Science and Invention

Thomas Edison

Is it true that Edison had no formal education?

It’s almost true: Thomas Edison (1847–1931) had no formal education to speak of. Born in Milan, Ohio, Edison’s father moved the family to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854. There young Edison attended school for the first time—in a one-room school-house where he was taught by the Reverend and Mrs. G. B. Engle. But this arrangement lasted just a few months: The boy grew impatient with his schooling—behavior his teachers interpreted as a sign of mental inferiority. When Edison overheard Mrs. Engle refer to him as “addled,” he reported it to his mother, Nancy, who promptly withdrew him from the school. From then on his mother taught him at home, introducing young Edison to natural philosophy—a mixture of physics, chemistry, and other sciences. He showed an inclination toward science, and by the age of 10 he was conducting original experiments in the family’s home.

Edison furthered his education through voracious reading. He sought, and was granted, permission to sell periodicals, snacks, and tobacco to passengers on the train between Port Huron and Detroit, Michigan, some 60 miles away. During the layover in downtown Detroit, Edison spent his time at the public library, where, according to his own recollection, he read not a few books, but the entire library. Even though he lacked a formal education, Edison possessed a keen mind and a natural curiosity. Further, he had the benefit of the schooling provided by his mother as well as access to a library, of which he took full advantage.

Then something happened that changed Edison’s life: While still a young man, he lost his hearing. Biographer Matthew Josephson explains that the deafness had two effects on Edison: Not only did he become “more solitary and shy,” but Edison turned with an even greater intensity toward his studies and began to “put forth tremendous efforts at self-education, for he had absolutely to learn everything for himself.”


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