Thomas A. Edison

Thomas A. Edison – School Drop to Creative Genius

One reason I am so drawn to the biography of Thomas A. Edison is that his story begins in my home state of Ohio. Becoming an inventor was in his DNA.  His great-grandfather, John Edison, was an inventor in the early 1700’s in New Jersey. Having sided with the Loyalists in the Revolutionary War, John Edison was imprisoned and faced execution until prominent Whig leader saved him from that fate.

Edison’s great-grandfather’s land was confiscated and the family moved to Canada. That is where Edison’s father, Samuel, met and married his mother, Nancy Miller Elliott. His mother was a schoolteacher, which later played a significant part of Thomas A Edison’s famous success as a prolific inventor.  Thomas was the youngest of the family’s seven children. He was born February 11, 1847 when the family lived in Milan, Ohio. His parents sold the property in 1854 when they moved to Port Huron, Michigan. Forty years later Thomas’ sister, Marion Edison Page, bought the home and remodeled it. After Thomas died his widow and their daughter established the home as The Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum. It officially opened in 1947, the centennial of his birth. However, without the love and determination of his mother we may have never heard of Thomas A. Edison.

From ‘Addled’ To Prolific Inventor

Thomas was a hyperactive boy who was labeled “addled.” He started public school in an era when schools had no resources to manage hyperactivity other than punishment and expulsion. He only attended public school for a few months and it did not go well. When his mother realized he was not going to learn in a traditional classroom she applied her training as a teacher to home school him.

There is a touching legend about him bringing home a letter from his teacher describing him as impossible and demanding his mother not send him back to school again. According to the legend, which has no historical evidence to support it, his mother reinterpreted the note to tell her young son he was so smart the teacher had nothing more to teach him so she would be his teacher. According to this legend, Thomas found the letter after his mother died.

Industrious, Intelligent, Ingenious

What is true is that his mother provided him what formal education he got Edison. The rest he learned by observation, and experimentation – lots and lots of experimentation. It is also true that he lost all of hearing in one ear and most of it in the other ear, apparently from a combination of a childhood illness and getting slapped by a train conductor as a young boy. Edison may have been hyperactive, but he clearly possessed above average intelligence. He was also very industrious. He invented hundreds of things from his first invention at age 21 in 1868 to his death in 1931. His first invention, an electrical vote recorder, was a failure, but he was not a quitter. Over the course of the next 63 years he accumulated 2,332 patents – 1,093 in the United States and the others in other nations.

When he was 12 he went to work selling selling fruit, snacks and newspapers on a train. He managed to print his own newspaper, the Grand Trunk Herald, on a moving train. Three years later he was roaming the country as a telegrapher, using Morse Code. Though his hearing was fading, he could hear the clicks of the telegraph. When he wasn’t doing that, he was disassembling things to see how they worked. Eventually he set up shop as an inventor and all of us are the beneficiaries of his work. But we also owe a debt of gratitude to his mother who saw his potential and set to work helping him achieve it.

Inspiration from Inventor Edison

His list of inventions is long. As a writer, his list of quotations is equally inspiring to me.  Here are a few of them:

~ I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

~ Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

~ Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

~ I start where the last man left off.

~ Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.

~ When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.

~ Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

The February theme at HowWiseThen has been the power of love to transform. I hope these stories about Valentine’s Day, Temple Grandin, Jeffrey Hanson, and Thomas Edison have convinced you love is still the most powerful force at our disposal. Some of the information for this blog came from website of The Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum.


Here are two blog posts about other creative people:

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