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Edison the Man and His Life (Part One): The First 30 Years

This is Chapter I in a series that looks at the life of Thomas Edison. Chapter II will be published in the upcoming APN Summer issue.

Tom, 1851

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 trains.
John Speller's Web Pages - US Railroads

Edison’s Childhood

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 of me."

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 eleven.

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 away.

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,
Edison Muckers

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 telephone).

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.