Thomas Alva Edison was the most productive inventor in U.S. history, with 1,093 patents - still a record. He was especially interested in the practical uses of electricity. His electric light, phonograph and motion-picture camera changed the way people lived. He widened the idea of invention to include research, development and marketing. And, by gathering together a team of scientists and technicians in New Jersey, he also invented the modern research laboratory. He was an exceptional thinker and led an exceptional life.
Edison was born in 1847 in Ohio. He only had three months of formal schooling. Mostly he was home-schooled by his mother, Nancy. "My mother taught me how to read good books quickly and correctly," he said later, "and as this opened up a great world in literature, I have always been very thankful for this early training."
He had hearing problems and was mostly deaf by adulthood. As a teen, he had scarlet fever, but in later years he said he lost his hearing when he was hit in the head by an angry train conductor.
When he was 12, Edison, who was already interested in science and inventions, got a job selling newpapers and candy on trains. When Edison saved a 3-year-old boy from a runaway train, the boy's father showed his gratitude by teaching Edison to be a telegraph operator. Edison's earliest patents - the stock ticker and the electric vote recorder - were the result of his tinkering with telegraph equipment.
By 1876, he had created an industrial research facility in Menlo Park, near Newark. His inventions there, such as an early phonograph, which captured sound waves as grooves on a tinfoil-covered cylinder, captured the public's imagination and earned him the nickname "Wizard of Menlo Park."
Edison's team often worked to improve other people's inventions, making them more practical or easier to manufacture. He also developed electric generators and a system for bringing electricity into people's homes. One of his companies, General Electric, is still among the largest companies in the world.
Edison married twice. A son from his second marriage, Charles, grew up to be governor of New Jersey.
When Thomas A. Edison died Oct. 18, 1931, President Herbert Hoover asked the nation to dim its lights in his honor.