Born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison was the youngest of seven children! His father, Samuel, was a political activist, and his mother, Nancy, was an accomplished school teacher.
Nancy hugely influenced Edison’s early life, homeschooling him after his teachers saw him as a difficult child after only a few months. She taught him important arithmetic skills, reading, and writing at home.
Thomas Alva Edison: The Early Years
As mentioned, Thomas was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison, Jr., and Nancy Elliot Edison, but he was only the fourth to survive. Very early on in Thomas’ life, he developed problems with his hearing, which are believed to have been caused by a familial proclivity to mastoiditis. This struggle with hearing had a massive impact on Edison’s life and would go on to influence many of his inventions.
While we know Thomas Edison as a brilliant inventor, he was not such a brilliant student. In 1854, Samuel Edison got a new job as the lighthouse keeper and carpenter on the Fort Gratiot military post near Port Huron, Michigan, and Thomas began attending a school there. Despite officially enrolling in a school, Thomas was not a regular attendee by any stretch of the imagination. For the next five years, Thomas attended school fairly infrequently. The school didn’t seem to interest young Thomas Edison, perhaps partly because a lot of the learning and instruction was by repetition, and Thomas was hard of hearing. Thomas was, however, extremely imaginative and became an avid reader.
Unsurprisingly, in 1859, Edison quit school completely and began working as a train boy on the railroad between Detroit and Port Huron. During this time, Edison started to learn telegraphy (using a telegraph). Then, in 1863, Edison became an apprentice telegrapher.
On the original Morse telegraph, messages were received and inscribed using a series of dots and dashes that would then be decoded and read. The system meant that Edison’s difficulty in hearing would not hinder him in this line of work. However, telegraph receivers were quickly fitted with a sounding key, allowing telegraph operators to read messages via a series of clicks. This change meant that Edison began to struggle with telegraphy and continued to throughout his six years in the profession.
Thomas put his bright and curious mind to work around his hearing problems by improving the devices and equipment that he was using. By January 1869, his work was beginning to pay off, and he had made great progress with a device called a duplex telegrapher. This device was able to transmit two messages simultaneously on one wire. He was also making progress with a printer capable of converting electrical signals to letters. Inspired by his capacity for innovation, Edison quit his job in telegraphy to become a full-time inventor and entrepreneur.
Thomas Alva Edison, The Inventor
Now a fully-fledged inventor, Thomas Alva Edison moved to New York City and entered into a partnership with a man named Frank L. Pope. Pope was an electrical expert of some acclaim, and he and Edison worked together to create the Edison Universal Stock Printer and a range of other printing telegraphs. The telegraph industry at the time was incredibly competitive and largely dominated by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Edison continued focusing on his inventions, specifically improving the automatic telegraph system for the Western Union Telegraph Company’s rivals.
The automatic telegraph, which could record messages through a chemical reaction caused by electrical transmissions, did not have much commercial success. However, working on the device allowed Edison to grow significantly in his knowledge of chemistry. It would form the foundation for his electric pen and mimeograph development. These devices played a key role in the early machine industry and eventually led to the creation of the phonograph.
Often regarded as his most creative and original invention, the phonograph is a huge part of Edison’s legacy. At the time, the telephone was considered a variation of acoustic telegraphy. Much like he had done for the automatic telegraph, Edison was intent on creating a device that would transcribe signals as they were received from the telephone. These signals, which would be in the form of a human voice, would then be able to be delivered as telegraph messages. Back then, the telephone was not used as a method of person-to-person communication.
Working off the back of some early research, including that of a French inventor named Léon Scott, Edison began his next invention. Previous studies had theorized that if each sound could be recorded, it would create a shape similar to photography, i.e., good writing. Edison built on this idea by using a stylus-tipped carbon transmitter to make impressions on a strip of wax paper. It would allow each sound to be ‘written.’ In doing this, Edison discovered that the faint indentations made by the transmitter made a loose reproduction of the sound when the paper was pulled back beneath the stylus.
Eventually, Edison’s phonograph could record a person’s voice and play it back through sound vibrations and a needle on a steel drum. For example, the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb” was recorded on this device by Edison.
In December 1877, Edison revealed the new tinfoil phonograph. In this device, the strip of paper was replaced with a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil. People were initially unsure about this device, but the initial skepticism and confusion were swiftly followed by widespread praise. The invention of this tinfoil phonograph made Edison a household name, and he gained worldwide recognition for his genius. Yet, shockingly, it took ten years before the phonograph was made available to purchase by the general public.
The Light Bulb
You can’t discuss Thomas Alva Edison without talking about the light bulb. Edison himself was not the original inventor of the light bulb, but he was the one who created the technology that made it suitable for public use. An English inventor named Humphry Davy was the inventor of the very first electric arc lamp in the 1800s. It was Davy’s invention that sparked Edison to create his own. Edison was not the first to embark on this journey. Many scientists before him had tried to make electric light bulbs using a vacuum, but all had failed. Edison began by purchasing the patented design of two of these previous scientists, named Woodward and Evans, hoping to improve on it. In 1879, Edison secured a patent for his light bulb design, which he then went on to manufacture and market for commercial use.
The next year, in January 1880, Edison began developing a specific company dedicated to supplying electricity to power and light cities worldwide. This company was the ‘Edison Illuminating Company,’ which would later become General Electric.
Other Notable Inventions
Besides the lightbulb, Edison is also responsible for many other inventions that have changed the world as we know it.
By the late 1880s, Edison was on the hunt for something that could do what the phonograph did for the ears, but for eyes instead. Behold the first film camera and viewer! Edison’s company became a successful early film studio with this invention, creating many silent films between 1890 and 1918.
Edison is also responsible for inventing alkaline storage batteries. Automobiles were developed in the late 1800s. However, early electric car batteries used to leak acid, so Edison went about creating a reliable battery. By 1910 it was in production! Although Henry Ford’s success with the Model T car took the limelight, Edison’s battery became one of his most successful products. The battery was used in trains, submarines, and mining lamps.
The Legacy of Thomas Alva Edison
Thomas Edison was extremely influential in the history of invention and science. Throughout his life and career, Edison created a huge number of patents, including:
- 389 patents for electric light and power;
- 195 patents for the phonograph;
- 150 patents for the telegraph;
- 141 patents for storage batteries;
- 34 patents for the telephone.
The method of Edison’s invention has also been super influential for modern scientists. Although all of Edison’s greatest work was formed out of necessity, he would analyze a situation or devise and see how he could create something to improve it.
Edison was different from many other inventors at the time, who were characteristically aloof and preferred to work as part of a one-person operation. While these inventors make for interesting stories, their solitary approach often hinders their progress. On the other hand, Edison had a completely different attitude toward invention. In addition to being a creative genius, Edison understood the importance of having a business-savvy mind. As a result, Edison created an entire establishment of inventions through which he could gather support and financial backing to fuel his inventions. Furthermore, as his boss, Edison was free to embark upon any project that took his fancy, which resulted in many unfinished endeavors. Still, this freedom with which he could work kept his creativity alive and allowed him to keep inventing new and interesting designs.
Edison’s illustrious career and fascinating ‘can-do’ attitude have made him a key historical figure. His journey from a poor, inattentive school student and humble trainboy to an accomplished, wealthy inventor and businessman has epitomized the American dream. For this reason, many people idolize Edison as the picture of success.
In terms of Edison’s personality, he was known for being somewhat of an egomaniac. As a boss, Edison was extremely erratic, shouting at his employees one minute and joking with them the next. While certainly not boring, this temperament did not make him a great family man. Edison was largely neglectful towards his entire family and did not take the role of father or husband very seriously. Still, he was a figure that fascinated the public, and by the time he reached his mid-30s, Edison was believed to be the best-known American in the world. In the years after his death in 1931, Thomas Edison came to be regarded as responsible for laying the foundation for the technological and social revolution of the modern electric world.
Interesting facts about Thomas Alva Edison
- Edison’s first patent was for an electro-graphic vote recorder in 1869.
- A case of childhood scarlet fever left Edison completely deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other.
- Thomas’ two children had Morse code-inspired nicknames that point to his involvement in the telegraph industry. Marion “Dot” Edison and Charles “Dash” Edison were their names.
- One of Edison’s less successful inventions was creepy talking dolls. Nevertheless, he sold 500 of them!
- Thomas was a huge fan of Shakespeare’s plays. However, he gave up on being an actor because of his shyness and high-pitched voice.
- However, he is the first person ever to project a motion picture. It happened on April 23, 1896.
- He turned down the opportunity to improve his hearing via an operation, as he was worried he wouldn’t be able to think the same in a noisier world.
- 1882 proved to be Edison’s most successful year in terms of patent applications. He was successful with a whopping 106 applications!
- Edison had over 2500 books, all full of recordings from his experiments.
- At thirteen, Edison published his newspaper, “The Grand Trunk Herald,” which became a hit!