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.