Edison's Childhood Years
Samuel Edison hastily made his way to Milan, Ohio, from Canada in the late 1830's. Samuel had gotten involved with a failed insurrection against a Canadian provincial government, a dispute between British rule and a Canadian reform movement hence, the quick move to Ohio. The Edison family, Nancy and the four children, were still in Canada waiting for word from Samuel.
After settling in Milan, a region of shipbuilding and manufacturing center, and eventually reuniting with his family, Edison's other relatives moved to Milan as well. On February 11, 1847, Nancy gave birth to her seventh and last child - Thomas Alva Edison.
Known as “Al” as a child, the youngest Edison was somewhat sickly and a concern for his parents as they had lost two children in infancy and a third would die before Al's first birthday. The three older surviving children were all teenagers.
Thomas Edison's early years were difficult to recall. Edison remembered only a few things - a trip to Vienna, Ontario, Canada, with his parents, the passing of covered wagons bound for the California gold fields, and the drowning of a friend with whom he was swimming in a creek. Official recorders of the period document only scarce information.
In the spring of 1854, the Edison family moved to Port Huron, Michigan on the Canadian border about 175 miles from Milan, Ohio. This was an isolated region of the United States though it boosted a population twice the size of Milan. At this time young “Al” was the only child at home as the older teenagers had moved on into marriage.
Al briefly attended a small private school headed by the local Episcopal minister. For a short time he also attended the union school in Port Huron. These brief encounters with formal, organized schooling were it for Al. The young Edison received his basic education at home. Nancy, a former schoolteacher, organized lessons and an extensive reading program for Thomas. Young Edison read all he could get his hands on - from popular science periodicals to contemporary fiction.
By twelve, young Edison was peddling candy, newspapers, magazines, and dime novels on the Grand Trunk Railroad sixty-mile run from Port Huron to Detroit. On his lay over in Detroit, Edison commonly visited the library of the Young Men's Society to read. It was in this period of his life he noticed a loss of hearing - it got worse in his later years.
Young Thomas Edison became an entrepreneur. Edison opened two stands in Port Huron and hired some younger boys to run them. One stand sold newspapers and magazines while the other sold “fresh” produce. Edison purchased produce in Detroit or along the line and transported it back free of charge thanks to the railroad!
In 1862, for about six months, Edison published his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald , printed in the baggage car of the train with some assistance from a friendly conductor. Edison also conducted chemistry experiments in the same baggage car. One day a bottle of phosphorus, fell and set the car on fire. The fire was put out and Edison was put off the train along with his printing press and chemistry laboratory!
At the end of 1862 a series of events would propel Thomas Edison into his career. While visiting the Mount Clemens railroad depot, Edison saved the young son of the stationmaster James MacKenzie from the path of a rolling freight car. Mr. MacKenzie, out of gratitude, taught Edison railroad telegraphy. Telegraphy was held in high esteem by many Americans - it was the technology of the time an greatly appealed to Thomas.
Having become proficient as a telegrapher, Edison left Port Huron in the spring of 1863 looking for a rewarding career in the telegraph business. Edison was 16 years old.
The Civil War was underway and it created a surge for skilled telegraph operators. Telegraph operators found themselves in a subculture of sorts. The public saw the operators as carefree youth drifting from city to city. The operators, though having never met one another, knew the others “touch” on the telegraph key.
Edison worked as an itinerant telegraph operator from 1863 to 1868. He worked in a number of cities - Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, Indiana, Cincinnati, Ohio, Memphis, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky. He also began to “tinker” with the telegraph equipment improving its operation. This early tinkering would later serve Thomas Edison well as America's Inventor.
In 1867, he returned home to Michigan. He stayed for about six months continuing to design and improve on existing telegraph equipment. The young 21-year-old Thomas Edison out grew the small town in Michigan and left for Boston and literally, the rest of his incredible, innovative and inventive life.
The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Volume 1,
The Making of An Inventor, February 1847 - June 1873
Rutgers University, 1989
Supporting FilesEdison's Childhood Years
Related LinksEdison ChronologyEdison's Childhood YearsEdison's Two FamiliesLewis Howard LatimerThe Practical Incandescent Light Bulb