Thomas Alva Edison, born in Ohio on February 11, 1847, was one of the most well-known inventors of all time. He spent a few of his early years in formal schooling, but he received most of his education at home. Thomas set up a laboratory in the basement of his family’s Michigan home and spent most of his time experimenting. Edison’s mother, Nancy, knew her son was fond of chemistry and electronics, so she gave him books to read on the subjects. One book explained how to perform chemistry experiments at home; Thomas did every one in the book.
A biographer of Edison once noted: “His mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils, she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path. It was the very best thing she could have done for this singular boy.”
As Edison himself put it:
“My mother was the making of me. She understood me; she let me follow my bent.”
In 1859, the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended to Port Huron, Michigan. Thomas got a job as a newsboy for the day-long trip to Detroit and back. Since there was a five-hour layover in Detroit, Edison asked for permission to move his laboratory to the baggage car of the train so he could continue his experiments there. This worked for a little while, until the train lurched forward and spilled some chemicals, setting the laboratory on fire. While working for the railroad, Thomas saved the life of a station official’s child who had fallen onto the tracks of an oncoming train. As a way of thanking him for saving his child’s life, the father taught Thomas how to use the telegraph.
Thomas became so good at using the telegraph that he got a job working as a telegrapher sending signals between the United States and Canada. He began experimenting with ways to improve the telegraph, which led to his invention of the automatic telegraph, duplex telegraph, and message printer. It was about this time that Thomas dedicated his life to being a full-time inventor.
Thomas Edison moved to New York and set up a small laboratory in Newark, New Jersey. He continued his work on the telegraph and his ideas also gave birth to the universal stock ticker. In 1875, Edison wanted to build a new laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. His father Samuel supervised the construction of the new laboratory; it opened in 1876.
In the period from 1878 to 1880 Edison and his associates worked on at least three thousand different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp. Incandescent lamps make light by using electricity to heat a thin strip of material (called a filament) until it gets hot enough to glow. Many inventors had tried to perfect incandescent lamps to “sub-divide” electric light or make it smaller and weaker than it was in the existing arc lamps, which were too bright to be used for small spaces such as the rooms of a house.
Edison’s lamp would consist of a filament housed in a glass vacuum bulb. He had his own glass blowing shed where the fragile bulbs were carefully crafted for his experiments. Edison was trying to come up with a high resistance system that would require far less electrical power than was used for the arc lamps. This could eventually mean small electric lights suitable for home use.