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Thomas Edison

The Early Years of Thomas Edison

Important Terms and People

Telegrapher for Hire


Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children, only four of whom would live to adulthood. His father, Samuel Edison, Jr. was principally a tavern owner and land speculator. His mother Nancy had been a schoolteacher. Samuel Edison had trouble providing for his large family and dabbled in many ventures, most of them unsuccessful. The family moved to the larger town of Port Huron in 1854, where the railroad had brought new opportunities.

Edison was a sickly child. Perhaps because of this, his mother doted on him. He was curious even from a young age. Once, he asked his mother why geese sit on their eggs. She explained that it was so they would hatch, and when Thomas went missing that day, she found him sitting patiently on a batch of geese eggs in a neighbor's barn.

Because of his sicknesses, the family's financial situation, and its relocation, Edison did not start school until he was about eight years old. He first attended the private school of Reverend G.B. Engle. Unfortunately, he was a restless pupil and did not perform well. He disliked the rote teaching methods and the lack of flexibility. When the teachers claimed that he was a slow child, his mother took him out of school and began teaching him herself at home.

From his mother, Edison learned basic reading, writing and arithmetic. His father introduced him to his own favorite philosopher, Thomas Paine. Reading became a passion, and Edison read extensively, especially popular science periodicals and novels. Later on, as an adult, he would take this same approach in doing research for his inventions, sometimes spending days in the library. He read voraciously and did not hesitate to study texts from all fields of learning.

Though Edison drifted in and out of formal school environments, he was largely taught by his mother and himself. At the age of twelve his schooling ended when he took a job as a "candy butcher" on the Grand Trunk Railroad, selling newspapers, magazine, and snacks to passengers. The railroad job granted him access to new cities like Detroit and allowed him to showcase his budding entrepreneurial skills. He set up a printing press and a chemistry lab in the baggage car. On days when important battles of the Civil War broke out, he made a great deal of money by baiting the crowds with snippets of information about the battle that he had arranged to be telegraphed ahead of time, then selling his papers at inflated prices.


Edison came from a family of political activists: his great-grandfather, John, fought for the British during the Revolutionary War and was nearly executed for treason. His own father, Samuel Jr., helped to lead an uprising in Ontario for representative government and was forced to flee for the United States. Historians speculate that it may be these roots that helped Edison develop his own somewhat maverick approach to inventing and marketing.

Even at this stage of Edison's life, technology and invention were crucial shaping devices in his development. For example, Milan, Ohio, had once been a bustling port town, but when the railroad was built on a track that bypassed Milan, the town lost much of its business. Port Huron, which was where the family relocated, caught a great deal of attention instead because the railroad was nearby. It was that same railroad that gave Edison his first job, his first exposure to business techniques, first sight of urban centers like Detroit, and first taste of financial independence.

Edison's schooling is in the tradition of many great men: he was largely self- taught and self-willed when it came to learning. He was also dismissive, even as a child, of rigid structure and an environment that discouraged innovation. He did well at home or when he was learning on his own, but the idea of rote instruction bored and discouraged him. Fortunately, his mother, having been a schoolteacher herself, did not listen to the teachers and the principal, and she prepared a looser structure from which Edison could learn effectively. Thanks to her tutelage, Edison also read some of the classics early: she introduced him to Shakespeare, among others.

Like most boys of his family background and limited means, however, the time for Edison's schooling was short. It was not at all unusual for a boy of twelve at this time to leave school in order to help support his family. And the railroad was where Edison learned most of the rules that would assist him in the future: the laws of supply and demand as a candy butcher, for example, of the importance of publicity and marketing and the vitality and opportunities of a large urban center.

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