It’s OK to Fail – Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is best known for inventing the electric light bulb. Edison is also credited for improving the telegraph, the telephone, inventing the first phonograph, the first movie camera, and a precursor to today’s photocopy machine. Edison had a knack for envisioning what people needed long before they did, particularly when it came to telecommunications. He was also a brilliant businessman. Edison is one of the most notable inventors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847. Edison showed his brilliance at an early age. Edison only spent three months in public school before he was homeschooled by his mother. Edison’s mind wandered in class, and his teacher called him “addled.” Arguably, Edison was not “mentally confused,” but bored. Edison loved to read, so his mother gave him extensive reading assignments to keep him focused on his studies.

Edison proved to be quite the entrepreneur at an early age. Edison began selling candy and reading material at age 12 on the Grand Trunk Railroad that ran regularly from Port Huron, Michigan to Detroit. This job pacified Edison’s natural curiosity about steam locomotives, and also provided an additional reading outlet for the youngster. Edison eagerly read the literature he was selling.

A chance rescue four years later shaped Edison’s life and paved the way for the inventor within. Three-year-old Jimmy MacKenzie, son of station master J.U. MacKenzie, ran out onto the train tracks in front of an oncoming train. Edison quickly rescued the boy before he was struck. MacKenzie’s father expressed his gratitude by offering Edison a position as a telegraph operator for Grand Trunk Railway.

Edison quickly learned not only how to send and receive the telegraph messages, but also how the telegraph equipment worked. This included the technical concepts of electromagnetism, wire circuitry, and batteries. As he gained this precious mechanical knowledge, Edison grew dissatisfied with telegraphy in its limited state. He understood the need to advance the technology to better enable quick communication across the United States.

Edison was also an astute businessman who knew any invention needed to benefit the purchaser. Edison tinkered with Morse’s telegraph for years, finally inventing a quadruplex telegraph system. This system served two purposes: It sent two messages over the same wire in opposite directions simultaneously, and saved telegraph companies money by sending multiple messages on less equipment. Western Union Telegraph Company bought the quadruplex in 1874, financing Edison’s dream of opening up an “Invention Factory,” which he did in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Edison’s Menlo Park years were his most productive and profitable. From 1876 to 1881 he improved telephone communication with a carbon telephone transmitter still used today. Edison’s work on the telephone fueled his curiosity; he wanted to invent a vocal recording device. In 1877, Edison designed his first phonograph. Edison thought this invention would turn into a Dictaphone for business. Instead, the phonograph became the first record player.

What Edison is best known for was also birthed in Menlo Park: the electronic light bulb. Edison didn’t just stop at the idea of making a better light bulb for people to use in their homes. Rather, Edison invented the concept of modern-day electrical power, including the bulbs, circuitry, wiring, and power plants. This included electrical wiring and plugs in homes.

Edison moved to a bigger laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey in 1886. Edison invented the first motion picture camera there. He also experienced some failure. Edison tackled the problem of mining ore from tapped out mines with an unsuccessful concept and unreliable machinery. The idea of crushing rock and extracting ore from the pieces by electromagnets worked on paper, but proved to be a failure when executed.

This hardly placed a black mark on Edison’s great record. Thomas Alva Edison died on October 18, 1931. He was an inventor and businessman who changed the face of American culture. His patented inventions number over 1,000. Edison International remains successful on the stock market to this day. This small child who couldn’t pay attention in school proved what he famously said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”

The Edison Innovation Foundation

Library of Congress: Life of Thomas Edison

The Franklin Institute: The Wizard of Menlo Park

Rutgers: Thomas Alva Edison Biography

MIT: Thomas Alva Edison

Smithsonian Institute: Thomas Edison’s Incandescent Lamp

Digital History: The Wizard of Menlo Park

North Carolina State University: Thomas Edison

University of Virginia: The Inventor’s Finest Creation

NJIT: Thomas Edison Also Invented the Concrete House