During the year 1859, a leg of the Grand Trunk Railway ran between the cities of Port Huron and Detroit, Michigan. Onboard an old springless box car, young Alva – just twelve years old – set up his small shop to print The Weekly Herald newspaper. The paper sold for three cents a copy.
Alva was an inquisitive lad and had been homeschooled by his mother in Port Huron. His father was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and later relocated to the village of Vienna in southwestern Ontario. In 1837 father was embroiled in the Upper Canada Rebellion and forced to flee to Ohio in the United States, where Alva would be born.
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work"
Thomas Alva Edison
As a child, Alva became fascinated with the world of science and would spend countless hours preparing various chemical experiments at home. An incessant need for money to support his expensive hobby drew him into the world of printing. The lad reckoned that starting a newspaper that could sell advertisements to those who rode or worked on the railroad had the makings of a lucrative business.
Even by late-nineteenth-century standards, his meagre equipment was rather sparse. Three hundred pounds of used lead type was soon purchased from the Detroit Free Press while a crude hand-crank proof press, capable of printing a 12 x 16-inch sheet, was scrounged along with inks, a type stick, and paper. The whole shop would fit into a corner of an old boxcar formerly used as a smoker.
"Reason, justice, and equity never had weight enough on the face of the earth to govern the councils of men"
Thomas Alva Edison
Getting started wasn’t easy. Alva soon had cut a deal with the railway, and after composing the paper, he’d be kept busy printing the couple-of-hundred papers, all while bouncing along the railway track to and from Port Huron and Detroit. Stories of those folks who worked the railway found themselves in print, along with small advertisements, timetables, and gossip. One such ad offered “office copying presses,” an early and only way to make copies from a typographic form. At such a young age, Alva often added his own “Op-ed” philosophy: “Reason, Justice, and Equity never had weight enough on the face of the earth to govern the councils of men.”
A busy lad, he seemed to always find time to continue his various chemical experiments. One day a bottle of phosphorus, just one of many ingredients accumulated in his shop, fell to the floor, where the acid quickly set the boxcar on fire. The conductor, seeing the smoke, rushed to the scene and managed to put the fire out. Angry at the lad, he tossed all of Alva’s print shop and chemicals out of the train, including Alva. But not before giving him a good thrashing which included boxing his ears. Later in life, it was suggested that the beating might have been linked to lifelong deafness. Reports suggest that after his rapid expulsion Alva drudged back along the tracks to search for and try to retrieve his possessions, including all of the eight and 12-point types used to print the Herald.
Despite this setback, the paper continued, and by the age of thirteen, he was said to be clearing $ 50 per week ($1,700 in today’s money) from his paper, in addition to further sales of everything from candy to vegetables. In contrast, at twelve, I was too busy watching Heckle & Jeckle cartoons and getting into mischief. Serendipity would intervene soon after when shortly after 1862, Alva saved the life of a toddler whose father was the station agent in the railway office of Mount Clemens, Michigan. Grateful to Alva, the child’s father offered to train him as a telegraph operator. He soon found himself out of the newspaper business, now holding a new position in the telegraph office of the Grand Trunk Railway in Stratford, Ontario.
“Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
Thomas Alva Edison
The telegraph revolutionized communication, and by the age of nineteen, Alva was working for Western Union in Louisville, Kentucky. Although captivated with Samuel Morse’s telegraph, he continued with his chemical experiments until one day, a bottle of sulfuric acid spilled on the floor and the liquid wicked through the floorboards onto his boss’s desk below. Another quick dismissal after yet another accident.
Thomas Alva Edison in 1878
Perhaps no one could have anticipated what was in store for this young man who couldn’t stop his incessant experimenting. Moving to New York City, then New Jersey, Alva would soon be recognized as one of the world’s greatest inventors, credited with the light bulb, phonograph, and power generation technologies that reshaped the early 20th century. There would soon parade a string of endless inventions percolating, then hatching from his lab in Menlo Park. New Jersey.
His name is Thomas Alva Edison, “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” a boy genius with minimal homeschooling and a constant desire to discover something new. How ironic that just a few years after Edison left Stratford, Ontario, another inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, would make the first telephone call in the town of Brantford, only an hour away. To think that Edison began his life journey as a Printer is worth remembering. Who said the best and brightest minds don’t have ink in their blood?
Ford built a replica of Edison's Menlo Park laboratory building at the Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford Museum.