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Kamis, 17 Februari 2011

The Biography of Thomas Edison

"... Thomas Edison was more responsible than any one else for creating the modern world .... No one did more to shape the physical/cultural makeup of present day civilization.... Accordingly, he was the most influential figure of the millennium...."
The Heroes Of The Age: Electricity And Man

Surprisingly, little "Al" Edison, who was the last of seven children in his family, did not learn to talk until he was almost four years of age. Immediately thereafter, he began pleading with every adult he met to explain the workings of just about everything he encountered. If they said they didn't know, he would look them straight in the eye with his deeply set and vibrant blue-green eyes and ask them "Why?"

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Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison was not born into poverty in a backwater mid-western town. Actually, he was born -on Feb. 11, 1847 - to middle-class parents in the bustling port of Milan, Ohio, a community that - next to Odessa, Russia - was the largest wheat shipping center in the world. In 1854, his family moved to the vibrant city of Port Huron, Michigan, which ultimately surpassed the commercial preeminence of both Milan and Odessa....

At age seven - after spending 12 weeks in a noisy one-room schoolhouse with 38 other students of ll ages - Tom's overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost his patience with the child's persistent questioning and seemingly self centered behavior. Noting that Tom's forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average, he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster's brains were "addled" or scrambled.

If modern psychology had existed back then, Tom would have probably been deemed a victim of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and proscribed a hefty dose of the "miracle drug" Ritalin. Instead, when his beloved mother - whom he recalled "was the making of me... [because] she was always so true and so sure of me... And always made me feel I had someone to live for and must not disappoint." - became aware of the situation, she promptly withdrew him from school and began to "home-teach" him. Not surprisingly, she was convinced her son's slightly unusual demeanor and physical appearance were merely outward signs of his remarkable intelligence.

A descendant of the distinguished Elliot family of New England, New York born Nancy Edison was the devout and attractive daughter of a highly respected Presbyterian minister and an accomplished educator in her own right. After the above incident, she commenced teaching her favorite son the "Three Rs" and the Bible. Meanwhile, his rather "worldly" and roguish father, Samuel, encouraged him to read the great classics, giving him a ten cents reward for each one he completed.

It wasn't long thereafter that the serious minded youngster developed a deep interest in world history and English literature. Interestingly, many years later, Tom's abiding fondness for Shakespeare's plays lead him to briefly consider becoming an actor. However, because of his high-pitched voice and his extreme shyness before every audience - except those he was trying to influence into helping him finance an invention - he soon gave up the idea.

Tom especially enjoyed reading and reciting poetry. His life-long favorite was Gray's Elegy In A Country Churchyard. Indeed, his favorite lines - which he endlessly chanted to himself and any within hearing distance - came from its 9th stanza: “The boast of heraldry of pomp and power, All that beauty all that wealth ere gave, Alike await the inevitable hour. The path to glory leads but to the grave.”

At age 11, Tom's parents tried to appease his ever more voracious appetite for knowledge by teaching him how to use the resources of the local library. This skill became the foundation of many factors that gradually caused him to prefer learning via independent self instruction.

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Starting with the last book on the bottom shelf, Tom set out to systematically read every book in the stacks. Wisely, however, his parents promptly guided him into towards being more selective in what he read.... By age 12, Tom had not only completed Gibbon's Rise And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Sears' History Of The World, and Burton's Anatomy Of Melancholy, he had devoured The World Dictionary of Science and a number of works on Practical Chemistry.

Unfortunately, in spite of their noble efforts, Tom's dedicated parents eventually found themselves incapable of addressing his ever increasing interest in the Sciences. For example, when he began to question them about concepts dealing with Physics - such as those contained in Isaac Newton's great "Principia" - they were utterly stymied. Accordingly, they scraped enough money together to hire a clever tutor to help their precocious son in trying to understand Newton's complex mathematical principles and unique style....

Unfortunately, this experience had some negative affects on the highly impressionable boy. He was so disillusioned by how Newton's sensational theories were written in classical aristocratic terms -which he felt were unnecessarily confusing to the average person -he overreacted and developed a hearty dislike for all such "high-tone" language and mathematics....

On the other hand, the simple beauty of Newton's physical laws did not escape him. In fact, they very much helped him sharpen his own free wheeling style of clear thinking, proving all things to himself through his own method of objective examination and experimentation." Tom's response to the Principia also enhanced his propensity towards gleaning insights from the writings and activities of other great men and women of wisdom, never forgetting that even they might be entrenched in preconceived dogma and mired down in associated error....

All the while he was cultivated a strong sense of perseverance, readily expending whatever amount of perspiration needed to overcome challenges. This was a characteristic that he later noted was contrary to the way most people respond to stress and strain on their body.... The key upshot of this attribute was that his unique mental, and physical, stamina stood him in good stead when he took on the incredible rigors of a being a successful inventor in the late 19th Century....

Oddly, a factor that shaped Tom's personality in both a negative and a positive way was his poor hearing.... Even though this condition -and the fact that he had only three months of formal schooling - prevented him from taking advantage of the benefits of a secondary education in contemporary mathematics, physics, and engineering, he never let it interfere with finding ways of compensating.... More precisely, it was this his highly individualistic style of acquiring knowledge that eventually led him to question scores of the prevailing theories on the workings of electricity..... Approaching this complex field like a "lone eagle," he used his kaleidoscopic mind and his legendary memory, dexterity, and patience to perform whatever experiments were necessary to come up with his own related theories... As many of his contemporaries continued to indulge the popular electrical pontifications of the day, he was ever sharpening his now ingrained style of dispassionate and bold analysis.... "I accept almost nothing dealing with electricity without thoroughly testing it first." he often declared. Not surprisingly, by arming his brains with this perspective, he soon established a firm foothold in the world of practical electrical science And of course, at the dawn of the "Age Of Electric Light And Power," nothing could have better served his ultimate destiny in the field of invention...

Returning to the story of his youth, by age 12, Tom had already become an "adult." He had not only talked his parents into letting him go to work selling newspapers, snacks, and candy on the local railroad, he had started an entirely separate business selling fruits and vegetables.....

And at age 14 -during the time of the famous pre-Civil War debates between Lincoln and Douglas -he exploited his access to the associated news releases that were being teletyped into the station each day and published them in his own little newspaper. Focusing upon such newsworthy "scoops," he quickly enticed over 300 commuters to subscribe to his splendid little paper: the Weekly Herald.... Interestingly, because this was the first such publication ever to be type-set, printed, and sold on a train, an English journal now gave him his first exposure to international notoriety when it related this story in 1860.

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After his hero, Abraham Lincoln, was nominated for president, Tom not only distributed campaign literature on his behalf, he peddled flattering photographs of "the great emancipator." (Interestingly, some 25 years later, Tom's associated feelings about abolition caused him to select Brockton, Massachusetts as the first place to model the first standardized central power system, described elsewhere on the Brockton web site.)

At its peak, Tom's mini-publishing venture netted him more than ten dollars per day. Because this was considerably more than enough to provide for his own support, he had a good deal of extra income, most of which went towards outfitting the chemical laboratory he had set up in the basement of his home. But hen his usually patient and tolerant mother finally complained about the odors and danger of all the "poisons" he was amassing, he transferred most of them to a locked room in the basement and put the remainder in his locker room on the train.

One day, while traversing a bumpy section of track, the train lurched, causing a stick of phosphorous to roll onto the floor and ignite. Within moments, the baggage car caught fire. The conductor was so angry, he severely chastised the boy and struck him with a powerful blow on the side of his head. Purportedly, this may have aggravated some of the loss of hearing he may have inherited and from a later bout he had with scarlet fever. In any case, the station master penalized him by restricting him to peddling his newspaper to venues in railroad stations along the track ....

Remarkably, years later and not long after he had acquired the means to have an operation that "would have likely restored his hearing," he flatly refused to act upon the option.... His rationale was that he was afraid he "would have difficulty re-learning how to channel his thinking in an ever more noisy world." Whatever the cause for this defect, by the time Tom was 14 years of age, it was virtually impossible for him to acquire knowledge in a typical educational setting. Amazingly, however, he never seemed to fret a whole lot over the matter. Naturally inclined towards accepting his fate in life - and promptly adapting to whatever he was convinced was out of his control -he always reacted by committing himself to compensating via alternative methods....

Ultimately, Tom became totally deaf in his left ear, and approximately 80% deaf in his right ear. Poignantly, he once stated that the worst thing about this condition was that he was unable to enjoy the beautiful sounds of singing birds. Indeed, he loved the creatures so much, he later amassed an aviary containing over 5,000 of them. One day while he was on the train, the stationmaster's very young son happened to wander onto the tracks in front of an oncoming boxcar. Tom leaped to action. Luckily - as they tumbled away from its oncoming wheels - they ended up being only slightly injured.

Thomas Edison died At 9 P.M. On Oct. 18th, 1931 in New Jersey. He was 84 years of age. Shortly before passing away, he awoke from a coma and quietly whispered to his very religious and faithful wife Mina, who had been keeping a vigil all night by his side: "It is very beautiful over there..."

Recognizing that his death marked the end of an era in the progress of civilization, countless individuals, communities, and corporations throughout the world dimmed their lights and, or, briefly turned off their electric power in his honor on the evening of the day he was laid to rest at his beautiful estate at Glenmont, New Jersey. Most realized that, even though he was far from being a flawless human being and may not have really had the avuncular personality that was so often ascribed to him by myth makers, he was an essentially good man with a powerful mission.... Driven by a superhuman desire to fulfill the promise of research and invent things to serve mankind, no one did more to help realize our Puritan founders dream of creating a country that - at its best - would be viewed by the rest of the world as "a shining city upon a hill."

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Because of the peculiar voids that Edison often evinced in areas such as cognition, speech, grammar, etc., a number of medical authorities have argued that he may have been plagued by a fundamental learning disability that went well beyond mere deafness.... A few of have conjectured that this mysterious ailment - along with his lack of a formal education - may account for why he always seemed to "think so differently" compared to others of his time: "Always tenaciously clinging to those unique methods of analysis and experimentation with which he alone seemed to feel so comfortable...."

Whatever the impetus for his unique personality and traits, his incredible ability to come up with a meaningful new patent every two weeks throughout his working career "added more to the collective wealth of the world - and had more impact upon shaping modern civilization - than the accomplishments of any figure since Gutenberg...." Accordingly, most serious science and technology historians grant that he was indeed "The most influential figure of our millennium."

Notes: In 1929, Edison's close friend, Henry Ford, completed the task of moving Edison's original Menlo Park laboratory to the Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Mich. In 1962 his existing laboratory and home in West Orange, N.J. were designated as National Historic Sites.

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