“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” —Thomas Edison
There’s no denying that Thomas Edison was an incredibly intelligent man, especially when you find out that he has over 1,000 patents to his name and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But what else is there to know about him besides his creative mind and important inventions? Keep reading to learn 44 inventive facts about Thomas Edison.
Although he was born in Ohio, his family moved to Michigan when he was still very young. His mom, who was a former teacher, decided to homeschool him after discovering that he wasn’t doing that well in school. That was only after being in class for three months! He was distracted easily and was hyperactive, so his teachers didn’t know how to control him. Surprising, right?
Alright, maybe he just had a big brain. His head was considered larger than normal and he had a broad forehead. All the better to think with?
We can probably thank his mom for encouraging his curiosity. Of her, Edison said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” She didn’t just homeschool him, she also bought him a book about conducting chemistry experiments at home when he was just nine. He wound up doing them all.
You’d think his family would have called him Tom or Tommy when he was a boy, but you’d actually be wrong. With his middle name being Alva, they called him Al!
He had originally wanted to be an actor, especially because of his interest in William Shakespeare. He didn’t pursue that path because he was too shy and didn’t like his high-pitched voice.
He did love reading though. He sought to read every single book in the library, starting from the very last book on the bottom-most shelf.
He developed his own library of sorts just from the number of notebooks he kept. There are more than 4,000 notebooks along with drawings, sketches, and correspondence with his careful and detailed notes, totaling over five million documents!
He was entrepreneurial from an early age, deciding to go on trains and sell newspapers, candy, and vegetables. One day, he actually saved a child from a runaway train, and the child’s father was so grateful for his actions he decided to train Edison to be a telegraph operator. This role helped create an interest in communications in Edison, which was later evidenced in many of his inventions.
He wound up traveling across the country because of his telegraph operator job, mainly because those who were skilled were in high demand due to the Civil War. During this time, Edison tinkered with the equipment often, hoping to make it better.
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Edison had a job selling newspapers for a short while as a young teenager when he decided to start his own. He wrote up-to-date stories in the Grand Trunk Herald and sold the copies to the riders on the train between his hometown and Detroit. He also set up a printing press and a laboratory in one of the spare cars.
Edison worked for The Associated Press for a period but was forced to leave for a few reasons, his hearing loss and the change of technology being among them. He then went on to work for the Western Union Company.
His time at Western Union was cut short because of a late-night experiment gone wrong. He wanted to work the night shifts, which would allow him time to conduct more experiments. Unfortunately, he spilled sulphuric acid while working with a battery, and it spilled through floorboards onto his boss’s desk.
So that spare car he used for his own creations? Well, it caught fire one day, after one of his experiments started a chemical fire. He had to leave the train and go back to selling newspapers. There’s a story that one of the conductors hit Edison on both ears because of that fire.
Edison eventually moved to New Jersey and built his research labs in Menlo Park. Incredibly, his labs were the first designed and dedicated specifically for the purposes of invention. His employees were also inventors, and helped to bring Edison’s ideas to fruition. These labs were likely more sophisticated than his first one. That was in his family’s basement when he was just 10 years old.
He spent most of his spare time in that first home lab. His dad unsuccessfully tried to bribe him with a penny to go elsewhere, and maybe even read. It did work to an extent. He just used the money to buy more chemicals so that he could conduct more experiments. He also labeled all of his bottles as poison so that no one would touch them.
Edison’s first major invention brought us recorded music, and the ability to play it back—the phonograph! The first recording in the phonograph? “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” read by none other than Edison himself.
Edison was also instrumental in creating the motion picture box, which helped to make the process of making movies an easier task. It may have helped with the movie making process, but Edison’s original intentions were to help keep the last words and wishes of people who were dying on record.
One of the things he recorded in 1884 to help promote his motion picture camera was two cats boxing. Okay, where can we watch this, and which cat won?
Ironically, he made hundreds of pirated copies of the movie A Trip to the Moon, which bankrupted its maker, Georges Méliès.
Have you ever wondered why Hollywood is home to the film industry? It’s Edison’s fault. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California had a reputation of voting against patent claims, and Edison controlled pretty much all of the movie-making processes in New Jersey with his patents. So, the movie makers went west.
Although his first major invention was the phonograph, an electric vote recorder was actually his first proper invention. This didn’t go over so well because legislators wanted more time to help sway the voters, and if the voting process was sped up, like with Edison’s invention, they wouldn’t be able to. From that moment on, Edison decided not to start on anything new unless he believed the public would actually have interest in it.
Edison wanted to create equipment to hunt ghosts. No, really! Sadly, one of his assistants died during the testing process.
He was certainly a man before his time. He had really high hopes for solar energy. “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy,” he once said. “What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” If only he was alive now!
Edison was also known for taking the ideas of others and attempting to make it better. One of those cases was the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell. The problem with Bell’s telephone was how weak the signal was, something that he couldn’t fix before it went out to the public. After Edison tinkered with it and changed a few things, Bell came back with his own changes, helping to sell it as a commercial item.
Edison was married twice. With his second wife, he wanted them to be able to communicate when others were around, like her family for example, so he taught her Morse code. That way, they could tap into each other’s hands, and no one would know what they were talking about.
Speaking of Morse code, Edison nicknamed two of his children from his first marriage “Dot” and “Dash.
His first wife, Mary, passed away when she was only 29. There are a couple different stories behind the reason, one being typhoid fever and the other being a morphine overdose. Morphine was a common drug back in those days and was often used. Edison tried using shock treatments on his wife, but it would be to no avail. He blamed himself for her death, thinking he wasn’t home as much as he should have been.
Okay, so, Edison really liked Morse code. He actually proposed to Mary using it, after just two months of dating! She was 16 and he 24 when they married December 25, 1871.
Edison contributed on a number of projects during World War I, at the request of the American government. He was head of the Naval Consulting Board, but would only work on projects that were for defensive purposes. “I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill,” he said.
Edison and Nikola Tesla were rumored to have both been up for the Nobel Prize in 1915, but both declined. The reason? Neither wanted to share with the other.
Alright, so maybe they had some bad blood. It’s said that Edison offered Tesla $50,000 to improve the former’s DC motors. He went back on his word, playing it off as “American humor.” Edison also thought Tesla’s radars for World War I were useless, because of the resentment between them.
The Edison General Electric Company combined forces with its nemesis, the Thomson-Houston Company, in 1891. Both companies found their competition with each other as well as with other companies was too much, so coming together was the best choice for each. The General Electric Company is still widely regarded as one of the most prosperous businesses ever.
Could you ever see yourself living in a concrete house? Edison did. In fact, he thought his concete houses would solve the housing situation in New York. He even thought things inside the house could be made from concrete too, like your tub and picture frames. Needless to say, it didn’t catch on.
We’re going to let you be the judge on this next one. Edison, according to a Mutual Life Insurance policy from 1911, had five dots tattooed on his left forearm. Thus, he created what’s generally thought of as being the first tattoo machine. That’s where your own opinion comes in. No one ever found out the meaning behind those five dots, either.
You can see Edison’s last breath if you want. His friend, Henry Ford, decided to bottle it by putting it in a test tube, and it’s now on display at the Ford Museum. No one has any idea why he decided to do this. There were also casts of his hands and a plaster death mask made.
And when Edison did pass, from the bedroom window his wife let reporters know by simply turning a light on. It’s reported that his last words were “It is very beautiful over there.”
Edison kept working up until his final years. His last patent was filed at the end of January 1931, and he died that October of complications from diabetes at the age of 84 years old. He died in his home in New Jersey and was even buried behind it. After news of death spread, electric lights were dimmed all across the country and even around the world for one minute in his honor.
February 11 was declared National Inventors’ Day by the United States Congress in 1983. This day was specifically picked because it just happens to be Edison’s birthday.
Edison’s religious views have been described as open-minded and atheist, but he wouldn’t have classified himself as an atheist. “I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence I do not doubt.” The atheism belief came about because he believed that nature was responsible for our being, saying “if God made me—the fabled God of the three qualities of which I spoke: mercy, kindness, love—He also made the fish I catch and eat. And where do His mercy, kindness, and love for that fish come in? No; nature made us—nature did it all—not the gods of the religions.”
Some things he did were a bit controversial. For example, he used electricity to publicly kill animals and helped in the funding for an electric chair. He wanted to show how alternating current, which was championed by his rival, Nikola Tesla, was more dangerous than the direct current that he used.
One such time was the case of an elephant named Topsy. Topsy was a circus elephant that killed three people in 1911, one being an abusive trainer. The owners decided that they wanted Topsy to be executed, but animal advocates shot down the idea of hanging her. That’s where Edison stepped in. He suggested electrocution, and the owners went for it. To a live audience of 1,500 people, they fed her cyanide-infused carrots and then sent 6,000 volts of alternating current through her. It’s said that she was gone within seconds, and didn’t make a sound.
Maybe not entirely surprising. He was actually deaf and didn’t start talking until he was four. The deafness was caused by scarlet fever and ear infections, but he says he lost the hearing because of a train accident. It may also have been a hereditary issue since his father and a brother also had hearing losses. He was given the opportunity to have a corrective surgery for his hearing but declined. He had become accustomed to the quiet and didn’t want to readjust to thinking through the noise of the world around him.
Those lights above or beside you right now? Edison invented those. He can’t be credited for the very first lightbulbs, that has to be given to a Canadian, five years earlier. He sold the patent for the incandescent bulb to Edison for $5,000. Edison then used that original bulb to invent a more practical model. You know, the manufactured ones that you have to go to the store for? Those ones! He also invented the little things (well, not quite so little in the grand scheme of things) that go along with the bulb, like on and off switches for light sockets and safety fuses.
Edison was one of the scientists who pioneered work into X-ray technology, performing countless tests on his assistant, Clarence Dally. Unfortunately, by the time Edison knew the dangers of X-ray radiation, it was too late for Dally. The tests on his hands left them blackened and horribly disfigured. Attempts were made to halt the spread of Dally's cancer by first amputating his fingers, then his hands, then his arm at the elbow, then finally at the shoulder, but it was far too late, and he would eventually die of mediastinal cancer as a result of his massive exposure to radiation. After Dally's painful death, Edison vowed to never work with X-Rays again.
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