9 Interesting Facts About Thomas Edison

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Thomas Edison standing in his lab with his arm on the table and his other hand in his pocket. Taken in 1911.
Thomas Edison in his Lab, circa 1911.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

Thomas Alva Edison was a famous American physicist, inventor, and businessman who made a major impact on life in the 20th century. His most significant inventions include the electric light bulb and the phonograph. He held over 1,000 patents for his inventions. Although he changed technology forever, not all of his inventions were successful. 

In this article, we will take a look at 9 interesting facts that you probably didn’t know about the world’s most famous inventor.

1. Edison created a battery for electric cars

The Nickel-iron batteries first manufactured by Thomas Edison in 1901.
Nickel–iron batteries under the “Exide” brand originally developed in 1901 by Thomas Edison.
Credit: Z22 // CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1901, Edison created a nickel-alkaline battery that he thought would be better than the current batteries on the market. His goal was to use the battery for electric vehicles. Unfortunately for Edison, a few years after he created the battery, the manufacturers stopped producing electric vehicles. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Thomas Edison already had a small factory for the production of electric cars. In fact, by 1912, there were more than 33,000 electric cars on American roads. Many of them were luxuriously equipped, similar to today’s high-end vehicles. Detroit Electric thus offered its customers the ability to design the interior themselves – similar to many of today’s luxury vehicle manufacturers.

However, the first electric cars were considered slow even for early 20th century standards, and they could only travel up to thirty kilometers before the batteries ran out.

2. Edison’s first patent was for a vote recorder

Thomas Edison's first patent, a drawing of the vote recorder on his patent
Thomas Edison’s First Patent, a vote recorder patented in June 1869.
Credit: Google Patents

One of the first steps in the communication revolution was the development of the telegraph. The telegraph industry rapidly expanded in the 19th century, and as an operator of the telegraph, this rapid growth gave Edison a chance to travel around the United States. He had worked in many cities across the US before he arrived in Boston. In this city is when Edison decided that rather than a telegraph operator, he would be an inventor.

His first patent was an “Electrographic Vote Recorder and Register”, a device designed to speed up the voting process in Congress. Unfortunately for him, this device was a failure; members of Congress were not impressed at the speed at which the machine recorded votes. After this, Edison decided that in the future he would only create things that he was confident the public would want.

3. Thomas Edison saved a three-year-old boy from getting hit by a train

Photo of 14-year-old Edison in 1861.
Thomas Edison at the age of 14, 1861.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At 12-years-old Edison started compiling his own weekly newspaper which he started selling on the train along with candy and magazines. A few years into his career as a newspaper creator and seller, in August 1862, he saw a two-year-old boy called Jimmie Mackenzie about to get hit by a train. Edison reacted quickly, saving the little boy’s life and receiving only minor wounds.

James U. Mackenzie, the station master, and father of Jimmie, was so grateful for what Thomas Edison had done, he offered to teach him how to use a telegraph, which would end up changing his life forever.

4. Thomas Edison suggested using the word “hello” as a telephone greeting.

Thomas Edison using a telephone
Thomas Edison using his dictating machine, September 8th,1914.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

We all answer the phone with “hello”, but that wasn’t always the case. Before hello was widely used when answering the telephone, people used to pick up, saying phrases like, “Are you there?” and “Do I get you?”.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, suggested using the phrase “Ahoy” when answering the phone. However, Thomas Edison, who had a rivalry with Alexander Graham Bell, was the first person to be documented suggesting the word “hello” as a greeting when picking up the telephone. In 1877, Edison wrote to T.B.A. David, President of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company of Pittsburg: “Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think? Edison – P.S. first cost of sender & receiver to manufacture is only $7.00.”

5. Nikola Tesla worked for Thomas Edison

Portrait as Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla, circa 1890.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nikola Tesla, the world-renowned inventor, first started working for an Edison company in 1882, when he joined the Continental Edison Company in Paris, France. Here Tesla gained a reputation for being highly skilled and when the manager overseeing the Paris company, Charles Batchelor, returned to the United States, he requested that Tesla join him.

Tesla only worked for the US-based Edison Machine Works for around 6 months before quitting for unknown reasons. In the time he worked there, he only met Thomas Edison a couple of times. In one of these meetings, Edison called Tesla “a damned good man”.

6. Edison was very hostile to traditional religion but was not an athiest

Thomas Edison in 1880
Portrait of Thomas Edison, circa 1880.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

Edison was a free thinker and a skeptic who did not try to hide his contempt for traditional religion or traditional religious beliefs. He was not an atheist, although some called him that because of his critiques of traditional theism. Edison’s religious beliefs were heavily influenced by Thomas Paine’s book “The Age of Reason”.

Some Edison Quotes on Religion and Faith:

  • “What you call God I call Nature”
  • “I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence I do not doubt”
  • “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.”
  • “My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul, but I simply do not believe it.”

7. Thomas Edison created creepy talking dolls that frightened children

Edison's Phonograph Doll
Edison’s Phonograph Doll
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When he wasn’t working on big projects that would change the currents of civilization, Edison also spent time experimenting with less impactful inventions. Originally invented by Edison in 1877, the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company released a talking Phonograph Doll in 1890 which would sing a nursery rhyme. The doll was a complete failure, with rumored sales to be as little as 500. This was in part due to the fact that children often found the singing doll frightening as well as the price being extremely high – $10 for an undressed doll, and $20 for a dressed one (equivalent to $300 and $600 adjusted to 2021). Allegedly, Edison himself later referred to them as “little monsters.”

8. Edison produced the first ever cat video

The first-ever cat video.
Credit: Library of Congress

As well as inventing and manufacturing products, Thomas Edison also produced some of the first motion pictures in history. The earliest known cat video to exist was actually produced by Edison in July 1894. Filmed by Henry Welton and William Heise at Edison’s production studio, the Black Maria in West Orange, New Jersey, shows two cats boxing with gloves on in a boxing ring.

9. Thomas Edison’s final words

An elderly Thomas Edison sat in a chair next to a radio in 1928
81-year-old Thomas Edison sat next to a radio, September 1928.
Credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain

Towards the end of Edison’s life, he suffered from poor health. He eventually died from diabetes complications at the age of 84 on October 18th, 1931 at his home in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison was in and out of a coma leading up to his death but he woke up a few hours before his death, looked up, and uttered his final words: “It is very beautiful over there.”

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