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thomas edison > early life : edison's ancestors and early years, 1730-1862


Edison’s Ancestors : 1730 - 1847

Edison’s Great-Grandfather was a descendant of millers on the Zuyder Zee, Holland, and he arrived at Elizabethport, NJ in 1730 and settled in the section of New Jersey, latter known as Caldwell.  There was a dispute among historians whether his name was Thomas or John.  Those who held that he was Thomas refer to the banker and financier of New York City.  His name appears on the continental currency of 1778 and he was a staunch American Patriot.  Most biographers now believe Edison’s great-grandfather was John Edison, an important Tory, who had to remove with his family from the colonies to Nova Scotia when the Revolutionary War broke out.  It is most likely that this is the true great-grandfather of Edison because it has been established that John Edison had a son by the name of Samuel Edison, Thomas’ grandfather.

This John Edison, at the close of the Revolutionary War, as a loyalist to the British Empire, had become entitled, under the laws of Canada, to a grant of 600 acres of land in Canada.  John moved westward to take possession of the property, traveling through the State of New York in wagons drawn by oxen to the remote and primitive township of Bayfield and went to Vienna, Ontario on the northern bank of Lake Erie, where he engaged in farming.  He died at the age of 104.

Ernest J. Berggren, an Edison Pioneer who worked at Menlo Park, later recalled some of what Edison had to say about Samuel Edison, his grandfather.

“When I was five years old I was taken by my father and mother to see my grandfather at Vienna.  “We were driven by carriage, from Milan, Ohio, to a railroad, then to a port on Lake Erie, thence by Canal boat, in a tow, to Port Burwell, in Canada, across the lake and from there we drove to Vienna.  I remember my grandfather perfectly well as he appeared, at 102 years of age, when he died.  In the middle of the day he sat under a large tree in front of the house facing a well traveled road.  His head was covered, completely with a large quantity of very white hair, and he chewed tobacco incessantly, nodding to friends as they passed by.”

Thomas Edison’s father was also named Samuel.  Samuel Edison was over six feet tall, slim and angular, with great physical vigor.  Little is known of his early life, but he was running a hotel in Vienna, Ontario in 1828 when he married Nancy Elliot, a young high school teacher and daughter of a Scotch Baptist minister.

In 1837 an uprising of the Canadians occurred against the British government on account of taxation without representation headed by a French Canadian named Louis J. Papineau.  Edison’s father Samuel, who was a firm believer in the rights of people, joined the insurgents and was given the captaincy and a command.  The rebellion failed and Captain Edison, as one of the rebel leaders, had a price on his head.  Captain Edison chose risking a flight to the United States over his other choice of Bermuda.  Fearing detection, he decided to walk his way to freedom.  Stopping once for a three hour break, he walked a total of 182 miles to safety. 

Samuel Edison settled in Milan, Ohio, where Thomas was eventually born on February 11, 1847.  He was engaged in the business of making shingles for which there was a great demand.  Later he moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where he turned to farming.  He died at the age of 92.

Early Life : 1847 - 1862

Experimenting at Age Five

Some time before Edison turned five, he settled in his own mind that the only reason human beings did not fly was because they did not eat the same food birds did.  His parents had a hired girl that Edison intended to experiment with, so he worked up a weird concoction in which worms figured largely, and insisted upon the girl drinking some of it.  She did drink it but it was his father that flew… to the doctor.  Always one to persistently modify his experiments in hopes of finding a breakthrough, Edison thought he would try some other means of propulsion on a friend of his named Michael Oates.  Edison had occasion to notice the effervescence of Seidlitz Powders, when mixed together, so he reasoned it out in his mind, why shouldn’t a person fly up in the air if given a sufficiently large dose?  He gave his friend a good dose but the only thing that almost flew away was their friendship.

As a child, Thomas Edison was not at all strong and was of a fragile appearance.  He had an abnormally large head and the doctor feared he might have brain trouble.  As soon as he was able to talk, he plunged into a steady stream of “why” and “wherefor” to everything and was a nuisance to his parents on account of some very curious and embarrassing questions.  His lump of curiosity was abnormal, which accounts for his desire to try so many experiments in his research work.  At about this time his father owned a lot of geese, and seeing the goose eggs, he pestered his mother about them with questions of what, where, how, and why.  When told that the goose squatted on them to keep them warm, he thought he would prove try it his own way. 

Edison and Education

In 1854 the Edison family moved to Port Huron, Michigan.  When Edison became of school age he was sent to the public school at Port Huron, but he lasted only three months, because his teachers could do nothing with him.  They called him “addled” (weak minded).  He was always at the foot of his class.  His mother, who had been a teacher, took him in hand and taught him.  He progressed so rapidly that, with his mothers help, before he reached the age of twelve, he had read: Gibbons’ Decline of England, Humes’ History of England, Sears’ History of the World, and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Dictionary of Science.  He also got books in scientific subjects from the Public Library and read them and became conversant with practically everything about electricity and began making batteries in the cellar of his home.

Edison had a dislike for mathematics that also remained with him throughout life.  When reviewing financial reports he preferred charts and graphs over raw figures, which seemed to confuse him.  Edison was blessed with an exceptional retentive memory.  One reason that he failed in public school was that he could not recite in front of a crowd.  He was embarrassed and afflicted with stage fright.  Even late in life, Edison would not give any type of real speech at events such as banquets in his honor.  He generally would have someone speak on his behalf.

The Candy Butcher and Newsboy

Edison wanted to make money for himself, like other boys selling newspapers, so that he would be independent of his mother for cash to carry on his experiments with batteries in the cellar of his home; so, of his own accord, he applied to the Grand Trunk Railroad for the privilege of selling papers, magazines, fruits, and candies on the trains between Port Huron, where he lived, and Detroit, Michigan.  He got permission and was dubbed the Candy Butcher.  He started on the 6:30am train every morning and came home at 9:00pm at night.  His business grew so that at the end of the first year, he had two assistants for other trains.  These were civil war days and the newspapers were very much in demand and his profits were very satisfactory.

He made a friend of one of the Compositors on the “Detroit Free Press” staff and gained access to the proofs.  By reading these he was able to know the news before it was printed and circulated.  To created a demand, he arraonged with the telegraph operator at the station, by promising him Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly, and a daily paper free for six months, if he would wire to each station to chalk up on the bulletin board the extras. 

When the two days battle of Shiloh was won by the Union Army, this news was bulletined along the line.  Edison went to the Detroit Free Press office and demanded 1000 papers instead of his usual 300 and told them he would pay for them the next day.  He was refused, but determined to get them, he went to the editorial rooms to see the editor.  At first, he was refused admittance but his manner was so positive, and his statement that his errand was of the most importance, that he gained admittance and was given the papers by the editor.  A man who happened to be with the editor, at the time, gave him this parting salute, “I wish you luck and hope you come out on the right side”.  This man was Wilbur F. Story, afterward founder of the Chicago Times.

Edison took his 1000 copies of the Detroit Free Press and at Utica, the first station out of Detroit, where he usually sold two papers at five cents each, when the station was approached it looked as if there was an excursion party on the train.  Edison grabbed an armful of papers and sold forty of them.  At Mount Clemens, the next station, the platform was crowded with a howling mob, so he raised the price to ten cents and sold one hundred and fifty papers where ordinarily he usually sold only twelve papers.  But the climax came when he got to Port Huron.  Edison had this to say, “There, the town is quite a distance from the station.  I saw a crowd hurrying to the station.  I thought I knew what they were after, so I and a Dutch kid, I had an assistant, jumped the train in front of a church, where a prayer meeting was just closing, raised the price to twenty-five cents a copy and took in a young fortune.”  His earning were excellent, making from eight to ten dollars profit per day, of which one dollar went to his mother.

Edison’s Own Newspaper

Edison reinvested his earnings from the sale of newspapers into purchasing a small printing press which he used in the baggage car of the train and published the Weekly Herald which was sold for three cents a copy.  It proved a great success and became known to the extent that the famous English Engineer, Robert Stephenson, ordered 1000 copies for himself for distribution in railway circles all over the world.  The fourteen year old boy netted an income from this paper of $45.00 per month. 

Edison Saves A Boy’s Life

One day, while Edison was waiting for a mixed train to be made up at Mount Clemens, Michigan, he noticed that the Station’s Master’s little two and one-half year old boy was throwing pebbles over his head standing in the center of the track, and at the same time saw a stealthily approaching railroad cars being backed up by the engineer.  Edison dropped his papers on the platform and plunged forward risking his own life, caught the child and threw himself with the child in his embrace, out of the way of the approaching cars.  They both landed, face down, in sharp fresh gravel ballast.  It was a close call for Edison, because the heel of his boot was struck by the wheel of the car. To show his gratitude, the father and Station Master, Mr. James U. MacKenzie, offered to teach Edison telegraphy, which Edison accepted most enthusiastically, because he had aspired to become an operator.  At the end of a couple of weeks instruction, during his stop off periods at Mount Clemens, Edison became a pretty good operator.  This was the beginning of his career as telegraph operator and he became quite famous as such. 

The Baggage Car Laboratory

As soon as the novelty of being an Editor and Publisher wore off, Edison’s interest began to lean toward Chemistry and electricity.  The success he had had so far in telegraphy and his ambition to become and operator prodded him on.  So, while a Candy Bucher on the train, he established for himself a regular laboratory in the baggage car, much to the disapproval of a Scotch conductor, named Alexander Stevenson, but he put up with it until one unlucky day for Edison, when the train was running over a rough bit of road, a phosphorous bottle jolted from the shelf, fell down on the floor, broke and the phosphorous bursting into flames set fire to the flooring, which so exasperated the conductor that he cuffed Edison over the ear and ousted him and all his belongings from the car at “Smith Creek Station” of the Grand Trunk Railway.  This cuff of the ear caused Edison’s deafness all his life.  Edison’s deafness has been seen by some as a possible blessing in disguise because he had a unique way of tuning out all that was around him to devote himself to his experiments entirely.

Sources: Thomas A. Edison, His Life and Achievements by Ernest J. Berggren. Schenectady Museum Archive Historical File 16-17.

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