Who said: "If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves"

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Thomas Edison "If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves." – Thomas A Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history, holding 1093 US patents as well as many patents in other countries.

Born in a small town in Ohio, Edison grew up in Port Huron, Michigan as the seventh and youngest child. He was a restless student and, after three months of formal education, his mother took him out of school and home schooled him in the basics while he followed his own interests through extensive reading - which instilled in him a belief in self-improvement for life.

By the age of 12 he was partially deaf, possibly due to a bout of scarlet fever or recurring ear infections. By thirteen he was working selling newspapers and candy at the railroad while also learning how to operate the telegraph. By sixteen he was able to work as a telegrapher full time and spent the next few years working in various cities throughout the USA before landing in Boston in 1868. Soon after he received his first patent for an electric vote recorder - the device was a commercial failure and from then on he resolved to only invent things that he was certain would be demanded. A year later, while living in New York, he invented an improved stock ticker which earned him $40,000, giving him the seed money to set up a small laboratory and manufacturing facility in New Jersey. Five years later, married with a young family, he moved to the small village of Menlo Park, southwest of New York where he established a research and development laboratory that would become a model for many others (indeed, it is sometimes said that this laboratory was his greatest invention).

After the death of his first wife he married again and moved to West Orange, New Jersey, where he built a vast new five building laboratory which eventually covered more than twenty acres and, at its peak during World War I, employed 10,000 people.

During his life he was responsible for a ridiculous wealth of inventions including:

  • The phonograph (the first machine that could record and reproduce sound) and, later pretty much every aspect of the recording business including records to play on the phonograph, recording equipment, and equipment to manufacture records and phonographs.
  • The incandescent light bulb and the first commercial power station - which grew into a whole mass of electric companies that eventually came together to form Edison General Electric (later simply General Electric).
  • The first motion picture machine and pretty much everything needed to both film and show motion pictures.
  • The alkaline battery which offered improved storage versus conventional lead-acid batteries. Unfortunately, after taking ten years to develop a much improved battery for use in cars, the gas powered cars had improved so much that electric vehicles were much less common, but his invention still proved useful for lighting railway cars, maritime buoys and miners' lamps. In fact, the storage battery became Edison's most profitable product and paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.

Not every idea that Edison followed was a roaring success. Despite selling all of his General Electric stock to finance his research into the mining of iron ore, after ten years he had not been able to make his process commercially viable and lost all that he had invested.

Edison was still inventing, and being lauded for his inventions, right into his 80s. In 1928 Congress voted him a special Medal of Honor, and in 1929 the USA celebrated the incandescent light bulb's golden jubilee which culminated in a banquet honoring Edison given by Henry Ford.

Edison's final project was at the request of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone who asked him to find an alternative source of rubber for use in car tires to replace the increasingly expensive imported rubber. Edison tested about seventeen thousand different plants before settling on a type of Goldenrod weed which produced 5% latex in its native form and 12% after hybridization. He was still at work on this project at the time of his death in 1931 at the age of 84 - having registered his final patent just a few months earlier.


"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work."

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This quote & biography originally ran in an issue of BookBrowse's membership magazine. Full Membership Features & Benefits.

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