Edison is one of our most famous homeschooled alumni. Stories of his precocious childhood are legendary. “Little Al,” as he was nicknamed, was intensely curious and a hands-on learner. One story tells of two year old Al sitting on a nest of goose eggs hoping to hatch the eggs himself. Another tells of his theory that birds could fly because they ate worms. He tested his idea by mashing worms with water and convincing a neighborhood girl to drink it. She got sick and he got “switched.”[i] He frustrated his father with endless questions, especially about the railroad yard. If his father didn’t know the answers, Al would turn to him and ask, “Why don’t you know?”[ii]
His father Samuel could barely write his own name but tried his hand at a succession of trades, from tailoring and carpentry to tavernkeeping and milling, wherever his wanderlust led the family. Al’s mother Nancy on the other hand was well-educated and well-grounded. She firmly believed in her youngest child and Al in return was devoted to her: “I did not have my mother very long, but in that length of time she cast over me an influence which has lasted all my life… I was always a careless boy, and with a mother of different mental caliber I should have probably turned out badly. But her firmness, her sweetness, her goodness, were potent powers to keep me in the right path.”[iii]
When Al was seven, Nancy sent him to the nearby Family School for Boys and Girls, a Christian one-room schoolhouse with forty pupils ranging in age from five to twenty-one. As was typical for this time, the schoolmaster’s highest priority was good order and discipline. Children were expected to hold still, be silent, pay attention, and recite their drilled lessons. Infuriated by young Al’s daydreaming, drawing and doodling in his notebook, the schoolmaster often scolded and cuffed him in front of the other pupils. “One day, I heard the teacher tell the visiting school inspector that I was addled and it would not be worthwhile keeping me in school any longer. I was so hurt by this last straw that I burst out crying and went home and told my mother about it.” Edison remembered, “Mother love was aroused, mother pride wounded to the quick.” She “brought [him] back to the school and angrily told the teacher that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that I had more brains than he himself.”[iv] Nancy promptly withdrew him from school and resolved to teach him at home (which was not really unusual for that time).
We do not have many details as to how she taught him, but according to friends who knew Al as a boy, his mother would call him in from play to attend to his reading and writing lessons. He became a voracious reader and read David Hume’s History of England, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Barnas Sears’s History of the World, and R.G. Parker’s A School Compendium of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. From this last book, Al learned to make a variety of batteries and electrical toys. He made two machines to generate electricity, one by friction, the other by magnetic action. Not surprisingly, he loved science and collected all sorts of materials with which to conduct his experiments: glass bottles, mercury, feathers, sulfur, beeswax, alum, cornstalk pitch, acids and others. Eventually his mother couldn’t stand the mess and banished him to the basement.
At the age of 12, Al was hired as a “news butch” on the Grand Trunk Railroad from Port Huron to Detroit. In addition to newspapers, he sold snacks, cigars, guidebooks, dime novels and other traveler necessities. He would be gone from 7 am to 9 pm with a stopover in Detroit for most of the day. There, Al joined the Young Men’s Society so that he could make use of its large library. He evidently could read well enough by this time to enjoy Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Thomas Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.[v]
Always industrious, it wasn’t long before Al became an entrepreneur, selling local farmer’s groceries to the train people, hiring two assistants, and starting his own newspaper using castoff printing supplies. He continued reading and experimenting in a portable laboratory he set up in one of the baggage carts. One of his greatest interests at the time was telegraphy and he learned all he could about it, eventually training with a nearby stationmaster to become a telegraph operator. He spent his teenage years working a variety of telegraph jobs, traveling and studying on his own. Michael Faraday was a particular hero, not just because of his work with electricity but because he was self-taught. Edison never regretted his lack of formal education. He believed it was more important to have learned and developed efficient mental faculties in the greatest “institute of all” – life experience. The most important skill a scientist could possess was “a fine memory.” Later in life, as CEO of the Edison Company, when Edison was screening potential executives, he would give pre-employment questionnaires with 150 diverse questions such as “Where is the River Volga?” and “Who was Bessemer and what did he do?” [vi] Though all the applicants were college graduates, Edison had to be convinced that they could remember details and apply themselves. He often advised young men “Don’t go to college. Get into a shop and work out your own salvation.”[vii]
Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. Hyperion, New York 1995
[i] “Edison: Inventing the Century” by Neil Baldwin p. 19
[ii] ibid. p. 19
[iii] ibid. p. 20
[iv] ibid. p. 25
[v] ibid. p.29-30
[vi] ibid. 358-359
[vii] ibid. p. 75