Education of an Inventor

The Boyhood Years

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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, ez0876the 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.

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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]."

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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."