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Setting the Stage


Begin the lesson by explaining to students that Edison lacked formal education, but excelled at putting his practical genius to work. He became a hero to most Americans as an example of what they believed was peculiarly American ingenuity. Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, he received only a few months of formal education, but his mother, a retired school teacher, provided him with lessons in the basic subjects.

Edison began working for a living when he was 12 years old. As a "candy butcher," he sold newspapers, fruit, candy, and other snacks on a train that ran each day from Port Huron, Michigan (where the family had moved in 1854), to Detroit. He built a small laboratory in the baggage car and conducted experiments in telegraphy during his free time. He continued his experiments as he worked as a telegraph operator in the 1860s. He received his first patent when he was 21 and gained a reputation as an inventor, as well as his first financial success, by developing various improvements in telegraph equipment.

In 1877 Edison achieved international fame with his invention of the first phonograph. Two years later, while working in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb and a complete electrical power system for making electric lighting for homes and businesses. Edison's invention of the electric light established his place in history, and the sale of light bulbs and power systems secured his fortune.

In 1886 Edison set out to build a new laboratory to continue his work on electricity and to develop a systematic process for turning the endless list of other ideas he had into marketable products. By this time, Edison had both the experience and the capital to build the largest and best equipped laboratory in existence with what he called "facilities incomparably superior to any other for the rapid and cheap development of an invention and working it up into Commercial [sic] shape" (Edison Laboratory Notebook N87.11.15, Edison National Historic Site Archives). Edison worked in his West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory for the rest of his life. Of the 1,093 patents he received before his death in 1931, more than half were developed at West Orange.

 

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