Biography Of Thomas Edison
"No one did more too shape the physical character
of modern civilization than Thomas Edison.... Accordingly, he has to be considered the most influential figure of the millennium...."
The Heroes Of The Age: Electricity And Edison
Surprisingly, little "Al" Edison did not learn to
talk until he was almost four years old. Immediately thereafter, he began pleading with everyone in his family to explain
the workings of almost everything he encountered in his environment. If they said they didn't know, he would look them straight
in the eye with his deeply set and vibrant blue-green eyes and ask them "Why?"
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to popular belief, Thomas Edison was not born into poverty in a backwater mid-western village. He was actually born
(on Feb. 11, 1847) to middle-class parents in the bustling port of Milan, Ohio, a community that - next to Odessa, Russia
- was the largest wheat shipping center in the world. In 1854, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, which ultimately
surpassed the preeminence of both Milan and Odessa....
At age seven - after spending 12 weeks in a noisy one room schoolhouse
with 39 other students of all ages - Tom's overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost all patience with the child's
relatively self centered behavior and persistent questioning.... Noting that Tom's head was "slightly larger than average"
he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster's brains were addled or "scrambled."
If modern psychology had existed back then, Tom would
have probably been deemed a victim of attention deficit syndrome and proscribed a hefty dose of the "miracle drug" Ritalin.
Instead, when his beloved mother - about whom he said: "She was the making of me. She was so true and so sure of me, I felt
that I had someone to live for ~ someone I must not disappoint - became aware of the situation, she promptly withdrew him
from school and began to "home-teach" him.
A descendant of the prominent Elliot family of New
England, the devout daughter of a highly respected Presbyterian minister - and a trained educator in her own right - Nancy
Edison (above) now commenced teaching her last and favorite son the "three Rs" and the Bible. Meanwhile, his father, Samuel,
was much more inclined towards having him read the great classics, offering to pay him a ten cents reward for each one he
It wasn't long before the serious minded youngster
had developed a deep and abiding interest in Science, World History, and English literature. Many years later, his specific
fondness for some of Shakespeare's plays lead him to briefly consider becoming an actor. However, because of his high-pitched
voice and extreme shyness before every audience - except those whom he was trying to influence in helping him finance an invention
- he soon gave up the idea.
At age 11, Tom's parents tried to appease his ever
more voracious appetite for knowledge by showing him how to utilize the resources of the local library. This was one of several
impetuses that caused him to prefer learning through independent self instruction. Starting with the last book on the bottom
shelf, he purportedly systematically read, or at least carefully perused, every book in the building. By age 12, he had not
only devoured Gibbon's Rise And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Sears' History Of The World, and Burton's Anatomy Of Melancholy,
he had also the consumed The World Dictionary of Science and a number of works on practical Chemistry.
In spite of their noble efforts - Tom's parents
eventually found themselves totally incapable of addressing Tom's ever maturing intellectual needs. For example, when
he queried them about concepts dealing with mathematics and physics - such as those found in Isaac Newton's "Principia" -
they were absolutely stymied. Finally, they hired a clever tutor to help their precocious son more fully understand Newton's
Unfortunately, this experience had a largely negative
affect on the highly impressionable boy. He was so disillusioned by the fact that Newton's sensational theories were written
in classical aristocratic terms - which he felt were "unnecessarily confusing to the average person" - he overreacted and
adopted what developed into a life-long disrespect for almost all forms of high-level mathematics.
On the other hand, Tom immediately grasped the simple
beauty inherent in Newton's physical laws. Moreover, his encounters with "The Principia" encouraged him to not only sharpen
his free spirited style of thinking but to prove all things to himself through solid scientific experimentation.
Not surprisingly, during this highly formative period,
Tom also initiated his life-long habit of gleaning everything he could from the writings of men of wisdom, keeping in mind
the fact that "even they could be entrenched in preconceived dogma and associated error." He also cultivated a sense of tenacity
during these years, and a willingness to expend whatever perspiration was needed to overcome a given challenge - which he
later said "most people go out of their way to avoid."
Significantly, many of the above characteristics in
Tom's personality would have probably not been so deeply ingrained during those formative years if he had not experienced
a gradual loss of hearing.... While the condition may have prevented him from taking advantage of the benefits of a formal
secondary education in contemporary mathematics, physics, engineering, it certainly didn't interfere with his propensity to
come up with alternate ways to compensate....
Meanwhile, Tom's "free wheeling" style of observation
and creativity caused him to handily reject many "established" engineering principles. , his unique perspective on everything
in his environment provided him with a unique foothold in the world of practical science that ruled the latter half of the
19th Century.... More specifically, while most of his associates may have been "captives" of the "scientific pontifications"
of the day, he tended to dispassionately challenge every established "fact" and assumption he encountered.... A "lone eagle,"
he rarely relied someone's opinion .... "If he finally came to wholly embrace some new idea it was only after his own
exhaustive examination and experimentation revealed that it met his rigorous standards of what was factual....
Not surprisingly, Tom spent countless hours in contemplation
and in his laboratory.... A contemporary said "He found pure joy in the the act of scheming out daring solutions to problems
in his kaleidoscopic mind and then applying his legendary memory, dexterity, and patience to performing any and all experiments
that were necessary to produce a new concept or invention." In sum, the above unique approach to life would serve him
amazingly well at the dawn of the coming "Age Of Electricity."
By age 12, Tom had become a virtual adult... He had
not only talked his parents into letting him go to work selling newspapers, snacks, and candy on the railroad, he had started
an entirely separate business selling vegetables.....
At age 14 - at the time the famous pre-Civil War debates
between Lincoln and Douglas - he exploited his access to the associated details that were being teletyped each day into the
station and published them in a flyer.... As a result of the success of this effort, he gradually developed a splendid little
newspaper called the Weekly Herald. Interestingly - because it was the first such publication ever to be type-set, printed,
and sold on a train anywhere - an English journal gave him his first exposure to international notoriety when it featured
the story in 1860.
When his hero, Abraham Lincoln, was finally nominated
for president, Tom distributed campaign literature on his behalf and peddled flattering photographs of "the great emancipator"
until he was elected President.
At its peak, Tom's mini-publishing venture netted
him more than ten dollars a day, enabling him to provide for his own support. In the meantime, any extra income went to further
outfitting the chemical laboratory he had set up in his home. However, when his usually tolerant mother finally complained
about the danger of all the "poisons" he was amassing, he transferred most of them to a locked room in the basement and stored
the remainder in a closet on the train.
One day, while traversing a bumpy section of track,
the train lurched, causing a stick of phosphorous to roll onto the floor and ignite. Within moments, the baggage car caught
fire. The conductor was so angry he severely chastised him and struck him with a powerful blow to the side of his head. Later,
he was further penalized by being restricted to peddling his 400 daily papers only at railroad stations.
Late in his 14th hear, Tom contracted scarlet fever.
While it remains uncertain, some biographers have assumed that the after effects of this condition - along with being struck
on the side of the head by the above conductor - acted in consort to finally destroy most of his hearing....
Whatever the case - even though it now became
impossible for Tom to acquire knowledge in a typical educational setting - he did not fret over the matter.... Readily
adapting to anything that he was convinced was out of his control, he would simply commit himself to acquiring alternative
methods of learning .
Equally remarkable, Tom actually learned to use the
silence associated with his deafness to enhance his powers of concentration. Later in life, for example - when he had the
means to have an operation that would have likely restored much of his hearing - he refused to act upon the option.... He
was afraid he would have difficulty re-learning how to channel his thinking in a noisy world.
Ultimately becoming totally deaf in his left ear -
and well over 80% deaf in his right ear - the thing that Tom missed most was the sound of singing birds. He loved the
creatures so much, he would later amass an aviary of over 5,000 of them.
Tom's career of producing and selling newspapers on
a train came to an abrupt end in 1861, when he and his press were permanently thrown off the vehicle by an "unsympathetic"
associate of the railroad company. Although upset and confused by the incident, he continued to frequent the station area.
One day, the station master's child happened to wander
onto the tracks in front of an oncoming boxcar. Tom leaped to action. Luckily - as they tumbled over and over to escape
the oncoming wheels - he and the little boy ended up being only slightly injured. One of the most significant events
in Tom's life now occurred when - as a reward for his heroism - the grateful father taught him how to use Morse code and the
By age 15, Tom had pretty much mastered the basics
of the fascinating new art of telegraphy and obtained a job as a replacement for one of the thousands of "brass pounders"
(telegraph operators) who had gone off to serve in the Civil War. The opportunity not only further enhanced his speed and
efficiency in sending and receiving code, it provided him with his first solid opportunity to study and experiment with
Shortly after the Civil War ended, Tom decided - to
his mother's great dismay - that the time had come for him to leave home and "seek his fortune." And, over the next few years
he meandered throughout the Central States, supporting himself as a "tramp operator.
At age 16, after working and experimenting in a variety
of telegraph offices, he finally came up with his first "authentic" invention. It was an automatic "repeating" device that
transmitted telegraph signals between unmanned stations, allowing virtually anyone to translate code at their own convenience
with relative ease and accuracy. Curiously, he never patented the initial version of this idea.
In 1868, after making a name for himself amongst his
fellow telegraphers as being a rather flamboyant and quick witted character - who enjoyed playing "mostly harmless" practical
jokes - he returned home one day ragged and penniless. Sadly, he found his parents in an even worse predicament.... First,
his beloved mother was beginning to evince elements of insanity "which were aggravated by the strains of an often difficult
life." Making matters even worse, his father had just lost his job and the local bank and was about to foreclose on the family
Tom promptly came to grips with the pathos at hand
and - perhaps for the first time in his life - also came to grips with a number of his own shortcomings. In any case,
after a lot of soul searching and contemplation he decided that the best thing he could do would be to get back out on his
own and try to make some serious money.
A few months later, Tom accepted the advice of a fellow
"lightening slinger" named Billy Adams to come East and apply for a permanent job as a telegrapher with the relatively prestigious
Western Union Company in Boston. His willingness to travel over a thousand miles from home was partly influenced by the fact
that he had been given a free rail ticket by the local street railway company for some repairs he had done for them. An equally
important factor, however, was the fact that Boston was then widely perceived as "The hub of the scientific, educational,
and cultural universe."
Interestingly, mid-19th century New England had numerous
features that were analogous to today's Silicon Valley in California. But instead of being a haven for the thousands of young
"tekkies" - who communicate with each other in the computerese and internet code of today - it was the home of scores of young
telegraphers who anxiously stayed abreast of every stage of the emerging age of electrical technology and regularly "talked"
with each via Morse code.
Even though Tom toiled 12 hours a day and six days
a week for Western Union, he somehow found ways to "moonlight" on several of his own projects. In fact, within six months,
he had applied for and received his very first patent. The invention was a beautifully designed and highly efficient electric
vote-recording machine. However, when he tried to sell it, members of the Massachusetts Legislature thoroughly denigrated
it, claiming "its speed in tallying votes would disrupt the political status-quo."
The specific problem was that - during times
of stress - political bodies of the time often relied upon the brief delays that were provided by the process of manually
counting votes to influence and "hopefully" change the opinions of their colleagues. "This is exactly what we do not want"
a seasoned politician scolded him, adding that "Your invention would not only destroy the only hope the minority would have
of influencing legislation, it would deliver them over - bound hand and foot - to the majority."
Although Tom was greatly disappointed by this turn
of events, he immediately grasped its implications. Even though his remarkable invention allowed each voter to instantly cast
his vote from his seat - exactly as it was supposed to do - he realized the idea was so far ahead of its time it was completely
devoid of immediate sales appeal.
Because of his desperate need for money, Tom now made
a critically significant adjustment in his, heretofore, relatively naive outlook on the world of business.... From this point
forward, he vowed, he would "never waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy."
It is important to mention, here, that it was during
Tom's 17 month stint in Boston that he was first exposed to lectures at Boston Tech (which was founded in 1861 and became
the Mass. Institute of Technology in 1916) and the ideas of several associates on the state-of-the-art of "multiplexing" telegraph
signals. This was the theory, and experimental quest, that involved the transmission of electrical impulses at different frequencies
over telegraph wires, producing horn-like simulations of the human voice and even crude images (the first internet?) via an
instrument called the harmonic telegraph.
Not surprisingly, both Edison and Alexander Graham
Bell were fascinated by this exciting new area of electrical science - which eventually led to the invention of the first
articulating telephone, the first fax machine, etc.
Interestingly, an acquaintance by the name of Benjamin
Bredding, an obscure 21 year old genius who was the same age as Bell and Edison - and who later provided critically important
assistance to Bell in perfecting long distance telephony as well as the first reciprocating telephone - now provided Edison
extremely valuable input into heightening his understanding of the state-of-the-art of the harmonograph and the multiplex
transmitter. Significantly, Bredding was the crack electrician who later set up the world's first two-way long distance
telephone apparatus for his close friend Alexander Graham Bell, "who at the time knew almost nothing about electricity."
Copyrighted - never before published - tintype of
Bredding and Bell in October of 1876 on the day they successfully communicated across Boston's Charles River in what was the
world's first long distance two-way telephone conversation.
In any event, it was George B. Stearns who - with
Bredding's help - eventually beat everyone to the punch when he obtained the first patent for a duplex telegraph line (a device
that exploits the fact that electromagnetism and the number and direction of wire windings associated with a connection between
telegraph keys can influence the current that flows between them....) and facilitated the first two-way telegraphic communication.
Stearns, who was Bredding's boss, finally sold the
patent for this highly significant cost-cutting invention to Western Union for $750,000. Not surprisingly, Bredding and Edison
wound up getting absolutely nothing from the venture. An interesting upshot was that, while the caprice associated with the
rough and tumble world of patenting inventions in the mid-19th century ultimately crushed Bredding's innately mild spirit
- along with his extraordinary potential - it merely spurred the tough minded Edison on to not only improve upon the duplex
system but to later patent the world's first quadruplex transmitter....
Threatened with being fired for not concentrating
on his primary responsibilities to Western Union - and deeply in debt - Edison now borrowed $35.00 from his fellow telegrapher
and "night owl" pal, Benjamin Franklin Bredding, and purchased a steamship ticket to the more commercially oriented city of
New York. (The money was returned a year later.)
During the third week after arriving in "the big apple"
Tom was purportedly nearly starving to death. Then, one of the most amazing coincidences in the annals of technological history
took place. Not long after having disparately begged for a cup of tea from a vendor "to stave off possible starvation," he
happened to be meandering through an office in the financial district. Observing that manager of the brokerage firm
was in some kind of a panic, he eventually learned that that a critically important stock-ticker had just broken down. Noting
that none of those clustered around the machine had a clue on how to fix it, he elbowed his way into the scene and grasped
the opportunity to have a go at addressing the problem himself....
Since Tom had been sleeping in the basement of the
building for a few days - and doing quite a bit of snooping around - he already had a pretty good idea of what the device
was supposed to do. After spending a few seconds confirming how it was intended to work in the first place, he quickly reached
down and manipulated the end of a loose spring back to where it belonged.... and, to everyone's amazement, the ticker began
to run perfectly.
The manager was so ecstatic, he made an on the spot
decision to hire Edison to make similar repairs in the busy office for a salary of $300.00 per month.... This was far more
than his friend, Benjamin Bredding, was making back in Boston and twice the going rate for a crack electrician in New York.
Later in life, Edison would recall that the incident made him more euphoric than anything he ever experienced in his life
because it was as though he "had been suddenly delivered from abject poverty to prosperity."
It should come as no surprise that, during his free
time, Edison soon returned to his old habit of "moonlighting" on his job with the telegraph, the quadruplex transmitter, and
the stock-ticker. And, shortly thereafter, he was absolutely astonished - in fact he nearly fainted - when a corporation paid
him $40,000 for all of his rights to the latter device.
This was the first "real" money Edison had ever received
for an invention. Convinced that no bank would honor the large check, he walked around for hours in a stupor, staring
at it in disbelief. Dreadfully fearful someone that would steal it, he laid the cash out on his bed and stayed up all night
counting and recounting in disbelief. The next day a wise friend told him to deposit it in a bank forthwith and to just forget
about it for a while.
Success at last!
A few weeks later, Edison wrote a series of poignant
letters back home to his father: "How is mother getting along?... I am now in a position to give you some cash... Write and
say how much....Give mother anything she wants...."
Over the next few years, Edison's progress in creating
successful inventions for industry really took off.... For example, in 1874 - with the money he received from the sale
of an electrical engineering firm that held several of his patents - he opened his own laboratory in Newark, New Jersey. Then,
at age 29, he commenced work on the carbon transmitter, which ultimately made Alexander Graham Bell's amazing new "articulating"
telephone (which by today's standards sounded something like someone trying to talk through a kazoo) audible enough for practical
use. Interestingly, at one point during this intense period, Edison was as close to inventing the telephone as Bell was to
inventing the phonograph. Nevertheless, shortly after Edison moved his laboratory to Menlo Park, N.J. in 1876, it was he who
invented - in 1877 - the first phonograph.
In 1879 - even though he was extremely disappointed
by the fact that Bell had beaten him in the race to patent the first authentic transmission of the human voice - Edison now
"one upped" all of his competition by inventing the first commercially practical incandescent electric light bulb...
And, if the above wasn't enough to forever seal his
unequaled importance in technological history, he now came up with an invention that - in terms of its collective affect upon
mankind - has had more impact than any other. In 1883 and 1884, while beating a path from his research lab to the patent office,
he introduced the world's first economically viable system of centrally generating and distributing electric light, heat,
and power. (See "Greatest Achievement?") Even his harshest critics grant that this was a Herculean world-shaking event that
only he could have brought about at this specific point in history.
In 1887, Edison set up the world's first full fledged
research and development center in West Orange, New Jersey. And, within a year, the operation grew to become the largest scientific
testing laboratory in the world. In 1890, he immersed himself in developing the first silent motion pictures. And, by 1892,
his Edison General Electric Co. had fully merged with another firm to become the great General Electric Corporation, in which
he was a major stockholder.
At around the turn-of-the-century, Edison invented
the first perfected dictaphone, mimeograph, and practical storage battery. Then, after creating the "kinetiscope" and the
first silent film in 1904, he went on to introduce The Great Train Robbery in 1903, which was a ten minute clip that was his
first attempt to blend audio with silent moving images to produce "talking pictures."
By now, Edison was being called "The wizard of Menlo
Park" and "The father of the electrical age." So it should come as no surprise that when World War I began he was asked by
the U. S. Government to help out by focusing his creativity upon creating defensive devices for submarines and ships. He also
perfected a number of important inventions relating to rubber, concrete, ethanol, etc. at this time.
By the 1920s Edison was internationally revered. However
- even though he was personally acquainted with scores of very important people of his era - he developed very few close friendships.
Moreover, due to the demands of his career, there were long periods when he spent a shockingly small amount of time with his
It wasn't until his health began to fail, in his 80s,
that Edison finally began to slow down and, so to speak, "smell the flowers." After obtaining his last (1,093rd) patent at
age 83, he worked mostly at home where he greatly enjoyed greeting former associates and famous people such as Charles Lindberg,
Marie Curie, Henry Ford, and President Herbert Hoover etc. He also enjoyed reading the mail of admirers and puttering around
a few hours each day in his office and in his home lab.
Finally, because of the many peculiar voids that Edison
often evinced in the area of cognition, a number of medical authorities have argued that he may have been plagued by a learning
disability that went well beyond mere deafness.... Some of have even conjectured that this surmised ailment - along
with his lack of a formal education - could explain why he always seemed to always "think so differently" compared to most
others of his time, "tenaciously clinging to those unique methods of analysis and experimentation with which he alone seemed
to feel so comfortable...."
Whatever the impetus for the above trait, his incredible
ability to come up with a meaningful new patent every two weeks throughout his working career "added more to the collective
wealth of the world - and had more impact upon shaping modern civilization - than the accomplishments of any figure since
Gutenberg...." Accordingly, most science and technology historians grant that he was indeed "The most influential figure of
Thomas Edison died At 9 PM On Oct. 18th, 1931 in New
Jersey. He was 84 years of age. Recognizing that his death marked the end of an era in the progress of civilization,
countless individuals, communities, and corporations throughout the world dimmed their lights and, or, briefly shut down their
power to honor him on the evening of the day that he was laid to rest on his beautiful estate at at Glenmont New Jersey. Apparently,
they also recognized that - while he was certainly not a flawless human being - he was an essentially good man with a powerful
mission; a man who was driven by a superhuman desire to research and invent things to serve mankind.
In 1929, Edison's close friend, Henry Ford, completed
the task of moving Edison's original Menlo Park laboratory to the Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Mich.
In 1962 his existing laboratory and home in
West Orange, N.J. were designated as National Historic Sites.