Born in Milan, Ohio, he lost much of his hearing as a boy and had little formal training. He worked as a railroad newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railway, and soon printed and published his own newspaper on the train, the Grand Trunk Herald. During the Civil War he worked as a telegraph operator in various cities, and invented an electric vote-recording machine. In 1871 he invented the paper ticker-tape automatic repeater for stock exchange prices, which he then sold in order to establish an industrial research laboratory at Newark, New Jersey. In 1876 he moved the laboratory to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he was able to give full scope to the astonishing inventive genius that won him the name 'the Wizard of Menlo Park'.
He took out more than 1,000 patents in all, including the gramophone (1877), the incandescent light bulb (1879), and the carbon granule microphone as an improvement for Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. To make possible the widespread use of electric light, he invented a system for generating and distributing electricity and designed the first power plant (1881-82). Amongst his other inventions were a megaphone, a storage battery, the electric valve (1883) and the kinetoscope (1891). He moved his laboratory to West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887, and in 1912 he produced the first talking motion pictures. He also discovered thermionic emission, formerly called the 'Edison Effect'. Tireless at experimentation but always practical and commercial in his goals, he was the most prolific inventor the world has ever seen.