10 Interesting Facts About the Life and Times of Inventor Thomas Edison
A small town in the Midwest was the birthplace of one of the most inventive geniuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847, Thomas Alva Edison suffered through several illnesses during his infancy and toddler years. The youngest of seven siblings, Edison wasted little time making his presence in the world known.
Edison’s formal schooling was limited, and by the age of 12 he had begun his working career. From that point forward, he never stopped working, inventing and creating. With well over 1000 patents to his credit, Edison prided himself on never giving up on an idea even when the final result proved unsuccessful.
Edison’s work was at times all consuming and his main concern. As his professional life was taking off, his personal life suffered a tragic blow. While his relationships with his older children suffered, Edison would later be given another chance at being a loving husband and father.
Learn more about Thomas Edison with the following ten interesting facts about the his life and times.
10. Edison Was Home-schooled
Thomas Alva Edison was a sickly child. Between his illnesses and his family’s move to Port Huron, Michigan, he was unable to begin school until the age of seven. Full of curiosity from a very early age, Edison was always asking questions and had difficulty keeping his attention focused on the task at hand. He was unable to sit still for very long and was uncomfortable with the school’s rigid environment.
After attending school for only 12 weeks, Edison had established himself as a difficult student, and his teacher deemed him unmanageable. Upon learning of this characterization of her son, Edison’s mother was very angry. A former teacher herself, Mrs. Edison quickly removed him from the school and assumed the role of home school educator.
Nancy Edison supported her son’s insatiable thirst for knowledge. By teaching her son reading, writing and arithmetic and allowing him to pursue any subject of interest, Mrs. Edison helped him to channel his energy in a positive direction. He began to realize that his learning possibilities were endless and he could actually teach himself anything he wished. This set him on a path of constant self-improvement which he continued throughout his life. Edison credited his mother for shaping the person he became.
Edison never returned to formal schooling. At the age of 12 he began operating a newsstand aboard a railroad train that ran between his hometown of Port Huron and Detroit. Wishing to make use of every moment, Edison set up both a printing press and laboratory in an unused rail car where he could be found in his spare time.
9. Edison Was Almost Totally Deaf
One of the country’s most prolific inventors, Thomas Edison achieved great success while suffering from a severe disability for much of his life. While the exact cause is unclear, Edison’s sense of hearing began to decline at the age of 12. Although his father and one of his son’s suffered from hearing loss as well, indicating it was a genetic condition, there were several incidents in his life that may have made the disability even worse.
Edison suffered from scarlet fever, and it is suspected that he had numerous untreated ear infections since there were no antibiotics available at the time for that condition. It is also reported that a train conductor struck Edison on both ears as punishment for one of his experiments causing a fire on the railroad train. Edison himself believed his disability may have been caused when someone, attempting to keep him from falling off a moving train, grabbed him by the ears. Edison claims to have felt something click in his inner ear and began having hearing difficulties after that.
Many were surprised that Edison did not help his own cause by inventing an effective hearing aid. While Edison did dabble in it for a bit, his efforts were far less than wholehearted. By his own admission, Edison actually saw his hearing loss as a positive thing. He claimed it allowed him to get much better sleep than most. He also felt it eliminated distractions while he was working. He was able to drown out the constant noise of everyday conversations and was thus able to work more efficiently.
8. Edison’s Heroics Helped Launch His Career
By 1862, Thomas Edison was already an entrepreneur and the publisher of a small newspaper. Only 15 years of age, he had spent much of the previous three years experimenting with chemicals and anything else he could get his hands on. He was proud of each success but learned even more from each failure and continued his quest for knowledge.
As fate would have it, Edison experienced a life-changing moment at the very tracks on which he had spent his early teen years. Jimmie MacKenzie, the three-year old son of a railroad station master, had wandered away and ended up on the railroad tracks. Edison, who just happened to be at the Mount Clemens Train Depot that day saw a runaway train bearing down on the child. Realizing he had to do something, Edison managed to push the little boy out of harm’s way just before the train reached them. When the boy’s father realized what Edison had done, he tried to think of a way to adequately repay him for his heroism. He decided to teach Edison all about railway telegraphy, leading to a full-time job for the teenager.
For the next five years, Edison traveled across the country as a telegrapher. The need for skilled telegraph operators was great as the Civil War was underway. Not one to be satisfied doing the same thing over and over, Edison began working on the telegraph equipment in attempts to improve its performance. After returning to Michigan for a short time, Edison left for the east coast. He was confident by this time that he could make a living as an inventor. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he submitted his first patent.
7. Edison Designs A Vote Tabulating Machine
Soon after arriving in Boston, Edison, along with other inventors, began working on ways to assist state and federal legislative bodies work more efficiently. He concentrated his efforts on a way to quickly and accurately tabulate votes placed on various pieces of legislation. Legislation was deemed either passed or not passed on the sole basis of a voice vote. Edison believed he could invent a machine that would be much more objective in its counting. In 1868, he submitted his first patent request for an Electrographic Vote Recorder.
Edison’s invention consisted of a device on which all legislator’s names were listed. When placing a vote, the legislators would move a switch to a “yes” or “no” position which would then record via electric impulse and transfer to a chemically treated paper providing a printout of each vote cast. A colleague of Edison named Dewitt Roberts was intrigued by the machine and paid Edison $100 for a share in its revenue. Convinced the invention would be welcomed, Roberts took it and presented it to the members of Congress in Washington, D.C. To both men’s surprise, the invention was not enthusiastically received. Legislators were not anxious to have votes tabulated so quickly as they believed it would interfere with their ability to sway voters, make deals and use a filibuster to change outcomes.
Unable to drum up any interest in his invention, Edison abandoned the production of the vote recorder. He did, however, learn a valuable lesson going forward. He made a vow to himself never to work on a product that he wasn’t sure the public had an interest in.
6. Edison Opens Research And Development Center In New Jersey
After a few unsuccessful ventures while still in Boston, Thomas Edison began losing investors. He decided to move to New York as he had been working on an improved stock ticker machine. To his delight, Western Union, his employer, offered to purchase all of his machines for $40,000. This was enough to set up business in a Newark, New Jersey warehouse. The business produced improved telegraphic and stock ticker equipment while Edison was hard at work on new ideas. He fell in love with one of his employees, 16 year-old Mary Stilwell, and married her in 1871.
In 1875, Edison felt he had outgrown the warehouse in Newark and purchased land in the small town of Menlo Park, New Jersey. With the help of his father, Edison built not only a main laboratory, but other specific use buildings as well. Edison officially moved the business out of Newark in 1876. Menlo Park was the first research and development center of its kind in the United States. Many of Edison’s greatest inventions occurred here, and he became fondly known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Edison himself named the site “Invention Factory” in 1878. He certainly put this small town in New Jersey on the map.
Meanwhile, Edison also moved his wife and two children, Marion and Thomas Alva Jr. to Menlo Park. His third child, William, was born two years later. Though they were close by, Edison was so engrossed in his work that he spent little time at home. His relationships with his family, particularly his children, suffered as a result.
5. Edison Creates The First Phonograph
Everett Historical / Shutterstock.comEdison had his first Menlo Park success in November of 1877. He had been attempting to record human sound since his breakthrough improvement on Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Edison was not adverse to taking another’s invention and improving on it and in no time at all had improved on Bell’s product. Graham had been unable to strengthen the weak signal of his device before introducing it. Edison seized the opportunity to make the device better by improving the quality and distance of the voices sent. Edison discovered that substituting acarbon disc for the parchment membrane used by Bell did just that.
In February of 1878, Edison submitted a patent request for what he termed a phonograph or speaking machine. Made from two tubes, a diaphragm, a scribing and a detecting stylus, a small metal drum and tin foil, the phonograph successfully recorded his voice reciting the popular children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” By taking the vibrations of the diaphragm and carving grooves into the tin foil, Edison’s invention worked. As Edison had done to Bell with the telephone, Bell was able to improve on the phonograph by replacing the flimsy tin foil with discs of wax so the machine could be sold commercially.
This original invention catapulted Edison into world-wide fame as one of the greatest inventors ever.
4. Edison Invents The Light Bulb
After working on his idea of electric lights for some time, Edison was finally able to introduce his first attempt in 1878. He had discovered that when placed in a vacuum of air, a paper filament, attached to wires, would burn and glow for a very short duration while the paper burned out. The short illumination time was impractical and not worth the expense of production. Dissatisfied with his original prototype and losing investors’ money because of the delay, Edison and his employees kept working on it. Finally, an associate named Lattimer, after numerous tests, discovered that if the filament was made of thread that was carbonized, the light would last a lot longer. Still not satisfied, Edison tested over 6000 various materials until he found what he was looking for. After much testing, Edison settled on carbonized bamboo for his filaments, allowing his light bulbs to burn for close to 600 hours. His dream of inventing a consumer practical electric light bulb was finally a reality.
Edison went on to first light all of his own facilities with these new electric bulbs and then turned his attention towards doing the same in the financial district of Manhattan. Edison’s lighting system was based on direct current only, limiting its distance to three miles for each section. After the discoveries of Westinghouse and Tesla, an alternating current system was put into place.
3. Edison’s First Wife Dies From Possible Morphine Overdose
In 1884, Edison and his children suffered an unbearable tragedy. His wife, Mary, died at the age of 29. While there were reports that Mary died of typhoid fever, the official cause of death was listed as “congestion of the brain.” This type of diagnosis could point to a possible overdose of morphine administered to Edison’s wife at that time.
New information, uncovered in 2006 by the authors of “The Edison Papers,” a group based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, though circumstantial, tells of the common practice in the 1880s of using morphine, as well as other similar type drugs, to treat ailments claimed by young women of the time. Morphine was not the controlled substance it is today. It was available everywhere and used as a treatment for numerous medical issues.
Information recently found in digital online resources indicate that doctors believed that the side effects of opiate type drugs could result in congestion of the brain and could explain the death of someone so young. Although not confirmed, researchers have uncovered information pointing to the possibility that Mary Edison was an abuser of morphine.
There is evidence that Edison attempted to revive his wife with shock treatments once she became comatose. While it is unclear whether or not he was aware of her possible addiction, it is a strange coincidence that he chose to try a medically suggested remedy for morphine overdose to help her.
Edison was reportedly devastated by the loss of his wife and blamed himself for being away from home so often. It became a motivating factor later in his life.
2. Edison Remarries And Forms Edison General Electric Company
360b / Shutterstock.comIn 1886, 39 year-old Thomas Edison married 20 year-old Mina Miller. The next year, Edison closed his laboratory in Menlo Park and opened a new facility in West Orange, New Jersey. He also purchased a home in the country’s first planned community, Llewellyn Estates. A new life began for Edison. He had three more children with his second wife. Not wanting to make the same mistakes he made with his older children, Edison made a point to spend more time at home with his family.
In 1890, Edison formed the Edison General Electric Company. The following year, Edison merged with his major competitor, the Thomson-Houston Company. The competition for business proved to be too much for each company to stand alone. This could be described as one of the greatest mergers of all time as the General Electric Co. was born. General Electric remains today as one of the most successful businesses of all time.
The following year, Edison patented both a kinetegraph camera and a kinetescope viewer allowing a single individual to view moving pictures using a crank. Edison’s presence in the motion picture industry was short-lived however.
Edison continued to invent and perfect existing inventions up until his death. He filed his final patent request on January 31, 1931.
1. Edison’s Company Provides Construction Material For Yankee Stadium
Edison spent a great deal of time in his later years trying to develop an effective ore-milling system. In 1881 he founded the Edison Ore-Milling Company, confident that his patented process of separating iron from rock using an electromagnet would prove successful. Working with his associate William Dickson and expert in the mining field John Birkinbine, Edison tried to refine his processes so that there would be a market for the iron produced. The process proved to be too expensive and Edison closed the company after only a few years in operation.
Not one to give up easily, Edison made another attempt in the late 1880s. He first built a plant in Pennsylvania close to the mines he was trying to extract ore from. In 1889 he built a very large ore crushing plant in Ogdensburg, New Jersey. Production problems persisted in spite of all his efforts, and the company closed its doors for good in 1899.
Through all the frustration he faced trying to make his ore-milling business profitable, Edison learned that there was a market for the waste sand that resulted. Originally selling the waste sand to other cement companies, Edison decided to go into that business for himself and in 1899 founded the Edison Portland Cement Company. Edison made great strides in streamlining the production of cement using kilns twice the size of those previously used. He chose to rent the larger kilns to his competitors, increasing their production and making his competition much stiffer.
Edison thought there would be many uses for his cement, especially in home construction. While there was some interest initially, the process proved to be too complicated and costly for most home builders.
Struggling financially, the Edison Portland Cement Company was awarded the contract for materials to be used in the construction of the original Yankee Stadium, which was completed in 1923.
The Edison Portland Cement Company was unable to stay in business and closed a few years later.
Thomas Edison never felt that he failed at anything. Although a number of his inventions were unsuccessful, Edison always pointed to what he learned during the process and how it would help him going forward. Although he demanded much from his employees, he was always open to their suggestions and did not hesitate to implement them where he saw fit. Edison’s tenacity, work ethic and attention to detail was inspirational to all he came in contact with.
Although he received the most acclaim for perfecting the electric light bulb, Edison said his favorite invention was the phonograph.
Although a disappointment to his older children with his frequent absence, Edison learned from this as well and made sure he made his family a top priority in his later life.
Thomas Alva Edison died on October 18, 1931 leaving behind an unbelievable legacy of improving the lives of people all over the world with his numerous inventions.
Not everyone considers Thomas Edison to be the grand inventor described above. Read about Thomas Edison’s long-running feud with Nicola Tesla.