Edison had very little formal education as a child, attending school only for a few months. He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own. This belief in self-improvement remained throughout his life.
Edison began working at an early age, as most boys did at the time. At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit. He seems to have spent much of his free time reading scientific, and technical books, and also had the opportunity at this time to learn how to operate a telegraph. By the time he was sixteen, Edison was proficient enough to work as a telegrapher full time.
The second half of the 19th Century saw rapid growth in communication and Edison turned to invention and his first invention was a failure. It made him resolve never to spend his time and energy but only what made profit. From Boston he moved to New York and set up his base in Menlo Park,25 miles southwest of New York City. Edison established a new facility containing all the equipment necessary to work on any invention.
The first invention that brought him international fame was the tin foil phonograph. The first machine that could record and reproduce sound was a sensation.Electric lighting was nothing new but Edison made it practical for home use. Edison’s eventual achievement was inventing not just an incandescent electric light, but also an electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the incandescent light practical, safe, and economical.
After one and a half years of work, success was achieved when an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonized sewing thread burned for thirteen and a half hours. The first public demonstration of the Edison’s incandescent lighting system was in December 1879, when the Menlo Park laboratory complex was electrically lighted. Edison spent the next several years creating the electric industry. In September 1882, the first commercial power station, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, went into operation providing light and power to customers in a one square mile area; the electric age had begun.
By the 1890s, Edison began to manufacture phonographs for both home, and business use. Like the electric light, Edison developed everything needed to have a phonograph work, including records to play, equipment to record the records, and equipment to manufacture the records and the machines. In the process of making the phonograph practical, Edison created the recording industry. It was a logical extension of the inventor’s mind to move on the working on a device that, “does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear”, this was to become motion pictures. Edison first demonstrated motion pictures in 1891, and began commercial production of “movies” two years later.
Like the electric light and phonograph before it, Edison developed a complete system, developing everything needed to both film and show motion pictures. Edison’s initial work in motion pictures was pioneering and original. Its importance had caught on that by 1918 the industry had become so competitive forcing Edison to get out of the movie business all together.
Edison thought that electric propulsion was clearly the best method of powering cars, but realized that conventional lead-acid storage batteries were inadequate for the job. Edison began to develop an alkaline battery in 1899. It proved to be Edison’s most difficult project, taking ten years to develop a practical alkaline battery. By the time Edison introduced his new alkaline battery, the gasoline powered car had so improved that electric vehicles were becoming increasingly less common, being used mainly as delivery vehicles in cities. However, the Edison alkaline battery proved useful for lighting railway cars and signals, maritime buoys, and miners lamps. Unlike iron ore mining where he lost heavily the storage battery eventually became Edison’s most profitable product. Further, Edison’s work paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.
As age caught up with him Edison’s role in life began to change from inventor and industrialist to cultural icon, a symbol of American ingenuity.The last experimental work of Edison’s life was done at the request of Edison’s good friends Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s.