Book Summary: Edison by Edmund Morris

My Personal Summary

This book is a biography of Thomas Edison, arguably the most famous inventor of all time.

Amazingly, Edison had basically no formal education. His mother, who used to be a school teacher, taught him much of what he learned in childhood.

However, once he left home he taught himself every subject he wanted to learn purely through reading textbooks, experimenting with materials and chemicals with his bare hands, and putting in ungodly amounts of work.

During much of his working career, Edison worked 18-hour days and often forgot to eat, sleep and bathe himself unless reminded by others.

He was married twice during his lifetime and had several children but because of his extreme work ethic he was often a stranger to them.

Edison was rewarded a total of 1,093 patents in his lifetime across a wide variety of fields, including the first reliable electric light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera among other inventions.

Book Notes

Note: This book is written in reverse chronological order. That is, the book starts when Edison is an old man and ends with him being born.

The following book notes are written in chronological order to make them easier to understand.

1847 – 1859

  • Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847. Shortly after, his family moved to Port Huron in Michigan.
  • Edison spent a lot of time reading books with his mom when he was young. He read plenty of science books and he even made a makeshift laboratory in the basement of their home to experiment with mixing different compounds.

1860 – 1869

  • At age 13, Edison worked on a freight train that ran from Port Huron to Detroit. He used to buy goods that could only be bought in a big city like Detroit and then sell them at marked up prices to people on his way back to Port Huron. He also wrote and sold his own weekly newspaper and when it became too time-consuming he outsourced it to someone else to write. He was a businessman from an early age.
  • A friend once said of Edison, “He was always studying something and usually had a book dealing with some scientific subject in his pocket.”
  • At age 15, Edison studied for 18 hours per day for several months straight to learn Morse code so he could become a telegraph operator.
  • Funny story: In Edison’s first job as a telegraph operator, it was required for him to send a certain code each hour to show that he was actually working. He figured out a way to automate this by hooking up a notched wheel to an office clock that transmitted the exact code each hour for him.
  • By age 20, Edison was earning an excellent salary as one of the fastest telegraph operators in the nation, yet he never was able to save money because he always spent it on technical equipment and supplies for his experiments he would conduct. “It was a compulsion, the instinctive behavior of a man – boy no longer, a technician already mutating into a thinker – who could not help doing what he was born to do.”
  • At age 21, Edison moved to Boston to continue working as a telegraph operator and it’s here that he really started to ramp up his experiments and attempts at making inventions. His first patent he successfully filed was for an electrochemical vote recorder, designed to tally votes in elections much quicker than one could do by hand. His next successful patent was a stock ticker.
  • At age 22, Edison moved to New York City because he could sense that the city was something special.

1870 – 1879

  • Edison began making a name for himself with his inventions and began receiving money from investors to make new inventions, which allowed him to quit his job as a telegraph operator and work full time on inventing.
  • It’s said that Edison worked 18 hours per day during this time.
  • Edison married Mary Stilwell in 1871.
  • Edison was a voracious reader and taught himself chemistry, physics and other hard sciences purely through intensely reading books and taking notes.
  • In 1874, Edison invented the quadruplex telegraph, a device that allowed four separate signals to be sent and received on a single wire at the same time, which was a great improvement upon other telegraphs at the time. The financier Jay Gould bought the rights to the quadruplex from Edison in exchange for $30,000 (about $776,000 in 2022). This gave Edison the means to stop being employed by others and finally open his own shop where he could focus on inventing new things full-time.
  • In 1876, Edison bought land in Menlo Park, New Jersey and built a house and laboratory. He chose this location because it allowed him to get away from the distractions of Manhattan while still being close enough to allow for business trips and delivery of supplies.
  • In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph, a device that could record sound and then play it back at a later time, the first device in human history capable of doing so.
  • In 1879, Edison made several breakthroughs and created the first reliable electric light bulb that burned for 13 hours straight. This was a massive upgrade to the available light sources at the time, which all gave off fumes and sooted the ceilings of houses.

1880 – 1889

  • People began to refer to Edison as the “Genius” of electric light. But he insisted he was no genius…unless the definition of genius is prolonged patience. “I’m patient enough, to be sure.”
  • Observation: It was fascinating to read about how the biggest financiers of the day (Jay Gould, JP Morgan, etc.) were interested in investing in Edison so they could reap the financial benefits of his inventions and help bring them to market. These men didn’t understand the science like Edison did but they knew his inventions had the potential to make millions.
  • In 1880, Edison was so obsessed with illumination technology that his assistants said he would forget to eat his meals or go to bed if he were not reminded of those things.
  • At night, passengers on trains traveling to or from New York knew the exact point to look out the window and see Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park in the distance to see all of the lights on at night before the train carried on into complete darkness. That must have been incredible to see: bright electric light during the night that had never been seen in human history before.
  • In 1880, Edison’s main focus was figuring out how to provide lighting to buildings in all of lower Manhattan. There were an insane amount of telegraph and telephone wires already above ground through the city so Edison wanted to have all of his electrical wiring done underground.
  • One of the first private residences to gain electric light in Manhattan was “that of J.P. Morgan’s midtown mansion on Madison Avenue, where it short-circuited frequently, set fire to the mogul’s desk, frightened his horses, and drew noise complaints from the neighbors.”
  • In 1884, Edison hired Nicola Tesla, who remarked that he was so impressed with Edison who had “no training at all, no advantages, and did it all himself by virtue of his industry and application.”
  • Edison’s wife died in 1884.

1890 – 1899

  • In 1890, Edison invented the first motion picture camera.
  • Throughout the 1890’s, Edison tried creating an iron ore milling company after inventing a way to extract iron using an electromagnet but the iron proved to be low quality in the New Hersey sites he was excavating it from and the business ultimately failed.

1900 – 1909

  • Edison spent much of his time between 1900–1909 working on creating an electric battery that could be used to power cars.

1910 – 1919

  • By 1910, Edison averaged 1 invention for every 11 days of his career.
  • By 1910, Edison had six buildings that produced motion pictures, phonographs, batteries, business machines, and chemicals. He also employed over 3,500 people.
  • One quirk about Edison was “his certainty that any idea, no matter how revolutionary, was realizable through sheer doggedness of experiment.”
  • Edison’s biggest flaw was his tendency to spend all the money he made on inventing new things, which constantly put his existing companies in poor financial situations.
  • In 1912, Edison became friends with multimillionaire Henry Ford, who had a amassed his own fortunate with the production of the Model T.
  • Edison was recruited by the U.S. Navy to build batteries specifically designed for submarines. He would go on to invent over 45 new devices and systems for the Navy but working with the government to get them implemented proved to be unfruitful for the most part.

1920 – 1929

  • By 1920, Edison was worth about $125 million in today’s dollars.
  • The invention of the radio in 1920 quickly killed Edison’s phonograph business.
  • In the mid 1920’s, Edison became interested in botany and in particular how to more effectively cultivate rubber plants.
  • Edison died in 1931 at age 84 from complications with diabetes.

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