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History Makers: Thomas Edison

He held more than 1,000 patents, including the first commercial lightbulb, phonograph and motion picture camera. Jonny Wilkes reveals the man who brought light, sound and pictures to the world
AMERICAN HERO Thomas Edison, seen here with his incandescent lightbulb, encapsulated the American Dream, working tirelessly on his many inventions
ALAMY X1, GETTY X1

THOMAS EDISON: INVENTOR OF THE MODERN WORLD

Before he could even grow stubble on his chin, a young omas Edison had already set up a laboratory for his experiments – in the back of a train baggage car, no less – and accidentally set fire to it. At this time, in the early 1860s, the teenager worked as a trainboy on the railroad selling fruit, vegetables, sweets and newspapers; in his spare time, he’d be found either reading any and every book he could get his hands on or tinkering with machines and chemicals. Edison picked up extra money selling his own newspaper to travellers too, the Grand Trunk Herald, printed in that same makeshift lab.

The fire earned Edison a clip around the ear from the conductor and cost him his job, yet the signs of inventiveness, curiosity and entrepreneurialism, plus a willingness to learn from failure, were there to see. ese qualities propelled Edison to become perhaps history’s most important, most influential inventor, one whose work still shapes our world.

GETTING ON TRACK

Born 11 February 1847 in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison wouldn’t amount to anything, according to his schoolmaster, who described him as “addled”. He displayed intelligence, but was too easily distracted in the classroom as he struggled with hearing problems. (He was almost deaf in his later years, but insisted it helped his concentration.) His mother Nancy pulled him out of school to educate him in the family home on a Michigan military post, and he relished the freedom of reading and teaching himself what he wanted. When Edison began working on the railroad in 1859, he used stopovers in Detroit to visit the library.

An improved version of the stock ticker, Edison’s first great invention
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The July 2016 issue of History Revealed