With 1,093 patents to his name, Thomas Edison is considered one of America’s greatest inventors. But long before he became known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, he was a young, industrious boy with insatiable curiosity.
Your son doesn’t have to reinvent the lightbulb to take a page from Edison’s life and learn to think like a world-class inventor.
1. Daydream and ask questions
Edison attended a small private school where the teacher complained of his daydreaming and unending questions. So his mother, a former school teacher, pulled him out of school and decided to educate him herself.
From his mother Edison learned to love reading. In fact, he said, “My mother taught me to read good books quickly and correctly, and … this opened up a great world of literature.” She gave him books on chemistry and philosophy and turned his learning into a game. She said, "There is so much of interest in the world, there will never be a minute for things to be dull."
From his father, Edison inherited an entrepreneurial spirit and love of tinkering. Edison’s father once built a 100-foot tower and charged 25 cents for the opportunity to see the world from a bird’s-eye view.
Young Edison was constantly tinkering. He sat on chicken eggs in the barn to see if they would hatch. He and a friend set up a laboratory in the cellar to experiment with acids and chemicals. He even had his friend drink a glass full of chemicals to see if he would rise like a balloon. (He didn’t.)
As was typical of the time period, by the age of twelve Edison had finished his formal schooling and went in search of a job to help his family make ends meet. He became a railroad “news butch,” basically an independent contractor hired to sell newspapers, candy, and cigars to commuters.
He converted a corner of one of the baggage cars into a portable laboratory and once again began tinkering with chemicals. This came to an end when a bottle of phosphorus broke open and set fire to the rail car. However, this mishap didn’t set him back. Edison moved on to creating his own newspaper. Using scavenged printing supplies, he wrote and printed his own newspaper, The Grand Trunk Herald. With a friend, he started another paper, Paul’s Pry, filled with local gossip and newsy tidbits.
Later, as a telegraph operator, he spent every spare moment (and even moments on the job) trying to improve the telegraph machine.
3. Never stop learning
Edison worked long days as a news butch, riding the train each morning to Detroit, and then riding the train home again in the evening. While waiting for the return train in Detroit, he would go to the library and read a whole shelf of books, systematically from bottom to top.
Later, as a telegraph operator, Edison poured his time and money into books and supplies. While other operators spent their free time and loose change on drinking and girls, Edison read novels and spent late nights at the office, running experiments and improving his telegraph skills.
4. Be in the right place at the right time
While riding trains, Edison met a number of the telegraph operators stationed along the rail lines between Port Huron and Detroit. Telegraph was the fastest mode of communication in those days, and it fascinated Edison. He began spending more time with James MacKenzie, a telegraph operator and family friend.
One day while hanging out at the station, Edison saw MacKenzie’s young son playing on the railroad tracks. With a train approaching, Edison rushed to grab the boy and rolled him off the tracks just as the train thundered past. MacKenzie was so grateful to Edison, he offered to teach him how to be a telegraph operator. This first job opened Edison to his newfound career.
5. Embrace shortcomings
Because of a bout with scarlet fever as a child, and a few incidents with train conductors who slapped or pulled at his ears, Edison’s hearing grew steadily worse with age. He did mind though, saying it helped him concentrate. He was able to tune out the surrounding noise and focus on his inventions in the midst of a bustling research lab.
6. Try everything
When an investor came to look at Edison’s laboratory, he complained that Edison was wasting his time on too many pointless experiments. Edison dabbled in all sorts of things, including inventing a mechanical doll for his daughter that actually sawed wood. He insisted that nothing he did was a waste of time, that each experiment made him learn, and that with his new knowledge he could learn for the next time. He said, "Discovery is not invention, and I dislike to see the two words confounded. A discovery is more or less in the nature of an accident." When he unveiled the phonograph, it shocked the world. Nothing of that sort had even been thought up until Edison made it happen.
7. Think hard, work harder
Edison is famous for saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine-percent perspiration.” As a train butch, he worked 14-hour days. When he switched to telegraph operator, he put in 18-hour days in order to become a top operator. Later, as a full-time inventor, he put in famously long hours trying to get his experiments just right. He once said to a friend, “I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.”
8. Learn from failure
Edison’s first patent was an electric vote-recording machine. He was thrilled to unveil his invention to Congress. To his surprise, no one was interested in improving the efficiency of the voting process. Edison determined that from then on he would only invent things that people wanted. He went on to invent an improved telegraph, an electric storage battery, a stock ticker, the phonograph, and motion picture cameras, among other things.
At one point, a friend heard about an idea Edison had tried to perfect 10,000 times. When he expressed sympathy about Edison’s failure, Edison replied, “I have 10,000 ideas that won’t work, but I have not failed.”
Edison worked up until his death at the age of 84, filling his last patent just eight months before he died. As a final tribute to his life, lights all over the United States were dimmed. Even the torch on the Statue of Liberty was momentarily extinguished and all subways in New York City were halted.
If your son is interested in learning more about Thomas Edison, there are a dozen great biographies written for kids. As mentioned in my earlier post about 5 Museums to Capture the Imagination, Greenfield Village in Michigan contains Edison's actual Menlo Park laboratory and is a remarkable thing to explore. You can even see original pages of his invention notes, written in his own impeccable handwriting.