The late Edgar “Ed” Prince was what you would call a serial inventor – and one with very humble beginnings.
As a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Ed hitchhiked back and forth between his college campus and hometown of Holland, Mich., where he worked as a car salesman at Vandenberg Buick. His affinity and familiarity with automobiles would eventually pay off.
Graduating with an engineering degree, Ed accepted a job with Buss Machine Works, rising to the level of chief engineer. Ambitious and with all kinds of ideas, Prince would wind up leaving and starting his own small die cast machine company in 1965. The next three decades would be marked by dramatic growth and extraordinary success.
And one particular invention that would seal the company’s future and fortune.
But on this summer day, Ed’s wife, Elsa is standing inside the Focus on the Family bookstore on Central Avenue in downtown Holland – a city largely shaped by the Prince family’s vision and generosity. Holland is a picturesque college town, situated on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. It was originally settled in 1847 by Dutch Calvinist Separatists. Today, it continues to enjoy and benefit from the influence of a variety of Christian churches and faithful, especially those affiliated with the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.
If you were to visit Holland on a cold and snowy day, you might be surprised to find the main streets clear – the result of Ed’s vision and gift that propelled the city to install heated water pipes just below the surface of the roads.
The sun is warm and shining now, and Elsa is reminiscing a bit, discussing some of her memories of days gone by. Even the building we’re in – a beautiful brick structure with big windows and plenty of natural sunlight flowing in – holds stories.
“This used to be a bowling alley,” she tells me. “I bowled here. And before that, a car dealership. There was a ramp in the middle for cars to drive between the floors.”
Michigan is synonymous with the manufacturing of automobiles, of course. The state’s most famous motor enthusiast, Henry Ford, was born in Dearborn and would eventually move to Detroit to launch his now famous empire. Chrysler and General Motors, also based in the “Motor City,” would come to be known as “The Big Three.”
Ed Prince may not have invented the automobile, but his company invented something that’s now in almost every car on the road today.
As the story goes, a colleague of Ed’s was driving down the road one evening, possibly late for an appointment. It’s dark, with the only light coming from the faint glow of the dashboard and the blinding headlights of other cars. His wife is in the passenger seat. She pulls down the mirror to apply some lipstick and makeup. But since it’s dark, she can’t really see well.
Ed’s friend relayed this story to him – and Prince, who had long adopted the motto, “There has to be a better way,” is struck by a solution to the problem: Why not invent a lighted vanity mirror?
“Do you remember your reaction when Ed shared the idea with you?” I ask. “Did you think, this is a great idea!?”
“Oh, no,” Elsa responds with a smile and chuckle, “Ed was always coming up with crazy ideas. He was enthusiastic about a lit sock drawer – you know, so you can tell the difference between blue, black and brown socks in the morning.”
Some of his other ideas and inventions? There was a ham-deboning machine, a wind-powered snowmobile and an onboard computer that tracked gas mileage. The latter was an idea ahead of its time.
But the lit vanity mirror was a big hit with automobile companies – and by the mid 1970s, the Prince Corporation was producing thousands of them per day.
Not all of Ed Prince’s ideas proved to be successful – but the good ones were very good.
The Prince Corporation was sold several years after Ed’s fatal heart attack in 1995. Elsa would marry Pastor Ren Broekhuizen in 2000. In addition to serving numerous congregations throughout his ministry, Pastor Broekhuizen was a missionary in Liberia, West Africa.
The quiet generosity of the Prince/Broekhuizen family has been felt all over the world, most especially with Christian ministries and colleges, where the family continues to use their resources to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Focus on the Family’s popular video series, That the World May Know, is just one project the family has made popular. The ministry’s award-winning Welcome Center in Colorado Springs is another.
God often works in mysterious and nonobvious ways. He’s also known for taking a little and turning it into a lot. Jesus feeding the five-thousand with five loaves and two fishes (John 6:1-14) immediately comes to mind.
Could anyone foresee so much coming from one woman trying to apply makeup in a darkly lit car?
It all started with a problem and a simple idea: “There has to be a better way.”
That was the philosophy of one man – and it’s also the cry and burden of those living in darkness today. As believers in Jesus Christ, it’s beholden upon us to keep talking about our Lord and Savior – the one true Light of the World. He’s not only the better way – He’s the only way – and a saving relationship with Him will make all the difference in this world – and the next.