Edison and Innovation Series - Education of an Inventor

Year of Innovation - Education of an Inventor


  1. The Boyhood Years
  2. Learning to do Business: Early Entrepreneuship
  3. Itinerant Telegrapher
  4. Boston Inventor and Businessman: 1868-1869
  5. New York: 1869-1870
  6. Newark, NJ 1870-1875
  7. British Telegraphy and the Creation of Edison's First Laboratory, 1873
  8. Becoming a Full-Time Inventor

The Boyhood Years

Edison's exposure to formal education in boyhood was limited, but he did attend the private school of the Rev. George Engle in 1854, and later, from 1859-1860, the publicly supported Port Huron Union School in Michigan. In 1885, Engle, who was retired without salary, wrote Edison to ask for financial help. "You will remember that some years ago, you attended School under my direction (& my wife's) at Port Huron," Engle wrote. "Your father, not being very flush with money, I did not urge him to pay the school bill."

Edison credited his mother with being his most important teacher. "My mother taught me how to read good books quickly and correctly," he later recalled, "and as this opened up a great world in literature, I have always been thankful for this early training." Edison remained an avid reader for the rest of his life.

Among the writers Edison read in these early days, sometimes together with his mother, were English historian Edward Gibbon, the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, and the revolutionary Thomas Paine. Edison's father, Samuel, a great admirer of Paine's political thought, had a set of Paine's collected works. Reading Paine, Edison later said, taught him how to think.

At the Port Huron Union School, Edison studied mathematics, science, and drawing—all of which prepared him for his future career. The young Thomas Edison also seems to have read rather widely on scientific topics, though his interest ran particularly to mechanics and chemistry. Among the scientific books he studied were Richard Parker's Natural Philosophy, used in the Port Huron school, and Carl Fresenius’s Qualitative Chemical Analysis.

As a boy, Edison consulted books, but relied on practical hands-on experience to deepen his knowledge. This practice foreshadowed the approach he used later as an inventor. To gain practical experience during his early years, he set up a chemical laboratory and a mechanical workshop in the family home. A boyhood friend, James A. Clancy, once reminded Edison of "the chances you and I used to take at your old home and how your good Mother used to talk to us and say we would yet blow our heads off." Clancy and Edison also set up a telegraph wire between their houses to practice sending messages. Ambrose Robinson, who boarded in the family home, remembered that Edison "used to love to get hold of a mechanical journal to study" and that after school the twelve-year-old Thomas would often make things in his workshop, often "knock[ing] it all to pieces and again mak[ing] it over until it suited [him]."

Soon after he began working on the Grand Trunk Railway as a newsboy and "candy butcher," or concessionaire, Edison set up a chemical laboratory in the baggage car. The train ran to Detroit where he met George Pullman, who was then working on his famous sleeping car. Edison later recalled that Pullman made him "a lot of wooden apparatus" for his chemical experiments. And that he later had to move his chemical laboratory to the basement of the family home after an accident in his traveling lab caused a fire that burned the baggage master, who, Edison later recalled, "boxed my ears so severely that I got somewhat deaf thereafter."

Learning to do Business: Early Entrepreneuship

While working on the railroad, the enterprising young Edison opened two side businesses in Port Huron—a periodical stand and a vegetable stand, both of which could be supplied by the railway. Edison hired boys to work these stands. To increase his profits, he also employed another boy to sell candy on the trains. Edison soon gave up the periodical stand because "the boy in charge could not be trusted." But the vegetable stand proved profitable. "Every morning I had two large baskets of vegetables from the Detroit Market loaded in the mail car and sent to Port Huron where the German boy [his employee] would take them to the store."

When the Civil War broke out, people in towns all along the rail line were anxious for news from the front. This caused Edison's newspaper business to boom. After witnessing the public clamor in Detroit for news of the Battle of Shiloh, he concluded that he might expand his business. "I decided," Edison recalled later, "that instead of the usual 100 papers that I could sell 1000." By using the telegraph to alert customers at each station that he was coming with the papers, Edison succeeded in selling them all and "made what to me then was an immense sum of money."

In the Spring of 1862, Edison began his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald, which he printed in the railway baggage car and sold on the trains and at station stops. The Weekly Herald contained news about the people who lived in the towns along the rail line and also about the employees of the Grand Trunk Railway.

Intinerant Telegrapher

Edison became aware of the importance of telegraph technology through his work as a newsboy on the railroad. The railroads used the telegraph to regulate traffic on their lines, but railway telegraphs also helped to disseminate the news of the day all across the country. Edison served an apprenticeship with railway telegraph operator James MacKenzie and soon took a part-time position as a telegrapher in the Port Huron telegraph office located in a local jewelry store. The store proprietor, Micah Walker, noted that Edison "was no good to wait on customers" and spent much of his idle time tinkering with the telegraph apparatus.

Within a short time, Edison had become a night operator for the Grand Trunk Railway at a small station, Stratford Junction, in Ontario. "This night job just suited me," he later recalled, "as I could have the whole day to myself." But one night, Edison's failure to hold a train so another could pass, nearly resulted in a bad accident, and he was dismissed.

After losing his job at Stratford Junction, Edison moved on to Adrian, Michigan, where he worked in the office of the division superintendent of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad. From there, Edison kept moving, working in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Indianapolis, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky.
While working in Indianapolis, Edison devised his first true invention, a telegraph practice instrument that could record a Morse Code message on paper tape at regular speed and then play it back at a slower speed so it could be written down. Years later, Edison's friend Ed Parmelee reminisced with him about this first invention. Edison later made a drawing of this device in his earliest surviving notebook.

It was in Cincinnati in 1867 that Edison first set up a small private workroom where he could build and experiment with telegraph apparatus. It was also in Cincinnati that Edison was introduced to the experimental duplex telegraph, which could send two messages simultaneously on a single wire. He soon began to make some experiments of his own, jotting down ideas in a notebook. Experimenting with the duplex would eventually lead Edison to invent the quadruplex, capable of sending four messages on one wire. This was his most important contribution to telegraphy. The notebook also included a number of plans for automatic repeaters, a crucial technology in the post-Civil War era that enabled transmission of signals over longer distances without the use of operators. One of these designs, Edison’s "one sounder" or "button repeater," was described in an 1869 book on telegraphy. Daniel B. Grandy, who became an operator at the close of the war, later recalled that "One of the first efforts of the embryo 'electrician' in those days, used to be the invention of a new 'repeater.' "

Boston Inventor and Businessman: 1868-1869

In April 1868, Edison moved to Boston where he took a job as an operator in the city's main Western Union office. He worked nights as a press-wire operator, taking news copy from the Associated Press off the telegraph wire. A portion of a press-wire report in Edison's hand from this period is now in the archives at The Thomas Edison Historical Park in West Orange, N.J. Being in Boston furthered Edison’s ambition to become an inventor. George Milliken, the superintendent of the Western Union telegraph office, was also a telegraph inventor. Edison also frequented the city's many telegraph shops and rubbed shoulders with other telegraph experimenters and inventors. He began doing his own experimental work at Charles Williams's shop on Court St., where electrical inventor Moses Farmer had a small laboratory.

Edison also found financiers involved in local telegraph companies who took an interest in his talent and experimental work. In short order, he received financial backing to develop and patent two important inventions—the vote recorder and an improved stockprinter.  The vote recorder was the first invention for which Edison received a patent. This patent was issued on 1 June 1869. He received his second patent, for the stock printer, on 22 June of the same year. In January 1869, Edison went into business for himself in Boston, opening a gold and stock quotation service that employed his stockprinter to relay information from the New York gold and stock exchanges via private lines to some twenty-five subscribers in the city. This business was successful enough to allow Edison to resign from his position at Western Union and become a full-time inventor.

New York: 1869-1870

In the spring of 1869, Edison decided to move from Boston to New York in order to test another invention, his double transmitter for sending two messages over one wire. During the tests, which were only partially successful, Edison found it necessary to modify his instruments, but was delayed "on account of piling up of jobs at the instrument makers."

The move to New York was one of the most momentous of Edison’s career. New York was the epicenter of the telegraph industry in the United States. It was the headquarters of Western Union, which was on its way to becoming the nation's leading telegraph company, and also of the Gold & Stock Telegraph Company, which first established stock ticker service at the New York Stock Exchange and was also becoming a dominant force in transmitting prices from the gold and various commodity exchanges across the country. In contrast to his conservative Bostonian investors, Edison found that New Yorkers were willing to spend money to develop new technology. In New York, he thought he could make the money he needed to continue his telegraph research, as he explained in a letter to an associate.

Within a few months of his move to New York City, Edison landed a position as superintendent of Law's Gold and Stock Reporting Co. His new job provided some security and also the wherewithal to continue to improve the printing telegraph he had developed in Boston. In the fall of 1869, the Gold and Stock Telegraph Co. bought out the Law's company and dismissed Edison as superintendent. Undaunted, he formed an electrical engineering business with Franklin Pope and James Ashley, who had replaced Pope as editor of the Telegrapher. Pope, Edison & Co. offered an array of electrical engineering and telegraphic services, as can be seen in the company's advertisement in the Telegrapher.

Newark, N.J., 1870-1875

In February 1870, Edison signed his first contract to do inventive work for Gold & Stock. In addition to his salary, two investors in the Gold & Stock supported Edison's work on his autographic telegraph and provided him with the seed money to rent a room and furnish it with all necessary tools and apparatus. This was all he needed to open his own shop, the Newark Telegraph Works, with machinist William Unger. Previous experience had taught him that any agreements he made to work on inventions for businesses needed to include funding for a shop to carry out experimental and design work. In May 1871, Western Union took over Gold & Stock, which signed Edison to a new five-year contract as "consulting Electrician and Mechanician" at a salary of $2,000 per year and acquired rights to his Universal stock printer, which became the industry standard.  

In 1870, Edison began work for the newly formed Automatic Telegraph Co. The automatic telegraph employed machinery to record incoming messages at a faster rate than Morse operators could achieve. To enable Edison’s experimental work, one of the company’s investors provided funding for a second telegraph manufacturing shop in Newark known as the American Telegraph Works. In a letter to his parents Edison described himself as a "Bloated Eastern Manufacturer" with "one shop that employs 18 men" and another "which will employ over 150 men." In 1873, Edison would consolidate all of his shops in a four-story building located on Ward Street in Newark. 

British Telegraphy and the Creation of Edison's First Laboratory, 1873

The Automatic Telegraph Co. sent Edison to Great Britain in Spring 1873 to learn more about British automatic telegraph designs—notably the Wheatstone telegraph— and to test his own system with an eye to opening a new foreign market. Although he was able to successfully demonstrate his automatic telegraph to the British Postal Service and on the cable telegraph, Edison ran into considerable difficulty getting it to work properly due to the effects of electrical induction caused by underground lines and undersea cables. As the British telegraph engineer Willoughby Smith relates in his book The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy,, Mr. Edison, with a candor seldom possessed by inventors, admitted that he was not prepared for this 'darned induction,' and that he 'would go back to think about it.' " In Britain, Edison encountered the more scientific approach to telegraphy described by British telegraph engineer William Preece. "The intricate laws of induction," Preece noted, "have not only called forth the closest attention and study of the Telegraph Engineer, but the operations and researches of the Engineer have materially advanced our knowledge of the Science itself." This encounter convinced Edison that he needed to focus on electrical and electrochemical research to supplement his electromechanical approach to invention.

While in London, Edison also took the opportunity to visit the city's many telegraph instrument makers, who made a wide variety of electrical testing and measuring apparatus not available in the United States. Upon his return to America, Edison began to order such instruments, including many from Elliott Brothers, whose 1873 catalog can be found in Edison’s library. By December, he had established his first laboratory with "every conceivable variety of electric Apparatus and any quantity of Chemicals for experimentation." Joining Edison in his new laboratory was Charles Batchelor, the foreman of the Ward Street shop, who now became Edison’s primary experimental assistant.

Becoming a Full-Time Inventor

In the spring of 1875, Edison decided to expand his laboratory facilities and devote his full time to invention. He took over most of the Ward Street building for the laboratory while Joseph Murray, who had replaced William Unger as his manufacturing partner, continued to manufacture telegraph apparatus on the top floor and half of the third. On May 31, Edison and Charles Batchelor drew up a list of inventions to work on in the new laboratory, including a "copying press that will take 100 copies & system." This turned into Edison’s electric pen, his first successful invention outside of telegraphy and the first one that he marketed himself.

By this time Edison had added a second experimental assistant, James Adams. On 2 October 1875, Edison signed an agreement giving Batchelor and Adams a percentage of his royalties from the electric pen. The agreement also set aside a small portion for the laboratory.