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The Life of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison - Family Background, Early Years, First Jobs

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Dining room with hanging lightbulbs
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Thomas Edison's forebears lived in New Jersey until their loyalty to the British crown during the American Revolution drove them to Nova Scotia, Canada. From there, later generations relocated to Ontario and fought the Americans in the War of 1812. Edison's mother, Nancy Elliott, was originally from New York until her family moved to Vienna, Canada, where she met Sam Edison, Jr., whom she later married. When Sam became involved in an unsuccessful insurrection in Ontario in the 1830s, he was forced to flee to the United States and in 1839 they made their home in Milan, Ohio.

Birth of Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison was born to Sam and Nancy on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. Known as "Al" in his youth, Edison was the youngest of seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Edison tended to be in poor health when young.

To seek a better fortune, Sam Edison moved the family to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854, where he worked in the lumber business.

Addled Brain?

Edison was a poor student. When a schoolmaster called Edison "addled," or slow. his furious mother took him out of the school and proceeded to teach him at home. Edison said many years later, "My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had some one to live for, some one I must not disappoint." At an early age, he showed a fascination for mechanical things and for chemical experiments.

In 1859, Edison took a job selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad to Detroit. In the baggage car, he set up a laboratory for his chemistry experiments and a printing press, where he started the "Grand Trunk Herald", the first newspaper published on a train. An accidental fire forced him to stop his experiments on board.

Loss of Hearing

Around the age of twelve, Edison lost almost all his hearing. There are several theories as to what caused his hearing loss. Some attribute it to the aftereffects of scarlet fever which he had as a child. Others blame it on a conductor boxing his ears after Edison caused a fire in the baggage car, an incident which Edison claimed never happened. Edison himself blamed it on an incident in which he was grabbed by his ears and lifted to a train. He did not let his disability discourage him, however, and often treated it as an asset, since it made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments and research. Undoubtedly, though, his deafness made him more solitary and shy in dealings with others.

Work as a Telegraph Operator

In 1862, Edison rescued a three-year-old from a track where a boxcar was about to roll into him. The grateful father, J.U. MacKenzie, taught Edison railroad telegraphy as a reward. That winter, he took a job as a telegraph operator in Port Huron. In the meantime, he continued his scientific experiments on the side. Between 1863 and 1867, Edison migrated from city to city in the United States taking available telegraph jobs.

Love of Invention

In 1868, Edison moved to Boston where he worked in the Western Union office and worked even more on his inventions. In January 1869 Edison resigned his job, intending to devote himself fulltime to inventing things. His first invention to receive a patent was the electric vote recorder, in June 1869. Daunted by politicians' reluctance to use the machine, he decided that in the future he would not waste time inventing things that no one wanted.

Edison moved to New York City in the middle of 1869. A friend, Franklin L. Pope, allowed Edison to sleep in a room at Samuel Laws' Gold Indicator Company where he was employed. When Edison managed to fix a broken machine there, he was hired to manage and improve the printer machines.

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