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Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison

The American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) held hundreds of patents, most for electrical devices and electric light and power. Although the phonograph and incandescent lamp are best known, perhaps his greatest invention was organized research.

Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on Feb. 11, 1847; his father was a jack-of-all-trades, his mother a former teacher. Edison spent 3 months in school, then was taught by his mother. At the age of 12 he sold fruit, candy, and papers on the Grand Trunk Railroad. In 1862, using his small handpress in a baggage car, he wrote and printed the Grand Trunk Herald, which was circulated to 400 railroad employees. That year he became a telegraph operator, taught by the father of a child whose life Edison had saved. Exempt from military service because of deafness, he was a tramp telegrapher until he joined Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston in 1868.

Early Inventions

Probably Edison's first invention was an automatic telegraph repeater (1864). His first patent was for an electric vote recorder. In 1869, as a partner in a New York electrical firm, he perfected the stock ticker and sold it. This money, in addition to that from his share of the partnership, provided funds for his own factory in Newark, N.J. Edison hired technicians to collaborate on inventions; he wanted an "invention factory." As many as 80 "earnest men," including chemists, physicists, and mathematicians, were on his staff. "Invention to order" became very profitable.

From 1870 to 1875 Edison invented many telegraphic improvements: transmitters; receivers; the duplex, quadruplex, and sextuplex systems; and automatic printers and tape. He worked with Christopher Sholes, "father of the typewriter," in 1871 to improve the typing machine. Edison claimed he made 12 typewriters at Newark about 1870. The Remington Company bought his interests.

In 1876 Edison's carbon telegraph transmitter for Western Union marked a real advance toward making the Bell telephone practical. (Later, Émile Berliner's transmitter was granted patent priority by the courts.) With the money Edison received from Western Union for his transmitter, he established a factory in Menlo Park, N.J. Again he pooled scientific talent, and within 6 years he had more than 300 patents. The electric pen (1877) produced stencils to make copies. (The A. B. Dick Company licensed Edison's patent and manufactured the mimeograph machine.)

The Phonograph

Edison's most original and lucrative invention, the phonograph, was patented in 1877. From a manually operated instrument making impressions on metal foil and replaying sounds, it became a motor-driven machine playing cylindrical wax records by 1887. By 1890 he had more than 80 patents on it. The Victor Company developed from his patents. (Alexander Graham Bell impressed sound tracks on cylindrical shellac records; Berliner invented disk records. Edison's later dictating machine, the Ediphone, used disks.)

Incandescent Lamp

To research incandescence, Edison and others, including J. P. Morgan, organized the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. (Later it became the General Electric Company.) Edison made the first practical incandescent lamp in 1879, and it was patented the following year. After months of testing metal filaments, Edison and his staff examined 6,000 organic fibers from around the world and decided that Japanese bamboo was best. Mass production soon made the lamps, although low-priced, profitable.

First Central Electric-Light Power Plant

Prior to Edison's central power station, each user of electricity needed a dynamo (generator), which was inconvenient and expensive. Edison opened the first commercial electric station in London in 1882; in September the Pearl Street Station in New York City marked the beginning of America's electrical age. Within 4 months the station was lighting more than 5,000 lamps for 230 customers, and the demand for lamps exceeded supply. By 1890 it supplied current to 20,000 lamps, mainly in office buildings, and to motors, fans, printing presses, and heating appliances. Many towns and cities installed central stations.

Increased use of electricity led to Edison-base sockets, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conduits, meters, and the three-wire system. Jumbo dynamos, with drum-wound armatures, could maintain 110 volts with 90 percent efficiency. The three-wire system, first installed in Sunbury, Pa., in 1883, superseded the parallel circuit, used 110 volts, and necessitated high-resistance lamp filaments (metal alloys were later used).

In 1883 Edison made a significant discovery in pure science, the Edison effect—electrons flowed from incandescent filaments. With a metal-plate insert, the lamp could serve as a valve, admitting only negative electricity. Although "etheric force" had been recognized in 1875 and the Edison effect was patented in 1883, the phenomenon was little known outside the Edison laboratory. (At this time existence of electrons was not generally accepted.) This "force" underlies radio broadcasting, long-distance telephony, sound pictures, television, electric eyes, x-rays, high-frequency surgery, and electronic musical instruments. In 1885 Edison patented a method to transmit telegraphic "aerial" signals, which worked over short distances, and later sold this "wireless" patent to Guglielmo Marconi.

Creating the Modern Research Laboratory

The vast West Orange, N.J., factory, which Edison directed from 1887 to 1931, was the world's most complete research laboratory, an antecedent of modern research and development laboratories, with teams of workers systematically investigating problems. Various inventions included a method to make plate glass, a magnetic ore separator, compressing dies, composition brick, a cement process, an all-concrete house, an electric locomotive (patented 1893), a fluoroscope, a nickel-iron battery, and motion pictures. Edison refused to patent the fluoroscope, so that doctors could use it freely; but he patented the first fluorescent lamp in 1896.

The Edison battery, finally perfected in 1910, was a superior storage battery with an alkaline electrolyte. After 8000 trials Edison remarked, "Well, at least we know 8000 things that don't work." In 1902 he improved the copper oxide battery, which resembled modern dry cells.

Edison's motion picture camera, the kinetograph, could photograph action on 50-foot strips of film, 16 images per foot. A young assistant, in order to make the first Edison movies, in 1893 built a small laboratory called the "Black Maria,"—a shed, painted black inside and out, that revolved on a base to follow the sun and kept the actors illuminated. The kinetoscope projector of 1893 showed the films. The first commercial movie theater, a peepshow, opened in New York in 1884. A coin put into a slot activated the kinetoscope inside the box. Acquiring and improving the projector of Thomas Armat in 1895, Edison marketed it as the Vitascope.

Movie Production

The Edison Company produced over 1,700 movies. Synchronizing movies with the phonograph in 1904, Edison laid the basis for talking pictures. In 1908 his cinemaphone appeared, adjusting film speed to phonograph speed. In 1913 his kinetophone projected talking pictures: the phonograph, behind the screen, was synchronized by ropes and pulleys with the projector. Edison produced several "talkies."

Meanwhile, among other inventions, the universal motor, which used alternating or direct current, appeared in 1907; and the electric safety lantern, patented in 1914, greatly reduced casualties among miners. That year Edison invented the telescribe, which combined features of the telephone and dictating phonograph.

Work for the Government

During World War I Edison headed the U.S. Navy Consulting Board and contributed 45 inventions, including substitutes for previously imported chemicals (especially carbolic acid, or phenol), defensive instruments against U-boats, a ship-telephone system, an underwater searchlight, smoke screen machines, antitorpedo nets, turbine projectile heads, collision mats, navigating equipment, and methods of aiming and firing naval guns. After the war he established the Naval Research Laboratory, the only American institution for organized weapons research until World War II.

Synthetic Rubber

With Henry Ford and the Firestone Company, Edison organized the Edison Botanic Research Company in 1927 to discover or develop a domestic source of rubber. Some 17,000 different botanical specimens were examined over 4 years—an indication of Edison's tenaciousness. By crossbreeding goldenrod, he developed a strain yielding 12 percent latex, and in 1930 he received his last patent, for this process.

The Man Himself

To raise money, Edison dramatized himself by careless dress, clowning for reporters, and playing the role of homespun sage with aphorisms like "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration" and "Discovery is not invention." He scoffed at formal education, thought 4 hours' sleep a night enough, and often worked 40 or 50 hours straight. As a world symbol of Yankee ingenuity, he looked and acted the part. George Bernard Shaw, briefly an Edison employee in 1879, put an Edisontype hero into his novel The Irrational Knot: free-souled, sensitive, cheerful, and profane.

Edison had more than 10,000 books at home and masses of printed materials at the laboratory. When launching a new project, he wished to avoid others' mistakes and to know everything about a subject. Some 25,000 notebooks contained his research records, ideas, hunches, and mistakes. Supposedly, his great shortcoming was lack of interest in anything not utilitarian; yet he loved to read Shakespeare and Thomas Paine.

Edison died in West Orange, N.J., on Oct. 18, 1931. The laboratory buildings and equipment associated with his career are preserved in Greenfield Village, Detroit, Mich., thanks to Henry Ford's interest and friendship.

Further Reading

A good biography of Edison, filled with human interest, is Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (1959). Biographies emphasizing his inventions include William Adams Simonds, Edison: His Life, His Work, His Genius (1934), and H. Gordon Garbedian, Thomas Alva Edison: Builder of Civilization (1947). There is more emphasis on industry in John Winthrop Hammond, Men and Volts: The Story of General Electric, edited by Arthur Pound (1941). See also Charles Singer and others, eds., A History of Technology, vol.5: The Late Nineteenth Century (1958). □

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Edison, Thomas

Thomas Edison

Born: February 11, 1847
Milan, Ohio
Died: October 18, 1931
West Orange, New Jersey

American inventor

The American inventor Thomas Edison held hundreds of patents, mostly for electrical devices and electric light and power. Although the phonograph and the electric light bulb are best known, perhaps his greatest invention was organized research.

Early life

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, the youngest of Samuel and Nancy Eliot Edison's seven children. His father worked at different jobs, including as a shopkeeper and shingle maker; his mother was a former teacher. Edison spent short periods of time in school but was mainly tutored by his mother. He also read books from his father's extensive library.

At the age of twelve Edison sold fruit, candy, and newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad between Port Huron and Detroit, Michigan. In 1862, using a small printing press in a baggage car, he wrote and printed the Grand Trunk Herald, which was circulated to four hundred railroad employees. That year he became a telegraph operator, taught by the father of a child whose life Edison had saved. Excused from military service because of deafness, he worked at different places before joining Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston in 1868. He also continued to read, becoming especially fond of the writings of British scientist Michael Faraday (17911867) on the subject of electricity.

First inventions

Edison's first invention was probably an automatic telegraph repeater (1864), which enabled telegraph signals to travel greater distances. His first patent was for an electric vote counter. In 1869, as a partner in a New York electrical firm, he perfected a machine for telegraphing stock market quotations and sold it. This money, in addition to that from his share of the partnership, provided funds for his own factory in Newark, New Jersey. Edison hired as many as eighty workers, including chemists and mathematicians, to help him with inventions; he wanted an "invention factory."

From 1870 to 1875 Edison invented many telegraphic improvements, including transmitters, receivers, and automatic printers and tape. He worked with Christopher Sholes, "father of the typewriter," in 1871 to improve the typing machine. Edison claimed he made twelve typewriters at Newark about 1870. The Remington Company bought his interests. In 1876 Edison's carbon telegraph transmitter for Western Union marked a real advance toward making the Bell telephone successful. With the money Edison received from Western Union for his transmitter, he established a factory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Within six years he had more than three hundred patents. The electric pen (1877) produced stencils to make copies. The A. B. Dick Company licensed Edison's patent and manufactured the first copy machine.

Edison's most original and successful invention, the phonograph, was patented in 1877. From an instrument operated by hand that made impressions on metal foil and replayed sounds, it became a motor-driven machine playing soda canshaped wax records by 1887. By 1890 he had more than eighty patents on it. The Victor Company developed from his patents. Edison's later dictating machine, the Ediphone, used disks.

Electric light

To research incandescent light (glowing with intense heat without burning), Edison and others organized the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. (It later became the General Electric Company.) Edison made the first practical electric light bulb in 1879, and it was patented the following year. Edison and his staff examined six thousand organic fibers from around the world, searching for a material that would glow, but not burn, when electric current passed through it. He found that Japanese bamboo was best. Mass production soon made the lamps, while low-priced, profitable.

Prior to Edison's central power station, each user of electricity needed a generator, which was inconvenient and expensive. Edison opened the first commercial electric station in London in 1882. In September the Pearl Street Station in New York City marked the beginning of America's electrical age. Within four months the station was providing power to light more than five thousand lamps, and the demand for lamps exceeded supply. By 1890 it supplied current to twenty thousand lamps, mainly in office buildings, and to motors, fans, printing presses, and heating appliances. Many towns and cities installed central stations based on this model. Increased use of electricity led to numerous improvements in the system.

In 1883 Edison made a significant discovery in pure science, the Edison effectelectrons (particles of an atom with a negative electrical charge) flowed from incandescent conducting threads. With a metal plate inserted next to the thread, the lamp could serve as a valve, admitting only negative electricity. Although "etheric force" had been recognized in 1875 and the Edison effect was patented in 1883, the discovery was little known outside the Edison laboratory. (At this time existence of electrons was not generally accepted.) This "force" underlies radio broadcasting, long-distance telephone systems, sound pictures, television, X rays, high-frequency surgery, and electronic musical instruments. In 1885 Edison patented a method to transmit telegraphic "aerial" signals, which worked over short distances. He later sold this "wireless" patent to Guglielmo Marconi (18741937).

Creating the modern research laboratory

In 1887 Edison moved his operations to West Orange, New Jersey. This factory, which Edison directed from 1887 to 1931, was the world's most complete research laboratory, with teams of workers investigating problems. Various inventions included a method to make plate glass, a magnetic ore separator, a cement process, an all-concrete house, an electric locomotive (patented in 1893), a nickel-iron battery, and motion pictures. Edison also developed the fluoroscope (an instrument used to study the inside of the living body by X rays), but he refused to patent it, which allowed doctors to use it freely. The Edison battery was perfected in 1910. After eight thousand trials Edison remarked, "Well, at least we know eight thousand things that don't work."

Edison's motion picture camera, the kinetograph, could photograph action on fifty-foot strips of film, sixteen images per foot. In 1893 a young assistant, in order to make the first Edison movies, built a small laboratory called the "Black Maria"a shed, painted black inside and out, that revolved on a base to follow the sun and keep the actors visible. The kinetoscope projector of 1893 showed the films. The first commercial movie theater, a peepshow, opened in New York in 1884. A coin put into a slot activated the kinetoscope inside the box. In 1895 Edison acquired and improved Thomas Armat's projector, marketing it as the Vitascope. The Edison Company produced over seventeen hundred movies. Combining movies with the phonograph in 1904, Edison laid the basis for talking pictures. In 1908 his cinema-phone appeared, adjusting film speed to phonograph speed. In 1913 his kinetophone projected talking pictures: the phonograph, behind the screen, ran in time with the projector through a series of ropes and pulleys. Edison produced several "talkies."

Work for the government

During World War I (191418) Edison headed the U.S. Navy Consulting Board and contributed forty-five inventions, including substitutes for previously imported chemicals, defensive instruments against U-boats, a ship telephone system, an underwater searchlight, smoke screen machines, antitorpedo nets, navigating equipment, and methods of aiming and firing naval guns. After the war he established the Naval Research Laboratory, the only American organized weapons research institution until World War II (193945).

Synthetic rubber

With Henry Ford (18631947) and the Firestone Company, Edison organized the Edison Botanic Research Company in 1927 to discover or develop a domestic source of rubber. Some seventeen thousand different plant specimens were examined over four yearsan indication of how thorough Edison's research was. He eventually was able to develop a strain yielding twelve percent latex, and in 1930 he received his last patent for this process.

The man himself

To help raise money, Edison called attention to himself by dressing carelessly, clowning for reporters, and making statements such as "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," and "Discovery is not invention." He scoffed at formal education, thought four hours of sleep a night was enough, and often worked forty or fifty hours straight, sleeping on a laboratory floor. As a world symbol of American inventiveness, he looked and acted the part. Edison had thousands of books at home and masses of printed materials at the laboratory. When launching a new project, he wished to avoid others' mistakes and tried to learn everything about a subject. Some twenty-five thousand notebooks contained his research records, ideas, hunches, and mistakes.

Edison died in West Orange on October 18, 1931. The laboratory buildings and equipment associated with his career are preserved in Greenfield Village, Detroit, Michigan, thanks to Henry Ford's interest and friendship.

For More Information

Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Cousins, Margaret. The Story of Thomas Alva Edison. New York: Random House, 1965.

Cramer, Carol, ed. Thomas Edison. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

Israel, Paul. Edison: A Life of Invention. New York: John Wiley, 1998.

Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

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Edison, Thomas Alva

Edison, Thomas Alva

(b. Milan, Ohio, 11 February 1847; d. West Orange, New Jersey, 18 October 1931)

technology.

Edison’s parents emigrated from Canada to Milan, Ohio, after his father joined an unsuccessful insurrection in 1837. The elder Edison prospered as a shingle manufacturer until the railroad bypassed the town, and in 1854 the family moved to Port Huron Michigan, where the father conducted a less profitable grain and lumber business.

Edison’s formal schooling was limited to about three months, followed by four years of instruction by his mother. He was an entrepreneur at age twelve, riding the trains to sell newspapers and food and to pick up odd jobs. He had an early and avid interest in chemistry and electricity, performing experiments at home and on the train. He acquired the habit of going for long periods with little sleep—an idiosyncrasy he kept throughout his life. At about age twelve Edison began to grow deaf, to the point where he could hear nothing below a shout. One result of this was to shut him further into himself and to encourage him in a vast self-directed program of reading. A bout with Newton’s Principia at age fifteen “gave me a distaste for mathematics from which I have never recovered.” He was, however, fascinated by various more elementary practical treatises.

In 1863 Edison became a telegraph operator, and this was his main source of income as he moved from city to city, ending up in Boston in 1868. His resolve to become an inventor became dominant, even though some initial attempts proved financially disastrous. He went to New York in 1869 to seek better fortune. In 1870, at age twenty-three, Edison received $40,000 for improving the stock-ticker system and used the money to set up a private fifty-man laboratory. In 1876 this laboratory was moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where his most concentrated and productive work was done. Eleven years later he moved to enlarged facilities at West Orange, New Jersey.

Edison was the epitome of the technologistinventor. He was not unlearned in science—his prodigious reading had carried him through countless semipopular works, and during the year in Boston he obtained the first two volumes of Faraday’s Experimental Researches, which he later claimed was a source of considerable inspiration to him; certainly the ability of Faraday to get along without mathematics must have been appealing. But his purposes were practical; he invented by design. He would see a gap in the economy, then invent to fill it; and at this he was very good. Examples include his work on stock tickers, multiplex telegraphy, incandescent lighting, magnetic iron-ore separation, and the storage battery. Some items were developed on very short notice to protect a patent position. Edison’s chalkdrum telegraph relay and loudspeaking telephone receiver are especially good examples of this. His method in virtually all cases was to try the hundreds or thousands of possibilities that seemed plausible. This was not done in completely haphazard fashion, since he often obtained detailed knowledge of materials before testing them; but his procedure is rightly considered close to the ultimate in “cut-and-try.”

The “Edison effect” (emission of electrons from a hot cathode) is often cited as his sole scientific discovery. In 1883 Edison performed a series of experiments to investigate the dark shadow that formed on the inside of a light bulb. He placed a second electrode inside the bulb and found that negatively charged carbon particles were emitted from the filament. He patented the device as a possible meter and then abandoned it. John A. Fleming, a British consultant to Edison, performed some further experiments, and the matter was still in his mind twenty years later when, as a consultant to Marconi, he saw the possibility of using the rectifying properties of a two-element bulb as a radiowave detector.

One product of his practical motivation was that Edison approached certain problems with a point of view different from that of a scientist. Thus some of the latter, contemplating the possibilities of incandescent lighting in the late 1870’s, used available information—including indications that the successful lamp (as yet not invented) would have a low resistance—to prove that a system of independently controlled lights was infeasible. Edison changed the parameters by developing a high-resistance lamp and constructed a system that worked. Similarly the experts extolled the value of generators in which the internal and external resistances were equal, hence producing an efficiency of 50 percent. This was the condition for maximum energy transfer. Edison recognized that he did not need maximum energy, and that therefore he could use machines of low internal resistance to obtain much higher efficiencies. Edison may not have been unique in either of these realizations, but he was certainly the first and most successful in putting them together into a practical lighting system.

Edison’s laboratories are considered prototypes of the modern industrial research laboratories in terms of the support they gave to manufacturing operations and the training they gave to staff members. The centralization of effort around the ideas of one man, however, was much greater than in later organizations.

In 1915 a consulting board, with Edison as its president, was established to advise the U.S. Navy on the possibilities of using new scientific and technical devices in war. Tangible results were limited, but one of Edison’s early suggestions—a permanent scientific laboratory within the Navy—eventually found fruit in the establishment of the Naval Research Laboratory.

Edison was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1927.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. A large body of notebooks, photographs, and other MS materials is preserved at the Edison Laboratory National Monument at West Orange, New Jersey. Other miscellaneous sources can be identified in the Josephson work cited below. Some original apparatus has been saved: in the Menlo Park laboratory building, which has been restored and moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan; in the West Orange laboratory, which has been preserved at its original site; and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

II. Secondary Literature. The best of the Edison biographies is M. Josephson, Edison (New York, 1959), although technical details are generally lacking. The Menlo Park years are treated in some depth in F. Jehl, Menlo Park Reminiscences (Dearborn, Mich., 1938).

See also H. C. Passer, “Electrical Science and the Early Development of the Electrical Manufacturing Industry in the United States,” in Annals of Science, 7 (1951), 382–392.

Bernard S. Finn

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Edison, Thomas Alva

EDISON, THOMAS ALVA


As one of history's great inventive geniuses Thomas Alva Edison (18471931) secured patents for more than a thousand inventions. His patents include the incandescent electric light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture projector. Edison was a classic example of the nineteenth-century American success story. Through talent, energy, and hard work, he rose from poor beginnings in a small Midwestern town to a position of eminence and wealth.

Born in Milan, Ohio, the seventh and youngest child of Samuel and Nancy Edison, Thomas was taught at home by his mother. With her encouragement he began his lifelong habit of voracious reading. One of his textbooks included instructions for several physics and chemistry experiments. By age 10 he set up a chemistry laboratory in the cellar and conducted original experiments.

Edison's restless entrepreneurial spirit surfaced at an early age. At 12 years of age he took a job on the Grand Trunk railroad branch line that ran between Port Huron and Detroit, Michigan. He sold newspapers, magazines, candy, apples, sandwiches, and tobacco on the train. Identifying a potential market of readers among the line's regular passengers, he set up a small printing press in an empty baggage car. There he produced a small newspaper at a subscription of eight cents per month. He also used the baggage car as a chemistry laboratory. During long daily layovers in Detroit he read every book he could find.

As a teenager Edison was fascinated by the telegraph. He mastered telegraphy quickly and for the next few years worked as a telegraph operator in towns throughout the Midwest. In 1868 he became an expert night operator for the Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston, Massachusetts. Instead of sleeping during the day he experimented with electrical currents.

The first invention resulting from these experiments was a device for electronically recording voice votes taken by a legislative body. Edison received his first patent for this device, which raised little interest on the market. Thereafter he operated as a freelance inventor.

In June 1869 Edison was in New York City, desperately poor and looking for work. His first successful invention was the Edison Universal Stock Printer. This machine, together with several other derivatives of the Morse telegraph, produced the $40,000 he needed to set himself up as a manufacturer in Newark, New Jersey. There he produced stock tickers and high-speed printing telegraphs. His firm quickly employed 50 consulting engineers. During the next six years Edison was granted about 200 new patents for inventions he and others made there.

In 1876 Edison began constructing a large new plant at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Here the "Wizard of Menlo Park" accomplished some of his most important work. This included the phonograph (1877), a primitive instrument in which sound vibrations were transferred by a steel stylus to a cylinder wrapped in tin foil. Despite enormous popular interest in Edison's new toy, which he actively promoted, the inventor did not envision its commercial potential right away and abandoned its development for 10 years.

Meanwhile he worked hard to invent an economical, practical, and durable incandescent lamp. On October 21, 1879, Edison first demonstrated in public an incandescent light bulb made with charred cotton thread sealed in a vacuum that could burn for several hours. This time, Edison realized the immense implications of his discovery, and he spent the next few years adapting his invention for large-scale use. On December 17, 1880, he founded the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which evolved into the present-day Consolidated Edison Company. In 1882 his company began operating the world's first electric power station, which supplied power to 400 incandescent lamps owned by 85 customers.

In 1887 Edison constructed a large laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey (since 1955, the Edison National Historic Site). The laboratory eventually employed 5,000 persons to produce a variety of new products, including improved phonographs that used wax records, mimeographs, alkaline-storage batteries, dictating machines, and motion picture cameras and projectors. Edison's best known invention from this period was probably the kinetograph, a primitive moving picture. Edison produced The Great Train Robbery, one of the first movies ever made, using this technology. By 1913 he developed a prototype of the "talking picture."

During World War I (19141918) Edison served as president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board and contributed many valuable discoveries to the war effort.

Edison's inventions have had a profound effect on modern society. No other man has ever been responsible for inventing products with such influence on so many lives around the world. In recognition of his accomplishments Edison was appointed Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1878 and promoted to Commander of the Legion in 1889. In 1892 he was awarded the Albert Medal by the Society of Arts of Great Britain. In 1928 he received the Congressional Gold Medal for "development and application of inventions that have revolutionized civilization in the last century."

Edison married twice and was the father of six children. He maintained residences in West Orange, New Jersey, and Fort Myers, Florida. He died in West Orange on October 18, 1931.

Automotive pioneer Henry Ford credited Edison with encouraging his early work on automobiles. Ford purchased the Menlo Park Laboratory complex in 1928, and moved it to his new historic park, Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village complex is officially called the Edison Institute, in honor of Thomas Edison.

See also: Henry Ford, Western Union, World War I



FURTHER READING

Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Conot, Robert. A Streak of Luck. New York: Seaview, 1979.

Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. Reprint Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

Millard, Andre. Edison and the Business of Innovation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Vanderbilt, Byron. Thomas Edison, Chemist. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1971.

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Edison, Thomas Alva

Thomas Alva Edison, 1847–1931, American inventor, b. Milan, Ohio. A genius in the practical application of scientific principles, Edison was one of the greatest and most productive inventors of his time, but his formal schooling was limited to three months in Port Huron, Mich., in 1854. For several years he was a newsboy on the Grand Trunk RR, and it was during this period that he began to suffer from deafness, which was to increase throughout his life. He later worked as a telegraph operator in various cities.

Edison's first inventions were the transmitter and receiver for the automatic telegraph, the quadruplex system of transmitting four simultaneous messages, and an improved stock-ticker system. In 1877 he invented the carbon telephone transmitter (see microphone) for the Western Union Telegraph Company. His phonograph (patented 1878) was notable as the first successful instrument of its kind.

In 1879, Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent lamp (with a carbon filament). For use with it he developed a complete electrical distribution system for light and power, including generators, motors, light sockets with the Edison base, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conductors, and other devices. The crowning achievement of his work in this field was the Pearl St. plant (1881–82) in New York City, the first permanent central electric-light power plant in the world. He also built and operated (1880) an experimental electric railroad, and produced a superior storage battery of iron and nickel with an alkaline electrolyte.

Other significant inventions include the Kinetoscope, or peep-show machine. Edison later demonstrated experimentally the synchronization of motion pictures and sound, and talking pictures were based on this work. During World War I he helped to develop the manufacture in the United States of chemicals previously imported; he also served as head of the U.S. navy consulting board concerned with ship defenses against torpedoes and mines. Edison later worked on the production of rubber from American plants, notably goldenrod.

Edison held over 1,300 U.S. and foreign patents, and his workshops at Menlo Park (1876) and West Orange, N.J. (1887), were significant as forerunners of the modern industrial research laboratory in which teams of workers, rather than a lone inventor, systematically investigate a given subject. An Edison memorial tower and light was erected (1938) in Menlo Park, N.J.; Edison's laboratory and other buildings associated with his career are preserved or replicated in Greenfield Village. Some of his various companies were consolidated to form the General Electric Company (GE).

See the autobiographical Diary and Sundry Observations (ed. by D. D. Runes, 1948, repr. 1968); his papers, ed. by R. V. Jenkins, P. B. Israel, L. Carlat, et al. (7 vol., 1989–); biography by R. Silverberg (1967); W. Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (1981); R. Friedel and P. Israel, Edison's Electric Light: The Art of Invention (2010).

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Edison, Thomas Alva

Edison, Thomas Alva (1847–1931), prolific inventor, entrepreneur, and industrialist.A pioneer in team industrial research, Edison made significant innovations in communications technologies (telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and motion pictures) and in electric lighting and electric power systems.

Edison's laboratories in New Jersey and his worldwide acclaim as a successful inventor reinforced an aura of American industrial progress through research that fostered application of systemized research to military technology in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1915, naval secretary Josephus Daniels enlisted Edison to organize and chair a Naval Consulting Board to provide technical counsel to the navy. Edison lent his name to board activities, personally engaged in sonic research for detection of submarines, and vigorously promoted creation of a Naval Research Laboratory. His group was outflanked, however, by the National Academy of Science, representing younger, academically oriented scientists. They created a presidentially appointed National Research Council, led by the politically astute George Ellery Hale, which attained a power and influence that eclipsed the Edison group and ultimately led in World War II to establishment of Vannevar Bush's powerful Office of Scientific Research and Development. Nevertheless, some of the Edison's companies were organized into the General Electric Company, which became a major defense contractor.
[See also Consultants; World War II: Domestic Course.]

Bibliography

Reese V. Jenkins, et al., eds., Papers of Thomas Edison, 1989–.
Paul Israel , Edison: A Life of Invention, 1998.

Reese V. Jenkins

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John Whiteclay Chambers II. "Edison, Thomas Alva." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. 2000. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Sep. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

John Whiteclay Chambers II. "Edison, Thomas Alva." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. 2000. Encyclopedia.com. (September 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O126-EdisonThomasAlva.html

John Whiteclay Chambers II. "Edison, Thomas Alva." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. 2000. Retrieved September 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O126-EdisonThomasAlva.html

Edison, Thomas Alva

Edison, Thomas Alva (1847–1931) US inventor. With little formal education, Edison made many important inventions, such as the telegraph, phonograph (1877), the first commercially successful electric light (1879), and many improvements to the electricity distribution system. By the time of his death, he patented more than 1000 inventions. During World War I, he worked for the US government on anti-submarine weapons. Most of his companies merged into the General Electric Company (GEC) in 1892.

http://www.tomedison.org

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"Edison, Thomas Alva." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Sep. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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