Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, Thomas Alva Edison’s first schoolmaster pronounced him the equivalent of “ADHD” – attention deficit hyperactive disorder. Alva’s inquisitiveness and excitement were mistakenly thought to be inattention and retardation. After only three months of formal education, Edison’s mother began teaching him at home, stressing exploration and experimentation.
Declaring himself independent at twelve years of age, Thomas began working for a railroad line selling food and a newspaper that he published. At age 16, he took a job in Canada as a telegrapher. His job was to signal Toronto every hour, but he quickly discovered that his task was a needless waste of time. In response, Thomas came up with his first invention – a gadget rigged to issue an hourly signal automatically.
By age 21, Edison had developed a pattern that continued throughout his life: working 16-plus hour days. He made his public debut as an inventor with an electric vote recorder that he intended to sell to Congress. Despite no apparent success, Edison placed a notice in The Telegrapher announcing, “T. A. Edison has resigned his situation in the Western Union office, Boston, and will devote his time to bringing out inventions.”
Within a few months, the penniless Edison invented the printing-telegraph, an improved stock ticker that earned him $40,000 in 1869. Eventually this allowed Edison to set up his famed workshop in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876. Here he created an invention factory that required his staff to commit to the same workaholic intensity that he maintained. Just one year later, however, their efforts created the first talking machine – the phonograph. The press immediately dubbed Thomas, “The Wizard of Menlo Park.”
Edison soon reached worldwide fame with his next invention, the incandescent electric light. When Edison started his lighting research, indoor lighting required the burning of candles, coal, gas, or kerosene. The market for more practical lighting was there, and Edison went after it. He developed a properly shaped bulb, a filament that glowed without breaking, a pump to create a vacuum in each bulb, a manufacturing process for production, and a system to supply electricity. Edison’s work with light bulbs eventually led to the creation of the General Electric Company, and attracted as a partner, the billionaire, J. P. Morgan.
There were, of course, other inventions: the first practical telephone, the modernized typewriter, motion pictures, storage batteries, and more. For all this, the public proclaimed Edison “The most useful American.”
Whenever Edison was asked what accounted for his success, he remarked that the formula consisted of “genius, that was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” A formula that today we might call “genius in work clothes.