Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration,”
Thomas Alva Edison, 1847-1931: an American Hero
Thomas Edison stands out as an American icon because of his amazing combination of invention, energy, and entrepreneurship. His only modern parallel might be Steve Jobs, who like Edison, gained his initial fortune while still young, but whose creative energies continued throughout his life.
Meadowcroft’s Boy’s Life of Edison focuses much on his early years and shows that his irrepressible creative energies were evident even in his youth. Edison was instructed at home by his mother and worked far above grade level. By age twelve he was finished with most of his formal studies and decided to see something of the world by working as a newsboy on a local train circuit.
Unable to remain idle for any period of time, young Edison set up shop in an unoccupied train-car and ran both a vegetable market and a newspaper business out of it. Using his own funds, he purchased a second hand printer and began publishing the Weekly Herald, the first newspaper ever written, printed, and sold on board a moving train. As a young man he worked as a telegraph operator, but in order to avoid the boredom of waiting for messages during slow periods, he built a contraption that automatically registered telegraph messages. Instead of encouraging his invention, however, his boss fired him for “laziness”. After reading a half-dozen stories such as these that marked Edison’s youth, the prodigious creativity of his later years seems almost inevitable.
Edison is the most famous and prolific of early American inventors, but hardly the only one. Other eminent inventors of the 19th century, whose lives dramatically changed the technological landscape of the nation were Robert Fulton (steamship), Eli Whitney (cotton Gin), Samuel Morse (telegraph), Elias Howe (sewing machine), Cyrus McCormick (mechanical reaper), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Charles Goodyear (vulcanized rubber) and the Wright Brothers (air flight).
The vast majority of successful inventions, as it turns out, are much more than “good ideas”. Edison is quoted as saying, “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration”, and a review of the life stories of most important inventors bears out this observation. Most inventions, from Gutenberg’s moveable type to McCormick’s mechanical reaper, had been thought of by others, but previous efforts had failed to solve important problems with their realization. Successful inventors spend most of their time working to solve difficulties associated with their inventions, and frequently only succeed after many failed efforts.
Gutenberg’s story, as told by Bachman, is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. Gutenberg did not actually invent “moveable type”, as he is sometimes credited with doing. What he did was solve dozens of problems, from the casting of suitable molds, to the development of specialized ink, that made the use of moveable type for printing practical and efficient. He spent his entire life perfecting his printing method because he was never entirely satisfied with its results. Likewise “Light bulbs” existed long before Edison’s time, but only in scientific laboratories. Edison saw the potential for their practical use, and spent much effort working to improve them. Just as importantly, he worked out many problems associated with implementing a community power grid, so that electric lights could be used in homes. Edison’s intense focus on practical problem solving was the root of his genius.
Many inventions have had a transforming effect on society and are as important for understanding modern history, as wars, battles, or political theories. Heritage History offers over a dozen books that cover major developments in science and inventions, but the three featured below focus primarily on the lives of famous inventors.
A Boy’s Life of Edison, is an authorized biography written by W. H. Meadowcroft, a close associate of Edison. It contains many humorous autobiographical anecdotes and introduces the reader to a broad range of Edison’s astounding contributions to American Industry. Four American Inventors details the lives and achievements of several of the most important American inventors of the 19th centuries. Great Inventors and Their Inventions is an especially good book that we highly recommend for the study of the 18th and 19th century. It tells the life stories of many of the most interesting and important inventors in modern history, and emphasizes the personal qualities—especially perseverance and industry—that characterize successful entrepreneurship.
A Boys Life of Edison, and Four American Inventors can both be found on our Early America Library (available for free with the purchase of any other Classical Curriculum CD during the Month of May). Great Inventors and their Inventions is featured as one of the “core” reading assignments in our British Empire Collection.