Legacy of Light: Thomas Edison Turned Countless Failures into a Lifetime of Success

By Anderson, Amy | Success, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Legacy of Light: Thomas Edison Turned Countless Failures into a Lifetime of Success


Anderson, Amy, Success


When he was 21, Thomas Alva Edison patented the first of 1,093 inventions in the United States. He brought the world sustained electric light, recorded music, motion pictures and the first modern research laboratory. But in addition to his brilliance in the lab, Edison was an entrepreneur, a man who understood the most important personal-development principles for success.

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"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

Edison was born on Feb. 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. When he was 7, his family moved to Port Huron, Mich. He attended school up until the age of 12, but wasn't considered the best student, so he took a job selling newspapers and candy on a train that ran daily back and forth to Detroit. The trip included a six-hour layover in Detroit midday, where Edison later said he read "the entire public library."

He persisted in self-education, and when his mother asked him to stop his experiments at home after a small fire, Edison was given space in an empty baggage car to set up his chemical laboratory. He tinkered with telegraph instruments and quickly learned the basics of the growing communications trade. By 16, he had become proficient at telegraph operations and took a job at a nearby office.

"Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

After his first job, he traveled around the country for five years working various telegraph jobs until he settled in Boston in 1868. He continued experimentation and received his first patent on an electric vote recorder. The invention wasn't commercially viable, though, and the hours he had invested in the machine yielded no profit.

Edison realized that if he was going to put in hours developing an invention, it must be one the public wanted. "I find out what the world needs," he later said. "Then, I go ahead and invent it."

In 1869, Edison moved to New York City and soon after, he revealed his updated stock ticker, a machine that received current stock prices and displayed them at multiple locations. Edison was paid $40,000 for this and other inventions, including improvements to the telegraphic equipment.

Edison used the money to purchase an empty factory building in Newark, N.J., where in 1871 he established his first small workshop and a manufacturing facility to produce his stock ticker and telegraphic equipment. Over the next five years, he worked on new inventions and met and married Mary Stillwell. The couple later had three children.

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

In 1876, Edison moved his workshop and factory to 34 acres in Menlo Park, N.J. The new industrial research facility included electrical and chemical laboratories, a machine shop and commercial manufacturing facilities. The lab, which Edison called "The Invention Factory," was the first modern laboratory of its kind, combining research, development and production in one facility.

While he was certainly an ingenious scientist, Edison had a grander entrepreneurial vision than other solo inventors of his time. His manufacturing and business endeavors led to enormous success and were the driving forces behind much of his scientific decision-making.

However, Edison did fail on occasion. In developing electricity for public use, he promoted direct-current (DC) power systems over the alternating-current (AC) systems favored by his rival, inventor George Westinghouse. Edison aggressively marketed DC power to the public, warning them of AC power's potential for harming residents. However, in the end, Westinghouse's AC power won out and is still used in power stations today.

Despite this disappointment, Edison continued to look toward the future. …

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