Thomas Alva Edison: Birthplace and Early Life

Photo: Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in the canal town of Milan, Ohio, the last of seven children. His mother, Nancy, had been a school teacher; his father, Samuel, was a Canadian political firebrand who was exiled from his country. During the 1840s Milan was one of the leading grain shipping ports in the world. It also became an important shipbuilding and regional manufacturing center with a population of over 1,500.

Photo: Edison's parents, Samuel and Nancy The Edison family prospered along with the growing city during these years. Samuel supported the family as a shinglemaker, his brother Thomas operated a ship that brought shingle bolts from Canada, and apparently speculated in land as well. While they were not one of the town's leading families, the Edisons were well off and associated with some of Milan's more prominent citizens. Among the family friends was Captain Alva Bradley, a prominent ship-owner on the Great Lakes from whom Thomas received his middle name.

Photo: In August 1841, Samuel obtained a plot of land on the bluff overlooking the canal basin on which he built theseven-room brick house in which Thomas Alva Edison was born. The last of Samuel and Nancy Edison's seven children, he was the fourth to be born in Milan, but the only one of the four who survived early childhood (the last died in 1847). His three surviving siblingseighteen-year-old Marion, sixteen-year-old William (known by his middle name Pitt), and fourteen-year-old Harriet Ann (called "Tannie")had all been born in Vienna, Ontario, Canada.

In the year of Thomas's birth, Milan reached its peak as a grain port, shipping over 900,000 bushels of wheat and nearly 138,000 bushels of corn. However, grain shipments soon began a precipitous decline as farmers began to bring their products to Mansfield, which was on the newly opened rail line between Sandusky and Cleveland; wheat shipments from Milan declined by over half in 1848 and fell to under 282,000 bushels in 1849. Milan's economic decline eventually affected the Edison family, who would move to Port Huron, Michigan, in the spring of 1854.

Drawing of Milan, Ohio. Little is known of Thomas Edison's life in Milan, but from all accounts it was unexceptional and included typical boyhood activities. There is some evidence that young Thomas, usually called Alva or Al while growing up, was a sickly boy. One of his friends from Milan claimed that he had a catarrhal infection that bothered him at times. He also recalled that among Thomas's playmates was Mary Taylor, who lived nearby and "would go to bed with him" when he was not feeling well. Another playmate, who was born the same year as Edison, later wrote him of "things we boath remember of the old cannal whear we went boating and swimming in summer scating and playing [shinny?] in winter and of the hills we coasted down in winter and of the ships they built in Milan." Edison's own recollections included a visit to Vienna to see his grandfather, the covered wagons of a Milan gold rush party that included his uncle Snow Edison, who died soon after his arrival in California in the fall of 1849, the marriage of his sister Marion to Homer Page on December 19, 1849, and the drowning death of his playmate George Lockwood. Other accounts tell of his "fondness for building little plank roads out of the debris of the yards and mills," of his learning "the songs of the lumber gangs and canal men," and of his copying store signs in the village square.

Perhaps because of illness, Thomas did not attend the local public school, although his older siblings did, but his mother no doubt taught him to read and write. As a former schoolteacher she would have been well prepared to do so. "My mother taught me how to read good books quickly and correctly," he later said, "and as this opened up a great world in literature, I have always been very thankful for this early training."

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