Long before Thomas Alva Edison invented the modern light bulb and changed the world, he was a budding child entrepreneur who hawked snacks and sundries on passenger trains and published his own mobile weekly newspaper. On two occasions, Edison was roughed up by a co-worker or customer: one threw him off a moving train and the other tossed him in the river. He survived both incidents and grew up to become a father of American invention.
Edison was definitely a self-made man. The inventor of the phonograph and holder of more than a thousand U.S. patents is also a perfect example of the Treasured Lives maxim (with apologies to P.T. Barnum): there is a story born every minute. And even the smallest stories are worth retelling.
Born in Erie County, Ohio in February 1847, Edison was home-schooled by his devoted mother, the former Nancy Elliott. Mrs. Edison was an educated woman who inspired a love of knowledge and learning in her son that would, simply, change the world. His father, Samuel Edison, paid Thomas for every book he read. For a time, the young Edison went down the shelves of the library, reading every book in succession. A biographer said by age 10, Edison’s mind “was an electric thunderstorm rushing through the fields of truth.”
That love of learning also had an entrepreneurial side. At age 12, Edison got a job as a “train boy,” selling newspapers and sundries on the Grand Trunk Railroad between Port Huron and Detroit, Mich. His stock included figs, apples, toys, magazines, newspapers and other items. To boost newspaper sales, he telegraphed the news headlines to stops along the way before the train arrived. The papers were snapped up as soon as the train pulled into the station. Edison earned an average of $1 per day; not bad for a boy in the early 1860s.
Never content with his success, Edison decided to set up his own newspaper in a seldom-used car of the Grand Trunk Railroad. He bought 300 pounds of type from the Detroit Free Press and established his own newspaper aboard the train, publishing a weekly, The Grand Trunk Herald. The 12-by-16-inch paper was printed on one side only, with the inked impressions made by hand pressure alone. It had a circulation of several hundred copies, and became noted as the only paper in the world printed onboard a passenger train. It carried railroad gossip, news of rail accidents and general-interest articles. Each copy cost 3 cents.
Edison’s budding love for science is what got him tossed from the train. In the same rail car where he produced his newspaper, Edison began stockpiling chemicals for various experiments. So his publishing shop doubled as a chemist’s laboratory. One day a bottle of phosphorus fell to the floor as the train car swayed and jostled. Fire ensued. The conductor rushed to prevent tragedy. After suffocating the flames, the furious conductor threw the whole laboratory and printing operation off the train. He then boxed Edison’s ears and tossed him from the train, too. Thus was the end of the mobile newspaper. Edison then located his ventures in the basement of his home in Port Huron.
Not dissuaded from journalistic enterprise, Edison founded another newspaper, Paul Pry. He obtained articles from a variety of correspondents. One contributed article particularly incensed a reader, who sought to confront young Edison with his beef. Edison, a biographer later wrote, “persistently claimed” the article “was not within the bounds of the legally libelous.” But that distinction was lost on the angry reader. He found Edison along the shore of the St. Clair River and promptly tossed the lad into the drink.
Neither episode dampened Edison’s spirits or his drive to explore and create. He went on to a tour de force career of invention: the phonograph, moving-picture machine, the dynamo generator, incandescent electric house lamp, incandescent street lamp, mimeograph, the automatic telegraph, the vote-recording machine and so many more. Perhaps, in some strange way, the impulsive train conductor who bounced Edison from the box car did the world a long-lasting favor.
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