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Thomas Edison for Kids
His Life and Ideas: 21 Activities
By Laurie Carlson
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2006 Laurie Carlson
All rights reserved.
Off to a Quick Start
"WHAT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE TODAY, MAY NOT BE TOMORROW." — THOMAS EDISON
Thomas Alva Edison's Boyhood
A terrific snowstorm blanketed the small village of Milan, Ohio, the night before Thomas Alva Edison was born. It was 1847 and the Edison home, like others, was heated with a coal- or wood-burning stove or fireplace. Candlelight or the flickering flame from lamps lighted the darkness. Lamps were simple — a piece of wick stuck in whale oil or vegetable oil.
Dr. Lehman Galpin lived down the street from the Edison family and arrived to help with the baby's birth. He thought the newborn boy might have "brain fever" because the infant's head was larger than most newborns' usually are. It's hard to tell what he meant by brain fever, but his words struck fear in Nancy and Samuel Edison, who worried that their new baby might have health problems. Nancy had already borne seven children, but only three had lived. Those children were teenagers now, about to set out on their own. But the baby, named Thomas after an ancestor and Alva after Captain Alva Bradley, a Great Lakes ship owner and family friend, was a healthy newborn.
As a child, everyone called the boy Alva, or Al. His two sisters and a brother were much older, so Al spent a lot of time playing by himself. His parents had been married nearly 20 years when little Al was born, and they seldom played with him. Samuel Edison, Thomas's father, was born in Canada, where his father, John, had fled after the American Revolution. The older Edison was a Loyalist and refused to fight alongside the patriots. He remained loyal to Britain, but the British lost the war. The revolutionaries took his home and business, and he was forced to move his family to Canada after the war ended. When Samuel became an adult, he eventually moved to the Canadian side of the Great Lakes region, where he led a rebellion against the British government — this time he wasn't going to make his father's mistake. But the rebels failed, and Canadian government troops moved to arrest him, so he fled into the United States — the country his father had fled from a generation earlier. Samuel and his wife Nancy settled in Milan, Ohio, a few miles from the southern shore of Lake Erie, where he earned a living selling lumber, roof shingles, and animal feed.
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Though Al spent much time alone, he did have friends, and together they enjoyed swimming in the canal, building toy roads and wagons, and learning the songs of the lumber and canal workers.
When Al was young, Milan was a bustling trade center where farmers brought grain to be shipped out by canal to the Great Lakes and beyond. Most people were farmers in the early 1840s, and their crops were transported by oxcart. But new technology — canals — enabled the moving of products to market faster, on barges and steamboats. The Erie Canal in New York State was completed in 1824, allowing farm products and lumber to be shipped from places like Milan, Ohio, across the Great Lakes, down the Erie Canal, and to New York City. Long lines of wagons waited to load and unload their goods, and the Edison house was near the canal, right in the center of the action.
Al was like many children who strayed off into mischief, sometimes with scary consequences. He once fell into a nearby canal and had to be rescued, his clothes dripping and his lungs coughing up water. Another time he fell into the pit of a tall grain elevator tank and was nearly smothered in the pile of wheat that closed over him. After secretly playing with fire in his father's barn, the wooden barn ignited and burned to the ground.
The barn fire not only destroyed the family's investment, as there was no fire insurance for such a catastrophe, but it threatened to burn the neighboring buildings, too. Fire departments in places like Milan were not equipped to save buildings, and neighbors were angry about the incident. Al's father held a public spanking of the boy (an acceptable punishment in those days), strapping him soundly in view of everyone.
Al's father loved him dearly, but often thought he was a stupid child. His father complained that the boy was always asking foolish questions and getting into trouble. Many of young Edison's problems came about because he was thinking about something else and not paying attention to what was happening around him. He and a friend had gone swimming in the creek one afternoon, and while Al sat on the bank, deep in thought, the friend drowned in the creek. Coming back to attention, Al figured the friend had already gone home, so he went home and said nothing. Later that evening the townspeople put out a search for the missing boy, his body turned up in the stream, and Al was blamed for the tragedy. His father thought Al was a miserable troublemaker, lacking good sense. Al started to believe it.
One fellow in Milan fascinated the young Edison boy. Sam Winchester owned a large flour mill powered by a steam engine, which was a new invention at that time. Machinery had previously been moved by waterpower or draft animals, but Winchester's steam engine used fuel to heat up water, which created steam to move the machinery. It was the age of the steam engine, and Al saw it firsthand. The steam engine was powerful, noisy, and hot, but Winchester had even more interesting projects going on at the mill. Townspeople called Winchester "The Mad Miller of Milan" because they thought he was crazy to be working on the foolish invention he kept in the mill. He was building a passenger airship. It was a large balloon powered by hydrogen that he hoped to fly someday.
Seven-year-old Al hung around the mill constantly. His father disapproved and repeatedly punished him for going there. But Al was fascinated by Winchester's dogged determination to build the airship, which unfortunately burned down the mill when some hydrogen ignited. Not one to give up, Winchester went back to working on the experiment and finally succeeded. It had taken several years, but Winchester went aloft, lifted up into the air by his balloon invention. He drifted slowly out over Lake Erie and was never seen again.
While the people of Milan weren't very enthusiastic about air travel, they were completely devoted to the idea of canal transportation. Their local canal had brought many opportunities to the area. They didn't like the idea of railroads, either. When railroad builders wanted to lay a rail line, the townspeople resisted. They didn't want a train to interfere with the shipping business they were doing on the canal. That was a big mistake, because in 1854, the Lake Shore Railroad built its rail lines elsewhere, and traffic shifted from the canal to the railroad. Farmers took their products to the newer and faster railroads, leaving Milan and its canal behind. In a few short years, the town was nearly dried up. There was little business, and people started leaving.
The Edisons sold their comfortable home for very little money and moved about 100 miles (160 km) away, looking for a better situation. Al was seven years old when the family moved to a rented house in Port Huron, Michigan, a thriving town where Al's father set out on a variety of moneymaking ventures — growing vegetables and selling timber, groceries, and real estate.
Samuel Edison had one idea that set the family apart in the community. He built a 100-foot-tall (30 m) wooden stairway structure in their yard. For 25 cents, people could climb the stairs to the top, where they could see the view for miles. Neighbors made fun of the "Edison Tower," but Samuel claimed it was a joke that paid. Al learned firsthand how to create something of value that people would pay to use. Years later he said people would pay well for entertainment, something he first realized as he helped his father collect coins from the townspeople.
Al and his parents worked hard in Port Huron. Al worked on the family's 10-acre farm garden, growing, corn, radishes, onions, parsnips, and beets. He and another boy did the work and then took a horse and wagon loaded with vegetables to town and sold them door-to-door. One year Al gave his mother $600 — the equivalent of over $12,000 today — that he earned from the farm garden.
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The Edison family home had six bedrooms, and Al's mother rented some of the spare rooms to boarders. Al learned the value of money and hard work while he was young, and that knowledge never left him. There was plenty of work to do, but Al's parents knew he needed to attend school, too. Nancy Edison had been among the first generation of young girls allowed to attend school long enough to become a teacher. But most school boards in those days had regulations stating that once a woman married, she could no longer work as a teacher. Nancy Edison had taught Al to read, write, and sketch. Now, she felt, her youngest child should go to school.
Unfortunately, before Al could enroll, he caught scarlet fever, an infectious disease common in the 1800s. Scarlet fever is caused by streptococcus bacteria and can be passed by an infected person's cough or by drinking milk from an infected cow. Scarlet fever causes a high body temperature, sickness, sore throat, and a scarlet rash that spreads over the body, even the tongue. A serious case can cause ear and kidney infections and swollen neck glands. Today, scarlet fever is cured with antibiotics; in the 1850s doctors gave herbal tonics and teas and mercury pills. No one knows how Al caught the disease or how sick he was, but it kept him from attending school until he was eight and a half years old.
Finally Al's parents enrolled him in Reverend George Engle's school, where he attended class with 15 other students. He also took piano lessons from Reverend Engle. The school was expensive, though, so his parents soon switched him to a public school, a crowded one-room school with 40 students between the ages of 5 and 21. But Al was not suited for school — he had difficulty learning his lessons and became easily distracted from his work. Schoolwork in those days meant memorizing facts or poems, then reciting them aloud without mistakes. There was never a chance to do or make anything. Al said he needed to see things with his own eyes, to make and do things and try them out for himself. He said that trying something out for himself was "better than learning about something he had never seen."
Teachers were very strict and often swatted students who made mistakes or misbehaved. The teacher frequently slapped and ridiculed Al in front of the class. One day Al heard the schoolmaster, Mr. Crawford, say that Al was "addled" and that it was useless to keep him in school. Addled was a term used for students who had problems learning. Al's feelings were hurt. He rushed home crying and begged his mother not to make him go back to school.
Mrs. Edison was furious. Edison recalled, "I found out what a good thing a mother was; she brought me back to the school and angrily told the teacher that he didn't know what he was talking about. She was the most enthusiastic champion a boy ever had, and I determined right then that I would be worthy of her, and show her that her confidence had not been misplaced."
Al's formal schooling had lasted only three months. From that point on, he was home-schooled by his mother. She finished her housework in the morning, then sat down with Al and went over lessons with him. She had him read books meant for adults, such as books of world history and works by Shakespeare and Dickens. By the age of nine, Al was reading such adult books by himself.
In reality, though, Al's mother wasn't teaching him anything — he was teaching himself. She found books on subjects he was interested in, such as science, and didn't make him work too hard on things he didn't like, such as spelling and arithmetic. "My mother was the making of me," he said. "She understood me; she let me follow my bent [interests]."
There were few laws requiring children to attend school at that time. The first compulsory attendance law was adopted in Massachusetts in 1852. After the Civil War, other states followed suit, but it wasn't until 1918 that all states required children to attend school. Most children didn't get the chance because they were working. They worked on farms or in mines or factories. Most children went to school for only a few months of the year in the winter, and few went beyond the sixth grade. There were few high schools or academies to prepare students for colleges, and a lack of schooling seldom held anyone back in life. Learning basic reading, writing, and math skills was enough for most people. Al quickly learned the basics at home and began reading his parents' books. His parents encouraged him to read — in fact, for a while his father paid the boy for every book he read. He enjoyed reading throughout his life, and later when he was a successful inventor he would order hundreds of dollars of books at a time — telling a New York City bookstore to send him every book on a particular subject he wanted to learn about.
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One book in particular shaped Edison's life. It was called A School Compendium of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, or Parker's Philosophy. It described electricity, batteries, magnetism, how steam engines worked, and how the telegraph worked. The book was filled with details on simple experiments. Using the book to guide him, Al set out making many machines: some to create electricity, others friction, others magnetic action. The book and the experiments he did from it laid the research foundation he followed for the rest of his life.
Parker's Philosophy also had a chart of the Morse Telegraphic Alphabet, or "Morse code," which telegraphers used to send messages over telegraph lines with electric impulses. It used dots and dashes to represent letters of the alphabet, making it possible to send messages in code, to be decoded by a telegrapher and written down on paper in English.
Al taught himself the Morse code and wanted to be a telegrapher, a new job using a new technology that was sweeping the country. Like computer programming today, telegraphy used its own language and was like no other type of study. It was fresh, exciting, and full of opportunities. It also meant that people had to learn to think about communicating in entirely different ways. Dots and dashes — sent by electric pulses over a wire — represented words. People no longer had to wait days or weeks for a letter to arrive; they could send a telegram and receive a reply immediately. All it took was a telegrapher on the receiving end to interpret the coded clicks of the telegraph key.
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Another subject that fascinated young Al Edison was chemistry, and he continued to read chemistry books most of his life. He loved to mix chemicals together to study their reactions. He used the information from books to perform many experiments on his own. He gathered up things such as feathers, sulfur, beeswax, cornstalk pitch, acids, alum, and just about anything else he could find that could be useful in an experiment. He collected glass jars and ceramic dishes, bits of wood and metal, springs, and wires. With a good collection to tinker with, he worked out inventions and projects from his books and came up with ideas of his own.
He enjoyed reading, but he liked making things even more. He said that most kids "were interested in knowing how things are done." He worked on chemistry and telegraphy experiments and built a variety of other projects. He made water mills, a cannon, and a little steam engine railroad that he set up in one room of the house. Al gathered over 200 empty bottles and jars and filled them with chemicals and materials he collected. He bought his chemicals and equipment with money he earned selling vegetables and newspapers.
Mrs. Edison sometimes got upset about the mess. The dangerous chemicals left stains and odors, and the wet-cell batteries leaked sulphuric acid, which ate holes in the furniture and the floor. "My mother's ideas and mine differed at times, especially when I got experimenting and mussed up things," he said. When he was 10 years old, his mother made him move everything to the basement. Al labeled every bottle "Poison" so no one would touch his collection, and eventually his mother made him keep the basement door locked when he wasn't working there.
Excerpted from Thomas Edison for Kids by Laurie Carlson. Copyright © 2006 Laurie Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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