Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, the youngest of seven children born to Samuel and Nancy Elliott Edison. He began to lose his hearing after having scarlet fever as a young child. As he grew older his deafness increased until finally he was totally deaf in his left ear and had only 10% hearing in his right ear. Edison did not consider this a “handicap” and said that it was rather an advantage as it gave him more time to think because he did not have to listen to foolish “small talk.”
By 1862 young “Al,” as his father called him, was printing, publishing, and selling The Weekly Herald on a train of the Grand Trunk Railroad out of Port Huron, Michigan. This was the first newspaper printed on a moving train. Later he learned to be a telegraph operator and worked at that trade throughout the Central Western states as well as Canada, always studying and experimenting to improve the equipment.
In 1868 Edison made his first patented invention, the Electrical Vote Recorder. Congress was apparently not interested in purchasing this as it counted votes too quickly. Edison vowed he would never again invent anything unless there was a “commercial demand” for it.
At age 23 Edison made his first sale of an invention, a Universal Stock Ticker, to General Lefferts, the head of the Gold and Stock Telegraph Co. Edison had decided that the invention was worth $5000 but was ready to accept $3000 when Lefferts said, “How would $40,000 strike you?” In later years Edison reported that he had almost fainted, but managed to stammer that the offer seemed fair enough. That money was used to set up Edison’s first business.
Thomas Edison’s interests varied widely and he received patents in many areas. For example, in 1876 he patented his Electric Pen which was later used in mimeograph systems, and in 1877 he applied for a patent on a Carbon Telephone Transmitter that led to a commercial telephone and later, radio broadcasting.
Considered his most original invention, the Phonograph was patented in 1878. Edison sketched out this new and different idea he had, handed it down to two men who worked in his shop, John Kruesi, and Charles Batchelor, and they made the machine. Edison took tin foil, wrapped it around the cylinder, and casually said, “This machine is going to talk.” He recited “Mary had a little lamb” into the strange device and to everyone’s amazement (even Edison’s) the machine repeated the words exactly.