Thomas Edison: The Inventive Genius Who Turned Night into Day

I’m writing this entry on the 27th of December, a day which is generally something of an anti-climax, since it lies in the doldrums between the New Year celebrations and the fun and games of

Christmas. For most people it’s a period of ennui, generated by a lack of sleep and an excess of festive eating and drinking. It’s difficult to imagine that anything of significance could have happened on this day, and yet in 1973 it marked the signing of the peace treaty which brought an end to the Vietnam war. It 1926 it was the day on which John Logie Baird opened his London workshop and gave the first public demonstration of a primitive TV set. And, of even greater significance, in 1879 it was the day on which Thomas Edison patented the electric lamp which has revolutionized our lives by turning night into day and giving us 24/7 illumination.

Edison was an autodidact. Like many

famous people – including Winston Churchill, Michael Faraday, Walt Disney, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Branson – he didn’t do well at school. His teacher told him his brain was ‘addled’, so after three weeks his mother withdrew him from school and taught him at home, with the help of inspirational books such as Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy. But more important still, the young Edison learnt from the school of life. To supplement the family income he sold candy, vegetables and newspapers on trains, and while doing so carried out experiments on telegraphy, which led to him taking out patents on an electric vote recorder and a stock market ticker-tape system. From there he became a wide-ranging entrepreneur, developing a battery for an electric car, a phonograph, an early movie camera and a system of electric power generation and distribution to factories and homes. This made him a wealthy entrepreneur, the founder of fourteen highly successful companies, including General Electric, which remains one of the world’s largest publicly traded companies. As a self-made man himself, he had little time for people who lacked his drive and erudition. Early in 1921 he placed an advertisement in The New York Time offering jobs to people who went to his laboratory in Newark, New Jersey and gave satisfactory answers to a battery of 163 general knowledge questions, such as “What is copra?”, and “Is Australia larger in area than Greenland?” Some weeks later he gave the same test to his existing employees. Those who failed to make the grade were given a week’s pay and sacked.

During his lifetime Edison filed 1,033 patents, but his most valuable contribution to the world is probably his legacy of memorable quotations. “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun”. “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” That’s why when a friend consoled him over his repeated failures to create a storage battery which actually worked he replied:. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

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