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The Self-Made Man: Thomas Edison

Happy 2014, readers! After a two-week sabbatical to spend the holidays in an egg nog-induced stupor, I’m back to profile more entrepreneurs and talk about what made them successful. Spoiler alert: working really, really hard is what makes them all successful.

This week’s Self Made Man is Thomas Edison, whose overrated reputation as an inventor usually overshadows his underrated business career. Edison was a tireless self-promoter and a crackerjack salesman, and that’s why he died rich and was remembered by history as a genius while poor Nikola Tesla died broke and crazy.

Edison’s beginnings were humble. His mother pulled him out of school when his instructors wrote him off as a scatterbrained idiot, and he went partially deaf as a kid thanks to a combination of scarlet fever and untreated ear infections.

However, Edison had the weirdest luck in the history of mankind, and began his career path when he saved a toddler from being hit by a train (seriously, this happened). The child’s grateful father hired him as a telegraph operator. Edison got into it, and bounced around a couple of different telegraph jobs (including a gig with Western Union where he got fired after accidentally spilling acid on his boss’ desk) until Franklin Leonard Pope let a broke and somewhat desperate Edison live and work in his basement, rent-free.

Edison did legitimately invent the stock ticker, thanks to his background in telegraph operation, and the phonograph, which made him instantly famous and, for that era, rich; he made $40,000 from the phonograph and various improvements to the telegraph. Edison was also quick to patent things he invented, even if he didn’t necessarily invent them, and made it a point to only pursue inventions with ?commercial demand.?

That sounds shallow, but Edison wasn’t afraid to spend a lot of time doing research and development on new projects, figuring out how to lower operating and manufacturing costs, improving manufacturing processes to reduce sale price, and trying to factor in the consumer’s needs and preferences wherever possible.

Edison was also better at attracting venture capital than his contemporaries, who didn’t have his business instincts and thought they could force the public to find a use for whatever they felt like inventing.

And of course, Edison spent a lot of time in the lab, which was the first and finest industrial research facility of its time. Hard work, man. It always comes back to that.

I’ll leave you with this cool, short video about Thomas Edison’s life, which was made with technology that he helped bring about.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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