Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. In 1854, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. His parents were middle-class and worked hard to provide for Thomas.
Even at the age of seven, it was apparent that Thomas was self-centered, something his teacher often complained about. Thomas also possessed an insatiable curiosity, asking questions constantly about all manner of things. His mother removed him from the school after only twelve weeks and began to teach him herself.
Thomas' early interests were history and literature. His father gave him ten cents for every classic novel that he read, although no encouragement was required. He developed a fondness for plays, particularly those of Shakespeare, but his shyness and high-pitched voice convinced him that life as an actor was not meant for him.
At eleven, he was given access to the local library, where he intended to read every book in the building. He read books on a wide variety of topics, ranging from adventure to science. He soon began asking his parents questions on topics they did not understand, including Newton's physical theories. Thus, his parents worked hard to make enough money for an educated tutor to help Thomas.
By the age of twelve, he was working harder than a lot of adults, selling newspapers and snacks on the railroad and selling food to people in town. At fourteen, he began writing a newspaper called "The Weekly Herald", which was the first journalistic publication ever type-set, printed, and sold on a train. One of his articles made it into a major English journal, gaining him some notoriety and helping him to sell more than four hundred copies of his paper a day, making a profit of about ten dollars.
Thomas used the extra money to purchase chemistry equipment, which he stored in the basement of his home, but often took experiments on the train. On one occasion, he dropped a phosphorus stick onto the floor of the baggage car, causing it to light on fire. The conductor, being absolutely furious, struck Thomas across the head and limited his newspaper sales to stations on the railroad.
When Thomas was fourteen, he contracted scarlet fever, which many attribute to removing most of his hearing abilities. This made it so that he could not obtain further education in a school setting, forcing him to use other methods to educate himself. He became entirely deaf in his left ear and 80% deaf in his right ear, but rarely complained about the condition. In fact, he began to enjoy the silence, which he could use to concentrate even further. When given the opportunity to have his hearing repaired, he refused.
His newspaper business came to an abrupt end when a railroad supervisor discovered the press on the train and threw it out, along with Thomas. Despite no longer being able to make his newspaper and sell it, he continued to return to the railroad station. One day, the station master's son wandered onto the tracks in front of a rapidly approaching train. A brave Thomas quickly grabbed the boy and endured only minor injuries in the resultant tumbling.
As a reward for his heroism, Thomas' father taught him morse code and how to use the telegraph. By the age of fifteen, he had mastered the system and acquired a job as a telegraph operator. Soon after, he declared that he wanted to seek his fortune and began wandering throughout the states, taking jobs as a telegraph operator where he could find them. During the long night shifts he took time to experiment with improvements to the telegraph.
His first well known invention was an automatic telegraph repeater, which allowed a signal to be transmitted between unmanned stations. Although he never pursued a patent for the device, he gained a reputation among other telegraph operators as a quick-witted prankster.
In 1898 he returned home broke only to find that his mother was showing signs of insanity and his father had quit his job. The family was broke and the bank was planning to foreclose on their house, but Thomas had no money to help with the situation. He moved to Boston, where he received a permanent telegraph operator job with the Western Union Company. At that time, Boston was considered the hub of science, education, and culture.
Thomas worked twelve hours a day, six days a week for the company, working at night on his own projects. Within six months he received his first patent for an electric voting machine. Unfortunately, politicians did not want such a machine since they used a delay in the counting of votes to influence the opinions of their colleagues. Thomas was very disappointed, but resolved never to invent things that people did not want to buy.
Thomas moved to New York after Western Union became angry with him for doing too much "moonlighting" on his projects. Jobless, he came close to the brink of starvation after three weeks. His lucky break came when he noticed a manager of a local brokerage firm was having a fit over his broken stock ticker. Thomas inspected the machine and, finding the problem to be a loose spring, restored the device to working order.
The manager was so happy that he hired Thomas immediately as a repairman for the brokerage at a salary of $300 a month, more than twice what most electricians made in New York City at the time. Thomas felt euphoric at his sudden shift from poverty to prosperity and quickly took up his old habit of working on improving devices during his free time.
He worked out an improvement for the stock-ticker and a company ventured to pay him $40,000 for the rights to the device. His astonishment at the volume of money he had just received caused him to stay up all that night, counting and recounting. A wise friend advised him to deposit the money in a bank for security reasons and in 1874 he had made enough money to open his own testing and development laboratory in Newark, New Jersey.
At the age of twenty-nine, he began working on the carbon transmitter, which was eventually able to make telephone conversations much more audible and clear. In 1876 he invented the world's first phonograph. Unfortunately, Alexander Graham Bell beat him to the telephone, deeply disappointing Thomas.
Thomas quickly worked on a new invention, coming up with the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb in 1879. Over the next several years he developed a similarly economic system for the generation and distribution of electrical power. Unfortunately, his DC system was eventually beaten by Nikola Tesla's (a former protege of Thomas) AC system.
In 1887, he set up the world's first research and development center in West Orange, New Jersey. Within a year it was the largest scientific testing facility in the world. In 1892, his General Electric Company merged with another firm to form General Electric Corporation, now the largest corporation in the world.
In 1890, Thomas had invented the Vitascope, which was a step towards silent movie production. By 1900, he had developed the first practical dictaphone, mimeograph, and electrical storage battery. In 1904, he produced the kinetiscope, which allowed him to create "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903, which was a ten minute movie.
At this point, Thomas Edison was becoming very well known throughout the world as "the wizard of Menlo Park". During World War I, he worked with the government to develop defense devices for ships, also coming up with inventions using new materials.
In the 1920s, Thomas was still working long hours and spending very little time with his family. His health began to fail and, after getting his 1,093rd patent, he began to work at home. He died on October 18, 1931 at the age of 84 with his wife by his side.
Today, Thomas Edison is remembered as the most productive inventor and credited with major work in advancing the application of electricity in everyday life.