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An illuminating look at Thomas Edison
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Forsyth County News

As a lover of history, I am always excited when I learn something new, or relearn something I had forgotten.

I recently learned something I didn’t know about Thomas Edison, one of our country’s most famous inventors.

Did you know, besides inventing the electric light bulb and the phonograph, he held more than 1,000 patents?

Born in 1890 in Milan, Ohio, Edison was the youngest of seven children. The family moved to Michigan in 1854, where Edison attended public school for 12 weeks. It seems his personality and habit of incessantly questioning his teacher proved problematic.

Some sources have said that in today’s world, Edison likely had an attention-deficit disorder. I love that his mother, Nancy, took him out of school and basically home-schooled him.

I imagine her knowing, especially after having six other children before young Thomas, that there was nothing wrong with him, except that a traditional educational setting was just not going to get the job done. That is such a powerful lesson to us as parents, isn’t it?

As he began home school, young Edison truly thrived. Once he discovered the public library, Edison began reading everything he could get his hands on.

He was fascinated by science and voraciously studied Isaac Newton and his theories. Edison also loved world history and English literature. His favorite writer was William Shakespeare and Edison at one point considered a career in acting.

As a child, as a result of a bout with scarlet fever and multiple ear infections, Edison lost much of his hearing. That led to him ultimately becoming deaf in his left ear and 80 percent in his right. He would later say the main thing he missed hearing was the sound of birds singing.

Edison was quite the entrepreneur, even at a young age, selling newspapers at the train station and eventually starting his own newspaper with the updated news of the day. He busily sold the newspapers to those getting on the train.

One time, he saw a 3-year old wandering onto the train tracks and rushed to grab the child, saving its life. The father of the child was so grateful, he offered to teach young Edison how to operate a telegraph.

This was an excellent skill to have in that day, and Edison caught on quickly.

At 15, Edison got a job as a telegraph operator and at 19 moved to Louisville, Ky., and worked for The Associated Press.

Back home, his family needed his financial help, which convinced Edison to move to Boston, what was then considered an epicenter for science and culture.

Edison worked first for Western Union Company. He then moved to New York City when he was 22.

Meanwhile, no matter what job he had, Edison was always working on his many inventions.

In New York, Edison invented an improved stock ticker, and the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company paid him $40,000 for it. With that, Edison was able to help his family, as well as quit his job to devote all of his efforts to inventions.

In 1870, Edison opened a small lab manufacturing facility and soon married Mary Stillwell, who was one of his employees. The couple went on to have three children.

In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph, which was his favorite invention. Ever wonder what the first words were that Edison uttered and then heard play back? “Mary had a little lamb,” were the first recorded words.

The phonograph catapulted him onto the world stage and earned him fame. In 1880, Edison was granted a patent for the light bulb and that same year he founded what would eventually become General Electric Corp. The illuminating company was the first “investor-owned” electric utility.

One new thing I learned about Edison was that he also invented talking dolls. He hired girls to come to the facility and recite various popular nursery rhymes. Doesn’t that sound like it would have been a big hit?

The opposite was actually true, and the dolls failed miserably. Why, you ask? Children were scared of the dolls.

You can actually go online and find the recordings, which have only recently been able to be heard by the public. And it’s true, the recordings are truly creepy. How interesting.

Another thing I learned about Edison is that he sounds like a man that was not particularly vain or overly impressed with his own accomplishments.

He once said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Accordingly, a ‘genius’ is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.”

Wow. I guess that means there is hope for all of us.


Adlen Robinson is author of “Home Matters: The Guide to Organizing Your Life and Home.” E-mail her at