This section contains a summary about America's
greatest inventor, Thomas Alva Edison. It highlights his
life as an inventor, entrepreneur and businessman. The
incandescent light bulb is the invention for which he is most
remembered, but he often said the phonograph was his
I have been studying Tom Edison for many years and have learned
from many Edison biographers who have carefully
chronicled his life. I hope to present
enough information to get you motivated to learn more. His is an exciting story, a
great American tale that includes a variety of personal
challenges and achievements.
Edison was not only a great inventor he was a great promoter. I believe that rather than spending the time and
energy to refute some of what had been incorrectly written about
him, he simply let some tales go unanswered. Thus 'ya can't
believe everything' that you read about Tom Edison. This Edison
web page has a decidedly different Bostonian slant. I
believe his early experiences living and working in Boston that
are often left out of his biographies, dramatically shaped and helped
position him for the great success which he achieved at an early
The above photo is one of my favorites because it captures
that twinkle in his eye and his fleeting smile that says- I know
something you don't know. Perhaps as the photographer was
preparing to shoot, Edison had already rigged something
expecting a good laugh at the photographer's expense.
Edison never challenged anyone with an attitude that he was
more intelligent or better educated. Although he had little
formal education, Tom respected educators and 'the educated'.
He wrote about having fun with
nightshift telegraph operators, some of whom were MIT students
with whom he boarded "who paraded their knowledge rather
freely and it was my delight to go up to the second-hand book
stores on Cornhill (then between Tremont and Court Streets) and study up questions which I might spring
on them when I got an occasion." There are
countless stories about how he'd challenge
his employees especially those in the lab whom he called
"muckers" with a healthy, fun, competitive spirit.
Edison: A Life of Invention
If you could read only one book about Thomas Alva Edison,
there is no better source than Edison, A Life of Invention
by Paul Israel published in 1998. The brilliant light of
Paul's meticulous research comes shining through as he
objectively illuminates previously unseen aspects of Edison's
life, personality, research methodology, failures and
achievements. Paul provides the most comprehensive set of
research Notes and subject index that includes more recent data
and source material that previous researchers and biographers
had not yet found. If you could talk to only one man about
Thomas Alva Edison, there is no better source than Paul Israel,
Author, Managing Editor of
Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers
Each student of Edison might learn one or two compelling
lessons that are applicable in today's business world.
Maybe you too will ask- where did
he get his creativity? Perhaps creativity is
much like 'the force' that helps an athlete perform well.
Whether you are shooting a basketball, hitting a baseball or
golf ball, they say- relax and play it easy and have fun at
hard work to
succeed. Nobody worked harder than Edison. There's plenty
of evidence that he not only worked long hours but he had fun with challenges, side
bets, and practical jokes - an environment that encourages
creativity. Maybe his greatest invention is the
'invention factory", essentially the development lab in which
his "muckers" would work countless hours along with Edison,
whom they called 'the
Tom Edison - The Early Years
Much has been written about Edison's boyhood. I think he
knew his life story would be of interest to young people. He was eager to help
write his story. He was an effective teacher in the lab
but had little patience for the classroom. There are many stories about
Tom dropping out of school after being told by
teachers that he was a poor student. Most Edison biographies
describe the excellent
home schooling given by his mother, a former teacher.
Edison is often cited for exhibiting
what we now call attention deficit disorder (ADD). He has
fortuitously become the poster child for ADD, hearing disabilities
and the benefits of home schooling. Claiming
that young Tom had ADD is just as much a myth as the belief that
Edison was some kind of Wizard or that he had magical powers. He often
spoke positively about overcoming his hearing loss and the benefits
of his mother's
teaching skills with home schooling.
When he was a boy, Edison's
nickname was actually Al from his middle name
Alva, not Tom as portrayed in the movies. Edison never stopped
learning; he was no drop-out. He loved reading, studying and
learning. He paid the price and was richly rewarded for his effort to be self-taught.
didn't fear getting the wrong answer. As an intensely enthusiastic reader
he would often question or 'lab test' a theory before he'd
accept what he had read.
William H. Meadowcroft, Edison's
personal assistant was his right arm in business, a gatekeeper to visitors, press agent
confidant. Meadowcroft was as much a
fixture in Edison's office as any of Edison's lifetime
employees. It's no secret that Edison was completely deaf in his
left ear and his 'good ear' continued to deteriorate badly as he
aged. Edison was reluctant to speak in public. Some say he had
a 'squeaky voice' as he aged,
click here, you decide. Did you detect the New
social circles he relied on his wife Mina to speak for him and in
business circles, Edison relied on Meadowcroft not only for his
voice and ability to hear but also for his sound business sense.
Some early films and photos of Tom Edison at work in West Orange, show Meadowcroft
yelling into Edison's good right ear. Early film clips show
Tom laughing and firing back a joke or story.
William Meadowcroft, Frank L. Dyer and Thomas C. Martin
collaborated on the official biography of Thomas Edison in 1910.
But Meadowcroft's book "The Boys Life of Thomas Edison" printed in
1911, was the source material for a grammar school book report I had
written when I was ten years old. I reluctantly wrote a report under duress during my summer vacation. But
as I read more, I became keenly
interested in Thomas Alva Edison and phonographs.
Psychologist Freud might have had some fun explaining the reason I research and
restore wind-up phonographs is that I never got to wind up the
Victrola while in grammar school, a task given only to the best
behaved. Freud might have said, PhonoJack has a psychological
disorder called phonophrenia. "I'll buy my own damned phonograph
and wind it whenever I want", an affliction shared by many fellow phono-enthusiast.
There are many passionate phonograph collectors
and researchers. To learn more about some regional and national
antique phonographs clubs and shows,
Edison supported Meadowcroft's efforts to write "The
Boys Life of Thomas Edison". The book's inside cover has
Edison's notation- "the book is designed for boys and girls and published with my
consent". This simple biography was reviewed and approved
by Edison as was the comprehensive biography Edison: His Life and
Inventions, a two volume biography written by Frank L. Dyer,
Edison's attorney and business advisor from 1897 to 1912 co-authored by Thomas C. Martin, whom Edison said were 'two friends
and associates of long standing..... whose judgment he could trust'.
The Boys Life of Thomas Edison has served as a guidepost for
many young men as it presents Tom as a real-life icon and example of the
American dream, a fun loving, successful, beloved
businessman and world benefactor.
Time for Rational Research
I never understood why so much inaccurate information has been
published about Thomas Edison. Now, with the free flow of
misinformation from the blogosphere, it's getting worse. Why
do authors and bloggers spew such unsubstantiated stories.
Even a simple peek at objective, reliable research tools such as
Google books or Google patents will quickly help validate or verify
the information source or easily embarrass the author. More
important, we have an abundant supply of information sources that
can be triangulated and
Legitimate authors and biographers now have complete access to a
treasure trove of documentation including business correspondence,
patents, documents submitted with court records, substantiated
testimony, and company archives and personal notebooks and public
and private collections. Examples of popular misinformation follow. The Edison-Tesla fight:
Tesla never worked directly for Edison,
he was not Edison's assistant, The claim that Tesla worked with
Edison at West Orange NJ is not true, that facility wasn't built
until two years after Telsa left EdisonWorks on his own in 1886. Edison never offered Tesla a bonus nor did he break any
promise to Tesla. Edison never said quote attributed to him,
you don't understand American humor". Tesla later
claimed that "an Edison
manager" offered him a bonus. Edison didn't kill an elephant:
Edison had no involvement in the attempted
humane killing of Topsy the elephant that had killed three
people including its abusive trainer. Edison employees filmed
the execution; blaming Thomas Edison is like blaming Walt Disney for what his
Disney employees had filmed. Interesting that some wrongfully claim Edison
executed the elephant to scare people away from Westinghouse's AC
electrical system. The dispute between
Edison company and Westinghouse company had been settled by the
courts; Edison's patents had expired many years before Topsy's execution in 1903. Edison false claims:
never claimed he invented the light bulb; he invented the first
commercially available incandescent light bulb.
Edison didn't steal the light bulb patent
from anyone, Lewis Latimer's story is published here.
Don't get me started!
Had I been given
Dyer & Martin's book to read for my summer vacation project, I would have learned why Edison's father Samuel, son
of John Edison was born in Digby, Nova Scotia and why today Edison is a
popular surname in this small rural Canadian town.
John Edison, from Newark
NJ, a Tory during the American Revolution was one of the
earlier settlers 'banished' to Digby.
If If you don't mind taking an unexpected path as I did in Digby and
if you're willing to let the web time and space machine, take you
for a ride,
John left his home and farm in NJ during the start of the American
Revolutionary War to move to New York, then a safe, British stronghold.
After the war, he went back to the Newark area to determine the
status of his property. He was arrested, tried for treason and
sentenced to death. John's wife Sarah asked her father, a colonel in
the Continental army to intercede on his behalf. After a short time
in prison with a death sentence hanging over his head, his farm and
land had been confiscated. Later, John was pardoned.
Because John remained loyal to England during the Revolutionary War,
he was given title to 500 acres of land in Digby, Nova Scotia where he stayed until 1810.
show Digby's population was 100 in 1771. By 1881, the
population had grown to more than 17,000.
Samuel (Tom's father) was born in 1804 in Marshalltown on the isthmus Digby Neck
where John had been given 133 acres of land. Because he was
designated as a United Empire Loyalist (UE) he was offered title to additional land if he
west in Canada; he moved to Bayfield then later to Vienna, Ontario.
In an interesting twist, years later John's son Samuel became a
captain with the insurgent forces that rallied against the British
(counter to his father's politics a generation before) under the
banner that there
should be no taxation without representation. Ultimately,
in 1842 Samuel fled south to the United States and built his home in Milan,
Ohio (Tom's birthplace). Later he moved to Port Huron.
The Milan Township & Village Homecoming Festival book published on
the 150th anniversary of Milan OH, says in August of 1841, Nancy Edison (Tom's
mother) purchased the lot on which Edison's birthplace now stands.
Photo courtesy MilanArea.com
Note: if you plan on visiting Edison's birthplace in Milan, OH but
sure to call ahead and visit good friends Bobbi and Don Gfell at the
Sights and Sounds of Edison shop, for Edison and Victor machines and
the best custom made phonograph and gramophone wooden horns.
Contrary to what is often reported about Edison's childhood, the
Samuel Edison family lived comfortably. Tom's father had
established a grain and feed dealership and was also successful in
the lumber industry, reported to have manufactured wooden shingles.
Tom, the seventh of the children was born February 11, 1847. We
found no records that confirm Tom attended any school in Milan
before his family moved to Port Huron before his seventh
birthday. The Milan cemetery records show that three of Tom's
siblings are buried there, reported to have died in childhood.
By the age of eleven, Tom was
earning money from 'market garden' farming. Every
morning during the season, he sold vegetables from the back of a horse drawn wagon. In 1859, at twelve years of age, he
was working as a newsboy and ran a concession on the Grand Trunk
Railroad that ran from Port Huron to Detroit. Perhaps stories
about Edison's working at such an early age is why many wrongfully
assumed his family had little money during his childhood.
Early in life, Tom learned the value of buying (or growing)
wholesale and how to run a profitable retail operation.
While working on the train, he tried a variety of businesses.
From his earnings, he bought a printing press. At fifteen years of
age, he began producing the Weekly Herald which he composed,
edited, published and sold to passengers and at rail stations along
his route. There are countless stories about his ingenuity.
When the train pulled into Detroit, Tom would scan the bulletin
boards at newspaper offices and pick up the most interesting or
compelling stories, often reports about the Civil War. He'd then
print those stories in his Weekly Herald which he'd then sell for
3 cents each.
When describing young Tom's Weekly Herald publishing venture, Edison Biographer, Neil Baldwin who in writing the book Edison,
Inventing the Century 'has demythologized the man and left the genius bigger than life'
says: Although Tom Edison has become renowned as a pioneering boy journalist, due in no small measure to his own justifiably enduring
pride in the effort- he was in fact joining a movement
characteristic of the time. As early as 1846 there were eight
teenage pressmen in Boston alone and an equal number in Worcester.
Dozens of amateur newspapers produced by literary tyros across
America during the years leading up to the Civil War reveal an
unsuspected degree of complexity to adolescent life and suggest an
attempt to grow up faster than earlier generations.
Tom learned he could earn more money selling the newspapers that had been
published in Detroit, by telegraphing headlines that would be posted
on the local train station blackboard before the train's arrival.
By the time the train pulled in, demand for the newspapers had
already been created and Tom would quickly sell his daily supply of
Another great marketing idea from a 15 year old!
When Tom woke early one August morning in 1862, little did he know
that on this day in his fifteenth year, his life would dramatically
change direction as quickly as freight cars that were shunted from
one track to another near the train station. As Tom watched
the box car shunting operation, he noticed the young child of the
station agent J. MacKenzie playing on the track where an
unmanned box car was approaching. As there was no brakeman on
board who could stop the car, Tom outran the box car and grabbed the
child to save his/her life. Although not particularly
important, some written accounts including those reviewed by Edison
himself say the child was a boy, while others (by Henry Ford) say
she was a girl.
As a grateful MacKenzie already knew and liked Tom, he offered to
teach him to be a telegraph operator for the railroad system.
Tom had already had toyed with telegraphy and knew his way 'around
the rails'. So he eagerly accepted the offer. Tom quickly
became proficient "at the key" and got a job as a night operator where only the
fastest, most accurate telegraphers could 'take press' and thus
qualify for a higher wage scale. It's probably no
coincidence that the quiet night shift would appeal to Tom so he
could study, conduct experiments and sleep. Unlike other night
operators, Tom never got used to a daytime sleep schedule as he
always had so much to do during the day.
Night operators typically worked twelve hour shifts beginning at
7:00PM. To be sure they were alert and on duty, the railroad
system instituted the practice of 'sixing' where telegraph operators
had to key the number 6 every hour on the hour sent to the train
It's often reported that Edison's first invention was a vote
recorder, but it can be argued that his very first invention was a
device that would 'six' as needed.
This invention was essentially a
small notched wheel (that generated Morse code, dash _ followed by four dots ....)
attached to a clock that would transmit this key sequence every
hour. Before long, Tom was caught (either sleeping or
studying) but as he was considered one
of the best and there was a severe shortage of reliable
telegraph operators, he was not fired. He probably received only a half-hearted reprimand.
This is yet another example where Edison 'broke the rules" to get
Hell, there are no rules
here - we're trying to accomplish something. TA Edison
For a few years traveling mostly throughout the midwest, Tom
gradually took on some of the personal characteristics of these freewheeling,
sometimes adventurous 'tramp operators' who never lived or loved at
one place for too long. Dealing with boredom was a
telegrapher's lament. But Tom was never bored. There were
never enough hours in the day and he continued to take advantage of
the quiet time. One of his earliest and closest friends from this coterie of
carefree key operators was Milton F. Adams who would later help
Edison get a job at Western Union in Boston in 1868.
While helping to contribute to Edison's biography years later,
Mr. Adams wrote".
"I can well recall when Edison drifted in to take
a job. He was a youth of about eighteen years, decidedly
unprepossessing in dress and rather uncouth in manner. I was
twenty-one, and very dudish. He was quite thin in those days and
his nose was very prominent, giving a Napoleonic look to his face, although the curious resemblance did not strike me
at the time. The boys didn't take to him cheerfully, and he was
lonesome. I sympathized with him, and we became close companions. As
an operator he had no superiors and very few equals.
Most of the time he was monkeying with the
batteries and circuits and devising things to make the work
of telegraphy less irksome. He also relieved the monotony of
office-work by fitting up the battery circuits to play jokes on his
fellow-operators and to deal with the vermin that infested the
premises. He arranged in the cellar what he called his `rat paralyzer,' a very simple contrivance consisting of two plates
insulated from each other and connected with the main battery. They
were so placed that when a rat passed over them the fore feet on the
one plate and the hind feet
on the other completed the circuit and the rat departed this life,
As an itinerant telegrapher, Edison differentiated himself not only
as a technically competent, reliable operator, but as one of the
elite, the best. He was invited to associate with press
operators, journalists and editors some of whom became newspaper and
magazine reporters who would later help Edison promote his work.
Author Frank Dyer writes: "... in the days of the
Civil War there was a great dearth of skilful manipulators of the
(telegraph) key. About fifteen hundred of the best operators in the
country were at the front on the Federal side alone, and several
hundred more had enlisted. This created
a serious scarcity, and a nomadic operator going to any telegraphic
centre would be sure to find a place open waiting for him. At the
close of the war, a majority of those who had been with the two
opposed armies remained at the telegraph key under more peaceful surroundings,
but the rapid development of the commercial and railroad systems
fostered a new demand, and then for a time it seemed almost
impossible to train new operators fast enough. In a few years,
however, the telephone sprang into vigorous existence, dating from
1876, drawing off some of the most
adventurous spirits from the telegraph field; and the deterrent
influence of the telephone on the telegraph had made itself felt by
Whoa, let's rewind that a bit, now let's go back
to 1868 when Tom Edison had just celebrated his twenty first birthday.
Many short Edison biographies skip or only briefly
mention his time in Boston. This can also be said for Edison's time
and experiences in other great American cities including Memphis, New Orleans,
Charleston, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati and Rochester.
Tom the Proper Bostonian
As 'we are the sum of our total experiences' and Tom's
experiences in Boston dramatically impacted and helped shape his life, I'm including
some tidbits of information that are often not published.
In 1868, Edison's close friend, Milton Adams was working at the
Franklin Telegraph Company in Boston when he received a message from
Tom who was then visiting home in Port
Huron; Tom went home because his father had just died. Tom asked if Milt could help him get a job. Milt
replied saying he would help introduce Tom to the
Western Union office in Boston. It's reported that Edison had no
money, so he negotiated a free ride on the rails from Port Huron to
Boston in March. In his book, Thomas A. Edison, Benefactor of
Mankind, author Francis T. Miller describes Edison's snow-bound
train ride from Michigan through Toronto to Montreal (four days
late) down to Boston. The train got snowed under 'in a cut' in a blizzard
shortly after leaving Toronto where passengers had been imprisoned
for twenty four hours. Edison describes how passengers got
fence-rail splints, made snow shoes and started out on foot in a
blinding storm to find food. After a very dangerous trek through the
deep snow, passengers found a roadside
inn where they stayed for a few days.
When he finally arrived in Boston it was mid
winter, Tom was missing a much-needed winter coat.
He was teased by the coterie of key operators who unlike tramp
telegraph operators in the rest of the country, dressed like
In his recently published book, The Wizard of Menlo Park author Randall Stross writes: "he was in the words
of an operator who witnessed the scene, 'the worst looking specimen
of humanity I ever saw'. He wore jeans that were six inches too
short, a jacket that he had bought off the back of a railroad
laborer on his trip across country and a wide-brimmed hat with a
tear on the side, through which his ear (probably his good one)
poked out. Milton Adams arranged the meeting and telegrapher's performance
Immediately after meeting with Mr. George F. Milliken,
the local Western Union office Superintendent, Edison was offered
and accepted the job.
From Dyer's book, Edison himself tells the story of what happened:
The manager asked me when I was ready to
go to work. ‘Now,’ I replied. I was then told to return at 5.30 P.M.,
and punctually at that hour I entered the main operating-room and
was introduced to the night manager. The weather being cold, and
being clothed poorly, my peculiar appearance caused much mirth, and
as I afterward learned, the night operators had consulted together
how they might ‘put up a job on the jay from the woolly West.’ I was
given a pen and assigned to the New York No. 1 wire. After waiting
an hour, I was told to come over to a special table and take a
special report for the Boston Herald, the conspirators having
arranged to have one of the fastest senders in New York send the
dispatch and ‘salt’ the new man. I sat down unsuspiciously at the
table, and the New York man started slowly. Soon he increased his
speed, to which I easily adapted my pace. This put my rival on his
mettle, and he put on his best powers, which, however, were soon
reached. At this point I happened to look up, and saw the operators
all looking over my shoulder, with their faces shining with fun and
excitement. I knew then that they were trying to put up a job on me,
but kept my own counsel. The New York man then commenced to slur
over his words, running them together and sticking the signals; but
I had been used to this style of telegraphy in taking report, and
was not in the least discomfited. Finally, when I thought the fun
had gone far enough, and having about completed the special, I
quietly opened the key and remarked, telegraphically, to my New York
friend: ‘Say, young man, change off and send with your other foot.’
This broke the New York man all up, and he turned the job over to
another man to finish.” Welcome to Boston, Tom!
As an immigrant city, even today Boston can be ethnocentric.
When arriving in Boston from wherever, you do well to 'find your own' who
speak your language and are willing to lend a helping hand
in your new surroundings.
At the turn of the century, the new Italians moved to the
neighborhoods in the North End, the immigrant Irish went to South Boston and
Dorchester and so on.
Old newspaper stories report that nobody 'cut you any slack'.
For example, Edison was literally tested to come up to speed quickly. Edison's reputation preceded him by way of the telegrapher's key was
considered a loner, offbeat or a daydreamer. He was nicknamed "the Looney", what we might call a techie or geek
or very bright engineers today.
Tom learned the value of humor and how to 'get even'. He could be very funny. In the book, A Streak of Luck, author
Robert Conot tells the stories about Edison wiring the water bucket
with an electrical charge and fixing the telegraph keys so they stuck.
He could play practical jokes with the best of them.
Milt Adams described how he was Edison's constant companion in Boston. He
said, "We lived in a hall bedroom, which helped to reduce our
expenses. We got our meals at a boarding house about a mile
away, where it was cheap. Edison was always working --
eighteen to twenty hours a day. Author Frank Dyer writes,
"While he had no lively interest in the mere routine work of a
telegraph office, he had the profoundest curiosity as to the
underlying principals of electricity that made telegraphy possible
and he had an unflagging desire and belief in his own ability to
improve the apparatus he handled daily. The whole intellectual
atmosphere of Boston was favorable to the development of the
brooding genius in this shy, awkward, studious youth, utterly
indifferent to clothes and personal appearance, but ready to spend
his last dollar on books and scientific paraphernalia.
It's a matter of record that Edison spent the incredible sum of
thirty dollars on a suit in Boston, but by the following Sunday,
while experimenting with acids in his workshop, the suit was
spoiled. Tom said, "That's what I get for putting so much
money into a suit."
Soon after arriving in Boston and while working at the Western Union
office on Milk Street, Edison became intensely involved in the
entire telegraph industry centered around the State and Washington
Street area. This exposure to all aspects of the telegraph business and
the 'street smarts' Edison earned in this vibrant, competitive, yet
co-operative community likely prepared him well for future business
Edison's biographers tell the 'cockroach war' story. This story is
particularly insightful because it captures Edison's
inventive genius, humor, problem-solving ability and unorthodox use
of available technology. It goes like this:
Nights On Duty --- War of the Cockroaches
The Western Union office was on the ground floor, not far from
Boston Common. It was the typical telegraph office of the
times -- "any hole-in-a-wall which was in a central location."
The Boston office had been previously used as a restaurant,
which had left behind swarms of cockroaches. Most of
the operators brought their midnight lunches with them and
promptly at the stroke of the hour, and old Irish vendor, called
the 'cake man' appeared. This was the signal for the
cockroaches to march forth; they came in battalions, like armies
-- making their raid on sandwiches, apple pie and whatever they
inventive genius wall called upon to stop this invasion; he had
succeeded in eliminating the rats in Cincinnati and there seemed
to be no reason whey he should not get the cockroaches out of
Boston. Surely, the man who was destined to become "the
world's great inventor" could master a problem like this.
nothing -- but when he reported for duty the next night, there
was a look of determination on his face. He had laid out a
plan that might be conceived by some future Napoleon in the
annihilation of armies. It did not differ in principle
from the electrically charged, barbed wire barricades erected in
the World War.
with a roll of tin foil, he cut it into strips and
stretched them around the table. Then he connected those
strips with two heavy batteries and awaited the results.
It required by a single cockroach to cross the dead line and to
make the circuit complete.
awaited the slaughter with morbid interest," said one of the old
operators in later years. "One big fellow came up to the
post at the southeast corner of the room and stopped for a
moment. He brushed his nose with his fore legs and started. He
reached the first ribbon in safety, but as soon as his
core-creepers struck the opposite or parallel ribbon, over he
went, as dead as a free message. From that time until
after lunch the check boys were kept busy carrying out the
dead." At midnight the cordon of defunct beetles
around the table looked like a miniature Great Wall of China.
The ingenuity of this device caused a Boston newspaper to
interview Edison and write a half-column story, but the night
manager protested against the publicity and "electrocutions
were discontinued by request." Edison
didn't then know that he'd later use tin foil on his first
phonograph, and little did he know that he'd later be embroiled in
controversy about electrocuting a killer.
Commencement Day & Street Smarts
Tom Edison took advantage of libraries, book stores and made frequent
visits to engineering labs to learn basic principals of electronics,
chemistry, communications, metallurgy that were being taught at the
nearby, Boston Tech which later became Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. As the Civil War had delayed construction of
buildings funded and land donated by the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts, Boston Tech originally rented space in the Mercantile
Building (next to the present Christopher Columbus Park) which Tom
frequented, as it was then only a short walk down State
Street to the waterfront. Although Edison did not attend MIT, he
often visited, attended lectures and conducted research with and
recruited graduates from MIT. Tom lived
with MIT students at 9-10 Wilson Lane which at that time ran
parallel to Exchange Street from State Street.
Edison enjoyed personal relationships with researchers at MIT. He
"The best school in this country in my opinion is the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. The men they turn out are the best in
the world and practically run our up-to-date industries". Edison's
son Theodore graduated from MIT with a degree in physics in 1923.
It is sometimes reported that self-educated Edison was at odds with the academic
world. But it is clear that he had the highest respect for
scholars who taught "learning by doing" and practical application,
which reflects MIT's then and now antithetical attitude toward the
'ivory tower of academe'. Perhaps this is why MIT
has a unique track record turning research into practical
applications. Even after leaving Boston, Edison often
returned to MIT. He donated equipment, including a dynamo to help
MIT start the school of Electrical Engineering; later he donated a
complete electric lighting plant.
Some key lessons learned while Tom was in Boston:
● He learned how to prepare and file the first
of almost 1100 of his US Patents.
He designed a half dozen telegraph
devices that were put into service.
He found investors
that were willing to back his product and business ideas.
learned how to engage the right talent to help him accomplish his
He learned, don't invent anything people don't want; if he didn't
have a customer.
He learned how to take advantage of the Trade Press as he began his
first public relations campaign publishing articles in the Boston-based Telegrapher Magazine, the industry's
widely read independent journal in April 1868.
He developed scores of talented, reliable friends and business
connections in Boston who would later help him build successful
ventures throughout the US and Europe. While in Boston Tom met or
developed deeper relationships with people that would become an
integral player in his life. They include: Upton, Latimer, Villard,
Ropes, Hamblet, Thompson, Gilliland, Garrison, Jenks and most
important, his second wife Mina.
One of Tom's favorite pastimes was hanging around the
Cornhill area which was located near the present-day City Hall Plaza
just up the street from Edison's lab on Court
Street. This area bustled with book stalls and print shops and was
fertile ground for researchers and writers. William Lloyd Garrison
published The Liberator here during the Civil War. Several
Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin
here. When Stowe met President Lincoln, he is said to have
exclaimed, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that
started this great war!"
It's no secret that Thomas Edison was a slavery abolitionist. Many
believe as Tom had spent much time in the Cornhill bookshops (then
the center of abolitionist grass roots movement in the
North) he became a good friend with Garrison. Perhaps this is why he
later supported of 'the movement'. Edison hired Garrison's son-in-law
Henry Villard to run his European businesses. Villard's wife Fanny,
who introduced Tom Edison to his wife Mina were lifelong friends. Later
Edison would hire William Lloyd Garrison's son William to be his New
England General Manager and public relations agent. At
Garrison's request, Edison chose Brockton MA as the
first town to use his three-wire electricity distribution system. That
was an immediate impetus (technical and economic) to
incandescent lighting on a town-wide basis.
In the Cornhill area,
Lewis Howard Latimer, a
teenage black man had the courage to sell The Liberator
before the American Civil War, about twenty years after
his parents had run away from slavery in Virginia.
They were determined to be free and wanted to be sure their children were
born on free soil. Later, at 16 years old Lewis joined the US Navy by falsifying his
age. Upon his honorable discharge, he returned to Boston and became
an office boy at Crosby and Gould, the Boston patent law firm which had
being doing patent work for Edison. We found no evidence
to support whether Lewis Latimer and Thomas Edison had met in Cornhill, a
possibility or whether he worked on behalf of Edison (ie.
living in Boston. However, Edison Electric in New York City, did hire this incredible inventor
in late 1884. Latimer never personally worked for Thomas Edison and there is no
truth to the tale that Edison 'stole' the light bulb invention from
Latimer who later improved filaments which made the light bulb last
Alexander Graham Bell hired Lewis Latimer to work at 109 Court Street.
It is reported but not substantiated that Latimer was directly responsible for Bell winning the race to have his
telephone invention patented before anyone else. Bell
acknowledged and his archived correspondence confirms that
Latimer provided him with blueprints
and expertise. Latimer submitted an acceptable patent application on St.
Valentine's Day, February 14, 1876, a few hours earlier than Elisha
Gray. To this day, there is still
incredible controversy about who won the race to file the
patent, as there is evidence that Gray got the paperwork to the patent
office before Bell. However, there's an argument that Latimer's
expertise and experience filing patents, walking the patent through
the bureaucratic process, getting a stamped cash receipt and
delivering the application directly to the examiner won the race.
There's a particularly insightful book The Telephone Gambit, Chasing
Alexander Graham Bell's Secret by Seth Shulman, published in 2008
that presents some excellent history, evidence and supposition that
Bell in fact was given access to Gray's caveat at the US Patent
office, before he submitted his own patent and that information was
the source of a fundamental voice telephone idea that Bell has later
submitted in his patent. A very controversial, must read.
It was on Cornhill where Edison had purchased the three volume set of
British Scientist Michael
Faraday's (1791-1867) works. Like Edison, Faraday was
self-taught and he too tended to avoid using complex mathematics in his
work. Milt Adams wrote, "when Edison
brought home these books at 4 A.M. he read steadily until
breakfast-time, and then he remarked, enthusiastically: 'Adams, I
have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.'
And thereupon he started on a run for breakfast. Edison says: "I think I must have tried about everything in those books".
His explanations were simple. He relied more on practical
testing than complex theoretical mathematics. He was the
Master Experimenter. It's likely that not many copies of Faraday's
works were sold in those days.
The following chronology, courtesy of the Thomas Edison Papers-Rutgers University
Begins work as an operator at the main Western Union
office in Boston, MA.
the Telegrapher the first of
several articles on his telegraph inventions and on the Boston
first of several agreements with E. Baker Welch, a Boston
businessman who helps finance his early inventive work.
Signs a caveat
for a fire alarm telegraph and assigns the invention to Welch.
Signs a patent
application for an electric vote recorder, which later issues as
his first patent.
in his first successful printing telegraph, the Boston
instrument, to Boston businessmen Joel Hills and William
Resigns from Western Union to
work full time to inventing and to pursuing various telegraph
Hanaford to establish a business to produce and sell private
line telegraphs at 9 Wilson Lane in Boston.
fails to make his new double transmitter work between Rochester
NY and New York City.
Moves to New
first telegraph patent (for the Boston instrument).
Franklin Pope as superintendent of Samuel Laws' Gold and Stock
Reporting Telegraph Co. in New York City and makes improvements
on Laws' stock printer.
Elizabeth NJ and boards with Pope's mother.
Young Tom, shy around the girls
Frank Dyer's book, Edison, His Life and Inventions gives
us some insight into the young, 21 year old, shy Tom Edison. He
tells the following story. The principal of a select school
for young ladies sent a request to the Western Union office to see
if the company would send someone to the school to describe
and demonstrate the Samuel Morse telegraph to her 'children'.
Dyer writes: There has always been a warm interest in Boston in
the life and work of Morse, who was born there at Charlestown,
barely a mile from Franklin's birthplace, so this request for a
lecture on Morse's telegraph was quite natural. Incidentally, at
that time Samuel Morse was still alive at the ripe old age of eighty
Edison, who was always ready to earn some extra money for his
experiments and considered the best-informed operator in
the office, accepted the invitation. Tom's closest
friend, Milton Adams tells the story this way:
gathered up a couple of sounders, a battery and sonic wire and at
the appointed time called on here to do the stunt. Her school-room
was about twenty by twenty feet, not including a small platform.
We rigged up the line between the two ends of the room, Edison
taking the stage while I was at the other end of the room. All
being in readiness, the principal was told to bring in her
'children'. The door opened and in came about twenty
young ladies elegantly gowned, not one of whom was under seventeen.
When Edison saw them I thought he would faint. He called
me on the line and asked me to come to the stage and explain the
mysteries of the Morse system. I replied that I thought he was
in the right place and told him to get busy with his talk on dots
and dashes. Always modest, Edison was so overcome he could
hardly speak, but he managed to say, finally, that as his friend Mr.
Adams was better equipped with cheek than he was, we would change
places and he would do the demonstrating while I explained the whole
thing. This caused the bevy to run to see where the lecturer
was. I went on the stage, said something and we did some
telegraphing over the line. I guess it was satisfactory; we
got the money, which was the main point to us."
The photo to the right is a sounder; it was only recently that I
saw a sounder in action at the
Vintage Radio & Communications Museum of CT.
It's a device that produces and audible sound at the telegraph
Edison (and several other biographers) tells a similar story but
insists it was he who saved the situation. Edison tells it
"I managed to say that I would work the apparatus and
Mr. Adams would make the explanations. Adams was so
embarrassed that he fell over an ottoman. The girls tittered
and this increased his embarrassment until he couldn't say a word.
The situation was so desperate that for a reason I never could
explain, I started in myself and talked and explained better than I
ever did before or since. Not so fast Tom, I
think most who have studied you would believe Milton Adams versions
of this story as the slightly older Adams had more 'worldly
experience'. Tom continues the story: However I got out of
this scrape and many times afterward when I chanced with other
operators to meet some of the young ladies on their way home from
school, they would smile and nod, much to the mystification of the
operators, who were ignorant of this episode. Sorry, Tom
we don't believe this either.
109 Court Street
It is generally assumed that Edison didn't begin work on the
stock ticker machine until after his arrival in New York City just
as it is assumed that Babe Ruth didn't begin to
home runs until he was traded the New York Yankees from the Boston
Red Sox. But
Edison wrote, "After the vote-recorder, I invented a stock ticker
and started a stock ticker service in Boston; had thirty or forty
subscribers and operated from a room over the Gold Exchange.
This was about a year after Callahan started in New York."
Dyer notes: To say the least, this evidenced great ability and
enterprise on the part of young Thomas Edison. The dealings in gold
during the Civil War and after had brought gold indicators into use
and these had soon been followed by "stock tickers"... The success
of this new but still primitively crude class of apparatus was
immediate. Four manufacturers were soon busy trying to keep
pace with demands for it from brokers. Edison was however,
about the only one in Boston of whom history makes record as
achieving any tangible result in this new art; and he soon longed
for the larger telegraphic opportunity of New York.
Edison's first exposure to a free form laboratory 'where anything
goes' was at
109 Court Street in Boston where in 1868 he
lab space (also subsequently shared by several then unknown venture-minded inventors Bell, Watson,
Stearns, Farmer, Ritchie, Hall, Davis and
others) at Charles Williams Jr. Telegraph Instruments Company.
As waves of European immigrants came to Boston, Williams
had his pick of machine shop talent, instrument and tool makers,
craftsmen and tinkerers who were eager to work and create.
And there was no shortage of venture capital as 'early money'
was readily available. This wouldn't be the last
time key ingredients (talent, hard work, venture funding) would
come together in Boston to create new industries and wealth.
In this lab, Edison invented an electrographic vote recorder and
the quadruplex telegraph which sent four messages over one wire.
He also improved the standard stock ticker printer and he
started a business to sell a stock and gold price quotation
Unfortunately the stately, mansard-roofed building at 109 Court
Street which for many years at the techno-centric hub of Boston,
was knocked down by the misguided actions of urban renewal
proponents of the 1960's. They were determined to eliminate historic
but tattered Scollay Square and replace that area with today's
'modern' City Hall Plaza which I believe is an architectural
disaster and residual evidence of the strength of the brick mason's
Although Boston was the high-tech center of emerging
industrial America with a key focus on electrical, telegraphic
and telephonic technologies, Edison realized his best customer,
business and funding opportunities could be found in New York to
where he moved in late 1869. After selling the rights to
his Universal Stock Ticker, for the then incredible sum of
$40,000, he set up his first laboratory and manufacturing
(printing telegraph business) on Ward Street in Newark, NJ in 1871. It's ironic that Edison's Newark operation was set up not far from
where his grandfather, John almost a 100 years earlier had set
up his farm.
Stop, or I'll shoot!
Edison tells an amusing story about his appetite for reading
Always an omnivorous reader, he had some difficulty in getting a
sufficient quantity of literature to read at home. He often bought books at auctions and second-hand stores.
It was reported that one
day at an auction, he bought a stack of twenty volumes
of the North American Review for two dollars. Later he had these
delivered to the telegraph office. One morning when he was free after
3AM, he started off at a rapid pace carrying the ten volumes
on his shoulder.
Soon he was being chased by a night watch police officer who
fired a few shots at Edison. After hearing the shots
good ear), Edison stopped. A breathless policeman grabbed him and
ordered him to drop his parcel and explain matters. Edison opened
the package of books somewhat to the disgust of the officer who
imagined he had caught a burglar sneaking away in a dark alley. Edison
explained that being deaf he hadn't heard the challenge to stop, so
he kept moving. The policeman remarked apologetically that it
was fortunate for Edison he was not a better shot.
By 1876 with support from key workers,
Edison handed the task to his father to
expand and build the best equipped Invention Factory
(workshops/labs) in a remote location-
Park (now a section in Edison) NJ.
← This is a photo of the rebuilt Menlo Park NJ
invention factory at Greenfield Village, Dearborn.
In 1887, Edison moved
his labs again, to
West Orange NJ, the current location of the Edison National
Historic Site which is now managed by the US Department of Interior
and supported by a coterie of phonograph enthusiasts, the
Friends of Thomas Edison National Historic Park.
From these labs, Edison's detailed notebooks and the company's time clock
records provide volumes of evidence about the hours Edison and
his employees spent working on a variety of projects.
Teams of engineers would often be assigned the same project, competing for first delivery of a workable unit or first
delivery of the more reliable or least cost unit. Edison,
who learned from Charles Williams Jr. and Williams' Invention
Factory at Court Street could quickly assemble a project team as he was able
to select some of the best talent that came from immigrant
Europe as well as recent graduates of local colleges and
technical schools. It's no secret that Edison
preferred to hire 'street smart' and 'book read'
talent rather than college graduates. He'd use a
series of tests to help shorten the selection process when he
was recruiting managerial talent. Could
you pass Edison's tests?
Click here to find out.
"Many of life's
failures are people who did not realize how close they were to
success when they gave up".
T A Edison
To make a contribution to support present
restoration and research at the Edison National Historic Site, make
a 501 c (3) tax deductable contribution to the Friends of Edison
National Historic Site, 12 Honeysuckle Ave, West Orange, NJ
Please click here to visit the Friends of Edison National Historic
Site, website developed and donated by PhonoJack.
Over My Left Shoulder
From reporter and historian Robert H. Davis who
wrote Over My Left Shoulder: A Panorama of Men and Events…. In 1926,
Davis’ wrote in his "diary of remembrances of certain bygone doing and sayings...which happened yesterday or
this morning" , the story goes like this:
Over My Left
Shoulder, Edison comes full circle
At the age of 79 years Mr.
Edison says to William Meadowcroft, his secretary, “…. I have ransacked the
United States and all the records and archives in this office
for a specimen of my handwriting when I was an operator.
Apparently, none is in existence. What are we
going to do about it?”
“My efforts have also come
to naught.” Said the secretary, ‘but it just occurs to me that
at Roselle Park, not ten miles from where we now sit, there is a
communication engineer by the name of Donald McNichol, who is
said to have a pretty complete collection of telegraph,
telephone and radio historical lore that he has been gathering
for thirty years. Let’s try McNichol”.
“There’s the telephone”,
says the Wizard (Edison), “Get him”.
“This is Mr. Meadowcroft
speaking for Mr. Thomas A. Edison.”
“Mr. McNichol responding.”
Meadowcroft says, “Mr.
Edison is in search of a specimen of his handwriting made when
he was a telegraph operator fifty-five or sixty years ago. We
understand that you have a number of original scripts in your
McNichols replies, “That’s
curious. At this very moment, seated at my desk, I am viewing
on the wall of my library a framed original specimen of Mr.
Edison’s marvelously symmetrical penmanship which hangs under a
sixty watt lamp of his invention. It contains seventy-six words
of perfect text, a portion of a press report—“
“You don’t mean it—“, the
voice broke as though Meadowcroft had turned away from the phone
and was talking with some one (Edison?) not on the wire.
McNichols says, “Yes. Can
you hear me? . . . A press report that Mr. Edison copied in
Boston in the year 1868; fifty-eight years ago, to be exact.
Yes, the original document.”
“News matter?” says
McNichol says, “Yes, but
nothing new. Same subject is always on the wire; about a
strike. I’ll read it:
“Quote: ‘We have been driven
to adopt this course, when it is proved that had we uniformly
received courteous, gentlemanly and human treatment and had been
subjected to no tyrannical rules; had the old standard of
salaries been carefully maintained and some system of promotion
been established so that the far distant future we might see at
least a single ray of hope there would have been no cause for
complaint, then I believe that other heads….’ End quote. That’s
all there is of it. Stops with ‘heads.’”
There was a great commotion
at the Thomas Edison end of the wire. Would Mr. McNichol permit
the “Wizard” to see the original? McNichol replies,
“Certainly; and to make a photographic copy if he desired.
Later, Mr. Edison made
several copies, after which the original was returned to the owner and
replaced under the sixty watt light along with its affiliated
OVER MY LEFT SHOULDER "Here endeth
the story of the wandering script, made by the dreamer when he
was twenty-one, the original of which had passed from hand to
hand for fifty-eight years to come again under the eye of its
maker in the seventy ninth year of his eventful life. The
Lord moves in mysterious ways." Robert Davis
The above handwriting example is a good example of Edison's
high speed telegraph print copy. The example below
is his typical handwriting/style used in business
Tom would love this- Listen to Edison's
voice If Tom Edison could see this web site or
hear the following recording of his voice which was made almost a
hundred years ago, he'd be completely consumed studying the
technology. Little did he know that when he participated in
the opening of the New York Electrical show on October 3, 1908 when his speech was recorded on an Edison cylinder
phonograph, a century later you'd be listening to his voice which
had been digitized, compressed, packetized into Internet Protocol
(IP) packets and played back on your PC as an mp3 file.
Turn up those speakers,
click here to hear Tom's voice and carefully listen
to his message about electricity and progress. To the
uninitiated who have not heard a cylinder recording before, the
intermittent background interfering noise that sounds like footsteps
of a jogger, is actually the repeating sound of a scratch or small
crack in the cylinder record.
If you'd like to go back a bit earlier in time
click here to hear the earliest known recording of Tom's voice
(courtesy Edison National Historic Park)
in 1888, more than ten years after he invented the phonograph and
almost one hundred and twenty years ago.
After the end of World War I, Edison permitted his voice to be
Let us not forget, a message to the American people.
--Voice recordings are
courtesy of Edison National Historic Site, U.S. National Park
Service and the
Library of Congress, American Memory site .--
Recently, several more great books about Thomas Edison have
been published. Click here for a recommended reading list. Today's authors have better access to
information and well-preserved archives and there are more research
tools to help them triangulate their findings. This web
page presents some interesting tidbits about Edison
that I've picked up as I've tried to read and research anything
to get more insight into this complex man. On
one hand, Edison could be a confident showman, eager to engage the
press to 'create a buzz' about an idea or an invention
especially when he needed to raise money. On the other hand, he
protected his privacy and kept only a few very close friends.
closest friend and confidant was his second wife Mina.
Unlink his very young, first wife, Mary
Stilwell, Mina was well prepared to be the wife of a very famous
man. Tom, an older gentlemen kept a diary during the
summer of 1985 while he vacationed at then good friend Ezra
Gilliland summer seashore retreat in Winthrop MA on Boston harbor.
Tom had previously asked Gilliland's wife to introduce him to some 'marriagable'
girls. Well, Tom's diary has since been printed as a short
story with plenty of comments from Tom's teenage daughter Dot and
private comments he wrote as he pursued Mina who happened to be
attending school in Boston. By the time she met Thomas
Edison, his name was well known. Unlike Mary, Mina had a more
worldly education, having graduated from Akron High School and
having attended Mrs. Johnson's Ladies' Seminary in Boston. Besides,
her father was a millionaire inventor himself.
Mina Miller, the seventh of eleven
children was born on July 6, 1865, Tom Edison was born February 1,
1847. the seventh of eleven children. Tom wrote how he taught
her Morse code so that they could converse in secret, even while the
family watched. This is how Tom claims he proposed marriage to her
and how she tapped back the affirmative "yes." They married on
February 24, 1886.
From the Edison National Historic Park:
"The couple moved into Glenmont, the
Edisons' new home, after their honeymoon in Florida. At age twenty,
the new Mrs. Edison became a stepmother to Tom's three children. It
was not an easy task. She was less than ten years older than
stepdaughter Marion. Although Mina tried to nurture her new family,
Marion later described Mina as "too young to be a mother but too old
to be a chum." Her role as Mrs. Thomas Edison was also difficult:
Edison frequently stayed late at the laboratory and forgot
anniversaries and birthdays. Yet he seemed to love his "Billie." A
note found in one of Mina's gardening books reads, "Mina Miller
Edison is the sweetest little woman who ever bestowed love on a
miserable homely good for nothing male (sic)".
Now for some controversy:
I met David Giovannoni, an avid American
phonograph collector, enthusiast, researcher at the MME show in
Wayne NJ (April 2008). We eagerly listened to his exciting
story about the research he spearheaded that uncovered recordings
(Scott's phonoautograms) discovered in Paris.
Please look for more information presented in an article in the
New York Times- click this link. A must read!
Inventors Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner, Alexander Bell, Elisha
Gray and Philipp Reis were interested in capturing sound and the relationship between
sound and electricity. Many others had previously written and
published papers about telephony, telegraphy and recording sound. I'm not trying to make this a complete
paper on Edison and the phonograph, but in some additional reading you'll find commentary concerning Frenchman Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville who
patented the phonautograph in 1857, the first recording
device. Scott sought to capture a paper recording of sound
that could be played back later. This device had no means to
play back the recording at that time. There has been much
controversial discussion about Scott's work and now some new
research has come to light.
I understand David and his team is looking for financing to pursue this research
further. If you're interested in helping finance this project,
please contact David Giovanni.
It is often reported that on April 18, 1877 French poet and humorist Charles Cros who later was
recognized as a successful inventor, produced a theoretical design
on paper that was deposited with the French Academy of Science a few months
before Edison. There are many who vehemently claim it was Cros
not Edison who invented the phonograph.
Perhaps it's sad but ironic that in 1869 Charles Cros and Louis Decos de Hauron reportedly without the knowledge of
one another sent papers to the French Society of Photography of
their identical inventions of color photography. Yes,
photography too! Hmmm! Cros
submitted proof that his documentation which had been stored in a
safety deposit box had predated Ducos' invention by nearly a year
before. Cros and Decos argued over who first invented color
photography. Unlike Decos who had plenty of evidence that he
had been experimenting with color photography, Cros produced no
meaningful evidence of prior work. Ultimately the two settled,
Cros claim remains unsubstantiated and Ducos, the winner is
considered the inventor of the color photography.
Edison faced an interesting sequence of circumstances and claims by Cros, almost ten years later. I don't
buy Cros' argument or similar claims.
Charles Cros presented a paper on interplanetary communications that included a method of
communicating with the inhabitants of Mars and Venus. There is
no doubt the Cros had a creative, inventive mind. But I don't
believe Cros was the precursor to Tom Edison any more that I was the
inventor of the Star Trek transporter, an idea that I wrote about in
a high school class a year before screen writer, Gene Roddenberry.
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