USA: A shining light at the right time.

USA: A shining light at the right time. - Thomas Edison, famed for inventions such as the phonograph and the light bulb, to name but two, gives hope to 'thick kids'. He was expelled from school for being 'retarded'.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Thomas Edison, famed for inventions such as the phonograph and the light bulb, to name but two, gives hope to 'thick kids'. He was expelled from school for being 'retarded'.

It's comforting to think that most great men usually manage to have at least one major redeeming flaw: Ford, for example, was anti-Semitic, Churchill (by modern standards, anyway) was an accomplished boozer and Coleridge had the kind of hobby that could have got him a part in Trainspotting.

Thomas Edison was something of a rarity, then - a genius who made loads of money and was, by all accounts, a perfectly reasonable, if rather scatty, bloke.

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847, the youngest of four surviving children. When he was seven, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where he attended school for three months. This was the only formal education he would ever receive: he was expelled for being 'addled' and 'retarded', thereby giving hope to all future parents of thick kids. His mother stepped into the breach and managed to instil in young Thomas a lifelong love of learning, especially the sciences. Dad was less helpful, however.

His penchant for physical punishment once extended to whipping his son publicly in the village square - a bit outre, even in the 1850s.

Edison senior was also a less-than-terrific provider and, by the age of 12, Thomas was operating a newsstand service aboard the recently opened Detroit-Port Huron railway. Indeed, by the time he was 15, he was publishing his own paper on presses in the baggage car, which earned him the odd distinction of being the first person to print a paper aboard a moving train.

Perhaps more important to Edison's future, however, was the small laboratory that he ran at this time to sate his scientific curiosity. From 1863, in the midst of the American Civil war, he worked as a freelance telegraph operator, often from behind front lines. After the war, in 1868, he secured a job with Western Union, the US' largest telegraphy company.

In the same year, Edison bought a copy of the book that was to change his life - Michael Faraday's Experimental Researches in Electricity. Faraday, also a self-taught man, struck a chord with Edison, who repeated all the experiments and then ditched his job to become a freelance inventor. It was in 1868, too, that Edison patented his first invention, an electronic vote counter, which he demonstrated to the US Congress but, while it worked well, there were no takers. From this, he learned his lesson: never again, would he invent something for which there was no demand (Clive Sinclair, take note).

The following year, when Edison was already on his uppers, a flurry of activity on the Gold Exchange caused the breakdown of its telegraph. Edison was summoned and so good was his repair job that his former employers, Western Union, commissioned him to come up with an improved ticker-tape machine. This he duly did and was paid $40,000. Armed with his 'overnight' riches, Edison moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he set up a factory to make high-speed tape machines and telegraphs.

Edison continued to work in his prospering factory, accepting commissions from large electrical companies. But he also made time to do a bit of blue-sky research. Eventually, he decided that this was potentially more lucrative, closed the factory and decamped to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he set up a sort of 'scientific village'. Edison had lofty ambitions for his lavish new venture - a 'minor' invention every 10 days and a 'big trick' every six months. Before long, this self styled 'commercial inventor' was applying for over 400 patents a year.

In 1877, he produced what was arguably his most brilliant and memorable invention, the phonograph, which survives essentially unchanged to this day. The following year, he boasted that he could produce a domestic light bulb and such was his reputation that venture capitalists, including JP Morgan and Vanderbilt, backed him to the hilt. Edison did not disappoint - by 1879, he had delivered the incandescent light bulb. Later, while messing around with a specialised bulb, he noticed a curious phenomenon, which he didn't understand. Undeterred, he patented the bulb - effectively the world's first vacuum tube. 'The Edison effect', as it became known, was the basis of the electronics industry.

His later life, although brilliant by normal standards, was less startling.

He moved to far bigger premises, perfected the film projector, made a fortune and lost a staggering $4 million in one venture and founded a chunk of what would become General Electric.

In a sense, Edison was lucky - he was born just before the modern era.

While he would have excelled in any age, he lived at a time when a bright man could be at the cutting edge of any number of fields. He was a polymath but, with the advent of the age of specialisation that he helped to usher in, he is assured of being one of the last.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime