From a young age Thomas Edison showed that he was not like most other boys. Tossed out of school after a few weeks because his teachers thought he was “addled” and “dreamy,” Edison learned mostly on his own by devouring scientific books. He questioned everything. His father began to think young Tom was a bit dim-witted because he asked so many questions. The reverse was true; inquisitive throughout his life, Edison had a knack for remembering virtually everything he read.
When he wasn’t conducting chemical experiments in his parents basement (and getting a public whipping after burning down the family barn), Edison was hanging around the local rail yard listening to stories from the lumber gangs and memorizing the rough songs from the canal men. He liked the railroad life so much he became a butcher.
A news butcher that is; generally shortened to just news butch. At only 12 years old he was riding the 63 miles of the Grand Trunk Railway. Each day Edison would hop the 7 A.M. train for Detroit, not returning until around 9 P.M. that evening. All day long he would wander up and down the aisle of the train hawking newspapers and magazines, along with candy, fruit, and anything else he thought he could sell.
The news butch biz was so successful that Edison rapidly became an entrepreneur, setting up stores in town and hiring other boys to do the selling for a share of the profit while he continued to hawk newspapers on the train. Before long he started his own newspaper, becoming the first person ever to gather news and print it up right on the moving train.
The trains gave Edison access to another budding technology of the day – the telegraph. He would telegraph ahead with the headlines and have a swarm of customers waiting for the train to buy up all of his editions at ever-growing prices. Edison’s love affair with trains and telegraphs led to his first real job as a telegrapher during the Civil War, and improvements to telegraphy were his first inventions as a young man out on his own when he was only 22 years old.
Edison led a fascinating life, in both the good and bad meanings of that term. He built a reputation as an innovator, invented the “invention factory,” and tussled with the likes of Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla. Edison didn’t always win those battles, and some would say he didn’t always play fair, but he remains today one of the best known and revered inventors of all time.
There is much more on Edison’s new butch days – and all his other best known and little known inventions – in my new book Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World due out in 2016 from Fall River Press. Check back here for updates and a first glimpse of the new cover as soon as it happens.
David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in spring 2016.