Thomas Alvin Edison is cited more often than any other historical figure for exhibiting classic hyperactive ADD behavior. ADD and divergent thinking styles have even been dubbed “The Edison Trait.” So here’s a page on the poster child himself.
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In 1837 the Edison family fled from Canada to the U.S. because Thomas Edison’s father was involved in a revolutionary movement against the Canadian Government. Ten years later Thomas was born, and within his first six years he had managed to burn down the family barn. During his early years, Thomas suffered from scarlet fever and several ear infections, which left him hard of hearing. Even so, he was a talkative child who used to annoy adults with his constant questions.
Although young Al (as he was called in those days) was certainly very gifted and must have had a very high IQ, one teacher called him “addled,” which meant “confused or stupid.” He attended three different schools between the ages of seven to nine, and none of his teachers had the patience to deal with his apparent inability to sit still, his lack of focus on the matter at hand, and his talkativeness. Al like to talk but not listen!
The hero of Al’s childhood was his mother, who pulled him out of school after the school master said Al was unteachable, and homeschooled him herself. Al was a scientist and an entrepreneur from a very early age, and his mother encouraged him. He loved to explore and experience, not learn through rote memorization. His mother let him set up a laboratory in the cellar. Her faith in his natural abilities was at odds with the rest of the world. Even his father seemed to think he was stupid.
At age twelve, Al got a job selling newspapers and other goods on the train. He set up a chemistry lab in the baggage car, acquired a printing press, and began publishing a newspaper for commuters. Unfortunately, he started a fire in the chemistry lab and was fired. Throughout his teens he landed and lost many jobs, but he was inventing the whole time. As a railroad signalman he had to clock in every hour by telegraph. Al invented a way to transmit his hourly signal automatically, and was fired when he got caught. The invention, however, eventually led him to develop the first automatic telegraph and the first stock ticker.
Thomas Edison was a real divergent thinker. “Look, I start here with the intention of going there in an experiment, say, to increase the speed of the Atlantic cable; but when I have arrived part way in my straight line, I meet with a phenomenon and it leads me off in another direction — to something totally unexpected.”
He and his colleagues were oblivious to time, working day and night when hot on the trail of an invention. “I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom.” One group of his workers called themselves “The Insomnia Squad.”
Edison wasn’t just an inventor. He was an entrepreneur and a shrewd businessman who was able to sell his inventions, attract new capital, and motivate his employees. And he was a very hard worker. He said his success was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
By the end of his career, Edison had received 1,093 patents and was credited for inventing the electric light bulb, the central power generating station, the phonograph, the flexible celluloid film and movie projector, and alkaline storage battery, and the microphone. He bragged that he had not invented any weapons.
The very traits of Thomas Edison that are cited as being typical of ADD also happen to be consistent with his MBTI temperament type. According to the official Keirsey temperament site, Edison was probably an ENTP (that is, he had preferences for extraversion, conceptual thinking, logic and divergent thinking). This is one of the four most common temperament types that write to me about this website. I’m familiar with ENTPs because I am one myself, as is my son.
It is normal for ENTPs to be very talkative; to want to learn through exploration and experience rather than rote memorization; to experiment; to invent; to have little tolerance for boredom; to have an intense desire to discover something NEW and ORIGINAL; to be an enthusiastic entrepreneur or a catalyst; to TELL everyone about their discovery. Young ENTPs are notorious for their non-stop chatter and high energy levels. As far as ADD types go, they are primarily Discoverers, rather than the thrill-seeking Dynamos or the quiet Dreamers.
Modern day ENTPs probably include entrepreneurs Steve Jobs (Apple Computer) and Ted Turner (“The Mouth From the South”).
Excerpt from “Thomas A. Edison, Young Inventor” by Sue Guthridge, a book for readers ages 8-12:
The lesson began. The children did what Mr. Crawford told them to do. That is, all the children but Tom. He was holding his sketch pad on his slate and was drawing a picture of the new House in the Grove.
He could hear Mr. Crawford in the distance. “Round and round and round. Crayon up!” But Tom paid no attention.
“I said ‘Crayon up,’ Thomas Alva.”
Still Tom did not hear. He was too busy at his drawing.
Suddenly he noticed that it was very quiet in the big room. He could feel Mr. Crawford coming toward him. Then the teacher was looking over Tom’s shoulder. He snatched the paper out of Tom’s hands.
“Thomas Alva Edison! Is this an example of penmanship?”
“I – no – that – no, sir. No, Mr. Crawford. This is our new house, sir,” said Tom. He was frightened and wished now he had paid attention to Mr. Crawford. The teacher looked cross. In fact, he was so cross that his eyebrows were going up and down. “His eyebrows move when he’s angry,” Tom thought.
“Thomas Alva, you will take that paper and the colored pencils home this afternoon. NEVER bring them back again. Now, go and sit in that corner until lunchtime.”
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“How can I learn things, Mother, if I don’t go to school?”
“I’ll teach you here at home. When it is nice weather we’ll have our lessons out on the front porch. Until then we’ll have them in here by the stove. We will have fun learning.”
“But do you know all about arithmetic, Mother?” Tom asked.
Mrs. Edison laughed. “I know enough, Tom. We’ll do problems in arithmetic. We will read from all the books in the parlor. We will learn about the history of our country and about the history of countries across the sea. Yes, Tom, you can learn many things right here at home.”
Tom really enjoyed his lessons at home. When the days began to be warmer, they had their school on the front porch. As the other children passed the Edison home, they wished that they, too, might have Mrs. Edison as a teacher. She and Tom always seemed to be having a good time. They would laugh as they studied.
- Edison – Inventing the Century by Neil Baldwin, 1995
- Kids Discover, “Thomas Edison, The Man Who Invented”, May 1999
- Attention Deficit Disorder – A Different Perception, by Thom Hartmann
- The Keirsey Website