Edison, Thomas Alva (1947–1931)

views updated


Thomas Alva Edison, is the archetype of American ingenuity and inventiveness. He played a critical role in the early commercialization of electric power. He designed the first commercial incandescent electric light and power system and his laboratory produced the phonograph, a practical incandescent lamp, a revolutionary electric generator, key elements of motion-picture apparatus, and many other devices. He was owner or co-owner of a record 1,093 U.S. patents

"Tom" Edison was born in the small town of Milan, Ohio, the son of middle-class parents. He was educated at home by his parents rather than at the local school, where he was thought to be of low intelligence. As a boy he showed an early proclivity for chemistry experiments and for turning a profit, first peddling vegetables, then newspapers. When the Civil War began, Edison was exempted from service because of deafness in one ear; he became a telegrapher, and one of the fastest operators in the corps of generally brash, swaggering men who ran the railroad telegraph systems. He drifted around the country, winding up in New York in 1869, searching for a job. During these years he tinkered with some contrivances, but these had led nowhere.

Then, hanging around looking for a job in a New York brokerage office during one frenzied day of trading, he jumped in to fix the telegraphic stock ticker, which had broken down. He was hired on the spot at a large salary but stayed only a few months, leaving to form a company devoted to the business of invention. The company's first product, an improved stock ticker, was sold to his previous employer for the astounding sum of forty thousand dollars, and Edison set up operation with a staff of fifty men in Newark, New Jersey.

During its first years, Edison's company devoted itself to the manufacture of stock tickers and to improvements in telegraphic equipment but then spread into other areas, offering to provide inventions as ordered. In 1876 the laboratory moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey, and the staff eventually grew to about one hundred. Over the years, a number of men who worked with Edison at Menlo Park achieved fame as inventors and scientists in their own right. This group included Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the alternating current electric induction motor; John Fleming, the inventor of the vacuum tube diode; William Dickson, the inventor of the first sound movie; Arthur Kennelly, a discoverer of the ionosphere; and Edward Acheson, the inventor of carborundum.

During the following years a brilliant series of inventions at his laboratory earned Edison the appellation "Wizard of Menlo Park." As early as 1878, the mere announcement that Edison intended to produce a practical electric light was sufficient to cause the price of gas illumination stock to fall sharply.

Some of Edison's commercial inventions were produced solely to break the monopolies of patents already granted. Many others represented improvements or changes of known devices; these included Edison's electric light and dynamo and his quadraplex telegraph and improved telephone transmitter. This does not detract from the importance of his work, because in the cases of the electric light and dynamo, in particular, his work led to commercially practical devices that were widely adopted. Although some inventions, such his motion picture apparatuses, were not the result of his work alone, but the result of the joint efforts of the staff of the laboratory, Edison's contribution as leader in these projects cannot be ignored.

One case in particular vividly delineates Edison's own individual original genius. In 1877 he accidentally discovered that he could obtain an audible sound from a mechanical arm touching a rapidly rotating tin disk he had inscribed with a spiral series of dots and dashes representing telegraph signals. He then sketched and gave his machinist for construction a drawing of the first phonograph. The device worked at first try. There had never before been even a description of a machine for recording and replaying sound.

Edison's greatest contribution was the design of an electric power distribution system to provide power to factories and homes. He challenged the commonly held but mistaken idea that an unavoidable loss of half the power would occur in the generator and designed a power station, a revolutionary electric generator, a system of radiating power lines to consumers and electric meters to measure consumption. In 1882 he opened the first electric power station, on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. He correctly calculated that he would have to manufacture bulbs for less than forty cents to make a profit; he achieved this goal in the fourth year of operation. After he had recouped his initial losses, he sold out of the business to support his other activities.

Edison often portrayed himself as a tough businessman whose sole interest was the profit to be made from an invention. However, he was not an outstanding businessman, and he made a number of obvious blunders during his career. He led a bitter, losing fight against the adoption of ac power distribution; he did little to keep some brilliant assistants; he made financial miscalculations; and he seemingly did not understand marketing and failed to meet his customers' desires. Nor was Edison a man of science; as a matter of fact he showed little interest in scientific matters. Edison was interested in the creation of new technology, and the close connection of technology and science was not as evident in the nineteenth century as it is now. He later admitted that while conducting his experiments he had had no understanding at all of the nature of electric current. Indeed, his own reminiscences make it clear that his real motivation had not come from the desire for profit or knowledge but came instead from the creative urge to invent. That urge drove Edison for the rest of his life. Although he produced relatively little after the turn of the century, and lived to be an old man, he never completely stopped working.

Leonard S. Taylor

See also: Electricity; Electric Power, Generation of; Electric Power Substations; Electric Power Transmission and Distribution Systems; Lighting; Tesla, Nikola.


Brittain, J. E. (1977). Turning Points in American Electrical History. New York: IEEE Press.

Israel, P. (1998). Edison: A Life of Invention. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Norman, D. A. (1999). "Backing the Right Technical Horse." IEEE Spectrum 36(2):5–62.

Wilson, M. (1954). American Science and Invention. New York: Bonanza Press.

About this article

Edison, Thomas Alva (1947–1931)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article