10 Fascinating Facts About Edison

Edison with his phonograph (1877). To "hear" Edison bit into his phonograph so the sound vibration traveled through his teeth to his inner ear.

You only have to look around you to see things that Thomas Alva Edison invented or made better. The prolific inventor (in his 84 years, Edison had 1,093 patents to his name) contributed to the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, electrical systems, motion picture camera, telegraph, telephone, X-ray and so on.

Most people think of the light bulb when they think of Edison, but did you know that the "Wizard of Menlo Park" actually didn't invent the thing? Did you know about his idea of using cement to build homes, furniture, refrigerators and even pianos? Or, how about his role in the execution of a rogue elephant by electrocution?

In honor of his birthday (he was born in February 11, 1847), Neatorama has cobbled up 10 fascinating facts about Thomas Edison, the world's most famous and prolific inventor:

1. Teacher Thought Edison was "Addled"

Edison was an inquisitive child but a poor student as his mind often wandered. The youngest of 7 siblings, "Al" as he was called in his youth, was deemed "addled" by his school teacher.

When she found out, Edison's mother was angry and pulled him out of school after only three months of formal education. She home schooled him instead. Edison later recounted "My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had some one to live for, some one I must not disappoint."

2. Edison Built His First Lab at the Age of 10

When Edison turned 9, his mother gave him an elementary science book on how to do chemistry experiments at home. Edison was hooked: he did every experiments in the book and soon spent all his spare money buying chemicals.

At the tender age of 10, Edison built his first science laboratory in the basement of his family's home. His father tried to bribe him with a penny if only Edison would get out of the basement and go read a book. This he did, but he also used the penny to buy more chemicals for experiments. And to make sure no one took his prized chemicals, he labeled all his bottles "poison."

3. Edison Was Deaf and He Liked It That Way!

At around the age of 12, Edison started to lose his hearing. One legend has it that a train conductor smacked him in the ears after he started a fire in a boxcar by doing experiments. Edison himself said that he was injured when the conductor picked him up by the ears onto a moving train. Others had said that it caused by a bout of scarlet fever during childhood. In all likelihood it was a genetic condition as both Edison's father and one of his brothers also suffered from hearing loss.

But one thing's for sure: Edison actually liked being deaf (technically, he was hard of hearing, not completely deaf). He said that it made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments.

Oh, one more thing: Edison actually did have a laboratory in a boxcar that caught on fire! Then 12-year-old Edison took a job selling newspaper and candies on the Grand Trunk Railroad from Port Huron to Detroit. He set up a lab for chemistry experiments and a printing press in the baggage car, where he published the Grand Trunk Herald, the first newspaper published on a train.

4. Edison Saved a Boy From a Runaway Train

At the Grand Trunk Railroad, 14-year-old Edison saved 3-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from a runaway boxcar. Jimmie's father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie was so grateful that he taught Edison how to operate the telegraph machine.

Later, Edison became a telegraph operator for Western Union. He requested the night shift so he could have more time for his experiments. One day he accidentally spilled sulphuric acid while experimenting on a battery. The acid ran between the floorboards and onto his boss' desk below. Needless to say, Edison was fired the next morning.

5. Edison's First Patented Invention was a Flop

In 1869, when Edison was just 22 years old, he got his first patent for a telegraphic vote-recording machine for the legislature. Each legislator would move a switch on Edison's machine that would record his vote on a particular bill.

When a business partner brought the invention to Washington D.C., this is what Congress had to say about it:

The chairman of the committee, unimpressed with the speed with which the instrument could record votes, told him that "if there is any invention on earth that we don't want down here, that is it." The slow pace of roll call voting in Congress and other legislatures enabled members to filibuster legislation or convince others to change their votes. Edison's vote recorder was never used. (Source: The Edison Papers)

From then on, Edison decided that he would only invent something if there was a market for it.

6. Edison Proposed Marriage ... by Morse Code!

On Christmas Day in 1871, at the age of 24, Edison married his 16-year old employee Mary Stilwell, after meeting her just two months earlier. By February, Edison was exasperated at his wife's inability to invent that he wrote in his diary "Mrs Mary Edison My wife Dearly Beloved Cannot invent worth a Damn!!" and "My Wife Popsy Wopsy Can't Invent." Mary gave birth to three children, the first two Edison nicknamed "Dot" and "Dash."

Two years after Mary died, Edison met and married 20-year-old Mina Miller. The story of how the two met is quite interesting: After Mary's death, Edison regularly went to Boston and stayed with his friends Mr. and Mrs. Gilliard. The Gilliards made sure that some eligible young lady was "visiting" at the same time. Edison, who was half-deaf, bug-eyed, plagued with halitosis and bad dandruff, would stick his face very close to the girl's in order to hear her words. This naturally creeped them all out!

One day, the Gilliards introduced Edison to Mina Miller, to whom Edison was immediately smitten:

Edison found his own version of paradise in Fort Myers, then a small village, and apparently decided that he must do three things: build a winter home in Florida, marry Mina, and bring her to his tropical Eden. Once back in New York, Edison--normally a workaholic--was obsessed with his new love. He wrote in his diary at this time: "Saw a lady who looked like Mina. Got thinking about Mina and came near being run over by a streetcar. If Mina interferes much more will have to take out an accident policy." (Source: Anatomy of Some Celebrated Marriages by D. Wallechinsky and I. Wallace, The People's Almanac)

Edison taught Mina Morse code so they could communicate in secret by tapping into each other's hands when her family was around. One day, Edison asked .-- --- ..- .-.. -.. -.-- --- ..- -- .- .-. .-. -.-- -- . and Mina replied -.-- . ...

7. Edison Has a Mysterious Tattoo on His Arm

According to a 1911 policy with the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, Edison had five dots tattooed on his left forearm. No one knew what the dots meant.

Interestingly, Edison was credited for inventing the basic tattoo machine. In 1876, he patented the Stencil-Pens, an engraving device that many years later was modified by Samuel O'Reilly to make the world's first tattoo machine.

Though it would've been a neat thing, there was simply no evidence that Edison used his invention to give himself a tattoo.

8. The Edison Invention That Killed

After Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, Edison directed his employee, a glassblower named Clarence Dally to develop a fluoroscope (then called the Edison X-ray focus tube). The device was a commercial success and ultimately became the basis of modern fluoroscopy used in hospitals today.

At the time, X-rays were not believed to be dangerous and Clarence had a habit of testing X-ray tubes on his hands. In 1900, he had developed lesion on his wrist that wouldn't heal after several skin grafts and was so tenacious that his hand had to be amputated. Edison kept Dally on his payroll, even when he was so sick that he couldn't work any more. Clarence's condition worsened and even after the amputations of both of his arms, he died of cancer.

Shaken, Edison stopped all work on fluoroscopes as revealed in a New York World interview in 1903:

"Don't talk to me about X-rays," he said. "I am afraid of them. I stopped experimenting with them two years ago, when I came near to losing my eyesight and Dally, my assistant practically lost the use of both of his arms. I am afraid of radium and polonium too, and I don't want to monkey with them." (Source: New York World)

9. Edison's Quirky Invention: the Concrete House

In 1887, Edison embarked on a project that would later prove to be a huge fiasco. He proposed an idea of extracting iron from low-grade ore and was immediately ridiculed by an editorial who called the idea "Edison's Folly." The stubborn Edison immediately invested his own money and built a huge plant and a town around it, only to find years later that it would be far cheaper to mine iron ores!

So, left with all of the heavy machineries from the failed ore project, Edison decided to get into the cement business. He noticed that one could mold concrete into a wide variety of shapes and thought that he could build a house by pouring concrete into a single, giant mold! And not only the house: "everything from bathtubs, windowsills, staircases, and picture frames to electrical conduits and reinforcing rods would be molded right in." (Source: American Heritage)

Edison and a model of his concrete house.
Photo: Edison National Historic Site - US National Park Service

Edison, who grew up poor, thought that he could solve New York's housing problem and clear out the slums by mass producing affordable working man's houses. But first, he needed a model: Edison hired a high-profile architecture firm to create a two-story, two-family house "in the style of Francis I." At Edison's request (he didn't want to be known as "the father of ugly houses"), the model came with a large front porch and intricate exterior moldings.

This, of course, turned out to be impractical - so Edison downscaled his plan and casted his first concrete house on Hixon Street in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1911 (it was later demolished to make way for a supermarket and a parking lot).

Edison's cement houses. Photo: Edison National Historic Site - US National Park Service

In 1917, with Edison's blessing, pocket-watch magnate (apparently there was such a person) Charles Ingersoll constructed 11 concrete houses and offered them at $1,200 each - roughly one third of the usual price - but not a single house was sold!

Some historians and Edison biographers blame the publicity and Edison’s grandiose predictions for the demise of his most altruistic endeavor. No one wanted to live in a house that had been described as “the salvation of the slum dweller.” People were too proud to be stigmatized as having been “rescued from squalor and poverty.”

But there may have been a more important reason for the Edison monoliths’ failure to catch on. The architect Ernest Flagg, writing in Collier’s Weekly seven years later, noted that “Mr. Edison was not an architect— it was not cheapness that wanted so much as relief from ugliness, and Mr. Edison’s early models entirely did not achieve that relief.” From looking at them, it is hard to disagree.

Wait, what about those concrete furniture and piano we talked about? Well, in 1911 Edison boasted that concrete furniture could be made just as attractive as wood but cheaper and more durable. He went on to use air-impregnated "foam" concrete to make a piano, bathtub, and cabinets for his phonographs. Like his concrete houses, however, the Edison concrete furniture just never caught on. (If you have a picture of Edison's concrete piano, please let me know!)

Edison's concrete phonograph cabinets.
Photo: Edison National Historic Site - US National Park Service

10. Electrocuting an Elephant

In the late 1880s, Edison was embroiled in the "War of Currents" with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Edison had promoted the use of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution, whereas Westinghouse and Tesla wanted to use alternating current (AC).

At the time, Edison had over one hundred power stations in the United States that delivered DC electricity to consumers. But because of a power loss due to resistance of the wire during transmission, the power station had to be located within a mile of the consumers. Edison's then-employee, a brilliant Serbian engineer named Nikola Tesla proposed that AC could solve this problem but Edison didn't listen.

Indeed, Edison had previously asked Tesla to improve his electrical power stations with $50,000 ($1 million in 2006 US dollar, Tesla's wages were just $18 a week back then) as a reward. After Tesla delivered, Edison reneged on his offer and thus created bad blood between the two.

Back to the War of Currents: to demonstrate that his DC system was better and "safer," Edison noted that AC had a lethal potential and could be used to electrocute. Though he was against capital punishment, Edison (and a hired employee named Harold P. Brown) developed the electric chair.

In 1903, a circus elephant named Topsy at Coney Island's Luna Park went berserk and killed three people including an abusive trainer, who tried to feed her a lighted cigarette.

The elephant was considered a threat and the owners wanted it executed. When animal advocates protested the proposed method of hanging, Edison saw a publicity opportunity and suggested electrocution with AC.

Topsy was fed carrots laced with cyanide and then electrocuted with 6,000-volts AC. She died "without a trumpet or a groan" within seconds. (Source)

Topsy's execution was a public spectacle: about 1,500 people attended and Edison even filmed the event:

[YouTube Link. Warning: gruesome]

Despite of Edison's publicity campaign (he tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being "Westinghoused"), Tesla's AC system won out in the end.

We didn't talk about Edison's main inventions, such the electric light bulb and phonograph (after all, this is an article about the weirder things about Edison) If you're interested, two good links to check out are the wikipedia entry on Thomas Edison and the Edison National Historic Site website.

Previously on Neatorama:
- Ten Strange Facts About Einstein
- Ten Strange Facts About Newton

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Newest 5 Comments

Thomas Alva Edison is the greatest inventor of all time.
If he stole all of his inventions, how many times was he arrested/jailed?
Nobody knows who testicle-la is, because he is a nobody.
Ask any one, who was the inventor of the light bulb? answer
Ask any one who invented the spiral bulb or led,
answer Edison, and he was dead.
E=mc2, the E stands for Edison.
If gates is like Edison then Edison also invented Gates.
When someone gets a good idea a light bulb appears over their head, thank you Thomas.
If Edison were alive today he would not be dead.
Edison should get royalties from the band AC/DC.
Why did Edison cross the street?
Because it was night and his light's were across the street and he could see.
How many Edisons does it take to screw in a light bulb?
One! because he invented it.
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What a bunch of negative people. When you're employed by someone and you invent something, it belongs to them. He was agenius and if people of his time thought he was stealing, they would not have gone to work for him. Seems like a simple concept to me. Geeesss
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Except Edison did not invent the light bulb. It was around for decades, in various versions. He purchased a patent from another inventor - the patent for the filament light bulb. He then rebranded it as his own - a typical Edison operation.
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