Thomas Edison Biography

unknown-edison-invention-portraitInventor Thomas Edison created such great innovations as the electric light bulb and the phonograph. A savvy businessman, he held more than a 1,000 patents for his inventions.

Born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Edison rose from humble beginnings to work as an inventor of major technology. Setting up a lab in Menlo Park, some of the products he developed included the telegraph, phonograph, electric light bulb, alkaline storage batteries and Kinetograph (a camera for motion pictures). He died on October 18, 1931, in West Orange, New Jersey.

Younger Years

Inventor Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. He was the last of the seven children of Samuel and Nancy Edison. Thomas’s father was an exiled political activist from Canada. His mother, an accomplished school teacher, was a major influence in Thomasí early life. An early bout with scarlet fever as well as ear infections left him with hearing difficulties in both ears, a malady that would eventually leave him nearly deaf as an adult. Edison would later recount as an adult, with variations on the story, that he lost his hearing due to a train incident where his ears were injured. But others have tended to discount this as the sole cause of his hearing loss.In 1854, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where Edison attended public school for a total of 12 weeks. A hyperactive child, prone to distraction, he was deemed “difficult” by his teacher. His mother quickly pulled him from school and taught him at home. At age 11, he showed a voracious appetite for knowledge, reading books on a wide range of subjects. In this wide-open curriculum Edison developed a process for self-education and learning independently that would serve him throughout his life.

At age 12, Edison set out to put much of that education to work. He convinced his parents to let him sell newspapers to passengers along the Grand Trunk Railroad line. Exploiting his access to the news bulletins teletyped to the station office each day, Thomas began publishing his own small newspaper, called the Grand Trunk Herald. The up-to-date articles were a hit with passengers. This was the first of what would become a long string of entrepreneurial ventures where he saw a need and capitalized on opportunity.Edison also used his access to the railroad to conduct chemical experiments in a small laboratory he set up in a train baggage car. During one of his experiments, a chemical fire started and the car caught fire. The conductor rushed in and struck Thomas on the side of the head, probably furthering some of his hearing loss. He was kicked off the train and forced to sell his newspapers at various stations along the route.While he worked for the railroad, a near-tragic event turned fortuitous for the young man. After Edison saved a 3-year-old from being run over by an errant train, the childís grateful father rewarded him by teaching him to operate a telegraph. By age 15, he had learned enough to be employed as a telegraph operator. For the next five years, Edison traveled throughout the Midwest as an itinerant telegrapher, subbing for those who had gone to the Civil War. In his spare time, he read widely, studied and experimented with telegraph technology, and became familiar with electrical science.In 1866, at age 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, working for The Associated Press. The night shift allowed him to spend most of his time reading and experimenting. He developed an unrestrictive style of thinking and inquiry, proving things to himself through objective examination and experimentation. Initially, Edison excelled at his telegraph job because early Morse code was inscribed on a piece of paper, so Edison’s partial deafness was no handicap. However, as the technology advanced, receivers were increasingly equipped with a sounding key, enabling telegraphers to “read” message by the sound of the clicks. This left Edison disadvantaged, with fewer and fewer opportunities for employment.In 1868, Edison returned home to find his beloved mother was falling into mental illness and his father was out of work. The family was almost destitute. Edison realized he needed to take control of his future. Upon the suggestion of a friend, he ventured to Boston, landing a job for the Western Union Company. At the time, Boston was America’s center for science and culture, and Edison reveled in it. In his spare time, he designed and patented an electronic voting recorder for quickly tallying votes in the legislature. However, Massachusetts lawmakers were not interested. As they explained, most legislators didn’t want votes tallied quickly. They wanted time to change the minds of fellow legislators.

Becoming an Inventor

In 1869, Edison moved to New York City and developed his first invention, an improved stock ticker, the Universal Stock Printer, which synchronized several stock tickers’ transactions. The Gold and Stock Telegraph Company was so impressed, they paid him $40,000 for the rights. Edison was only 22 years old. With this success, he quit his work as a telegrapher to devote himself full-time to inventing.In 1870, Thomas Edison set up his first small laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey, and employed several machinists. As an independent entrepreneur, Edison formed numerous partnerships and developed his products for the highest bidder. Often that was Western Union Telegraph Company, the industry leader, but just as often, it was one of Western Union’s rivals. In one such instance, Edison devised for Western Union the quadruplex telegraph, capable of transmitting two signals in two different directions on the same wire, but railroad tycoon Jay Gould snatched the invention from Western Union, paying Edison more than $100,000 in cash, bonds and stock, and generating years of litigation.With his ever-increasing financial success, in 1871 Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell, who was an employee at one of his businesses. During their 13-year marriage, they had three children, Marion, Thomas and William, who became an inventor. Mary died of a suspected brain tumor at the age of 29 in 1884.By the early 1870s, Thomas Edison had acquired a reputation as a first-rate inventor. In 1876, he moved his expanding operations to Menlo Park, New Jersey, and built an independent industrial research facility incorporating machine shops and laboratories. That same year, Western Union encouraged him to develop a communication device to compete with Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. He never did. However, in December of 1877, Edison developed a method for recording sound: the phonograph. Though not commercially viable for another decade, the invention brought him worldwide fame.

Final Years

Thomas Edison died of complications of diabetes on October 18, 1931, in his home, “Glenmont,” in West Orange, New Jersey. He was 84 years old. Many communities and corporations throughout the world dimmed their lights or briefly turned off their electrical power to commemorate his passing. Edison’s career was the quintessential rags-to-riches success story that made him a folk hero in America. An uninhibited egoist, he could be a tyrant to employees and ruthless to competitors. Though he was a publicity seeker, he didnít socialize well and often neglected his family. By the time he died he was one of the most well-known and respected Americans in the world. He had been at the forefront of Americaís first technological revolution and set the stage for the modern electric world.


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