One of the outstanding geniuses in the history of modern technology was born in a modest brick home in Milan, Ohio. In his lifetime, Thomas Alva Edison earned patents for more than a thousand of his inventions, including the incandescent electric bulb, phonograph, carbon telephone transmitter, and the motion-picture projector.

Edison home 5He also created the world’s first industrial research laboratory. Edison’s inventions changed the world and his genius continues to impact our lives every day. Visitors to northern Ohio can tour the Edison family home and adjacent museum and learn about the humble beginnings of this remarkable man.

Thomas Edison’s father, also named Samuel, married a school teacher named Nancy Elliott, the daughter of Ebenezer Matthews Elliott, who was a captain in Washington’s army. He became involved in another political struggle – an unsuccessful Canadian counterpart of the American Revolution known as the Papineau-MacKenzie Rebellion. In a reversal of his grandfather’s life, upon the failure of this revolt, he was forced to flee across the border to the United States. After innumerable dangers and hardships, Samuel, Nancy and their five children finally settled in Milan, Ohio. In Milan, Samuel established himself as a manufacturer of roof shingles and built a successful business.

In 1841 Nancy Elliott Edison, mother of Thomas Alva Edison, purchased a lot in Milan and Samuel designed a home for his family. Nancy and Samuel started building their home in the fall of the same year. Their son Thomas Alva Edison was born in the house on February 11, 1847. The family lived in their Milan home for seven years after Thomas was born, moving to Port Huron, Michigan in 1854.

Always an inquisitive child, by the time he was ten years old, Thomas Edison had set up a small chemical laboratory in the cellar of his home after his mother had aroused his interest with an elementary physical science book. He was absorbed by the study of chemistry and the production of electrical current from voltaic jars, and soon created a homemade telegraph set.

In 1868 he obtained a position in Boston as a night operator for the Western Union Telegraph Company. Edison worked all night, but slept little during the daytime, for he was all-consumed by his interest in manipulating electrical currents in new ways. Borrowing enough money to hopefully live on, he gave up his job within a few months and became a free-lance inventor, taking out his first patent for an electrical vote recorder the same year. Other successful experiments convinced Edison he had a future as an inventor.

In the summer of 1869 he was in New York, living in a tiny rented basement room below Wall Street. When the breakdown of the Gold Exchange’s new telegraphic gold-price indicator created a crisis, Edison was called in to try to repair the instrument. He did such a good job that he was given a job. Soon he had remodeled the erratic machine so well that its owners, the Western Union Telegraph Company, commissioned him to improve the crude stock ticker just coming into use. The result was the Edison Universal Stock Printer patented that year, which together with several other inventions, earned the young man a sudden fortune of $40,000.

Edison took his money to Newark, New Jersey and began manufacturing stock tickers and high-speed printing telegraphs. In 1876 Edison moved to the village of Menlo Park, New Jersey and set up a laboratory where he could devote his full attention to inventing. He promised that he would turn out a small invention every ten days and a big invention every six months. He also proposed to make inventions to order. Before long he had 40 different projects going at the same time and was applying for as many as 400 patents a year.

After viewing an exhibition of a series of eight glaring 500-candlepower arc lights in 1878, Edison decided to invent a safe, inexpensive electric light that would replace the gaslights then used in millions of homes. In October, 1878 Edison and several financial backers formed the Edison Electric Light Company, the predecessor of today’s General Electric Company. 

On October 21, 1879, Edison demonstrated his carbon-filament lamp, powered by current from his special high-voltage dynamos. The pilot light-and-power station at Menlo Park was illuminated by a circuit of 30 lamps, each of which could be turned on or off without affecting the rest. Three years later, the Pearl Street Central Power Station in downtown New York City was completed, ushering in the age of the electrical illumination.

By 1887 Edison had moved his workshop from Menlo Park to West Orange, New Jersey, where he built the Edison Laboratory. Eventually it was surrounded with factories employing 5,000 workers producing a variety of Edison’s products, among them the phonograph using wax records, alkaline storage batteries, motion-picture cameras and projectors,  mimeograph machines, fluoroscopes, and  dictating machines.

For 45 years Edison lived in a 23 room mansion called Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey. He spent 29 winters in Ft. Myers, Florida, close to his friend Henry Ford, another inventor and manufacturer who helped shape modern society. Edison died on October 18, 1931 at the age of 84, at Glenmont, with his wife Mina at his side. As he awoke from a coma his last words were, “It is very beautiful over there.”

Edison’s parents sold the house where he was born when they left Milan, and for the next forty years it was out of family ownership. In 1894, Edison’s sister, Marion Edison Page, bought the house and added a bathroom and other modern conveniences. Thomas Edison became the owner of his birthplace in 1906, and on his last visit, in 1923, he was shocked to find his old home still lighted by lamps and candles!

After Edison died in 1931, opening his birthplace to the public as a memorial and museum became the private project of his wife, Mina Miller Edison, and their daughter, Mrs. John Eyre Sloane. The Edison Birthplace Museum opened on the centennial of the inventor’s birth in 1947.

The house has been restored as nearly as possible to its 19th Century appearance. Because much of the Edisons’ original furniture was lost in moves and to a disastrous fire at their Port Huron home, it was impossible to assemble much of the original furniture. Therefore, gifts and loans from members of the family have been supplemented by gifts and loans from friends and, in some cases, purchases of household articles of the period. Today, this National Historic Site is maintained by the Edison Birthplace Association, Inc., a private, non-profit organization.

A small museum located in the building next door to the house includes displays of Edison’s inventions andEdison museum display web highlights from his career, including phonographs and photos. During the tour of the museum, included with admission to the Edison family home, visitors listen to an original Edison wax cylinder recording.

The Edison Birthplace is closed on Mondays and Easter. Regularly scheduled hours vary seasonally. Guided tours are held on a regular schedule throughout the day. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and $2 for children age 6-12. Parking is very limited and there is no room for an RV at the home.

There are several RV parks in the area that would make a good base from which to visit the Edison Birthplace, nearby Marblehead Lighthouse, the Johnson Island Civil War Cemetery, Cedar Point Amusement Park, Perry’s Victory National Monument, and the Lake Erie Islands. For more information on the Edison Birthplace, call (419) 499-2135.

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  371. Tireman9

    When I visited the home earlier this summer I was amazed by the realization that the music I was listening to on the cylinder player was not a re-production or some mass produced record but the actual original recording made about 100 years ago and that each cylinder had to be recorded individually by the musicians.
    Strong recommendation to place this small home and museum on your places to visit when in North Central Ohio.
    It’s only about 1/2 hour South of the Ohio Turnpike.


  372. Mark & Kay Ulm

    Went to the Edison/Ford museum near Fort Meyers last year and we were blown away by it.
    Make sure to check out his Winter home if you get a chance.