Thomas Alva Edison is one of America’s most famous inventors. Edison saw huge change take place in his lifetime. He was responsible for making many of those changes occur. His inventions created and contributed to modern night lights, movies, telephones, records and CDs. Edison was truly a genius.
Edison is most famous for his development of the first electric light bulb. When Edison was born, electricity had not been developed. By the time he died, entire cities were lit by electricity. Much of the credit for electricity goes to Edison.
Some of his inventions were improvements on other inventions, like the telephone. Some of his inventions he deliberately tried to invent, like the light bulb and the movie projector. But some inventions he stumbled upon, like the phonograph. Of all his inventions, Edison was most proud of the phonograph.
Edison invented and improved upon things that transformed our world. Some things he invented by himself. Some things he invented with other people. Just about all his inventions are things we still use in some form today. Throughout his life, Edison tried to invent things that everyone could use.
Edison created the world’s first „invention factory“. He and his partners invented, built and shipped the product – all in the same complex. This was a new way to do business. Today many businesses have copied Edison’s invention factory design.
A business friend once asked Edison about the secret to his success. Edison replied, „Genius is hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense“. But his „common sense“ was very uncommon. More patents were issued to Edison than have been issued to any other single person in U.S. history: 1,093. A patent is something that says no one can copy your idea.
Thomas Edison was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison, Jr. and Nancy Elliot Edison. His parents had no special mechanical background. His mother was a former schoolteacher; his father was a jack-of-all-trades – from running a grocery store to real-estate. When Thomas was seven years old, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. He was a very curious child who asked a lot of questions.
The Education of Thomas Edison
Edison began school in Port Huron, Michigan when he was seven. His teacher, the Reverend G. B. Engle considered Thomas to be a dull student. Thomas especially did not like math. And he asked too many questions. The story goes that the teacher whipped students who asked questions. After three months of school, the teacher called Thomas, „addled,“ which means confused or mixed up. Thomas stormed home.
The next day, Nancy Edison brought Thomas back to school to talk with Reverend Engle. The teacher told his mother that Thomas couldn’t learn. Nancy also became angry at the teacher’s strict ways. She took Thomas out of school and decided to home-school him. It appears he briefly attended two more schools. However, his school attendance was not very good. So nearly all his childhood learning took place at home.
Edison Loved to Read
Edison’s parents loved to read. They read to him works of good literature and history. They had many books that young Tom eagerly devoured. Before he was 12, he had read works by Dickens and Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon’s Fall of the Roman Empire and Decline , and more.
Nancy Edison encouraged her curious son to learn things for himself. His parents were dedicated to teaching their children. They did not force him to learn about things he didn’t enjoy. So he learned about things that interested him the most.
When Thomas was nine Nancy Edison gave him an elementary science book. It explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Edison did every experiment in the book. Then Nancy gave him more books on science. He soon loved chemistry and spent all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacy. He collected bottles, wires, and other items for experiments.
At age 10, Thomas built his first science laboratory in the basement of the family’s home. His father disapproved of all the time Thomas spent in the basement. Sometimes Sam offered a penny to Thomas if he would go back to reading books. But Thomas often used his pennies to buy more chemicals for experiments. He labeled all his bottles „Poison“.
When Edison was 12 years old, he took a job as a trainboy on the Grand Trunk Railway. The train traveled from Port Huron, to Detroit, and back to Port Huron, all in one day. Thomas sold newspapers and candy to passengers. He also printed a weekly newspaper, the Weekly Herald. He spent all he earned on books and equipment for his chemical laboratory.
After about a year, he got permission to move his home science laboratory to the train baggage car. He did his science experiments during the five-hour layover in Detroit. But one day the train lurched, spilled chemicals, and the lab caught fire. The train conductor threw Thomas and his chemicals off the train. His next job was selling newspapers at stations along the railroad.
Edison had many ear problems throughout his childhood. When he was 15, a train accident injured his ears more. When he tried to jump on a moving train, a conductor grabbed the boy’s ears to help pull him up. Thomas said he felt something snap inside his head. He soon began to lose much of his hearing. His deafness could have been cured by an operation. But
Thomas refused the operation. He said being deaf helped him concentrate.
„Deafness probably drove me to reading,“ he said later in life. He was one of the first people to use the Detroit Free Library. His library card was number 33. He went through shelf by shelf, reading every book.
Edison enjoyed science books best of all. He devoured books on electricity, mechanics, chemical analysis, manufacturing, technology and more. He realized his future would be in finding ways to make our lives better, instead of just learning how something works.
Nine years before Edison was born, Samuel F. B. Morse was famous for inventing the telegraph. The telegraph sent messages over wires using „Morse code“. In morse code, the alphabet and numbers are written in combinations of dots, dashes, and short and long sounds. By the time Edison began doing experiments, telegraph lines went across the country. He wanted to learn how to be a telegrapher and send messages over telegraph wires.
While selling newspapers along the railroad, something happened that changed his life. Edison saved the life of a station official’s child. The child fell onto the tracks of an oncoming train. The boy’s father thanked Edison by teaching him how to use the telegraph. Edison used scrap metal to build a telegraph set and practiced the Morse code.
When Edison was 16, he moved to Toronto, Canada. He became a telegraph assistant. His job was to report to Toronto every hour by telegraph signal. Edison thought this was a waste of time. He invented a gadget that sent a signal even if he was asleep. This was his first invention – the transmitter and receiver for the automatic telegraph. His boss found him asleep. Edison was almost fired.
Edison moved back to the United States. In his later teens he worked as a roaming telegraph operator. He went from city to city in the eastern US.
He hung around railroad yards, newspaper offices, and machine shops. He worked in a jewelry shop and at telegraph offices. He worked with clockwork, printing equipment, and different telegraphy instruments. He studied and experimented with these tools during his spare time.
He became an expert on the telegraph. The more he learned about telegraphy, the more he wanted to learn. He took apart equipment and reassembled it until he understood how it worked. He experimented with ways to make it better.
He visited used bookstores for science books. He ordered chemistry books from London and Paris. He filled his rented rooms with chemicals and junk metal for his experiments. The story goes he spent all his money buying science things and books, and wouldn’t buy clothing. One winter he went without a winter coat.
First Invention that made Money
When Edison was 21, he got a job in Boston as an expert night telegraph operator. Even though he worked nights, he slept little during the day. He was too busy experimenting with electrical currents. Edison worked to improve a telegraph machine that would send many messages at the same time over the same wire. He borrowed money from a friend, and soon quit his job. Now he could spend all his time inventing!
The first invention that he tried to sell was an electric vote recorder. It made voting faster and more accurate. But no one wanted to buy it. Today it is used in many states to record votes of legislators.
He moved to New York City in the summer of 1869. He had no money. A friend let him sleep in a basement office below Wall street.
Edison spent a lot of time studying the stock market ticker. That was the machine that gave information about stock market prices. It was a spin-off of the Morse telegraph device. Once, Edison fixed a broken stock ticker so well that that the owners hired him to build a better one. Within a year he made the Edison Universal Stock Printer. Edison sold the rights for the stock ticker. He thought he might get paid around $4,000 for it. He got $40,000!
With all this money, Edison started a business in Newark, New Jersey. He built stock tickers and high-speed printing telegraphs. At this shop he improved on the typewriter. Until Edison improved it, you could write faster than you could type!!
Menlo Park – 1876
Edison was a poor financial manager. In his late 20’s, he began to have money problems. After six years at his workshop in Newark, New Jersey, Edison asked his father to help build a new „invention factory“.