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Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Biography of Thomas Edison(1)

Surprisingly, little "Al" Edison, who was the last of seven children in his family, did not learn to talk until he was almost four years of age.  Immediately thereafter, he began pleading with every adult he met to explain the workings of just about everything he encountered. If they said they didn't know, he would look them straight in the eye with his deeply set and vibrant blue-green eyes and ask them "Why?"
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Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison was not born into poverty in a backwater mid-western town. Actually, he was born -on Feb. 11, 1847 - to middle-class parents in the bustling port of Milan, Ohio, a community that - next to Odessa, Russia - was the largest wheat shipping center in the world. In 1854, his family moved to the vibrant city of Port Huron, Michigan, which ultimately surpassed the commercial preeminence of both Milan and Odessa....

Edison as a child 

At age seven - after spending 12 weeks in a noisy one-room schoolhouse with 38 other students of ll ages - Tom's overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost his patience with the child's persistent questioning and seemingly self centered behavior.  Noting that Tom's forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average, he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster's brains were "addled" or scrambled.

If modern psychology had existed back then, Tom would have probably been deemed a victim of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and proscribed a hefty dose of the "miracle drug" Ritalin. Instead, when his beloved mother - whom he recalled "was the making of me...  [because] she was always so true and so sure of me...  And always made me feel I had someone to live for and must not disappoint." - became aware of the situation, she promptly withdrew him from school and began to "home-teach" him.  Not surprisingly, she was convinced her son's slightly unusual demeanor and physical appearance were merely outward signs of his remarkable intelligence.
Nancy Edison

     A descendant of the distinguished Elliot family of New England, New York born Nancy Edison was the devout and attractive daughter of a highly respected Presbyterian minister and an accomplished   educator in her own right.  After the above incident, she commenced teaching her favorite son the "Three Rs" and the Bible. Meanwhile, his rather "worldly" and roguish father, Samuel, encouraged him to read the great classics, giving him a ten cents reward for each one he completed.  

     It wasn't long thereafter that the serious minded youngster developed a deep interest in world history and English literature. Interestingly, many years later, Tom's abiding fondness for Shakespeare's plays lead him to briefly consider becoming an actor. However, because of his high-pitched voice and his extreme shyness before every audience - except those he was trying to influence into helping him finance an invention - he soon gave up the idea. 

     Tom especially enjoyed reading and reciting poetry. His life-long favorite was Gray's Elegy In A Country Churchyard. Indeed, his favorite lines - which he endlessly chanted to himself and any within hearing distance - came from its 9th stanza: “The boast of heraldry of pomp and power, All that beauty all that wealth ere gave, Alike await the inevitable hour. The path to glory leads but to the grave.”

     At age 11, Tom's parents tried to appease his ever more voracious appetite for knowledge by teaching him how to use the resources of the local library. This skill became the foundation of many factors that gradually caused  him to prefer learning via independent self instruction. 

     Starting with the last book on the bottom shelf, Tom set out to systematically read every book in the stacks.  Wisely, however, his parents promptly guided him into  towards being more selective in what he read.... By age 12, Tom had not only completed Gibbon's Rise And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Sears' History Of The World, and Burton's Anatomy Of Melancholy, he had devoured The World Dictionary of Science and a number of works on Practical Chemistry.

     Unfortunately, in spite of their noble efforts, Tom's dedicated parents eventually found themselves incapable of addressing his ever increasing  interest in the  Sciences.  For example, when he began to question them about concepts dealing with Physics - such as those contained in Isaac Newton's great "Principia" - they were utterly stymied.  Accordingly, they scraped enough money together to hire a clever tutor to help their precocious son in trying to understand Newton's complex mathematical principles and unique style.... 

     Unfortunately, this experience had some negative affects on the highly impressionable boy. He was  so disillusioned by how Newton's sensational theories were written in classical aristocratic terms -which he felt were unnecessarily confusing to the average person -he overreacted and developed  a hearty dislike for all such "high-tone" language and mathematics.... 

     On the other hand, the simple beauty of Newton's physical laws did not escape him. In fact, they very much helped him sharpen his own free wheeling style of clear thinking, proving all things to himself through his own method of objective examination and experimentation."    Tom's response to the Principia also enhanced his propensity towards gleaning insights from the writings and activities of other great men and women of wisdom,   never forgetting that even they might be entrenched in preconceived dogma and mired down in associated error....

      All the while he was cultivated a strong sense of perseverance, readily expending whatever amount of perspiration needed to overcome challenges. This was a characteristic that he later noted was contrary to the way most people respond to stress and strain on their body....  The key upshot of this attribute was that his unique mental, and physical, stamina stood him in good stead when he took on the incredible rigors of a being a successful  inventor in the late 19th Century....

   Oddly, a factor that  shaped Tom's personality in both a negative and a positive way was  his  poor   hearing.... Even though this condition -and the fact that he had only three months of formal schooling - prevented him from taking advantage of the benefits of a secondary education in contemporary mathematics, physics, and engineering, he never let it interfere with  finding ways   of  compensating....     More precisely,  it was this his  highly individualistic  style of acquiring knowledge that eventually  led  him to  question scores  of the prevailing theories on the workings of electricity..... Approaching  this complex field  like a "lone eagle," he  used his kaleidoscopic mind  and his legendary memory, dexterity, and patience to  perform  whatever experiments were  necessary to  come up with his own   related      theories...    As many  of his contemporaries continued to  indulge the  popular electrical pontifications of the day, he was ever sharpening his now ingrained  style of  dispassionate and bold analysis....  "I accept almost nothing dealing with electricity without thoroughly testing it first." he often  declared.  Not surprisingly, by arming his brains  with  this    perspective,  he soon established a firm foothold in the world of practical electrical science    And of course, at the dawn of the "Age Of Electric Light And Power," nothing   could  have better served his ultimate destiny in the field of invention...
Edison at 12 years old Returning to the story of  his youth, by age 12, Tom had  already  become an  "adult." He had  not only talked his parents into letting him go to work selling newspapers, snacks, and candy on the local railroad, he had started an entirely separate business selling fruits and vegetables..... 
  And at age 14 -during the time of  the famous pre-Civil War debates between Lincoln and Douglas -he exploited his access to the associated news releases that were being teletyped into the station each day and published them in his own little newspaper.    Focusing  upon such newsworthy "scoops," he quickly enticed over 300  commuters to subscribe to his splendid little paper:  the Weekly Herald....   Interestingly, because this was the first such publication  ever to be type-set, printed, and sold on a train,  an English journal now gave him his first exposure to international notoriety when it related  this story  in 1860. 

      After his hero, Abraham Lincoln, was  nominated for president, Tom not only distributed campaign literature on his behalf, he  peddled flattering photographs of "the great emancipator."  (Interestingly, some 25 years later, Tom's associated feelings about abolition caused him to select Brockton, Massachusetts as the first place to model  the first standardized central power system, described elsewhere on the Brockton web site.)

At its peak, Tom's mini-publishing venture  netted him more than ten dollars per day. Because this was considerably more than enough to provide for his own support, he had a good deal of extra income, most of which went towards outfitting the chemical laboratory he had set up in the basement of his home. But hen his usually patient and tolerant mother finally complained about the odors and danger of all the "poisons" he was amassing, he transferred most of them to a locked room in the basement and put the remainder in his locker room on the train.
One day, while traversing a bumpy section of track, the train lurched, causing a stick of phosphorous to roll onto the floor and ignite. Within moments, the baggage car caught fire. The conductor was so angry, he severely chastised the boy and struck him with a powerful blow on the side of his head. Purportedly, this may  have aggravated some of the loss of  hearing he may have inherited and from  a later bout he had with scarlet fever.  In any case, the station master  penalized him by  restricting him to peddling his  newspaper to venues in railroad stations along the track .... 
Remarkably,  years later and  not long after he had acquired the means to have an operation that "would have likely restored his hearing," he flatly refused to act upon the option.... His rationale was that he was afraid he "would have difficulty re-learning how to channel his thinking in an ever more  noisy world."  Whatever the cause for this defect,   by the time Tom was 14 years of age, it  was  virtually impossible for him to acquire knowledge in a typical educational setting. Amazingly,  however, he never seemed to fret a whole lot over the matter. Naturally inclined towards accepting his fate in life - and promptly  adapting to whatever he was convinced was out of his control -he always reacted by committing  himself to compensating via  alternative methods....

Ultimately, Tom  became totally deaf in his left ear, and approximately 80% deaf in his right ear. Poignantly, he once stated that the worst thing about this condition was that he was unable to enjoy the beautiful sounds of singing birds.  Indeed, he loved the creatures so much, he later amassed an aviary containing  over 5,000 of them. One day while he was on the train, the stationmaster's very young son happened to wander onto the tracks in front of an oncoming boxcar. Tom leaped to action.  Luckily - as they tumbled away from its oncoming wheels - they  ended up being only slightly injured.

   Now, one of the most significant events in Tom's life occurred when - as a reward for his heroism - the child's grateful father taught him how to master the use of Morse code and the telegraph. In the "age of telegraphy," this was  akin to being introduced to learning how to use a state-of-the-art computer.

     By age 15, Tom had pretty much mastered the basics of this fascinating new career and obtained a job as a replacement for one of the thousands of "brass pounders" (telegraph operators) who had gone off to serve in the Civil War. He now had a golden opportunity to enhance his speed and efficiency in sending and receiving code and performing experiments designed to  improve this device....Edison telegraph years

     Once the Civil War ended, to his mother's great dismay,  Tom decided that it was time to "seek his fortune." So, over the next few years, he meandered throughout the Central States, supporting himself as a "tramp operator". 
      At age 16, after working in a variety of telegraph offices, where he performed numerous "moonlight" experiments, he finally came up with his  first authentic invention. Called an "automatic repeater," it transmitted telegraph signals between unmanned stations, allowing virtually anyone to easily and accurately translate code at their own speed and convenience. Curiously, he never patented the initial version of this idea.

     In 1868 - after making a name for himself amongst fellow telegraphers for being a rather flamboyant and quick witted character who enjoyed playing "mostly harmless" practical jokes - he returned home one day ragged and penniless. Sadly, he found his parents in an even worse predicament.... First, his beloved mother was beginning to show signs of insanity "which was probably  aggravated by the strains of an often difficult life." Making matters worse, his rather impulsive father had just quit his job and the local bank was about to foreclose on the family homestead.

     Tom promptly came to grips with the pathos of this situation and - perhaps for the first time in his life -  also resolved to come to grips with a number of his own immature shortcomings. After a good deal of  soul searching, he finally decided that the best thing he could do would be to get right back out on his own and try to make some serious money....

     Shortly thereafter, Tom accepted the suggestion of a fellow "lightening slinger" named Billy Adams to come East and apply for a permanent job as a telegrapher with the relatively prestigious Western Union Company in Boston. His willingness to travel over a thousand miles from home was at least partly influenced by the fact that he had been given a free rail ticket by the local street railway company for some repairs he had done for them.  The most important factor, however, was the fact that Boston was considered to be "the hub of the scientific, educational, and cultural universe at this time...."


     Throughout the mid-19th century, New England had many features that were analogous to today's Silicon Valley in California. However, instead of being a haven for the thousands of young "tekkies" - who communicate with each other in computerese and internet code of today - it was the home of scores of young telegraphers who anxiously stayed abreast of the emerging age of electricity and the telephone etc. by conversing with  via Morse code.

     During these latter days of the "age of the telegraph," Tom toiled 12 hours a day and six days a week for Western Union. Meanwhile, he continued "moonlighting" on his own projects and, within six months,  had applied for and received his very first patent. A beautifully constructed electric vote-recording machine, this first "legitimate" invention he was to come up with turned out to be a disaster. 

     When he tried to market it to members of the Massachusetts Legislature, they thoroughly denigrated it, claiming "its speed in tallying votes would disrupt the delicate political status-quo." The specific issue was that  - during times of stress - political groups regularly relied upon the brief delays that were provided by the process of manually counting votes to influence and hopefully change the opinions of their colleagues.... "This is exactly what we do not want" a seasoned politician scolded him, adding that "Your invention would not only destroy the only hope the minority would have in influencing legislation, it would deliver them over - bound hand and foot - to the majority." 

     Although Tom was very much disappointed by this turn of events, he immediately grasped the implications. Even though his remarkable invention allowed each voter to instantly cast his vote from his seat - exactly as it was supposed to do - he realized his idea was so far ahead of its time it was completely devoid of any immediate sales appeal.

     Because of his continuing desperate need for money, Tom now made a critically significant adjustment in his, heretofore, relatively naive outlook on the world of business and marketing.... From now on,  he vowed, he would "never waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy."

     It is important to add here that it was during Tom's 17 month stint in Boston that he was first exposed to lectures at Boston Tech (which was founded in 1861 and became the Mass. Institute of Technology in 1916) and the ideas of several associates on the state-of-the-art of "multiplexing" telegraph signals. This theory and related experimental quests involved the transmission of electrical impulses at different frequencies over telegraph wires, producing horn-like simulations of the human voice and even crude images (the first internet?) via an instrument called the harmonic telegraph.

     Not surprisingly, Alexander Graham Bell, who was also living in Boston at the time, was equally fascinated by this exciting new aspect of communication science. And no wonder. The principles surrounding it  ultimately led to the invention of the first articulating telephone, the first fax machine, the first microphone, etc.

     During this epiphany,  Edison also became very well acquainted with Benjamin Bredding. Bredding's family obligations combined with his business naivte prevented him from persuing his dreams. The same age as Bell and Edison, this 21 year old genius would soon  provide critically important assistance to Bell in perfecting long distance telephony, the first reciprocating telephone, and the magneto phone. A crack electrician, Bredding, with Watson's assistance, later set up  the world's first two-way long distance telephone apparatus for his close friend Alexander Graham Bell, who at the time "knew almost nothing about electricity."

Bell and Breddding  
Copyrighted - never before published - tintype of Bredding and Bell in October of 1876 on the day they successfully communicated across Boston's Charles River in the world's first long distance two-way telephone conversation. i.e., "The world's first practical telephone conversation."

     Bredding had originally worked for the well known promoter, George B. Stearns, who - with Bredding's help - had beaten everyone to the punch when he obtained the first patent for a duplex telegraph line. A device that exploits the fact that electromagnetism and the number and direction of wire windings associated with a connection between telegraph keys can influence the current that flows between them, and greatly facilitate two-way telegraphic communication, it powerfully intrigued Edison....


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