Thomas Edison Religiously Followed The 5-Hour Rule His Entire Life

"When I want to discover something, I begin by reading everything that has been done along that line in the past… I see what has been accomplished at great labor and expense in the past. I gather data of many thousands of experiments as a starting point, and then I make thousands more." —Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is known as America's most prolific inventor. To be specific, he has over 1,000 patents and commercialized inventions that ultimately led to several multi-billion industries: electricity, mass communication, audio recording, and motion pictures.

But, what is often underestimated is the extent to which Edison was a voracious reader throughout his entire life—religiously following the 5-Hour Rule. This helped him stand on the shoulder of the giants that came before him when experimenting.

Not only did Edison follow the 5-Hour Rule, he also followed a pattern the founders of the five largest companies in the world share in common — he was a modern polymath.

Edison devoured books, technical journals, magazines, scientific papers, and newspapers on topics ranging from electricity, chemistry, engineering, mechanics, building, cement, building materials, drugs, water and gas, power, automobiles, and railroads to aeronautics, philosophy, hygiene, physics, telegraphy, mining, metallurgy, metals, music, and many others.

Edison Starts The Following The 5-Hour Rule At An Early Age

After only a few months of formal schooling, it was clear that Edison was not thriving. So his mother, Nancy Edison, took him out of school and taught him how to learn how to learn.

“My mother taught me how to read good books quickly and correctly and this opened up a great world in literature.” —Thomas Edison

One of Edison's biographers, Michael Gelb comments, "In addition to the works of Shakespeare, Edison’s reading included The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon and The History of England by David Hume. His study of history led him to appreciate the special importance of technological advancement in the development of civilizations. Edison was also strongly influenced by the writings of Thomas Paine. Edison borrowed Paine’s Age of Reason from his father’s bookshelf when he was thirteen and, as he commented many years later, “I can still remember the flash of enlightenment which shone from his pages.'”

As Edison got older, he started to improve his learning process so he could read more books.

Edison Learned How To Learn On His Own

"I didn’t read a few books, I read the library." —Thomas Edison

Early in his career, Edison took it upon himself to improve his learning abilities:

"After I became a telegraph operator, I practiced for a long time to become a rapid reader of print, and got so expert I could sense the meaning of a whole line at once. This faculty, I believe, should be taught in schools, as it appears to be easily acquired. Then one can read two or three books in a day, whereas if each word at a time only is sensed, reading is laborious." — Thomas Edison

Gelb contextualizes the role that reading played for Edison...

"Edison believed that reading was a key to self-improvement. He used reading as a means to bootstrap his way to new knowledge in the areas that supported his goals. His voracious reading, for example, gave him an advantage in his quest to become a master telegrapher. Edison devoured articles in the influential industry journal The Telegrapher, as well as other trade publications. The knowledge he gained through this independent study allowed Edison to accelerate his progress and achieve his goal quickly. He believed that reading would accelerate his development of new ideas, breakthrough solutions, original inventions, and that, ultimately, it would lead him to world-changing innovations..."
"Edison’s signature style as an experimenter and inventor was deeply informed by the depth and breadth of his reading. He never began a round of experiments without first reading everything available on the subjects of his studies. Information gleaned from reading allowed Edison to establish diverse contexts for his hypotheses."
“When I want to discover something, I begin by reading up everything that has been done along that line in the past.” —Thomas Edison