Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in the small town of Milan, Ohio, before moving with his family to Port Huron, Michigan in 1854. The youngest of seven children, young Edison was known as “Al” to friends and family. He was a bright child but struggled with traditional teaching methods of the time, and only briefly attended public school. Modern-day historians and medical professionals have surmised that Edison may have had Attention-Deficiency/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. His former schoolteacher mother home-schooled him, and he made use of his father’s small library, developing a lifelong love of reading.

Edison's entrepreneurial streak started at a young age

Edison became fascinated with technology as a child and spent hours working on experiments at home. He developed hearing problems at an early age, through illness or an accident, which he later credited with helping, and not hindering, his success. He believed his hearing loss allowed him to avoid distractions and more easily concentrate on his work.

In 1859, the Grand Trunk Railroad built a stop in Port Huron, connecting it to the city of Detroit some 100 miles away. Young “Al” got a job selling candy, newspapers and magazines on the train, traveling back and forth to Detroit several days a week. He spent his spare time reading in Detroit’s library and created his own small newspaper that he hawked on the train, earning extra income for the family and to fund his hobbies.

Thomas Edison listening to a phonograph through a primitive headphone
Thomas Edison listening to a phonograph through a primitive headphone
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

His rescuing of a small boy changed the course of his life

One of Edison’s early interests was in electrical telegraphy. This was the system of communication used to transmit messages long distances. It was also crucial to the operation of the new transcontinental railroads crisscrossing the nation in the decades after the American Civil War.

Thanks to his frequent trips along the Grand Trunk, Edison became friendly with James U. Mackenzie, the station master and telegraph officer at nearby Mount Clemens. In August 1862, when Edison was 15, he was standing outside the Mount Clemens station, where freight cars were being transferred to a side track. When one of the cars approached the station at high speed, Edison noticed Mackenzie’s two-year-old son, Jimmie, playing on the tracks in the freight train’s path. Edison jumped into action, grabbed Jimmie and moved them both out of harm’s way. The pair received just minor wounds.

A deeply grateful Mackenzie struggled to figure out how to thank Edison for saving his son’s life. The next day, he offered to teach Edison the Morse telegraphic system, developed by famed inventor Samuel Morse. Despite already having his job on the railroad, Edison immediately accepted, spending all of his free time with Mackenzie and practicing at home whenever he could.

Edison’s telegraphy career was the launching pad for his later success

Within months, Edison had become proficient in the difficult Morse system, which required operators to quickly convert words and phrases into shortened code and vice versa. Despite his youth, he began working full-time as a telegraph operator. For many ambitious young men of the era, it was a career path that offered the opportunity for travel and advancement. In the 1850s, Andrew Carnegie had gotten his start as a telegraph operator, before building a career as a steel magnate, industrialist and philanthropist.

Edison, working for Western Union Telegraph Company, traveled from city to city throughout much of the Midwest for the next six years, developing a particular skill in sending and receiving news reports. For a while he worked alongside reporters for the Associated News, forging friendships with newsmen who would help further his later career. He spent all of his downtime working on his experiments, which had now become focused on electricity and its possible uses. In 1868, he moved to Boston, and the following January, he received his first U.S. patent for a machine that electronically recorded votes in the Massachusetts State Legislature. He left his job as a telegrapher and moved to New York to devote himself to his inventions full-time.

But it was the skills he learned thanks to his saving of Jimmie Mackenzie that brought Edison his first financial success. In 1874, he developed an advanced “quadruplex” system that allowed four separate signals (two in each direction) to be sent along a single telegraph line. Western Union, Edison’s former employer, purchased the rights to the invention for $10,000 (more than $215,000 in today’s money). Edison used the funds to build his first great, groundbreaking laboratory, at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison’s work in that lab, as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” would lead to the invention of the phonograph, the first commercially viable electric lights, and hundreds of other scientific and technological innovations.