Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, the seventh and youngest child of Nancy Elliott and Sam Edison, Jr. Thomas suffered much poor health as a child. In fact, only four of his older siblings survived to adulthood.
Edison’s ancestors lived in New Jersey until the American Revolution. They were loyal to the British crown and were forced to flee to Nova Scotia, Canada. Later generations of his ancestors moved to Ontario and fought against America in the War of 1812. Edison’s mother moved from New York to Vienna, Canada, with her family. There she met and married Edison’s father. The family was forced to move back to the United States in the 1830s because Sam was involved in an unsuccessful insurrection in Ontario. They moved to Milan, Ohio, in 1839, and then to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854; there Sam ran a lumber business.
Thomas Edison was not a good student and was called “addled” by a schoolmaster. With this insult, his mother withdrew him from school and taught him at home. Edison remembered the influence in later years when he 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.”
Edison was fascinated with mechanical things and chemical experiments at a young age. At age 12 while selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad between his home town and Detroit, he did chemistry experiments in a laboratory set up in a baggage car. He also set up a printing press and printed the first newspaper published on a train, the Grand Trunk Herald. He was forced to stop his on-board experiments by an accidental fire.
Edison lost almost all of his hearing when he was about 12 years old but never let the disability discourage him; in fact, he considered his loss of hearing to be an asset because it helped him to concentrate better on his experiments and research.
Thomas Alva Edison because “one of the most famous and prolific inventors of all time” and “exerted a tremendous influence on modern life, contributing inventions such as the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. Aside from being an inventor, Edison also managed to become a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public. A myriad of business liaisons, partnerships, and corporations filled Edison’s life, and legal battles over various patents and corporations were continuous….”
Edison’s mother died in 1871, and he married Mary Stilwell, a former employee, on Christmas Day that same year. “While Edison clearly loved his wife, their relationship was fraught with difficulties, primarily his preoccupation with work and her constant illnesses. Edison would often sleep in the lab and spent much of his time with his male colleagues.” The couple became parents of three children: Marion (born in February 1873), Thomas, Jr. (born January 1876), and William Leslie (born October 1878). Edison nicknamed his two oldest children “Dot” and “Dash,” referring to telegraphic terms.
After Mary died on August 9, 1884, maybe from a brain tumor, Edison married Mina Miller on February 24, 1886. Edison and Mina “moved into a large mansion named Glenmont in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison’s children from his first marriage were distanced from their father’s new life, as Edison had a second family with Mina: Madeleine (born in 1888), Charles (born in 1890), and Theodore (born in 1898).
“Unlike Mary, who was sickly and often remained at home, and was also deferential to her husband’s wishes, Mina was an active woman, devoting much time to community groups, social functions, and charities, as well as trying to improve her husband’s often careless personal habits.”
Edison opened a new laboratory – later known as an “invention factory” in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876. There he conducted numerous experiments to solve problems. He said, “I never quit until I get what I’m after. Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.” He worked long hours and expected his employees to do the same.
The next year (1877) Edison worked on a telephone transmitter, building upon and improving the work of Alexander Graham Bell work on the telephone. His transmitter brought “higher volume and greater clarity over standard telephone lines.” His experiments on the telephone and the telegraph led to his inventing the phonograph in 1877. He was amazed when his invention played back “Mary had a little lamb” after he said it into the mouthpiece.
Edison set aside his phonograph in 1878, Edison focused on the electric light system. He obtained financing and formed the Edison Electric Light Co. on November 15 of that year. He gave his patents to the company and received a large share of stock. “Work continued into 1879, as the lab attempted not only to devise an incandescent bulb, but an entire electrical lighting system that could be supported in a city. A filament of carbonized thread proved to be the key to a long-lasting light bulb.” The company installed lights in the laboratory and “a multitude” of visitors were amazed at the special public exhibition on New Year’s Eve. He opened an electric light factory in East Newark in 1881, and set up a laboratory in New York the next year and moved his family there. The first commercial electric light system was installed in Lower Manhattan in 1882.
Edison continued to be involved in inventions and business until the 1920s when his health became worse. He spent more time at home with his wife, but he did not have a good relationship with his children. His health declined due to a series of ailments in the last two years of his life. He slipped into a coma on October 14, 1931, and died on October 18, 1931, at his estate, Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey.