His family called him “Al.” His teachers called him “too stupid to learn anything.” But through a lifetime of stratospheric curiosity, unrelenting inventiveness and an unrivaled work ethic, Thomas Alva Edison has earned the invariable honorific uttered even now across the globe: “genius.”
Edison, the youngest of the seven children of Samuel and Nancy Elliott Edison, averaged one patent every two weeks during his working years. He earned his first patent, an electrographic vote recorder, at age 22, and his genius, which he self-described as “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” yielded 1,093 U.S. patents and 512 international patents.
His last U.S. patent was awarded in 1933, two years after the 84-year-old died at his home, Glenmont, on October 18, 1931.
Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on Feb. 11, 1847. When he was 7 years old, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where he spent the rest of his childhood. His mother, a devout Presbyterian with a formal education, taught him reading, writing and arithmetic at home, an education he supplemented by insatiable reading of scientific and technical books and conducting chemistry experiments in the basement of the family home.
Later in life, the Wizard of Menlo Park recalled, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
Edison, always a diligent worker, sold candy, fruit snacks and newspapers on a train that rolled through Port Huron to Detroit. Eventually he printed his own newspaper, the Grand Trunk Herald, while riding the train.
He became a railroad telegrapher at age 15, taking messages, despite his already waning hearing, for trains and for the Union Army during the Civil War. Seven years later he moved to New York City and improved the existing stock tickers. He formed a company to produce the new technology in Newark, N.J., meanwhile making several improvements to the telegraph, including enabling it to send four messages simultaneously.
He married his first wife, Mary Stilwell, on Christmas Day, 1871; they had three children together. In 1876 they moved from Newark to Menlo Park, N.J., where he built his most renowned laboratory.
He invented the phonograph in 1877, and the first human voice to be recorded and played back was Edison’s recital of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The following year Edison and his employees, called “muckers,” commenced work on the incandescent light bulb, an existing technology that he sought to make commercially viable.
He achieved his first patent on the project, “Improvement in Electric Lights,” in October 1878, and patented his final incarnation 12 months later. Historians and legendmongers variously number Edison’s “failures” in the process. Estimates range from 1,000 to 2,998 to 6,635 to 10,000. No one knows the exact — or even approximate — figure. In any event, Edison did not consider the experiments “failures.” He referred to them as “steps” on the way to success.
In 1884 Stilwell passed away and one year later Edison met 20-year-old Mina Miller, whose father was an inventor in Ohio. Ever the devotee of Morse code — his first two children were nicknamed Dot and Dash — Edison taught Mina the alphabet and they often communicated by that means when others were around.
One day he tapped into her hand: “Would you marry me?” She tapped back, “Yes.” The two were married on Feb. 24, 1886, and they had three children together.
Mina wanted to live in the country, so Edison purchased a 23-room home on 13 1/2 acres in West Orange, N.J. The next year he built a nearby laboratory, one of the world’s largest at the time and 10 times larger than his facility in Menlo Park.
He surrounded the laboratory with a factory complex that employed up to 10,000 workers at its peak during World War I. Edison worked for the military during the war, spending several months aboard a navy ship in Long Island Sound experimenting on techniques for detecting submarines.
Most of Edison’s inventions fall into eight main categories, such as electric lights and power, sound recording, batteries, motion pictures, telegraphs and telephones. Some of his lesser-known inventions include:
• Pneumatic stencil pen, the forerunner of the modern tattoo gun
• Magnetic ore separator, to separate iron ore from less valuable ores
• Vacuum preservation of fruits, vegetables and other organic substances
• Concrete house and furniture
• The “spirit phone,” which could allegedly contact the dead
The home, grounds, laboratory and manufacturing facilities have been preserved and are maintained as Thomas Edison Historical National Park administer by the National Park Service.
Glenmont, which contains its original furnishings, was designated a national historical site in 1955. The laboratory was declared a national monument the following year.
As this article went to press, the complex was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.