How did one man who, during his limited schooling, was known as a “difficult student” come to be credited with 1,093 patents, found 14 companies—including General Electric—produce more than 1,200 films, bring electricity to the masses and change the world forever? He did it with a tireless sense of curiosity, a unique willingness to collaborate and a relentless belief in good old fashioned hard work.
That’s where Edison himself gave credit for his success. Looking back over the story of his life, it's apparent that none of what Edison accomplished would have been possible without his dedication to rolling up his sleeves and putting in the hours. He was the original king of the side hustle, finding ways in his early years to work his experiments while doing other jobs to pay the bills.
Finding his way to his ultimate calling wasn't simple and Edison's success didn’t happen young. He didn’t even get his first patent until he was 22, not exactly early in the 1800s. And it was a complete flop.
But that failure taught him a lesson that would guide all of his business endeavors in the future—to only create things that had a market—and he used that insight to create an empire that changed both his life and the world.
An Inventor and Entrepreneur
The stories that are told about Thomas Edison tend to revolve around his inventions—for good reason. If you flip on a light, listen to music or watch a movie, you’re enjoying just a few of the modern-day results of Edison’s inventions. He’s the man who created the phonograph; the first way to record sound; the first widely-used lightbulb and electric company; and the Kinetograph, the first motion picture camera. But focusing on his inventions glosses over the fact that Edison's success had just as much to with his genius as a collaborator and businessman as the inventions themselves.
While the phonograph was an invention created out of whole cloth, most of his patents—including the lightbulb—were for commercial improvements on existing designs and ideas. And one of his greatest innovations wasn't even a patentable invention—it was his laboratory, Menlo Park, where he employed a staff of inventors who churned out ideas under his supervision and direction.
Those skills—focusing on commercially viable innovations and harnessing the help of others—were both developed from a young age, back when he was a child, in the first job he ever had.
Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.-Thomas Edison
Born to Shake Things Up
Thomas Edison was the youngest of seven children, born in Milan, Ohio, in 1947, In spite of the ordinary sound of that, upsetting the status quo was in his blood. His father was a Canadian who fled to the United States after being part of a failed political rebellion in Canada. His mother, who was responsible for most of Edison’s schooling, was the daughter of a Revolutionary War hero.
From an early age, that disruptive heritage was evident. He attended public school for a total of 12 weeks, and his teachers called him “difficult” because of his hyperactivity and habit of getting distracted. But those same things that frustrated his teachers and made him ill-suited to the classroom drove him to read voraciously and teach himself once he left school, beginning a lifelong quest for knowledge that would drive his experiments and personal education for his entire life.
To make things even more difficult for Edison, he was completely deaf in one ear and could barely hear from the other. In fact, his hearing was so poor that later in life he would bite down on the wood of a music player or a piano just in order to be able to hear the sound. His hearing was damaged from scarlett fever and recurrent ear infections when he was young, but Edison told various stories for his hearing loss over the course of his life that often revolved around his years-long work on the railroads—an unlikely job that had a huge impact on the course of his life.
Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.-Thomas Edison
Edison's First Business and Lucky Save
At the age of 12, Edison got a job selling candy, vegetables, fruit and newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad, and the first hints of his entrepreneurial spirit began to show. In 1862, he convinced the railroad to let him begin selling his own newspaper in addition to the others, and got to writing and printing his own newspaper using a small printing press in the baggage car. He called it the Grand Trunk Herald and it was circulated to 400 railroad employees until an accidental fire in the box car forced him to stop printing.
That same year at the railroad, Edison rescued a 3-year-old from being crushed by a boxcar. To thank him, the boys’ father taught Edison how to operate a railroad telegraph. It would give him the skills that change the course of his life forever. He became a telegrapher in Port Huron that winter, and spent the next five years working around the Midwest, studying and doing experiments as he worked the telegraphs.
In later days, telegraphs began communicating by beeps instead of tapes with dots printed on them, which made work difficult for Edison and gave him trouble finding jobs. But in the early days, he was able to study how they worked as he operated them, and some of his earliest inventing successes would become improvements to telegraphs.
From Side Hustle to Big Sales
At 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and worked the AP news wire for Western Union, where he requested the night shift in order to continue working on his experiments. Of course, moonlighting as an inventor didn't always work out well. He was fired from that job when he spilled sulphuric acid while conducting an experiment and it leaked through the floorboards onto his boss’s desk below.
In 1868, Edison moved again. This time to Boston and, in 1969, he made his first mark as an inventor there by filing for his first patent—the flop that would teach him to only make things people wanted.
What he had invented was an electric vote counter device to help governmental bodies tally votes more quickly. But when it was shown to a member of Congress in Washington D.C., the congressman's response was “If there is any invention on earth that we don't want down here, that is it.” It turned out, the slow pace of voting was an advantage to politicians, allowing them to lobby each other to change minds and filibuster legislation.
The lesson would have been a hard one, but Edison didn't let it discourage him. From then on, he decided to only invent things people wanted and decided that year to focus on doing it full-time. He resigned from Western Union in Boston and moved to New York, where he got a job with Samuel Laws Gold & Stock Reporting by fixing a broken transmitter on the fly. He was hired the next day. While working at the company, he came up with improvements for the stock tickers, and eventually set up his own business, which he eventually sold to Western Union for $40,000.It wasn’t the last big sale of Edison’s life. In 1874, his years as a telegraph operator had already paid off with the invention of the Quadruplex Telegraph that enabled people to send two signals simultaneously in either direction. He wasn’t sure if his price of $5,000 to 6,000 dollars was right, so he asked Western Union for a bid and was shocked when they offered $10,000. Edison used this money to build his first workshop in Newark, making stock ticker and telegraph equipment. Then in 1875, he purchased 34 acres in Melo Park and began building his dream laboratory. He imagined a place that would have "a stock of almost every conceivable material," and it grew to be over two city blocks in the next 10 years.
Turning Invention into an Industry
It was during his time at Menlo park that Edison did the majority of the work that he became famous for, putting his business acumen to use. His staff of 80 inventors worked under his direction, developing all kinds of inventions for years to come. And while Edison died in 1931, the things he invented in his years there would long outlive him. Although it was replaced on Wall Street, the Universal Stock Ticker he sold in his early years was used to transmit things like sports scores all the way until around 1960. And the improvements he made to the the Bell telephone for the Bell telephone company were used in telephone handsets all the way up until the 1980s.
Edison left the world a completely different place than he found it. A world now with electricity and light, where inventors like himself would no longer have to slave away the night by candle. But also one richer for his story of hard work and curiosity, standing as an inspiration for future generations and lighting the way for many more innovations to come.