Thomas Edison – Birth of an Inventor

Edison cover on BNThomas Edison is well known as one of America’s greatest inventors. But how did he get his start? My new book, Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (July 2016 release date), takes a look at how Edison fell into a career of invention, feuded with other inventors like Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, and changed the world. From the prologue:

One misty morning in 1862, as the Civil War raged throughout the nation, the teenage Tom Edison saved a life, and in doing so set the stage for a career of invention that would change the lives of millions. Lingering at the train station in Mount Clemens, Michigan, Edison was gazing over the freight cars being moved around the rail yard. Suddenly, he noticed Jimmie MacKenzie, the stationmaster’s young son, playing on the tracks and oblivious to a rail car speedily approaching. Recognizing the danger, Edison “made a dash for the child, whom he picked up and lifted to safety without a second to spare, as the wheel of the car struck his heel.” Falling hard along the gravel embankment, both Edison and Jimmie cut their faces and hands, but were otherwise unharmed. It was the scare of their young lives. In return for his heroic act, the stationmaster offered to teach Edison the art and science of telegraphy, and Edison accepted. This decision would change his life—and ours.

There was another profound impact from his train days – deafness.

He recounted being roughly lifted onto the train by his ears, at which point he heard a “pop!” After that, his hearing steadily degenerated. Another report suggests a baggage master on the train “boxed his ears.” Or perhaps it was a history of illness as a child or a congenital disease? Although the cause is unknown, Thomas Edison became progressively hard of hearing during his lifetime, which impacted both his inventive ability (he claimed the affliction helped him concentrate better) and his attitude (he would “not hear critiques at convenient times”). His hearing impairment played a recurring, and sometimes ironic, role during his long career.

These two fundamental events as a young man helped shape his personality and his career path. Suddenly the idea of toiling away all night and day in the lab doesn’t seem so surprising. That said, there are many things you don’t know about Thomas Edison.

Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World is due out in July 2016 from Fall River Press, Sterling Publishing. The Nook e-book version is already available for pre-order on the Barnes and Noble website. The hardcover book will be available for pre-order shortly. Please help spread the word and watch for more previews here.

And if you’re interested in Nikola Tesla, check out this comparison: Edison vs Tesla: Two Very Different Men of Invention.

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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5 thoughts on “Thomas Edison – Birth of an Inventor

  1. After having watched this morning as, against all expectation, SpaceX again successfully landed a Falcon 9 on a floating barge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, this time in the dark of night after a “hot” launch — this seems an ironically appropriate article with which to end the day. Wired’s article announcing the launch (and its expected catastrophic failure) was titled, “SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Will Fail Its Way to Being a Master…”

    Likewise, Edison is the icon of tenacity in invention… success from repeated failure. It’s easy to walk away from things that everyone else says won’t work. But that’s not the way to master anything new.

    Looking forward to the book! I expect that several copies will grace the shelves of some local schools.

    • Edison definitely was tenacious, but he also gathered around him a team of other talented people to both come up with ideas independently and to bring promising ideas to fruition. Of course, all got patented under Edison’s name and marketed under his brand. He really did start the modern “corporate” invention factory.

      Would love to get copies of Edison into schools and libraries. I know a lot of people bought extra Tesla books for donation purposes. It helps that the publisher keeps the cost dirt cheap (though it cuts into my personal profit).

      Maybe I’ll get to sign one for you some day.

      • Elon Musk seems to have done the same thing, which leads to some interesting points-of-debate regarding the potential contributions of large corporations to free-market economies. Regardless, its good to see such energy directed toward the development of things intended to further enhance the condition of humans (notwithstanding the occasional electric chair). And kids today need some better ideals upon which to develop their aspirations.

        I’m thinking about the last person who signed a book for me… ’95-’96, I think? Hmmm…. These days, you may have to travel a bit — and practice your kanji.

        • Musk certainly encourages innovation. He’s different from Edison in at least one way; Musk willingly made his patents freely available to stimulate the rapid growth of the new technology while Edison aggressively protected his patents (yet was quick to absorb other inventors’ work into his own).

          The electric chair and “Topsy” the elephant are always fun topics when it comes to Edison, though not surprisingly rarely presented accurately. I get it right in my book.

          Alas, given my apparently inability to take on Chinese characters, my chances of mastering kanji are low. Luckily, I am a science traveler.

  2. Pingback: Thomas Edison is Here! | Science Traveler

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