Milan, Ohio was booming in 1847. Railroads had yet to dethrone canals, making it second only to Odessa, Ukraine, for shipping wheat inland. Today, the town, 60 minutes west of Cleveland, would be inconspicuous if it wasn’t the birthplace of one of America’s most prolific inventors: Thomas Alva Edison.
“One of his first memories was with [documentary photographer] Homer Page spinning a silver dollar on the floor at the birthplace with him,” says Robert K. L. Wheeler, president of the Edison Birthplace Association Board of Trustees and great-great-grandnephew of the inventor.
During his lifetime, Edison accrued 1,093 American patents, including phonographs, motion picture cameras and multiple telegraph systems.
The Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum echoes the breadth of his accomplishments. A project of Edison’s second wife, Mina Miller Edison of Akron, and daughter, Madeleine Eyre Sloane, the museum opened in 1947 to pay tribute to the man as opposed to his status as celebrity-inventor.
Thriving Milan stimulated Edison. As a boy, Edison built dams and bridges along the waterways and spent afternoons on his sister’s farm.
“When he was about 3, he came out to visit his sister and they couldn’t find him all afternoon — they find him out in the barn and he was sitting on eggs. He’d been trying to hatch eggs all afternoon,” Wheeler says. “That was considered his first experiment.”
Wheeler says the Birthplace Museum has been kept much the same way Edison’s daughter, Sloane, had designated.
“She wanted to show what life was like before Edison,” Wheeler says.