The life of Thomas Edison makes a person seriously question the value of conformity. A partial list of his infractions against what is supposed to make a man happy, healthy and wise will illustrate the point nicely. He received only a few months of formal education, went to work at the age of 12 on a train, set fire to that train and was fired while working as a telegrapher for almost causing the collision of two trains. As an employer he was jealous of the most talented of his employees and took credit for other men’s work. He did not pay his bills when due, treated his wives badly, ignored his children and did not even sleep the requisite 8 hours a night.
Nevertheless, to an utterly amazing degree he invented the lives we all now live. Practically every instant from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we close our eyes at night is indelibly dominated by the work of this one man. It is his electrical system that powers our alarm clock in the morning. The modern descendent of the first practical incandescent light bulb (Edison’s work) lights our way to the bathroom. We listen to the recorded voice of our favorite singer, something no one had ever done before Edison got a brainstorm in 1877. We call into work sick on the telephone that uses the same carbon button transmitter Edison first developed. Then we spend the rest of the day watching movies (Edison was instrumental in the development of motion pictures) raiding the refrigerator and surfing the web (both made possible by his electrical system). Edison’s deficiencies aside, he is a pure model of the value of utter tenacity, dedication, hard work and self-confidence.
Of course Edison was not alone, there were others that worked with him, against him and for him. Together these scientists, inventors and businessmen developed the technological capital necessary to revolutionize our entire way of life. This revolution industrialized, urbanized, nationalized and centralized us. It led to the rise of great corporate power, mass immigration, suburbs, a more powerful national government and eventually our domination as a world power. We owe our entire way of life and power as a nation to the kind of people Edison epitomizes.
Edison was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. His formal schooling was sparse and unsatisfactory to all concerned. Mostly his mother taught him, which was not an unusual circumstance for the time. At the age of twelve he left schooling behind and spent the rest of his life teaching himself and inventing things for other people to study. His father helped him get his start with a job on the Grand Trunk Railroad. He would ride from a station near his home to Detroit and back selling candy, newspapers, cigars and sundries. The range and number of his activities during this time foreshadowed his adult years. Besides selling, he started his own newspaper called the Grand Truck Herald, he set up a laboratory for experiments on the train (it came to a rapid conclusion when one of his experiments set the train on fire) and spent a great amount of time reading.
Edison also became intensely interested in the telegraph. At the time the telegraph and railroads ran hand in hand. The telegraph wires followed the train tracks and were used to manage the running of the trains, so Edison came in contact with telegraphers and their work. Eventually he became a telegraph operator and spent the years from 1863 to 1867 as an itinerant telegrapher. This was a great environment for Edison to be in because telegraphy was the leading edge of technology. The whole field of electrical engineering was getting its start there, and Edison was one of those people who liked to tinker with the equipment and figure out how everything worked. As an employee, however, he was mediocre at best. His technical skills were not great and he preferred to concentrate on his own interests. He was fired several times, once for spilling sulfuric acid that went through the floor into the manager’s office below.
Edison eventually ended up in Boston where he received his first patent for an electric vote recorder and subsequently quit telegraphy to become a full time inventor. He began to get financial backers and started a company that provided stock quote information. By 1870 his path had taken him to Newark, New Jersey where he was to be for the next 5 years
1. One concept that never took off was Edison‘s interest in using cement to build things. He formed the Edison Portland Cement Co. in 1899, and made everything from cabinets (for phonographs) to pianos and houses. Unfortunately, at the time, concrete was too expensive and the idea was never accepted. Cement wasn’t a total failure, though. His company was hired to build Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
2. From the beginning of the creation of motion pictures, many people tried to combine film and sound to make “talking” motion pictures. Here you can see to the left an example of an early film attempting to combine sound with pictures made by Edison‘s assistant, W.K.L. Dickson. By 1895, Edison had created the Kinetophone–a Kinetoscope (peep-hole motion picture viewer) with a phonograph that played inside the cabinet. Sound could be heard through two ear tubes while the viewer watched the images. This creation never really took off, and by 1915 Edison abandoned the idea of sound motion pictures
3. The greatest failure of Thomas Edison’s career was his inability to create a practical way to mine iron ore. He worked on mining methods through the late 1880s and early 1890s to supply the Pennsylvania steel mills’ demand for iron ore. In order to finance this work, he sold all his stock in General Electric, but was never able to create a separator that could extract iron from unusable, low-grade ores. Eventually, Edison gave up on the idea, but by then he had lost all the money he’d invested.
The world has many Thomas Edisons and even greater than him. Many have their dreams and visions truncated because they gave up, or because the surrender to the prejudice that society tried to impose on them. Many however are just victims of their environment which may not allow them to thrive. How will you know if you are headed to greatness without trying or by giving up after encountering failure or human obstacle. When next you face that big failure, always remember the words of Edison
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”