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Though Thomas Alva Edison’s creations and ingenuity are legendary, most don’t realize that Edison almost wasn’t the world’s greatest inventor.
A curious and reckless child, young Edison wanted to know the inner workings of the world around him and was not afraid to dive into the canal behind his house or into a grain elevator to find answers.
At five, his zeal to understand fire ended with the family barn in ashes and a whipping from his dad. His at times dangerous curiosity and endless questions drove his father to distraction, who wrote the boy off as “a dunce.” But his mother saw something else in her Al.
While creating my new “Turnabout Tales” picture book series for ZonderKidz/HarperCollins, I spied a common thread that ran through Edison’s life and those of other historic figures. Each found themselves in a moment of crisis where a decision made not only changed the course of their lives but the course of history itself. I believe each of us has a “Turnabout Tale,” whether in our past or in the future.
Edison’s “Turnabout” really began at age eight. Little Al was registered at the Reverend GB Engle’s schoolhouse in 1855. The rote lessons and memorization were likely boring to Al. He daydreamed through classes and his biographers think he may have had ADHD. Edison said of this period: “The teachers did not sympathize with me and…my father thought I was stupid.” His teacher did as well.
One day, in front of Al, the Reverend Engle complained that the boy was “addled” and “unable to be taught.” Al ran home in tears. The next day, Mrs. Edison appeared at the school, upbraided the teacher, insisted that her son had more smarts than even the Reverend and that she would educate Al herself. Astoundingly, this marked the end of Edison’s formal education and the beginning of the great inventor.
Nancy Edison was a teacher by trade and equipped her son with a combination of literary classics and science manuals that fed his passion. She encouraged Al’s daring, hands on experimentation.
Young Edison absorbed the theory of the books he read while practically applying them; constructing his own telegraph to a neighbor’s house and dabbling with chemicals in his home lab. Despite a few explosions in the basement and acid burns on her furniture, Ms. Edison indulged Tom’s pursuits.
I don’t know why Thomas Edison isn’t the patron saint of home-schooling. He said late in life: “My mother was the making of me…she let me follow my bent. The good effects of her early training I can never lose. If it had not been for her appreciation and her faith in me at a critical time in my experience, I should very likely have never become an inventor.”
It was this line, that I discovered accidentally, that led me to write “The Unexpected Light of Thomas Alva Edison” and to try to capture this neglected bit of history for our own time.
Like a lot of children, Edison was underestimated and disparaged at a young age. Being deaf from the age of 12, he was likely withdrawn. But where others would regard the loss of hearing a liability, Edison saw it as a blessing.
“Deafness probably drove me to reading.” Edison said once. It also gave him time to think and ponder. How incredible it is that a man who had to bite down on a piece of wood to hear sounds in his laboratory, created the phonograph, the telephone receiver, and the microphone.
But it was the model of discovery and innovation that he learned from his mother that would mark the rest of his creative life. Edison confronted challenges with his head and his hands.
Surrounded by books, at his “Invention Factory” in Menlo Park, New Jersey and later at the Edison Labs in West Orange, New Jersey he would hurl himself across worktables to tinker and feel his way through the process of creation.
Edison would fill thousands of notebooks with ideas for new inventions. By the end of his life, he would file more than 1,000 patents and transform the lives of millions around the globe. The alkaline battery, the lightbulb, the motion picture camera, the tattoo pen, and the first electric car—all sprang from the mind of a boy who was tossed out of school and told he was too dumb to be taught.
At a moment when we are in danger of losing a sense of who we are, stories like Edison’s must be preserved and spread. History reminds us of our past but more importantly lends us needed guidance as we move into the future.
Before we give up on the next average student or evict a child from the classroom, remember Thomas Edison and his mother. If it hadn’t been for Nancy Edison, we might all still be in the dark.
The incredible ingenuity and light of Edison, which has spanned more than a century, might never have reached us were it not for a devoted parent who saw promise in her son where others only saw problems.
I hope this first “Turnabout Tale: helps us all to see the possibility in every young life and to recognize the responsibility we as adults have to nurture the light within them.