There have been a lot of remarkable Ohioans in our history: eight presidents, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and 22 other accomplished astronauts, Jesse Owens, and two brothers named Orville and Wilbur. Ohio has produced a lot of leaders; the list is long.
Each state gets to honor two of their own with a statue in the United States Capitol. Since 1886, one of Ohio’s statues has been of James Garfield from Mentor, a Major General, a Congressman, and President of the United States.
As of this week, Ohio is now represented by another statue, that of Milan, Ohio native Thomas Alva Edison.
The decision to hold up Thomas Edison as a symbol of Ohio was made by a vote of the people of Ohio at our historic sites.
Out of all the great Ohioans in our history, why is Edison a good choice? First, of course he is America’s most famous inventor. He is given credit for everything from the light bulb to the motion picture industry. But I think he is also a good choice because he was representative of the best of Ohio, including the Midwestern values of hard work, innovation, and determination.
When he was young, nobody would have thought he was destined for greatness. He was the nearly-deaf son of a shingle maker and a schoolteacher from a small town called Milan.
He had almost no formal schooling, and even when he did go to school he got bad grades because of his disability. One of his teachers told his mom that he was “addled” and “too stupid to learn anything.”
But Al—as he was known growing up — had that Ohio work ethic, determination, and will to succeed. He left school and began to read everything he could find about science and technology.
By age 14 he was already an entrepreneur, selling newspapers and concessions on the nation’s new railroad system.
By 22 he made the first of his 1,093 inventions: an electronic vote-recorder, which he tried to sell to Congress. His goal was, as always, to save time and to get more done. But he was ahead of his time. It wasn’t until 1974 — more than a century later—that the House of Representatives finally installed electronic voting.
He didn’t let rejection in school or in his early career get him down. Instead it motivated him to try harder. He kept experimenting and kept inventing. He often slept at his lab, sometimes for weeks at a time because, as he used to say, “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
It paid off. By the time he was 31, that nearly-deaf kid who struggled in school had invented the phonograph, and was making some of the first sound recordings in history. “I have made some machines,” he used to say. “But the phonograph is my baby.”
If that were all he did, he would still deserve a prominent place in Ohio history. But he kept going.
Just two years later, he invented the incandescent lightbulb, which the statue in the Capitol, sculpted by Alan Cottrill of Zainesville, depicts.
It’s his most famous invention, and it transformed our economy and daily lives.
Making that breakthrough wasn’t easy. Edison tried a number of different materials for his lightbulb before finding one that worked. “I have not failed,” he said. “I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
He went on to found General Electric, the motion picture industry, as well as the cement manufacturing and storage battery industries. He even built an electric car with Henry Ford. One estimate in the 1920s—while he was still living — stated that Edison’s inventions had already created more than one million jobs.
His method for coming up with these new ideas for inventions was simple: “I find out what the world needs and then I go ahead and try to invent it.”
Edison never retired. He may not have kept up the same pace in his later years that he did in his younger years, but he never stopped working and dreaming.
We Ohioans honor Thomas Edison not only for his remarkable successes that changed the world, but because he exemplifies those Ohio values of hard work, determination and perseverance.
I’m sure folks will think about the lightbulb as they look up at Ohio’s new statue. But as visitors and staff and Members of Congress stroll past, I hope they will also be inspired by these values that propelled this Ohio boy to greatness.
Rob Portman is a Republican U.S. senator from Ohio.