandescent lightbulb, in which he wowed the crowd by sharing that Edison once appeared on the NU faculty roster. He made no mention of the proposed move to Brattleboro or the $10,000 gift that never happened. Clearly, despite the ups and downs of the 1880s, Norwich did not need Thomas Edison to carry on its sterling legacy as an engineering powerhouse.