Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1939, Norman Edmund was quarantined in a sanatorium, where he watched eight of his 10 wardmates perish from the disease. But he turned the gruesome experience to his advantage. Unwanted by employers, who feared the young accountant could still be contagious, Edmund started an Army salvage business in his New Jersey home.
That business became Edmund Scientific, publisher of the famous Edmund Scientific catalog.
The catalog—loved by science geeks for more than half a century—still sells you-build-it telescope kits, antigravity devices, solar-powered gadgets of all sorts, and goofy-yet-instructional items like a brew-your-own-root-beer kit. Edmund saw the catalog as a much-needed tool for science education, particularly after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s.
"The Russians were beating us," recalls Robert Edmund, Norman's son. "You had to get your people involved in science."
Norman Edmund died January 17. He was 95 and had enjoyed good health since beating TB.
He started his first company, Edmund Salvage, in 1942 at the behest of friends who worked at the Frankford Arsenal, an Army supply depot in nearby Philadelphia. Edmund began taking in surplus military equipment, tearing it apart, and selling the components, including lots of lenses for amateur photographers and for industry.
Edmund Salvage became Edmund Scientific, whose flagship was the scientific catalog. Edmund "scoured hundreds of magazines a month looking for products and ideas," Robert recalls. "As a kid, stacked up, the magazines looked like a skyscraper to me."
Later, Edmund Scientific operated a retail store from its headquarters in Barrington, New Jersey, attracting science buffs worldwide. Salvador Dali, during a period of interest in optical illusions, stopped by to examine prisms and lenses, says Alex Husted, a grandson of Norman's. "Norman would buy train cars full of war surplus to get binoculars, and you'd get all this other stuff you didn't want—motors, gear boxes, random lab equipment." Much of it went into a space known as "the mad scientist's room." An annual tent sale—people camped overnight to get first crack at the oddball offerings—would clear the stuff out to make room for new shipments.
At the time of Edmund's retirement in 1975, the company had sales of about $10 million. Robert took over, expanding the optics business and manufacturing lenses in-house.
In 2001, Robert had to break some news to his father. He had sold the scientific catalog to an educational company. "The world was changing," says Robert. "People weren't buying kits. They were finding their science elsewhere." His father took it hard.
New owners have kept the catalog going. Edmund Optics, as the family business is now known, has grown to $120 million in sales. And Robert is eager to describe a grant program he started two years ago, giving $80,000 annually to fund promising ideas of the sort his father might have championed. There is one grant in particular: It went to a Peruvian who had developed a rapid diagnostic kit for tuberculosis.