Thomas Alva Edison, commonly known as Edison, was born on February 11, 1847 in Ohio, USA. In 1854, his family moved to Michigan, where he spent the rest of his juvenile years.
Thomas only went to school for a short time. He faired so poorly that his mother, a former teacher, decided to homeschool him. He had a fondness for reading which turned him to a bibliophile for life. He also liked to run and test experiments in the basement.
Aside from play, he was also a hard-working kid. At 12, he sold fruit, snacks and newspapers on the train as a “news butcher”. He even issued his own weekly paper and called it, ‘The Grand Trunk Herald’, a small 2 sheets paper, poorly printed, often with faulty grammar and punctuation but contained much of interest to those connected to the railroads.
At 15, he roamed the country as a “Tramp Telegrapher.” Using Morse Code, he sent and received messages over the telegraph. Unfortunately, his hearing was gradually fading but he still managed to hear and decode clicks on the telegraph. Over next 7 years he moved more than a dozen times, often working nights, taking messages for trains and even the Union Army during the Civil War. In his spare time, he took things apart to see how they worked, and inquisitive enough to invent things himself.
After the failure of his first invention, the electric vote recorder, he moved to the Big Apple, although that NYC moniker wasn’t coined until much later. There he improved the way the stock ticker worked. This gave him his big break. By 1870 his company was manufacturing the new stock ticker in Newark, NJ. He also enhanced the telegraph by making it send up to 4 messages simultaneously.
Around this time, he married Mary Stilwell in 1871 and had 3 kids with her. To accommodate the growing family and wanting a quieter spot to do more research and inventions, the Edison’s moved from Newark to Menlo Park, NJ, in 1876. Where he also built his most famous laboratory, now turned into a museum called the ‘Thomas Edison Center’.
The phonograph was the first ever machine that could record any sound or someone’s voice and play back. In 1877, Edison recorded the first words on a piece of tin foil. He recited the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and the phonograph played it back to him. Remember, this first ever sound recording gadget was invented by a man hard of hearing who considered himself deaf!
In 1878, he and his team started working on one of his greatest achievements, the light bulb followed by the electrical system. The electric light system was more than just the incandescent lamp, or “light bulb”. He also designed the power plant system that generates electrical power and the network of wiring that brings it to people’s homes. Imagine ALL the things we “plug in” and probably take from granted. Can you fathom a life without ALL of it, without electricity?
In 1885, a year after his wife died, Edison met a 20-year-old lady named Mina Miller. Her father was also an inventor in Edison’s home state of Ohio. Edison taught her Morse Code, which enabled them to communicate secretly even when others were around. He even popped the proposal via morse code and she tapped back replying “yes”.
Mina wanted a home in the country, so Edison bought Glenmont, a 29-room estate with 13½ acres of land in West Orange, NJ. They married in 1886 and had 3 children.
A year later, Edison built a laboratory in West Orange that was ten times larger than the one in Menlo Park. In fact, it was one of the largest laboratories in the world, almost as synonymous as Edison himself. While his team burned the midnight oil to help turn his dreams into reality, the laboratory buildings gleamed with electric light. He was very committed to his work, once he worked 3 days straight, only taking power naps. He earned half of his record 1,093 patents in West Orange, NJ which is now turned into Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
Thomas did more than just invent. He thought of ways to make phonograph better, he built it with his team, have them test it, made it work, and then manufactured it in factories surrounding his laboratory. This enhanced phonograph was then sold throughout the world. Not only did he improve the phonograph, several times, but also worked on X-rays, storage batteries, and the first talking doll. At the West Orange lab, he also worked on one of his several greatest ideas: the motion pictures or colloquially “movies”. The inventions he made paved the way for how we live today. He worked there until his death in 1931.
During his lifetime, Thomas received 1,093 U.S. patents and filed an additional 500 to 600 that were unsuccessful or abandoned.
His life and career were a quintessential rags-to-riches story that made him an American folk hero. An uninhibited egoist, known to be tyrant to his employees, ruthless to competitors, publicity magnet, socially awkward and often neglected his family yet by the time he died, Edison was one of the most well-known and respected Americans in the world. He was at the forefront of America’s first technological revolution and set the stage for the modern electric world.
More importantly he is regarded as the father of Modern Corporate Research & Development. While many mistook him just as an inventor, he was also a very savvy and shrewd businessman. He created companies, was a marketing genius, amassed USD 200 million in wealth (today’s dollars) and changed the way world operates and continues to exist.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
― Thomas Alva Edison