You may have read the rumor posed as an inspirational story about Thomas Edison’s school teacher referring to him as addled or mentally ill in a letter. One version of the story goes...
One day, Thomas Edison came home and gave a paper to his mother. He told her, “My teacher gave this paper to me and told me to only give it to my mother.”
His mother’s eyes were tearful as she read the letter out loud to her child: "Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn’t have enough good teachers for training him. Please teach him yourself."
After many, many years, Edison’s mother died, and he had become one of the greatest inventors of the century. One day he began looking through old family things. Suddenly he saw a folded paper in the corner of a drawer in a desk. He took it and opened it up. On the paper was written: "Your son is addled [mentally ill]. We won’t let him come to school any more."
Edison cried for hours and then he wrote in his diary: “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.”
The truth is that the story never happened in this way. Many details of an inspirational story about Thomas Edison’s young life are accurate, but they’ve been used to form a fictional narrative about young Edison’s struggles as a student.
First, Thomas Edison was dyslexic, which would have made it difficult for him to succeed in any 1800s classroom. Research on dyslexia didn’t begin until the early 1900s, decades after Edison had left public schools, so little was known about it at the time.
Thomas Edison’s struggles in school have been well documented over the years, as have the views of many that Edison was “addled.” But the idea that Thomas Edison didn’t know that he’d been called addled is false.
The Foundation for Economic Education reports that Edison was well aware of his diagnosis, and that he was enraged by it:
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.
In the biography, “Thomas Alva Edison: Great American Inventor,” Louise Betts goes into more detail about why young Edison had problems with Reverend Engle’s teaching style:
For a boy who was used to learning things his own way and to playing outside by himself all day long, sitting still in a one-room schoolhouse was pure misery. Tom did not like school one bit. His teacher, the Reverend G. Engle, and his wife made the children learn by memorizing their lessons and repeating them out loud. When a child forgot an answer, or had not studied well enough, Reverend Engle whipped the unfortunate pupil with a leather strap! Mrs. Engle also heartily approved of using the whip as a way of teaching students better study habits. her whippings were often worse than her husband’s!
Tom was confused by Reverend Engle’s way of teaching. He could not learn through fear. Nor could he just sit and memorize. He liked to see things for himself and ask questions. But Reverend Engle grew as exasperated by Tom’s questions as Mr. Edison did. For that reason, Tom Learned very little in his first few months, and his grades were bad.
Years later, Tom would say of his school experience, “I remember I used to never be able to get along at school. I was always at the foot (bottom) of the class. I used to feel that the teachers did not sympathize with me, and that my father thought I was stupid.”
Then, after Thomas Edison told his mother that his teacher had referred to him as addled, the two of them went to the school in search of an apology, according to his biography:
“My son is not backward!” declared Mrs. Edison, adding, “and I believe I ought to know. I taught children once myself!” Despite her efforts, neither the Reverend nor Mrs. Engle would change their opinion of young Tom Edison. But Mrs. Edison was equally strong in her opinion. Finally, she realized what she had to do.
“All right, Mrs. Edison said, “I am hereby taking my son out of your school.” Tom could hardly believe his ears! “I’ll instruct him at home myself,” he heard her say.
Tom looked up at his mother, this wonderful woman who believed in him. He promised himself that he would make his mother proud of him.
Later in life, Edison said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me: and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
However, there is no factual record of this fabricated story, nor is there any record of Edison ever having written or stated, “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.”
So, it’s true that there were those who believed that Thomas Edison was addled or difficult, that his mother defended and home-schooled him, and that she had a big impact on the man that he became. But the inspirational account of Edison’s mother hiding the teacher’s letter from him and lying about why he was being home-schooled to help him reach his full potential is a recent fabrication with no previous existence.
This article is a reprint and was originally published on Jun 22, 2002.