Thomas A. Edison – Self-Taught Education

A boy who writes his ideas for others to read is pretty sure to be interested in reading what others have written. This was the case with Edison. He realized that there was a good deal in books that was worth knowing. He had no one to guide him in selecting his 'reading, but that did not trouble him. Life seemed long, and books were very little things. There was surely time enough for an industrious person to read them all. He determined to begin with the Free Library of Detroit.

He picked out a shelf of particularly large, wise-looking books and commenced reading. Among these books were Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Hume's "History of England," Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," and Newton's "Principia."

A large part of the contents of these books was too advanced for the understanding of the young reader ... Nevertheless he kept cheerfully at the task he had set himself, until he had finished all the books on a shelf fifteen feet long.

He had learned a great many interesting facts from this difficult reading. But perhaps the most valuable lessons the experience taught him were about books. He had discovered for himself that it was both impossible and undesirable to read all books; that some had in them very little that was of value to him, and were not worth the time it took to read them, while others deserved the closest study.

In fact, he had become something of a critic, and was able to judge for himself whether a book would interest and help him. He did not stop reading when he had finished the shelf, but henceforth he chose his books with more care.

Some of the books that he read troubled him, because he could not wholly understand them, and he was always on the lookout for someone who knew enough to explain the difficulties to him. Other books filled his mind with new ideas and made him think very hard.

An old chemistry excited him so much that he could think of nothing but the wonderful statements it contained about even such simple things as air, water, fire. He was curious to experiment with some of the strange elements mentioned in it, such as oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen.

Thomas Edison was not the boy to sit still and wonder when his curiosity was aroused. He thought it would be a fine thing to have a workroom or laboratory, all fitted out with materials and implements for making chemical experiments, and he determined to have one.

His first step towards the realization of this ambition was to get acquainted with a chemist. The next, was to buy such second-hand apparatus as he could with the money he had saved, and get a few of the cheaper chemicals. These he arranged neatly in the corner of the freight car which was his newspaper office.

The little bottles with their glass stopples and mysterious contents were exceedingly precious to him, and lest someone should meddle with them, he pasted poison labels on all of them.

In his [c]rude little laboratory, the inventor made his first experiments. He found this a very fascinating pastime. He was willing to work hard, dress poorly, and eat plain food for the sake of his laboratory. Without a teacher, with only a book to instruct him, he experimented until he had learned, the properties and powers of many chemical substances.

He had accidents occasionally, for although he was careful, he worked under disadvantages on the jolting train. One day a bottle of phosphorus fell from its shelf and broke. The contents set the floor on fire. The fire was put out before it had done much injury; hut the conductor was excited and angry. He said he would have no more of the dangerous stuff on his train.

To be very sure that he would not, he threw the remaining bottles out of the car, and hurled after them not only all of the laboratory furnishings, but even the printing press. The owner protested with some spirit against the destruction of his property, whereupon the conductor seized him and pushed him out of the car.

Edison had learned in his rough-and-tumble life not to cry over spilt milk. It was discouraging to see the possessions he had collected with so much pains scattered by the roadside. But as soon as he had his fists unclenched the plucky fellow was ready to forgive the hasty conductor.

The old chap got a bad scare," he said to himself. "After all it's a wonder he didn't throw my traps overboard long ago." And he went to work picking up what was left of his printing shop and laboratory, planning the while where he would re-open his shop. He decided that his father's cellar would be the safest place. Before many days, he had made good his loss by new purchases and had begun work on a larger scale than ever.

Frances M. Perry, “The Story of Thomas A. Edison: Study.” In Four American Inventors: A Book for Young Americans, New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: American Book Company, 1901, Pages 216-220

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