Hands up if you knew that Thomas Edison was the inventor of the phonograph.
Looks like everyone, but how many of us know much about him? You probably know
that he was an intense, focused man and prolific inventor, but may not know how
his life unfolded, or about the challenges that shaped his character and style.
Curious about the man himself, I gathered a few books and read them cover-to-cover
to learn about Edison’s life and what made him the man he was. It would also help me
to decide how I really felt about him. My reading certainly filled in a lot of gaps
in my factual knowledge, but also helped my understanding of Edison’s motivations,
strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, I feel that I now know Thomas Edison as a human
being, not just as an inventor. In fact, the term "inventor" may tend to create a
stereotypical image that can obscure other qualities, but more about that later.
Anyway, having been fascinated by what I’d learned, I agreed to share my knowledge
and conclusions by distilling it into two presentations that I made at CAPS in
February 2015 and May 2016. The purpose of this and a subsequent article is to
present that distilled information in a readable format that will hopefully help
you know and understand Thomas Edison. I found myself drawing the information for
my articles more from "Edison: A Biography" by Matthew Josephson than any other book.
I can only explain this by saying that Josephson’s account seemed the most credible
to me and provided the most insight into Edison’s personality and behaviour.
Edison Family Background
In 1730 John Edison arrived in the British Crown Colony of New Jersey from the
Netherlands as a child with his single mother. In 1765 he married Sarah Ogden
and became proprietor of a farm. John Edison was a Loyalist during the revolutionary
times of the 1760s - 1780s and got caught up in the struggle, refused to take an
oath of allegiance to the American revolutionaries, was convicted of treason and
sentenced to death in 1778. He was then paroled, however, perhaps because his wife
Sarah’s family had supported the revolution, aka the American War of Independence.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the Revolution meant that John Edison’s property was
confiscated and in 1783 the family was forced out of the country with 35,000 other
Loyalists, some going to the West Indies and some to Canada. His loss of property,
because of his devotion to the Crown, made him eligible for a land grant which
provided him with land near Digby in Nova Scotia. The Edisons worked there for 28
years, John and Sarah producing many sons and grandsons. The eldest son, Samuel,
married Nancy Stimpson of Digby in 1792.
Tom at about 15
Samuel and Nancy had eight children, one of whom was Sam Edison Jnr in 1804. By
1811, the clan of 19 Edisons had outgrown their land and responded to the call
for people to spread westwards. The Edisons were granted 600 acres in Ontario
on the Otter River, about 3 kms inland from Port Burwell on Lake Erie.
The following year, in the War of 1812, Samuel Edison Snr was involved as
a Captain and did well for the British-Canadian forces.
Peace brought more immigration and by the 1820s the Edison settlement
had become a village. Samuel Edison Snr donated land for a main street,
church and cemetery. Colonel Burwell, who had made the land grants, had
named the village Shrewsbury, but the villagers didn’t like it and asked
Samuel Edison to rename it. He chose the name Vienna. The Edisons were
not educated people, but well regarded as hard-working pioneers – farmers,
lumberjacks and carpenters. They were also known for their family traits
of individualism, obstinacy and contrariness.
Sam Edison Jnr worked as a carpenter, tailor and tavern-keeper. His
tavern in Vienna became a centre for rebellious conversation. He did
not share his father and grandfather’s views on loyalty to the British
and he sided with the agitators wanting greater autonomy. In 1828 he
married Nancy Elliott, built a new home in Vienna and soon had four children.
Political agitation continued and, in 1837, Sam Edison
Jnr led rebels from Vienna and Port Burwell towards
Toronto to join William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion to
overthrow the Royal Canadian Government. When he
learned that the insurrection had been routed, he hurriedly
dispersed his band and headed for the American
border, crossing the frozen St Clair River to Port Huron.
So the rebellious descendant of British Loyalists, who
had been driven from New Jersey to Nova Scotia, was
now driven from Canada to America, making it two exiles
in three generations. Although things calmed down
in Canada with political reform, Sam Edison Jnr would
have been arrested if he had ever returned.
The American mid-west was developing fast. It was materialistic,
inventive and progressive. That prompted
Sam Edison Jnr to find his way to Milan, Ohio, at the
end of a canal about 12 kms south of Lake Erie. It was
a booming grain port where ships were loaded before
entering the Great Lakes waterways. There Sam Jnr
developed a good business supplying shingles for the
grain warehouse roofs. By 1839 Sam and Nancy had
produced two more children, but within a few years
those two and another sibling had died, due to poor
health and harsh winter conditions.
The Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction
Railroad was chartered in Michigan on 25 March
1858 to build a 60 mile 67 chain railroad from Fort
Gratiot, just north of Port Huron, Michigan, to West
Detroit. The President was Thomas Evans Blackwell
(1819-1863), who was also the first Vice President
and General Manager of the Grand Trunk Railway of
Canada. The line was constructed between 1858 and
1859. In 1859 the Grand Trunk Railway completed its
line to Sarnia, Ontario, and instituted a ferry service
across the St. Clair River to Port Huron, Michigan. The
Grand Trunk Railway took a lease on the Chicago,
Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction Railroad,
which remained a nominally independent company
until 1928 and then became part of the Canadian
National Railway's US subsidiary, the Grand Trunk
Western Railroad. It was on the line from Port Huron
to Detroit that a 12-year-old Thomas Edison held his
first job as a newsboy and candy seller on passenger
John Speller's Web Pages - US Railroads
Nancy was of Scottish-English heritage and different
from the Edisons, being more intelligent and with a devotion
to learning and religion. Well into middle age
she had her seventh child, born on Feb 11, 1847,
named Thomas Alva, the Alva being in honour of a family
friend, Captain Alva Bradley. Thomas was sickly as a
young child, but mischievous, inquisitive and somewhat
difficult, as well as a bit of a loner. His brothers
and sisters were much older, the younger ones having
died. His father didn’t relate well to him, seeing him as
stupid and lacking in good sense. Thomas sensed his
disappointment and disapproval.
In 1853, boomtown Milan suffered a change of fortune
when the new railroad bypassed it and replaced the
canal as the best way to move grain into the Great
Lakes waterway. There was no longer any work for the
now well-to-do Sam Edison, so the family moved to Port
Huron. He had learned that the railway was to be extended
north from Detroit to Port Huron, Michigan and
thought that he would be able to do well there again in
lumber and grain.
Young Thomas did poorly at school, not being allowed
to think freely, resentful of his teacher and conscious
of his father’s disappointment. It may have been for
these reasons, or because his father couldn’t pay the
school bills, but it was decided that his mother would
school him. She had little teaching experience, but understood
Thomas and his interest in learning. They got
on very well and she inspired him to learn. Later in life
Thomas would tell others, "My mother was the making
Thomas was happy, mischievous and a practical joker,
but his father felt he missed a normal boyhood. Around
the age of ten, Thomas began making chemical and
electrical experiments. He also became fascinated by
electromagnetism and telegraphy, making his own telegraph
model and practising Morse code when he was
In 1859 the long-awaited railroad to Port Huron was
opened. Thomas needed money to expand his laboratory
and at twelve got himself a job as a newsboy selling
snacks and newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railway
train between Port Huron and Detroit. He soon expanded
his offerings to include fruit and vegetables
and other items to meet travellers’ needs. He would
see a lot of life on the train and in the rail yards, leaving
home at dawn and not returning until late at night.
His parents seemed to accept that he worked, perhaps
because he had already made the break from traditional
schooling and because of his deafness. This hearing
condition was quite serious by the time he was twelve,
so there really was little chance of any further schooling.
The deafness was most likely caused by scarlatina
and periodic subsequent ear infections. It caused him
to be more solitary and serious than others, and led to
him reading and self-educating in a more consistent
and determined way. At fifteen, he studied Newton’s
principles, but couldn’t grasp them and was left with a
permanent distaste for math. Other reading subjects
were chemical analysis and practical mechanics. It was
during this period that Thomas developed a disdain for
theorists and favoured the practical side of science.
His isolation provided time to think and he formed
strong views at this time on theoretical and applied
science. Indeed, it was the strength of his conviction on
this that guided his future direction and purpose in life
as an inventor.
Young Tom Edison
During the Civil War he observed that more newspapers
sold when headlines were dramatic, e.g. battle
news. So he started to check the Detroit Free Press
headline proofs. One day when he saw news of a big
battle, he asked telegraphers to wire a short bulletin
for display on bulletin boards at the train stops along
the line, to pique the interest of the waiting passengers.
Then he went to the newspaper editor and asked
for 1000 copies, on credit, instead of his usual 200.
Arriving at the first station and seeing crowds, he
raised the price by 10c, at the next station 15c and
later, as he was running out of newspapers, by 25c. On
reaching Port Huron, he was able to auction the remaining
papers to the highest bidder!
Thomas realised that telegraphing ahead had done the
trick and from then on he wanted to be a telegrapher.
He could hear the clicks clearly, but not the ambient
noise or other distractions. He began to experiment
with telegraphy at home, stringing up long lengths of
wire between his house and a friend’s, half a mile
Thomas was constantly enterprising and inventive, but
always poor and needing money for his experiments.
He was just fifteen when he bought a printing press
and started his own newspaper on the train – The
Weekly Herald. He expanded the paper into a kind of
gossip rag called Paul Pry. However, after one story
offended someone, resulting in Thomas being thrown
into the St Clair River, he ceased publication. Besides
which, his lack of formal education had shown through
in his atrocious grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Another adventure in 1862 led to the next stage of his
young career. It resulted from an incident when he noticed
the stationmaster’s 3-year old son playing on the
train track and rescued him just before a train came.
The stationmaster was very grateful and offered to
teach him to be a telegraph operator.
As a fifteen-year old, Thomas was cheeky, aggressive,
competitive and mature, but boyish, too. Although a
loner driven by curiosity in his experiments, his observations
of life made him worldly, calculating and
shrewd. His poverty and focus meant, however, that he
didn’t bother to dress well and he was regarded by others
of his age as a bit of a country hick.
Edison patented his first invention,
an electric vote
recorder, in 1869.
(Photo courtesy of the Edison National Historic Site)
Growing Beyond Childhood
After the stationmaster’s teaching reward, Thomas
found work as a telegraph operator in Port Huron. After
a year there, he was posted to Stratford Junction in
May 1864 as a railway dispatcher. He worked the night
shift, which was not busy, so he was able to continue
his studies. He got into trouble, though, when he was
found to have devised a clockwork automatic transmission
set-up to indicate that he was on alert…when he
wasn’t. He did this so that he could take catnaps during
the night and be awake all day. He received a severe
reprimand for this. Not long after, he was ordered
to hold up a freight train, but was unable to contact the
signalman in time, nearly causing a head-on collision
between two trains. He was summoned to the stationmaster’s
office and accused of negligence, but managed
to slip away when the stationmaster was distracted.
He jumped on the fast train to Sarnia and took the
ferry across to Port Huron.
Over the next few years, Thomas worked in telegraph
offices in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis. Later,
in 1864, he created a message-repeating device so
that if anything was missed the first time, the message
could be replayed more slowly for greater accuracy…
until it broke down one day at a critical time. After the
Civil War ended, he worked in Nashville, then Memphis,
where telegraph operators were in high demand
and well paid. After being fired in Memphis because his
now-perfected repeater bested the one that his boss
was working on, he went back to Louisville and settled
there for a year or so. He remained obsessed with telegraphy
and electricity and began to see himself as an
aspiring inventor. He would get fired from jobs because
of his distraction with his own interests, even though
he was recognized as a blazingly fast telegrapher.
Desperate for the money he needed for his experiments,
Thomas almost joined two colleagues on a venture
to Brazil where telegraphers were in great demand
and very well paid. After setting out, he met someone
in New Orleans who convinced him of the dangers
ahead and he returned to Louisville. His two colleagues
died of yellow fever while travelling through Mexico.
Edison's Telegraph patent, June 1869,
Becoming an Inventor
Thomas returned home to Port Huron, finding his mother
suffering from her hard life, old before her time and
losing her mind. His father was not around much.
Thomas didn’t want to stay there and decided that he
would work in the east after a friend from his Cincinnati
days had written from Boston. Boston was a hub of
culture and scientific learning – the kind of place he
needed to be.
Finding himself a job at Western Union in Boston,
Thomas worked during the day while studying and experimenting
at night. He became fixated with the idea
of multiplex telegraphy, i.e. sending and receiving multiple
messages simultaneously through the same wire.
He was able to make the most of Boston by visiting
other young scientists in the area who were working on
telegraphy and electrical instruments. Within a year or
two, Alexander Graham Bell would set up shop there to
work on the idea of the "speaking telegraph". Thomas
was able to attract his investors to fund his own work
and he reached a point where he was able to set up his
own shop. He appears to have paved the way for his
resignation from Western Union after one of his pranks
prompted his manager to downgrade him. So this was
it - Thomas Edison was now a full-time freelance inventor
devoted to bringing his inventions to market.
He managed to get $500 from an investor to develop
his duplex telegraph. He then received $100 from another
to help develop a telegraphic vote-recording machine.
For this he filed a patent in 1868 and was granted
his first of many patents in June 1869. He had observed
how long it took for votes in Congress to be
counted, with each member in turn declaring Aye or
Nay. His invention would provide two buttons at every
member’s seat and the results would be displayed on a
board. He expected to sell this to state legislatures and
both houses of Congress and make at least $50,000,
but everyone he approached rejected it flatly for political
reasons. He was devastated, but learned that in
future he must work only on products likely to have
commercial demand – not because he wished to acquire
wealth for himself, but because he wanted the
glory of developing new inventions of practical use.
Edison Stock Ticker
After the Civil War, the stock market became busier
and there was a need for speeding up the transmission
of the ever-fluctuating stock and commodity prices. A
telegraphic device known as the "Stock Ticker" had already
been invented, but Edison made refinements
and was granted his second patent. Then he persuaded
a company to rent his stock ticker to subscribers,
while he helped in the stringing up of wires between
their locations and the stock exchange. This venture
went bad when his investors fell out and his patents
got sold to a large telegraph company, leaving him with
almost no return. At this time he also made and sold
private telegraph machines for sending and receiving
messages between two locations (essentially a nonspeaking
Back to the duplex telegraph idea – there was already
a system available from another company and Western
Union had bought the patents. Undeterred, Edison
worked on improvements to his own system before
asking Western Union to shut down their system and
hook up his for a trial. They refused, so he approached
a rival, the Atlantic & Pacific Telegraph Co., and persuaded
their manager in Rochester to let him use the
line between there and New York City. He raised $800
from a Boston investor and proceeded to set up in
Rochester in April 1869. He was, however, never able
to make contact with New York and he found himself
having used up any remaining goodwill in Boston. It
was now time to move on.