Today: How Thomas Edison overcame a lack of formal education to create inventions that would change the world.
Edison is famous for such inventions as the first practical light bulb, the first electric grid to light cities, the phonograph, and records to play on that phonograph and something else that stunned the world, movies. Yet he invented those things despite having little formal education.
Born on February 11th, 1847 in Milan, Ohio, he was the 7th and last child of Samuel and Nancy Edison. In all, Edison had just three months of school because his teacher thought he had a short attention span and was not very smart.
Instead Edison’s mother took him out of school and personally taught him how to read and write and do arithmetic and she assured him he was very intelligent. Then she did something else that was life changing for young Edison.
She sent him to the library and encouraged him to read. Starting with simple texts, eventually Edison read Shakespeare and was fascinated by his writings and enjoyed other great literature. He read “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and other historic texts. And he devoured scientific journals.
Those were the tools he needed. Like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Sidney Poitier and others with little formal education, he self-educated. Edison had an insatiable curiosity and read extensively for the rest of his life.
But Edison also had another serious problem, one that could have destroyed his career. He had a severe hearing loss, thought to be from a childhood bout of scarlet fever, later made worse from middle ear infections.
Ultimately, he was 100% deaf in his left ear and 80% deaf in his right ear. But he never let this stop him, always finding ways to compensate for his hearing loss.
At 13, he became a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy at the railroad depot in Port Huron, Michigan, his family having moved to Port Huron when he was seven. At 16, Edison moved from his parents’ home and went out on his own, after getting a job.
That job came from a remarkable occurrence. The stationmaster’s son, three-year-old Jimmy MacKenzie had wandered in front of an oncoming rail car. Just as that car was about to hit and kill the little boy, Edison leaped in front of it and grabbed the child, both of them tumbling out of harm’s way.
Jimmie’s dad was so grateful; he trained Edison to be a telegraph operator and got him a job. This was a big break because telegraphs were the Internet of their day, transferring vast sums of information businesses needed to operate.
It was a wonderful opportunity and at first everything went well. But at 19, Edison was working for Western Union on the Associated Press news wire, working 2nd shift so he could read and also so he could test his inventions.
One night one of Edison’s experiments went very wrong. While working on a battery, he spilled battery acid on the floor, which then soaked through, destroying the floor and seeping all over his boss’s desk below, destroying the desk and everything else it touched.
The next day, Edison got fired. There were no unemployment benefits in those days and Edison was soon broke.
But just as things looked their darkest, he turned to his friend and mentor, Franklin Leonard Pope. Pope was also a telegraph operator and an inventor, engineer and lawyer who let Edison move into his Elizabeth, New Jersey home and keep working on his inventions.
And work he did. Edison received his 1st patent on June 1st, 1869 for an electric vote recorder for Congressional bodies to quickly count votes. It was a good idea but it bombed. As one legislator told him, the slow process of manually counting votes allowed plenty of wheeling and dealing and that is what politics is very much about.
But while working with Pope, the two of them developed the stock ticker, which became widely used by brokerage houses for stock quotations. From that stock ticker and from selling other related telegraphic device enhancements to Western Union, Edison made money.
He invested that money in creating his first laboratory, in Newark, New Jersey in 1871. There he successfully developed more telegraph enhancements; most notably the Quadruplex telegraph which allowed a single telegraph wire to carry four separate transmissions.
As a result, Edison made a lot more money and built a company in the process.
In 1876, 29 year old Edison sold his Newark facility and with his family and employees, moved to Menlo Park, a small New Jersey community about 25 miles from New York City.
There he built a research and development (R & D) facility, the first of its kind, containing state of the art technology and everything else he and his team would need to go into large scale creation and production of their inventions. And that facility grew as his inventions made money.
Today, R & D facilities are common and the vehicle to develop many new ideas, but at the time, no-one had ever seen such a facility. Soon it was copied by other large organizations, including Bell Labs for their work with telephones. This was arguably Edison’s first invention of many which would change the world.
But his first invention which got global attention and made Edison famous was the phonograph in 1877. It recorded the human voice and allowed its playback. It was like magic to the public which was astounded by such a device.
As a result, Edison became known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park” and his inventions would keep him prominently on the world stage until his death in 1931 at the age of 84.
Success Tip of the Week:
Edison didn’t let a lack of money, lack of formal education, deafness or the failure of an invention stop him. He persevered. Might perseverance make a difference in your life? One more attempt to get a job or a promotion? One more attempt to start a business or close a deal? How about another bold pursuit of your dreams?
Thank you to reader and Irvine, CA realtor Ariel Feir, www.feir.com for his Edison story in Ariel’s AbodeNews, June 2011 that led to the idea for today’s story.
In the next KazanToday:
A successful scientist with a doctorate who walked away from his career to become a comedian.