Nancy Edison as a model homeschooling mom and proponent of intellectual play

My mother was the making of me. She understood me; she let me follow my bent.

Thomas Edison, on his mother, Nancy Edison
Thomas Edison’s parents

For many months now, our seven-year-old daughter has been begging me to allow her to turn a corner of our house into her “personal laboratory.” Those are her exact words. She wants a laboratory because she feels like she has important research to do, and naturally, she needs privacy, space, and legitimate research equipment for that. She even considered taking over part of the garage, until I reminded her that working in the garage would be like sitting under a broiler during a hot Florida summer.

I am not of the persuasion that is saving my house for some HGTV or Marie Kondo aesthetic. Cold, neutral, minimalist spaces bore me to tears. We have thousands of books that have pretty much have become a form of furniture in themselves, fossil displays, art from all over the world. Our walls are claret, semolina, turquoise, even lavender. (Comme il faut for Florida, in my opinion. Who moves to Florida to get away from color?) My decorating inspiration is more Indiana Jones than Joanna Gaines. So why not let the kid set up a laboratory in the corner?

It strikes me, however, that wanting a personal laboratory is not a “normal” request for a young child, especially when most of her peers are obsessed with princesses, soccer, and (unfortunately) smartphones. It seems to me that if you have the kind of child who is asking for a laboratory, that is something you absolutely must make happen.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Elise has been in love with science – especially biology and ecology – since she learned to speak. She was born very premature and with various medical issues (now fully cured) and spent most of her early years in hospitals surrounded by specialists and nurses. They loved her precociousness and would often take the time to answer her mechanical questions about how different parts of the body function (and malfunction) and the purposes of specific medical equipment. She fully understood that an army of doctors and nurses brave enough to perform surgery on a tiny newborn saved her life, so people who are good at science are her heroes. They are the people in her world who create and improve.

As such, Elise has never had what I call the “princess phase.” She’ll let you put a bow in her hair or paint her nails, but she’s not capable of caring about it for more than a few minutes and certainly does not seek “girly” things out. She spends most of her free time running around outside, usually with a net and a plastic box that she bought at the pet store for collecting insects and lizards. Our only rules are that she can’t collect pollinators or bring any snakes into the house. (And she will sulk if you do not let her take samples on vacation. We came back from Ft. Lauderdale with two shopping bags full of coral and sponges that she refused to part with despite their vomit-inducing stench. They are still sitting on the front porch.)

We have tried to indulge her passion for science as much as possible. We go to the library often, where she checks out dozens of nonfiction books on animals and ecosystems. She has re-read many of these books four or five times. The librarians graciously listen to her rattling off facts about animals, comparing the venom of cobras and black mambas or talking about how she wants to travel to Costa Rica to collect reptiles.

We bought her a microscope and endless slides. We bought petri dishes for growing bacteria in and have tested surfaces from all over town. (I’m less enthusiastic about any book or kit that involves testing water though. We have ponds, creeks, and the Intracoastal Waterway all within very short walks from our house. I’ve had to explain to Elise a million times that the people collecting water samples in her books are not dealing with alligators that can pull them underwater.)

I’ve learned that you can get frogs, crayfish, fetal pigs, and sheep’s brains, eyes, hearts, and kidneys on Amazon to dissect. I’ve even found latex gloves for little children (excellent for messy crafts too, by the way). We have subscriptions for engineering and computer science projects. She always has something going on.

This is how she plays. It is almost impossible to find other little children who want to spend their Saturday dissecting a sheep’s brain. Oh, how I wish I could.

I have learned, however, that one of the best things you can do for a child who loves science this much is to give them biographies of people who had similar obsessions.

We read through Jane Goodall’s My Life with the Chimpanzees, and she could relate to both Goodall’s childhood exploring the forests around her family’s home as well as spending hours at a time observing and tracking an animal.

We read a biography of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had turned his bedroom as a child into a massive natural history collection. Like him, she has enormous collections of rocks, shells, feathers, birds’ nests…. One time, I gave her a beautiful music box with one of those dancing ballerinas in it. While cleaning her room, I opened it to find it stuffed with the hollow blue shells of robin eggs. That was her idea of treasure, not plastic jewelry. She found a kindred spirit in Roosevelt, and admired him for establishing the national park system and protecting endangered wildlife. She liked his macho, go-anywhere attitude. A guy who thought trekking through the rain forest was good for the soul – that’s her kind of leader.

But the person she could most relate to was Thomas Edison. His mother pulled him out of a rigid, stifling public school to homeschool him, just as she is homeschooled. But – I walked right into this one, apparently – his mother let him set up a laboratory in their cellar. See, Mom, other kids have laboratories.

As we were reading about Edison, it occurred to me that his mother was the platonic ideal of homeschoolers. I went looking for more expanded accounts of Edison’s early life and education, and found his biographer Matthew Josephson. Forgive me for quoting at length from this article, which includes a lot of commentary from Josephson, but education is a topic I find irresistibly interesting.

The Edison family’s bad break up with public education (and the plight of having a quirky child that resists institutionalized behavior) is a story many homeschoolers can relate to:

In 1854, Reverend G. B. Engle belittled one of his students, seven-year-old Thomas Alva Edison, as “addled.” This outraged the youngster, and he stormed out of the Port Huron, Michigan school, the first formal school he had ever attended. His mother, Nancy Edison, brought him back the next day to discuss the situation with Reverend Engle, but she became angry at his rigid ways. Everything was forced on the kids. She withdrew her son from the school where he had been for only three months and resolved to educate him at home. Although he seems to have briefly attended two more schools, nearly all his childhood learning took place at home.

Thus arose the legend that Thomas Alva Edison (born February 11, 1847) became America’s most prolific inventor—1,093 patents for such wonders as the microphone, telephone receiver, stock ticker, phonograph, movies, office copiers, and incandescent electric light—despite his lack of schooling.

For years, he looked the part of the improbable, homespun genius: five feet, 10 inches tall, gray eyes, long hair that looked as if he cut it himself, baggy acid-stained pants, scruffy shoes, and hands discolored by chemicals. Later he took to wearing city clothes—black. On more than one occasion passers-by mistook him for a priest and respectfully tipped their hats.

Yet Edison probably gained a far better education than most children of his time or ours. This wasn’t because his mother had official credentials. She had taught school, but only a little. Nor was it because his parents had money. They were poor and lived on the outskirts of a declining town. Nancy Edison’s secret: she was more dedicated than any teacher was likely to be, and she had the flexibility to experiment with various ways of nurturing her son’s love for learning.

“She avoided forcing or prodding,” wrote Edison biographer Matthew Josephson, “and made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history that she had learned to love—and she was said to have been a fine reader.”

Thomas Edison plunged into great books. Before he was 12, he had read works by Shakespeare and Dickens, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, David Hume’s History of England, and more.

Because Nancy Edison was devoted and observant, she discovered simple ways to nurture her son’s enthusiasm. She brought him a book on the physical sciences—R. G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy, which explained how to perform chemistry experiments at home. Edison recalled this was “the first book in science I read when a boy.” It made learning fun, and he performed every experiment in the book. Then Nancy Edison brought him The Dictionary of Science which further spurred his interest. He became passionate about chemistry, spending all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacist, collecting bottles, wires, and other items for experiments. He built his first laboratory in the cellar of the family’s Port Huron house.

“Thus,” Josephson noted, “his mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils, she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path. It was the very best thing she could have done for this singular boy.” 

I like that: “Because she was devoted and observant….” Providing a good education involves caring about what fascinates your child and their native curiosities. It’s the opposite of the education factories that our country spends literally a trillion dollars a year on with predictably bad results.

Edison benefited from having two parents pulling him in opposite directions intellectually: a mother who indulged his love of science and a father who forced him to consume as much as possible of the humanities. Both parents were cool with having a very independent young child.

Sam Edison disapproved of all the time his son spent in the cellar. Sometimes he offered the boy a penny to resume reading literature. At 12, for example, Thomas read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. “I can still remember the flash of enlightenment that shone from his pages,” he recalled. Typically, though, he used his pennies to buy more chemicals for experiments in the cellar.

But Thomas Edison had discovered intellectual play. He wanted to learn everything he could about steam engines, electricity, battery power, electromagnetism, and especially the telegraph. Samuel F. B. Morse had attracted tremendous crowds when he demonstrated the telegraph back in 1838, and telegraph lines were extended across the country by the time Thomas Edison was conducting his experiments. The idea of transmitting information over a wire utterly fascinated him. He used scrap metal to build a telegraph set and practiced the Morse code. Through his experiments, he learned more and more about electricity which was to revolutionize the world.

When the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended to Port Huron in 1859, he got a job as newsboy for the day-long run to Detroit and back. After about a year, he looked for ways to make better use of the five-hour layover in Detroit before the train made its return trip. He got permission to move his cellar laboratory equipment aboard the baggage car, so he could continue his experiments. This worked well for a while until the train lurched, spilled some chemicals, and the laboratory caught on fire.

In 1862, a train accident injured his ears, and the 15-year-old began to lose much of his hearing. Apparently, he realized that as a handicapped boy without any credentials, he must learn everything he needed to know on his own. He dramatically intensified his self-education.

“Deafness probably drove me to reading,” he reflected later. He was among the first people to use the Detroit Free Library—with card number 33—and he systematically read through it shelf by shelf. He read literature. He was thrilled by Victor Hugo’s new romantic epic, Les Miserables, especially the stories of lost children. He talked so much about the book that his friends called him “Victor Hugo” Edison.

Of course, what fascinated Edison most was science. He devoured books on electricity, mechanics, chemical analysis, manufacturing technology and more. He struggled with Isaac Newton’s Principles, which made him realize his future would be with practical matters, not theorizing.

One of the best arguments for homeschooling – even versus sending your child to an elite private school, for those who can afford that option – is that it nurtures becoming an autodidact in ways that a traditional school never will. (Even Montessori schools are mostly gimmicks when it comes to this.) A lot of educational institutions try to channelize bright minds, I assume because they are looking for the “payoff” of someone being respected early in a given field. I think this is a weakness of most gifted and talented programs. They would rather brag about having a prodigy in something than a bright kid who is interested in everything. This is why Silicon Valley is littered with drop-outs, even from prestigious schools with the “best” resources. (Incidentally, homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular with the tech crowd.)

Someone like Edison could master intellectual content in every direction, and he was blessed that his parents encouraged that:

As a home-schooled, self-educated youth, Edison learned lessons that were to serve him all his life. He learned education was his own responsibility. He learned to take initiative. He learned to be persistent. He learned he could gain practical knowledge, inspiration and wisdom by reading books. He learned to discover all kinds of things from methodical observation. He learned education is a continuing, joyful process.

At 20, Edison got a job as itinerant Western Union telegraph operator and became remarkably proficient. He worked in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Memphis, Boston, and New York. The more he learned about telegraphy, the more he wanted to learn. He took apart equipment and reassembled it until he understood how it worked. He experimented with ways to make it better. He decided that greater knowledge of chemistry would help him, so he haunted used bookstores and ordered chemistry books from London and Paris. He filled his rented rooms with chemicals and junk metal for his experiments. One associate observed: “He spent his money buying apparatus and books, and wouldn’t buy clothing. That winter he went without an overcoat and nearly froze.”

Edison’s knowledge and enterprise led to a dramatic series of inventions. On January 25, 1869, he applied for a patent on a telegraphic stock ticker which, after he filed patents for dozens of successive improvements, became standard office equipment in America and Europe. Edison invented a printing telegraph for gold bullion and foreign exchange dealers. Western Union and its rivals battled to gain control of Edison’s patents which revolutionized the telegraph business. For example, he figured out how a central telegraph office could control the performance of telegraph equipment at remote locations. He developed a method for transmitting four messages simultaneously over the same wire. Intense curiosity, nourished by his home education, drove him to become perhaps America’s best technician on telegraphy.

From his practical experience, Edison learned to make the most of unexpected opportunities. For example, on July 18, 1877, he was testing an automatic telegraph which had a stylus to read coded indentations on strips of paper. For some reason, perhaps excessive voltage, the stylus suddenly began moving so fast through the indentations that the friction resulted in a sound. It might have been only a hum, but it got Edison’s attention. His imagination made a wild leap. Explains archivist Douglas Tarr at the Edison National Historical Site, West Orange, New Jersey: “Edison seemed to reason that if a stylus going through indentations could produce a sound unintentionally, then it could produce a sound intentionally, in which case he should be able to reproduce the human voice.” A talking machine!

Edison worked out its fundamental principles in his notebooks, and on December 17, 1877, he filed a patent application for the phonograph (“sound writing”). This was no improvement of existing technology. It was something brand new, Edison’s most original invention. It was also one thing he didn’t seek to invent, unlike the light bulb, power generation systems, and other famous inventions which he deliberately pursued. Having developed the idea, Edison followed up, working on and off for more than two decades to produce recorded sound quality which would thrill millions.

With a flexible and open mind, Edison enjoyed an important advantage in the race for electric light. Other inventors were committed to refining low-resistance arc lights (then used in light houses) which required large amounts of electrical power and copper wire—the most costly part of their lighting systems. In September 1878, Edison cheerfully began considering the opposite: a high resistance system which would require far less electrical power and copper wire. This could mean small electric lights suitable for home use. By January 1879, at the laboratory he established in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison had built his first high-resistance, incandescent electric light. It worked by passing electricity through a thin platinum filament in a glass vacuum bulb to delay the filament from melting.

But the lamp worked for only an hour or two. Improving performance required all the persistence Edison had learned as a child. He tested many other metals. He thought about tungsten, the metal in light bulb filaments now, but he couldn’t work with it using tools available in his day. He tried carbon. He tested carbonized filaments of every imaginable plant material, including baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo. He contacted biologists who could send him plant fibers from the tropics. “Before I got through,” he recalled, “I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.” Best performer for many years: carbonized filaments from cotton thread.

This proved to be one of Edison’s most perplexing inventions. “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” he wrote. “I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.” Edison at the peak of his inventive powers drew inspiration, as he did in his youth, from Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea. The hero, Gilliatt, struggled against the waves, the tides and a storm to save a steamship from destruction on a reef.

Hailed as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Edison was often able to see possibilities others missed because he continuously educated himself about different technologies. For example, during the late 1880s and early 1890s, he read widely about the latest developments in photographic optics. He investigated the potential of tough, flexible celluloid as motion picture film and had George Eastman make 50-foot-long, 35mm wide test strips. Edison worked out the mechanical problems of advancing film steadily across a photographic lens without tearing. He linked his new motion picture camera to an improved phonograph, capturing sound synchronized with motion pictures. Then Edison developed what he called the Kinetoscope to project these “talking” images on a screen.

In 1887, Edison built a magnificent laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. It was 10 times larger than his first, fabled facility in Menlo Park. The main building alone contained some 60,000 square feet of floor space for machine shops, glass-blowing operations, electrical testing rooms, chemical stockrooms, electrical power generation, and other functions.

Once a day, Edison toured this vast facility to see what was going on, but he did most work in the library. It had a great hall, a 30-foot-high ceiling and two galleries. Right in the center, Edison sat at a desk with three dozen pigeonholes, surrounded by some 10,000 books. Here he would ponder new ideas and hear his associates report on their progress.

As Edison grew older, he became stouter and harder of hearing, but he remained as enthusiastic as ever about the free-wheeling pursuit of practical knowledge. In 1903, he hired Martin Andre Rosanoff, a Russian-born, Paris-trained chemist who asked about laboratory rules. “Hell,” Edison snorted, “there ain’t no rules around here! We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.”

After Edison died on Sunday, October 18, 1931, his coffin was placed in his beloved West Orange library for mourners to pay their respects. Rosanoff identified a key to the Old Man’s enduring fame: “Had Edison been formally schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things.”

Indeed.

Edison is far from alone in this respect. His story is also the story of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Both had adults in their life who helped them have unconventional home educations that were centered on intellectual play. Imagine an alternative universe where Franklin and Einstein were given ADHD meds and told to sit still all day.

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