Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Edison enjoys the lush gardens that characterize his Florida river retreat.

The most prolific inventor in American history was born to humble beginnings in Milan, Ohio, the youngest of seven children, on February 11, 1847. In 1847 America was largely rural; the West had yet to be “won,” the Civil War had yet to be fought, and things like electric light, recorded sound, and moving pictures were the stuff of imagination. By his death 84 years later in 1931, the world would be revolutionized, and largely at the hand of one man: Thomas Alva Edison.

Educated at home by his mother, Edison went on to spend his early years working the railways out of Port Huron, Michigan and then as a tramping telegrapher throughout the eastern United States as a teenager. During this time, Edison read insatiably and later recalled that his mother, Nancy Edison “taught me how to read good books quickly and correctly, and as this opened up a great world … I have always been very thankful for this early training.”

At age 21 Edison received the first of his 1,093 patents for the electric vote recorder, which was a commercial failure as it prevented legislators from using the filibuster. From this Edison took away the lesson that he would never again invent without ensuring the marketability of a potential product in advance.

In 1869, Edison patented his first successful invention, the stock ticker, for which he was paid $40,000 (about $500,000 today). This nest egg allowed him to become a full-time inventor, which resulted in opening an “invention factory” in Newark, New Jersey and hiring about 50 employees.

In 1877, shortly after moving his young wife Mary and their children to Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison’s success took off. He patented the phonograph, the first machine able to record sound and became internationally known overnight. Shortly after, Edison invented the first practical, long-lasting light bulb. Recorded sound and electric light were not enough to satisfy Edison, though; by the late 1880s he developed an interest in “an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear,” and invented the motion picture camera and studio.

In the meantime, Edison’s first wife died in 1884, he married Mina Miller in 1886, and went on to father a total of six children. He settled permanently in West Orange, New Jersey while wintering in Fort Myers, Florida.

Despite fame, success, and more than 500 patents, Edison was not content to rest on his laurels, but went on to such projects as the storage battery, Portland cement, and military technology during World War I. His final project, begun in 1927 at the age of 80, was the search for a natural source of rubber in the United States, and was headquartered in Fort Myers at the Edison Botanical Research Corporation Laboratory.

Edison once quipped that “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” A few years before his death at age 84 in 1931, Edison’s hard work was formally recognized when he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest honors a United States civilian can receive. Indeed, Edison’s tireless efforts led to not only hundreds of patents, but the invention of the future itself.