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Thomas Edison: Birth to Age 40

by Ron Kurtus (revised 22 January 2012)

Thomas Edison was certainly a fascinating man. Although he is considered one of the greatest inventors of all times, much of his fame was a result of being an astute businessman and technical manager.

He established a company and hired talented engineers and scientists to develop various products that he thought would be viable in the marketplace. In his first 39 years, Thomas Edison established his reputation.

In his early years, he exhibited a great amount of ambition, inventiveness, and business sense.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.



Birth to 9 years: 1847-56

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio, on February 11, 1847 to Canadian emigrants. His family fled to the United States after his father had been involved in a political revolt in Canada. In his first year, Thomas got scarlet fever and lost part of his hearing.

(Note: Another story says that when he was older, a man pulled him by the ear to get him on a moving train, thus injuring his hearing. I'm not sure which is correct.)

When he was 7 years old, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. Young Edison set up a chemical laboratory in the cellar of their large house, where he performed small experiments.

After his teacher called him retarded at age 8, he was taken out of school. His mother—who also was a schoolteacher—taught him to read and write. Edison also read his father's books to learn the scientific method and how to think analytically.

Ages 10 to 19 years: 1857-66

At age 12, Edison began a job on the railroad, hawking snacks and newspapers. His interest in chemistry led him to set up an experiment area in a baggage car corner.

Publishes newspaper

In 1861, the American Civil War started. The war did not seem to affect young Edison's life.

In 1862, at age 15, Edison published and printed his own newspaper on the train and sold it to the passengers. Showing his sense for business, he opened two small stores, hiring other boys to run them. That same year, he rescued a young boy from being run over by a moving freight car.

Edison selling papers as a youth

Edison selling papers as a youth

Learns telegraphy

The boy's station agent father thanked Edison by teaching him the basics of the new science of telegraphy. Edison's desire to master this skilled profession led to his first invention, a device to allow beginning telegraphers to practice by varying the speed of a message.

In 1863, at age 16, Edison took a job in Michigan as a telegraph operator. In the following years, he got similar jobs in Ontario and Indiana.

In 1865, the Civil War ended.

Ages 20 to 29 years: 1867-76

In 1868, Western Union hired the 21-year-old Edison as a telegraph operator. That year he invented and patented the electric vote recorder. His search for new telegraphic applications allowed him to start a service delivering financial news to brokerages.

Improved stock ticker

By fixing a stock ticker in the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, he was hired as superintendent of the company for $300-a-month. This was very good money for those days. His job was to make more improvements to the stock ticker.

In 1869, Edison invented the universal stock ticker and the unison stop.

Since he was able to invent what various businesses—particularly stock brokerages—needed in instantaneous communication, the 23-year-old Edison decided to concentrate on developing new inventions.

Started factory

He sold his improvements on the stock ticker and other inventions for $40,000. (This would be like getting more than $800,000 in today’s currency).

With this money he opened a laboratory and factory in Newark, New Jersey, making stock tickers. There, with a reputation for being clever and an ability to enlist wealthy backers, he started putting in 16-hour days fulfilling new contracts. It is not clear how many hours his workers had to put in.

At age 24, he married a 16-year-old girl that worked in his factory.

Prolific year

In 1872, when he was 25, Edison went to work for Western Union Telegraph Company and Automatic Telegraph Company. It was a year that Edison's mind was buzzing with new ideas. He invented the motograph and automatic telegraph system. He also invented the duplex and multiplex telegraph systems. Not only that, he also invented wax paper and the carbon rheostat.

These numerous inventions proved that Edison was a creative genius,

Moved is laboratory

In 1876, at age 27, Edison invented the electric pen used for the first mimeographs. The next year he improved the mimeograph machine.

Then when he was 29, he moved his laboratory to Menlo Park, New Jersey. He was called "The Wizard of Menlo Park" by the press.

Ages 30 to 39 years

Edison had many accomplishments in these years.

Telephone speaker and phonograph

Although Edison lost out to Alexander Graham Bell in the contest to develop a working telephone, he did invent a speaker diaphragm improvement to the device in 1877, at age 30. His device made the telephone commercially practical.

That same year, Edison invented the phonograph. He used an electromagnetic powered needle to scratch a waveform in a wax cylinder. For his test recording, he recited the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a speaker diaphragm he had invented for the telephone.

Then by rotating the wax cylinder at the same speed that was used to make the recording, the vibration of the needle now created an electrical current through the electromagnet, resulting in sound coming from a speaker.

This was considered one of his greatest inventions. His company then started to produce and sell the phonographs.

Perfected light bulb

In 1879, at age 32, Edison successfully perfected the incandescent lamp, making it practical for commercial use. Although a British scientist named Swan originally came up with the idea of using scorched cotton thread (carbon) filament for a light bulb, no one could keep the bulb burning for very long. The problem was that the filament or glowing element would quickly burn out. Edison tried other substances, but soon used the carbon filament. His method succeeded because he was able to maintain a good vacuum.

Invented dynamo

He also invented the Edison dynamo. This was his version of a device for creating a steady supply of direct current (DC) electricity.

Along with his engineers, Edison developed a system of distribution and regulation of electric current. Again, this was for the sake of commercial interests.

Patented his incandescent lamp

In 1880, Edison patented his incandescent lamp. (Later, his engineers developed the use of the metal tungsten for light bulb filaments. That metal is still used today.) That year, Edison also invented the magnetic ore separator and discovered the "Edison Effect" that become important in electronics.

The electric light bulb brought Edison's name to the forefront of great American inventors.

Edison the inventor

Edison the inventor

Promoted DC

Once Edison and his staff discovered a way to make light bulbs that would last, he gathered investors to form a company called Edison General Electric Company to start building DC electricity power plants to provide electricity and lights for the populace.

Hired Tesla

Edison then hired a young scientist from Serbia, Nikola Tesla. He promised Tesla $50,000 if he could improve the dynamo the company sold for making electricity.

After a year of hard work, Tesla came up with a vast improvement of the Edison dynamo. When Tesla asked for his money, Edison told him it was just a joke and refused to pay him. Not only that, Edison took all the credit for the improvements to the device!

Tesla soon left Edison General Electric and was hired by Westinghouse to develop the alternating current (AC) electricity, which seemed to have several advantages over Edison's approach.

Provided NY electricity

In 1882, at age 35, Edison General Electric Company opened the first electric power station in New York City. That year Edison hoped to light whole cities with the electrical equipment he had developed. Since he could find no manufacturer to make the equipment, he set up his own manufacturing facility.

In 1884, when he was 37, Edison's wife died. He remarried two years later.

In 1885, Edison developed a wireless induction telegraph system between moving trains and stations, as well as for ship-to-shore use.

Summary

In his first 39 years, Thomas Edison proved he was one of the world's greatest inventors, as well as being a astute businessman. He also was good at promoting his inventions in order to get funding for further work. His development of the electric light bulb at age 32 brought him his greatest fame, thus far.


Use Edison's life to inspire yourself to greatness


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