Things You Never Knew About Thomas Edison

By Phill Powell

February 11th is Thomas Edison’s birthday. America’s reigning tech genius – holder of more than a thousand patents – was born in 1847.

Edison revolutionized life itself, with at least three of his inventions (the electric light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture) still central to our notions of modern living. A world without lights or movies? Unthinkable.

Thomas_Edison
This is the Edison you’ve seen. But did you know he was once a boy genius and hip young inventor?

And now, thanks to young people’s recently renewed embrace of vinyl record albums, the phonograph is back in style, too.

But Edison’s contributions run even deeper than that. He also invented the concept of the modern power utility, which brought the everyday magic of electricity to civilization.

Here are some things we bet you don’t know about the guy who switched on the light bulb and illuminated our world:

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

Edison’s first power station was in NYC…on Pearl Street in Manhattan.

EARLY DEODORANT AD?

Edison came up with this clever saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

WICKED COOL STUFF HE MADE

It’s a big list. Aside from the already mentioned motion picture and phonograph, Edison came up with the stock ticker and a battery for an electric car, which was a century ahead of its time.

And even his “simple” achievements were complex. Critics are quick to point out that he didn’t invent the light bulb, but rather, modified it and improved it and made it commercially viable.

But in order to do that, Edison had to develop no less than seven system elements (such as the parallel circuit, devices for maintaining steady voltage, etc.), and test them repeatedly in his labs until a practical prototype could be developed.

ODD HOURS

Edison was a genius scientist. Small wonder that he kept to his own schedule which granted him occasional catnaps in his lab, and nice long stretches when he could contemplate and tinker.

LITTLE SCHOOLING

Edison was largely home-schooled, except for a brief three months when he attended school. Edison’s mind was always moving, and he had a hard time staying focused on the current lesson. One teacher called him “addled.”

edison_thinking
Thomas Edison changed the world with his phonograph, which recorded onto cylinders, not records.

BORN BUSINESSMAN

As a boy, Edison’s family struggled to make ends meet. A young Tom Edison began riding the trains between Port Huron, Michigan (where his family lived) and Detroit, selling candy and newspapers to passengers.

Before long he was typesetting and printing his own paper, which became the first company he founded. He would start 13 more companies during his life, including General Electric, which is still one of the world’s largest manufacturers.

DOTS AND DASHES

In a strange twist of fate, as a teenager, Edison saved a child from being hit by a runaway train. The child’s father was so grateful that, to show his gratitude, he taught Edison a useful skill – how to run a telegraph.

Being a telegraph operator would remain his “day job” (or rather, his night job) for years, while he cultivated numerous scientific experiments on the side.

BURNING AMBITION

Edison’s experiments caused him problems on more than one occasion. As a telegraph operator, he lost one job after being fired for spilling sulfuric acid during an experiment. The acid dripped through the floor and landed on the desk of Edison’s boss!

BRINGING HIS WORK HOME WITH HIM

The nicknames for Edison’s first two children were “Dot” and “Dash,” in tribute to his work running a telegraph.

FAMILY TRADITION

Edison’s brilliance must have been in his genetic make-up. His son Theodore would himself shine, first as a Physics major at MIT, then as an inventor in his own right, credited with more than 80 patents.

edison_phonograph
The phonograph changed everything for Edison. The public became fascinated with the young inventor, who had just turned 30.

INSTANT CELEBRITY

Edison became internationally famous at age 30 on the basis of his invention of the phonograph. The invention truly stunned the world and made Edison a household name everywhere. The nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (New Jersey) started gaining popularity at this time.

DRY WIT

Although Edison was all business, he wasn’t always serious. He kept a sign on his desk that read, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

LET THERE BE LIGHT

On Nov. 4, 1879, Edison filed for U.S. patent 223,898. The patent for the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb (based on a carbon filament) would be granted a few months later, changing life forever after. Soon Edison’s lighting was appearing everywhere, eventually spreading around the world.

THE TESLA CONNECTION

There were many, many scientists and inventors who worked with or for Edison. Many of his greatest inventions required the inspired assistance of tech geniuses like Nikola Tesla, who started working for one of Edison’s companies in 1882 and performed brilliant work, including redesigning the direct current generators for Edison.

A comment made by Edison (“There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you – if you can do it.”) led to Tesla resigning from Edison, after he tried to hold Edison to his word. Edison claimed he had been joking and it’s possible he was. His company was notoriously stingy with employee pay.

MOVING PICTURES

In 1891, Edison introduced the Kinetoscope, which was the first motion picture camera. He had been inspired by a visit by Eadweard Muybridge, who had conducted early experiments with film at Stanford University.

Edison’s film studio – really, the first film studio – made short early films designed to capture things as simple as the sniffles or a smooch (Fred Ott’s Sneeze and The Kiss, respectively), but Edison Manufacturing also shot the first Western (1903’s The Great Train Robbery) and the first Frankenstein movie (1910’s Frankenstein). Edison’s studio produced nearly 1,200 films.


Early Edison movies were short and varied…like these boxing felines.

SHOCKING SIGHT

After Edison became successful, he purchased the house in Milan, Ohio, where he had been born. On a later, 1923 visit, the man who switched on the world was stunned to see that his boyhood home was still being lit by candles and lamps.

LAST BREATH?

Edison died in 1931 and his good friend Henry Ford (inventor of the automobile) convinced an Edison relative to open a test tube and fill it with air from Edison’s bedroom immediately after the famed inventor exhaled his last breath, and then seal the tube for posterity. This was done to Ford’s instructions and the test tube exists to this day at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

COMPLEX AND ENORMOUS LEGACY

In very real ways, Thomas Edison was the first recording artist, as well as the first moviemaker.

Although it’s become very popular to undermine Edison’s achievement in recent times and merely cast him as a popularizer of other inventors’ work, the total sum of his legacy undercuts such theorizing.

Was Edison a shrewd and sometimes ruthless businessman who sometimes took credit for the work of others? Most certainly…and the same could be said of so many of the guiding lights of technology that followed him. (People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were not always the beloved tech icons so revered today.)

Technology is always a two-step process. Great tech has to first be invented. Then it has to be brought to the masses. Edison’s achievement is not inventing the very first device to glow, but rather bringing electric light to America, and then the world. That was the nature of his genius…and it was profound.

MAKE MUSIC OR MOVIES THIS SUMMER!

This summer, it’s your turn. Come to Digital Media Academy and discover any number of creative tech pursuits.

Maybe you’d like to learn music production skills? DMA has you covered.

Or maybe movies are more your thing? No problem.

Digital Media Academy has been training young moviemakers for 15 years now. DMA summer film camps are taught by experienced moviemakers who know how to translate their creative vision into compelling film.

Book your DMA summer tech camp experience today!

DMA Winter Savings are still in effect, with great discounts on summer camp tuition. Register now!