The Man Who Lit Up the World: Thomas Edison Changed the World through His Ability, Persistence -- and Hard Work. "Genius," He Said, "Is One Percent Inspiration and Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration". (History: American Ingenuity)

By Hoar, William P. | The New American, June 30, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Lit Up the World: Thomas Edison Changed the World through His Ability, Persistence -- and Hard Work. "Genius," He Said, "Is One Percent Inspiration and Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration". (History: American Ingenuity)


Hoar, William P., The New American


Thomas Alva Edison put it plainly: "I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work." And the man who lit up the world was indeed a worker. With little formal education, he was productively employed for 73 of his nearly 85 years (1847-1931).

According to the legend which Edison did little to alter, his sole teacher called him "addled," and said he was not worth schooling. The man who filed a patent on the average of every two weeks during the whole of his adult life enjoyed the tale. For his entry in Who's Who in America, he noted: "Received some instruction from his mother." And he once asserted that in 1862 he found refuge in what was to become the Detroit Public Library. "I started with the first book on the bottom shelf and went through the lot, one by one. I didn't read a few books. I read the library. Then I got a collection called The Penny Library Encyclopedia and read that through.... I read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy -- pretty heavy reading for a youngster. It might have been if I hadn't been taught by my deafness that I could enjoy any good literature.... Following the Anatomy came Newton's Principles...."

In point of fact, young Edison did attend several schools, and chemistry classes at Cooper Union in New York, and he wrote in private correspondence about his fabled self-education at the Detroit library: "I started to do it but gave up after reading about ten books that were pretty dry reading." But myths die hard, especially the self-effacing legends of great men.

For example, biographer Robert Conot reports in his book A Streak of Luck:

The most pervasive legend was that he slept only a few hours out of every twenty-four. It was, in reality, a smokescreen.... While in his young years there were stretches when he drove himself and others past the point of exhaustion, he always managed to catch up on his sleep afterward.

[Edison associate Alfred O.] Tate related: "His genius for sleep equalled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep anywhere, any time, on anything." He and his secretary once went to the beach for the weekend, and Edison slept thirty-six hours straight with only a two-hour interruption for a dinner of steak, potatoes, and apple pie. It was common for him to work a day and a night, taking occasional naps at the laboratory, then go to bed at Glenmont for eighteen hours.

It was another example of the division between the ideal and the practical. Ideally, Edison contended: "Sleep is an acquired habit. Cells don't sleep. Fish swim about in the water all night; they don't sleep. Even a horse don't sleep, he just stands still and rests. A man don't need any sleep." In practice, Edison did like everyone else, and went to sleep.

But he never let even sleep get in the way of his beloved work, with the result that he was granted 1,093 patents -- more than any other man in history. As it happened, one of his earliest inventions was a device he patched together in his days as a nightshift telegraph operator assigned to send a "wide-awake" signal every hour. He almost lost his job when it was discovered he had attached the sending set to a clock and rigged it to send an automatic signal so he could get some sleep.

Edison's hearing loss did not stop him from becoming a whiz at telegraphy, and actually helped him in improving a transmitter for Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and in inventing the gramophone. "Deafness, pure and simple," said Edison of the latter invention, "was responsible for the experimentation which perfected the machine. It took me twenty years to make a perfect record of piano music because it is full of overtones. I now can do it -- just because I'm deaf."

His defective hearing gave him another advantage. In Edison: The Man Who Made The Future, Ronald Clark explained: "In the business jungle where Edison necessarily carried out much of his business he could not rely on verbal agreements; everything had to be in writing, a safety net in what has been called 'a business era notorious For financial swindle and brigandage.

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