Thomas Edison



Thomas Alva Edison was an inventor unlike any throughout history—and his impact can still be felt in your everyday life. Born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, Edison's inventions, which included perfecting the light bulb and phonograph, radically transformed modern civilization and helped make the 20th century one of the most technologically progressive eras ever.

1. Thomas Edison's list of inventions includes more than just the light bulb.

An illustration of Thomas Edison's early version of the phonograph.
An illustration of Thomas Edison's early version of the phonograph. / via Getty Images

While Thomas Edison's most enduring contribution to modern life will forever remain the incandescent light bulb, he took out a total of 1093 patents that both he and his staff brought to life. Some of Thomas Edison's inventions included:

  • The phonograph, the very first machine that could capture and play back sound.

  • The stencil-pen, a writing instrument powered by electricity and that is thought to be the predecessor to the tattoo gun.

  • The carbon transmitter, which improved the volume and clarity of voices on the telephone.

  • He also helped improve existing inventions, such as the stock ticker and the automatic telegraph.

2. Thomas Edison's six children had a lot to live up to, and Thomas Alva Edison Jr. had a lot to live down.

An illustration of Thomas Edison experimenting with electric lamps on his wedding day.
An illustration of Thomas Edison experimenting with electric lamps on his wedding day. / via Getty Images

Across two marriages, the first to Mary Stilwell from 1871 to her death in 1884 and the second to Mina Miller in 1886, Edison had six children:

  • Marion Estelle Edison (with Stilwell)

  • Thomas Alva Edison Jr. (with Stilwell)

  • William Leslie Edison (with Stilwell)

  • Madeleine Edison (with Miller)

  • Charles Edison (with Miller)

  • Theodore Miller Edison (with Miller)

Edison attempted to instill a love of knowledge in each of his children, though his methods were not always kind. Admonishing daughter Madeline to answer homework questions at breakfast, Edison would touch her with a hot spoon on her hand if she answered too slowly or incorrectly.

This environment was apparently too hostile for one of his sons, Thomas Alva Edison Jr., who dropped out of prep school at age 17 and was later chastised by the press for marketing dubious inventions like the Vitalizer, a piece of headgear that promised to make the wearer think faster. In 1904, the post office charged the Vitalizer's distributor with postal fraud. In order to prevent his son from further besmirching the family name, Edison began giving his son an allowance to keep him out of the spotlight.

3. Thomas Edison has a controversial association with an elephant named Topsy.

In the 1890s, Edison's direct current (DC) electrical power was vying for supremacy with Nikola Tesla's alternating current (AC) power. During this time, Edison and his supporters argued that AC was dangerous and tried to prove it by electrocuting animals. Of course, DC could kill just as easily. In 1903, electricity was famously used to kill Topsy, a circus elephant who had been marked for execution after she had killed a spectator. Though Edison is often mentioned in conjunction with the animal's execution, a 2017 Smithsonian article claims he did not witness it and may not have even heard of the story. However, a company working under the Edison Manufacturing banner was on hand to film the sad display, and people erroneously assumed the inventor had something to do with it. But by that point, the Tesla vs. Edison war was long over, and the more versatile AC power had won out.

4. Thomas Edison's Menlo Park property was a site of both triumph and tragedy.

When Edison was 28, he purchased a housing development in Raritan Township, New Jersey, and used the property as the site for his house and laboratory. It was there that, over the course of a decade, Edison and his staff invented more than 400 items. But the site was also home to tragedy. Edison's first wife, Mary, died of a morphine overdose in 1884 while trying to manage pain following the birth of their third child. Edison distanced himself from the area after that, destroying his house and facilities. The township was renamed Edison, New Jersey, in 1954. Today, it's the site of the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, where visitors can get a glimpse of Edison's many inventions.

5. Some of Thomas Edison's siblings suffered unfortunate fates.

Thomas Edison had six siblings:

  • Marion

  • William Pitt

  • Harriet Ann ("Tannie")

  • Carlile

  • Samuel

  • Eliza

When Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847, he was the seventh and last child of parents Samuel Edison and Nancy Elliott Edison. Unfortunately, Edison didn't get a chance to know all of his siblings. Of his parents' seven children (Marion, William Pitt, Harriet Ann, Carlile, Samuel, Eliza, and Thomas) only four survived. Carlile, Samuel, and Eliza all died in childhood.

6. The Civil War inspired Thomas Edison's interest in invention.

A photograph of a young Thomas Edison with an early version of the phonograph.
A photograph of a young Thomas Edison with an early version of the phonograph. / Library of Congress

When Thomas Edison was 7 years old, his family relocated to Port Huron, Michigan. Edison, who went by "Al," short for his middle name of Alva, was a disinterested school student and was eventually taught at home by his mother. At 15, he decided to travel across the country, sending and receiving messages over the telegraph for trains and the Union Army during the Civil War. The experience inspired his lifelong passion for invention.

7. Thomas Edison credited a longtime physical ailment as a key factor in his success.

A picture of inventor Thomas Edison.
A picture of inventor Thomas Edison. / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Beginning in childhood, Edison suffered from profound hearing loss. No one is exactly sure what caused it, though Edison himself blamed it on a train conductor who once picked him up by the ears, causing damage. More likely, ear infections affected his ability to hear. However it happened, Edison said his hearing loss led to his incredible ability to concentrate and to deeply focus on whatever task was at hand.

8. Thomas Edison's final breaths before death became a museum piece.

A photo of American industrialist Henry Ford, who was friends with Thomas Edison up until Edison's death.
A photo of American industrialist Henry Ford, who was friends with Thomas Edison up until Edison's death. / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

During his career, Edison became friends with automobile pioneer Henry Ford. As Edison's health began to deteriorate and he was eventually relegated to a wheelchair, Ford bought one for himself so that they could race. When, in 1931, it seemed as if Edison's final days were numbered, some believe that Ford asked Edison's son Charles to try and capture his father's last breath in a test tube. While Charles did not do that, Edison's room did contain test tubes during his final moments that were close to his bed. Charles asked that they be sealed with paraffin and he gave one to Ford. Labeled "Edison's Last Breath?" it's currently located at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Most Notable Thomas Edison Inventions:

  • Phonograph

  • Incandescent light bulb

  • Electric vote recorder

  • Carbon telephone transmitter

  • Alkaline battery

  • Electric pen

Famous Thomas Edison Quotes:

  • "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

  • "The value of an idea lies in the using of it."

  • "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."