Thomas Alva Edison
Born February 11, 1847 (Milan, Ohio)
Died October 18, 1931 (West Orange, New Jersey)
Thomas Edison was a legendary figure in his lifetime, and even decades after his death in 1931 he is considered one of history's most significant inventors. Edison's enduring achievement in this realm was tied to the incandescent light bulb, but he also came up with a safe, efficient way to deliver the power that lit those bulbs. It ushered in a new era, changing the way the modern world lived, worked, and played. He also made improvements to the telephone invented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922; see entry), devised the first working phonograph, and made important scientific contributions to the early motionpicture industry. His accomplishments in the final two decades of the nineteenth century were so valuable that the period was once commonly called the "Age of Edison" in school history books for many years.
"I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work."
Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. His father, Samuel, was Canadian, but had fled Ontario after taking part in a rebellion against the province's British-appointed governor. In Ohio, Samuel Edison established himself in a lucrative shingle business, and he and his wife, Nancy, a former teacher, added three more children to the four they had brought with them from Canada. Thomas was the youngest of them. When he was seven years old, the family relocated to Port Huron, Michigan, where his father ran another prosperous business, this one dealing in grain and lumber.
Schooled at home
Edison began his formal schooling in Port Huron, but he was a sickly child and did poorly. Not long after the family's arrival in Port Huron, he came down with scarlet fever (a severe contagious bacterial disease), which likely led to a loss of hearing that worsened with age. His first teachers were frustrated by what seemed to be his lack of ability and ridiculed him as a daydreamer and possibly even developmentally disabled. After just three months, Nancy Edison decided to remove him from school and teach him at home. Though some historians believe Edison may have suffered from dyslexia, or a learning disorder that interferes with the ability to comprehend written words, he emerged as an enthusiastic reader in his youth, a hobby that would continue for the rest of his life.
Curious about the world, "Al," as Edison was known as a child, studied a variety of subjects but became particularly intrigued by chemistry. At the age of ten, he set up a laboratory in the basement of the family home and carried out his first experiments there. He began working at the age of twelve in order to buy more materials for his lab, becoming a newspaper and candy seller on the Grand Trunk Railway line. He embarked on a train that ran daily between Port Huron and Detroit, selling candy to the passengers. On his layovers in Detroit he spent hours reading at the public library. His railroad bosses even gave him permission to set up a small chemistry lab on board the train. In time, he even ventured into journalism, publishing his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald, using a printing press he set up in the baggage car.
One story about young Edison was given, for many years, as the reason for his loss of hearing. He claimed that he was running to make the train one day, and a brakeman swooped him up by his ears and pulled him aboard. Edison recounted that he felt something snap in his head, and later attributed his hearing loss to that event. Scholars believe, however, that it was more likely the result of the scarlet fever. No matter the cause, the young inventor became increasingly withdrawn as his hearing worsened in his teens and spent long hours in his lab.
Worked as telegraph operator
The telegraph was one of the new areas of scientific innovation that fascinated Edison at an early age. He had close contact with it because the transmitting stations were often located in railway stations. This was the first form of electronic communication, and it revolutionized American business in the mid-nineteenth century. In another well-told episode from Edison's biographers and newspaper accounts about his early life, the teenager swooped the stationmaster's young son out of the way of an oncoming train one day in 1862, and in gratitude the stationmaster offered to teach him how to operate a telegraph machine. A telegraph transmitted encoded information by signal across a distance. The device relied on electric current, controlled by electromagnets (a type of magnet in which the magnetic field is created by a flow of electric current; when the current ceases the magnetic field disappears). When the telegraph operator pressed down on the key, or small switch, electricity flowed out of the machine and traveled through external electrical wires to waiting receivers in other parts of the world. The electrical current flowed through the receiver's electromagnet, creating a magnetic field, which in turn caused the receiver's key to be attracted to the plate beneath it. As the key came into contact with the plate, it made a click. Using a code developed by American scientist Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), the sender could vary the sound of the click by holding the key down for a shorter or a longer period of time. The shorter clicks (dots) and longer clicks (dashes) represented the different letters of the alphabet. Edison proved adept at the machine, partly because his hearing loss made him oblivious to other noises and distractions in the telegraph office. He heard only the clicking of the Morse code.
Over the next five years, Edison held a number of telegraph-operator jobs throughout the Midwest, but he continued to read extensively. He was particularly devoted to Experimental Researches in Electricity and Magnetism, a multivolume book from British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791–1867). Faraday's work in the 1830s in electromagnetism (the study of electricity and magnetism) was crucial to the development of electricity, but reading about Faraday's methodology was also crucial to Edison for another reason: Edison disliked math, and much of the scientific experimentation of the era had urged its mastery. Faraday believed otherwise, and Edison decided to pursue a career as an inventor, despite his lack of formal education.
Edison settled in Boston in 1867, taking a job at a Western Union Telegraph Company office. By then he was testing different ways to improve the telegraph machine, which led to other experiments in electronic communication. He received the first patent (a legal document issued by a government granting exclusive authority to an inventor for making, using, and selling an invention) of the 1,300 patents in all of his career—more than any other American—for an electrographic vote recorder in 1869. His device recorded the voice votes in the state legislative assembly, but it failed to ignite much interest. Edison vowed from then on that he would not make something he could not sell, or that did not have commercial application.
Potential financial backers were impressed by Edison's incredible work habits. He regularly boasted of sleeping just a few hours a night, relying on brief naps to refresh his mind and body. Established business leaders provided the capital (accumulated wealth or goods devoted to the production of other goods) for his first ventures, and with that he began to perfect the earliest electric-transmission devices. He made one vast improvement to the telegraph machine, creating a method for transmitting two messages at the same time across a single wire. Another early invention was a device that kept stock tickers (telegraphic receiving devices that automatically print off stock quotations) in unison; when the Gold and Stock Telegraphic Company bought it in 1870, he was paid the enormous sum of $40,000 for the patent rights.
Edison moved on to the New York City area, and by the end of 1870 had set up a laboratory in nearby Newark, New Jersey. On Christmas Day 1871 he married a young woman named Mary Stilwell who had been hired as a telegraph clerk in a subsidiary company of his, the News Reporting Telegraph Company. By then Edison was prospering, both as an inventor and entrepreneur, and young electrical engineers came from across the United States and even Europe to work with him—often at an extremely rapid pace. This was the first enterprise dedicated solely to making new discoveries that would have potentially lucrative applications in the consumer and industrial sectors. The atmosphere at Edison's lab was driven by the belief that the world could be changed overnight by sheer determination and hard work in pursuit of innovation. Edison took the concept of mass production, in which one worker was devoted to a specific task, and applied it to the process of scientific invention. The setting was later replicated in many other industries, and is the foundation of the research and development (R&D) divisions of major corporations.
Moved invention factory to Menlo Park
In 1876 Edison was able to move his invention factory facility into larger quarters in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and from it a record number of innovations were created over the next decade. He became world-famous and was dubbed the "Wizard of Menlo Park" in the press. One of his first significant patents was again tied to the work of Alexander Graham Bell. A Canadian of Scottish birth, Bell had patented a device for the transmission of voice over telephone wires in 1876, but Edison designed a part that made a vast improvement in sound quality. His carbon-button transmitter was a type of miniature battery. A pair of carbon buttons were connected to one another by a wire. One of them was also attached to the telephone receiver. When the receiver picked up human speech, the buttons would be pressed closer together, reducing electrical resistance so that the transmitted sound was clearer. The carbon-button transmitter that Edison devised remained the standard in telephone speakers and microphones for more than a century.
The telephone-receiver work that Edison carried out led to what historians deem the most innovative and imaginative creation of Edison's impressive career: the phonograph. In his research, he recognized some principles governing the steel stylus, or pen-type device, that attached to a diaphragm, the disk that vibrates to generate sound waves. He imagined that the stylus could imprint vibrations onto a piece of moving tinfoil, and so he designed a tinfoil-covered cylinder (a tube-shaped part with an attached lever) that, when cranked by hand, was imprinted with grooves from the stylus. The device could then be rewound, and the brief recording—about ten seconds long for the first version—would be repeated. Edison first demonstrated this in December 1877, reciting the beginning lines of a well-known poem for children, "Mary Had a Little Lamb." His first phonograph was instantly dubbed the "talking machine," and it stunned those who witnessed it. Though it took several further improvements to make it ideal for recorded music, within a decade the phonograph had caught on with the public, and went on to revolutionize popular culture by providing a cheap, easy way to reproduce music.
The most significant invention of Edison's career, however, was the fiber element inside the incandescent light bulb. He did not invent the light bulb, which actually dated back to the work of English chemist Joseph Wilson Swan (1828–1914) in the late 1840s. Swan's efforts were tied to the idea that an electrical current can pass through a filament, or a thin wire. When it met with resistance, the wire heated up and gave off a steady light. However, Swan and other experimenters had a difficult time coming up with a way to keep the filament from burning up altogether. Encasing the wire inside a vacuum tube, a glass cylinder from which all air had been removed, seemed to be one way, but the filament still burned out too quickly to have any practical use. After trying nearly six thousand types of vegetable fibers, Edison and his team of researchers developed a charred cotton thread for the filament inside the bulb in October 1879. He had his assistants help him watch it for the next two days, and the bulb gave off a glow for forty hours straight.
News of Edison's light bulb was announced in the New York Herald newspaper on December 21, 1879. A year earlier, Edison had formed the Edison Electric Light Company with a group of wealthy investors that included Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan (1837–1913; see entry). The news of the world's first long-burning light bulb caused concern in the gas market, and share prices for gas companies dropped immediately. The streets of major cities, beginning with London, England, in the 1820s, were lit by gas lamps, but these needed to be tended to nightly. Their successor, arc lights, used a primitive form of electrical current but were dangerous and gave off strong fumes, making them impractical for household use. Various types of oil and gas lamps were the only widespread method of household lighting before Edison's incandescent bulb.
Edison applied for a patent on his electric incandescent lamp bulb on January 27, 1880, but a court ruled he must share the patent with Swan. Light bulbs went on sale that same year, but the problem of delivering an electrical current to them remained. Back at the lab, Edison devoted himself to creating a series of switches, devices, and transmitters that could conduct electricity to homes and businesses. The system was first tried out in London at the Holburn Viaduct in early 1882. A more integrated version went into operation on September 4, 1882, inside the New York City branch of Edison's company. He threw the switch himself for what became the world's first power station. It generated electricity that powered about 59 residences in a one-square-mile radius surrounding the Pearl Street office.
Formed the Edison General Electric Company
From there, Edison's company expanded rapidly in the manufacture and installation of freestanding power plants that lit businesses, hotels, and theaters. The Pearl Street grid system was replicated across the cities and suburbs of America. In January 1883, the first electricity-delivery system that used overhead wires began lighting homes in Roselle, New Jersey. A modified version began lighting cities around the world. No other invention of the modern age altered daily life so immediately. Businesses stayed open later, students could study longer hours, and an array of electricity-powered consumer goods came onto the market. Edison's own company made one of the first electric appliances, a tabletop fan produced at its Fort Wayne, Indiana, factory. His various business ventures were consolidated, or folded together, to form the Edison General Electric Company in 1890. Two years later, this became the General Electric Company, one of the most successful companies in American business history.
Edison also made several advances in the earliest years of the motion-picture industry. He even produced a famous film, The Great Train Robbery, in 1903 but lost interest when he could not figure out how to master the problem of synchronizing sound with the film. He did, however, form the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), also known as the Edison Trust, which held many of the first significant patents for the new technology. All the major film studios at the time belonged to it, and the MPPC vigorously pursued violations from outside filmmakers. This was one of the main reasons that some renegade film studios relocated to California; crews filming there could flee across the border to Mexico if they learned that MPPC agents were coming to investigate possible infringements against the Edison Trust. A 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision cancelled all the patents held by the MPPC, however, on the basis that the cinema industry was a business and could not be run as a monopoly.
In the realm of pure scientific achievement, Edison's most important finding would come to be known as the "Edison effect." This has to do with how electrical current is directed, and he first observed the phenomenon on the carbon that stuck to the inside of the glass bulb. It seemed that the carbon was carrying an electrical charge as well, but because he did not see any commercial applications for it, he abandoned this field of inquiry as well. A few years later, however, English electrical engineer J. Ambrose Fleming (1848–1945) studied it further and realized it could be used to change the oscillating, or fluctuating, currents from radio waves. Despite his numerous and profoundly impacting inventions, Edison never won the Nobel Prize, but in 1912 he and Serbian-born physicist Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) were considered as joint nominees for it. Tesla had been a colleague of Edison's at the New Jersey lab in the late 1880s, but the two disagreed over electricity delivery methods. Tesla believed that alternating current (AC) was better, while Edison was an adherent of direct current (DC). In the end, the AC standard prevailed, but Edison remained obstinate, and Tesla was adamantly opposed to the idea of sharing the Nobel Prize with his professional rival.
Edison worked well into his senior years. His wife, Mary, with whom he had three children, died in 1884. In 1886 he wed Mina Miller, with whom he had another three children. Celebrated around the world, he was one of the most respected and legendary figures of his era. He had a summer home near Fort Myers, Florida, close to the residence of his friend, auto pioneer Henry Ford (1863–1947; see entry). In the Detroit area, Ford had established an extensive museum of technology, and with it a re-created historical village in which Edison's Menlo Park laboratory had been reconstructed. In 1929, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of his incandescent light bulb, Edison traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, the site of the Greenfield Village museum, to take part in an official ceremony to honor him. He collapsed during the festivities, and though he recovered, his health declined, and he was bedridden in his final months. He died on October 18, 1931, in West Orange, New Jersey. In tribute, President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) asked Americans to turn off their lights momentarily to honor Edison's lifetime of achievement and the most significant gift of his genius to the world.
Many people believe that Edison's legacy is unmatched in American history. From his early improvements to telegraph transmission, to his design of the light bulb and then the world's first power station for the safe delivery of electricity to homes, Edison was a visionary whose commitment to inventing the impossible ushered in an era of unprecedented consumer convenience. In 1928 Edison was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the award ceremony U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937) noted, according to Edison: Inventing the Century, that Edison was a figure "set apart as one of the few men who have changed the current of modern life and set it flowing in new channels."
For More Information
Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Gray, Paul. "Thomas Edison (1847–1931): His Inventions Not Only Reshaped Modernity but also Promised a Future Bounded Only by Creativity." Time (December 31, 1999): p. 184.
Hoar, William P. "The Man Who Lit Up the World: Thomas Edison Changed the World Through His Ability, Persistence—and Hard Work." The New American (June 30, 2003): p. 33.
Edison's Miracle of Light. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/edison/filmmore/index.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
"History of Light." General Electric. http://www.gelighting.com/na/business_lighting/education_resources/learn_about_light/history_of_light/index.htm (accessed on July 7, 2005).
BORN: February 11, 1847 • Milan, Ohio
DIED: October 18, 1931 • Llewellyn Park, New Jersey
Thomas Edison was one of the most productive inventors in American history. With 1,093 U.S. patents (documents granting rights of ownership and design to a specific person) and more in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, no other inventor has come close to Edison's output. Edison's accomplishments were not always complete inventions but improvements made on technology already in place. Edison is best remembered as the inventor of the incandescent lightbulb (a lightbulb powered by heat). In addition, he was an intelligent businessman and a successful manufacturer.
"It's obvious that we don't know one millionth of one percent about anything."
A restless student
Thomas Alva Edison was born to Samuel and Nancy Edison in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. Young Al, as he was called, was the last of seven children, and he suffered from ill health throughout most of his childhood. As a result, he began school later than most children. Within three months, it became clear that he was not going to find success in a formal classroom setting. Edison's mother pulled him from school and homeschooled him. Edison always credited his mother for putting him in an educational environment that was better suited for him.
In 1854, the Edison family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where Sam found work in the lumber business. Five years later, Edison began selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad in Detroit. By the age of twelve, Edison was almost completely deaf. Despite several theories as to how his deafness developed, Edison himself claimed he lost his hearing because someone pulled him off the ground and into a train car by his ears.
The young salesman used the train's baggage car to set up a laboratory for chemistry experiments, but a resulting fire put a halt to mixing pleasure with work. Edison also had a printing press set up in the train. He published the Grand Trunk Herald, the first newspaper ever to be published on board a train.
Becomes an inventor
In 1862, at the age of fifteen, Edison saved a three-year-old boy from being run over by a boxcar. The boy's father, J. U. MacKenzie, was the station agent in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Grateful to Edison for his bravery, MacKenzie trained Edison as a telegraph operator. (The telegraph is a communication system used to send messages from one location to another via electric wires, usually using a code of dots and dashes to represent letters.) Edison took a job as a telegraph operator in Port Huron that winter and continued working on scientific experiments in his free time. For the next five years, Edison traveled across the country, taking telegraph jobs in various cities.
Edison moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1868, where he worked for Western Union (a company that sends money and messages electronically). He applied for his first patent that year, for an electric vote recorder. Always at work on at least one invention, Edison quit his job in 1869 to devote all his time to inventing. His first patent was awarded to him that year, but his joy was soon overshadowed by disappointment. Politicians were reluctant to use the machine for fear of inaccuracy.
In the summer of that year, Edison moved to New York City. A friend and telegraph engineer, Franklin L. Pope (1840–1895), worked at Samuel Laws' Gold Indicator Company and let Edison sleep in a room there. When Edison fixed a broken machine on the premises, he was hired to manage the maintenance of the company's printing machines.
Forms his first company
In October 1869, Edison teamed with Pope and another businessman, James Ashley, to establish Pope, Edison and Co. The businessmen promoted themselves as electrical engineers and builders of electrical devices. Edison was granted several patents to improve the telegraph. Not only could his machine send messages electrically, it could now print as well. The company merged with Gold and Stock Telegraph Company in 1870. Next, Edison invented a simple copier machine, an early version of the modern facsimile (fax) machine.
That same year, Edison joined forces with mechanic William Unger. They founded the Newark Telegraph Works in Newark, New Jersey, where the company manufactured printers. Edison used the facility to conduct his many other sideline experiments. He would never be without a workshop again.
Edison was devoted to his inventions, but he found time to marry in 1871. Though he had known her for only two months, Edison married sixteen-year-old Mary Stilwell. The couple eventually had one daughter and two sons. That year was not entirely full of joy, however. Just before his wedding, Edison mourned the death of his mother. The loss of the person he loved most in the world may have influenced his decision to marry so quickly. His marriage, though based in love, was often difficult. Edison spent most of his time working in the lab, even sleeping there.
Gets a reputation
Edison quietly established himself as the leading American inventor throughout the first half of the 1870s. In 1873, he sold a British company the rights to his automatic telegraph. He had an oral agreement with Western Union to develop multiple telegraphy systems throughout 1873 and 1874. In that last year, Edison invented the four-message telegraph, which landed him a contract with Western Union. From that point on, all his work in multiple telegraphy would solely benefit Western Union. The contract brought Edison his first major financial success of $10,000.
Although recognized as a genius by others in the telegraph industry, international fame would not come to Edison until 1877, when he earned the title, "Wizard of Menlo Park."
Edison bought a parcel of rural land in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876 and set about building the laboratory of his dreams. According to The Edison Papers, the lab became known as the "invention factory." Edison employed a team of expert experimenters and machinists to turn ideas and theories into useful machines and products. At just twenty-nine, Edison already had one hundred U.S. patents in his name.
As America's telegraph expert, Edison was asked by Western Union to look into the possibility of a speaking telegraph. Such a machine had already been invented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922), but it left much room for improvement. Sound traveled clearly but could not be transmitted at a great distance or in a noisy environment, as businesses tended to be. In 1878, Edison unveiled his transmitter, a device that allowed telephones to transmit voices over long distances. That transmitter was used for almost one hundred years.
Invents the phonograph
Edison invented the phonograph somewhat by accident, yet it is the invention that thrust him into the spotlight and made him something of a celebrity. While working on the telephone, which was supposed to be used by telegraph companies to transmit messages between operators, Edison noticed a problem. Speech was too fast to be written down, so there was no written record of messages. To remedy that, he figured out a way to record the vibrations of the receiving instrument. His recording method enabled them to be played back at a slower speed, thus allowing operators to write down the words.
Edison kept notebooks full of notes and ideas and outcomes of all his inventions. When he reread what he had written about the telephone, he realized he had found a way to record not just messages, but sound. In December 1877, Edison and his employees unveiled their "talking machine" at the offices of Scientific American magazine in New York. Newspapers immediately published reports of the amazing invention. Because it was impractical for anyone but trained technicians to operate it, however, the invention did not catch on with the public as anything but a novelty (something of interest, but not necessary). Still, Edison's name made headlines.
The Edison Electric Light Co.
Since there was little interest in the phonograph, Edison turned his attention to the electric light system. With financial backing from several investors, he founded the Edison Electric Light Company on November 15, 1878. Edison agreed to give the company all his patents in exchange for a large share of stock in the company. The inventor's experiments began as a search for a lamp that could replace gas lighting. Work on this project continued into 1879. Edison wanted to develop not only an incandescent lightbulb but a complete electrical lighting system that cities across the country could support.
The answer to the search for a long-lasting bulb lay in a tiny filament (a threadlike fiber inside the bulb) made of carbon. His first incandescent lamp burned for two days. With the discovery of the carbon filament, Edison was able to provide America with lightbulbs that were practical for home use. He did not invent the electric bulb; he improved upon it and made it available for homes. He did invent the electric light system, which made electric light safe, practical, and economical. Because of his system, America's cities forever changed. Businesses could stay open longer, and nighttime no longer put an end to production in factories.
Edison demonstrated his incandescent lighting on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. Approximately sixty lamps were installed around the grounds of the lab, and the public was invited to view the spectacle that night. Americans saw, for the first time, the power of electric light.
On January 27, 1880, Edison filed for a U.S. patent for his lamp. The patent office ruled that Edison's patent was based on the work of another inventor, William Sawyer, and was invalid. Finally, on October 6, 1889, Edison's patent was ruled valid by a judge who declared that Edison's improvement of the filament was based on his own work, not that of someone else.
Lights up the world
Edison established a light factory in East Newark in 1881. The following year, he and his family moved to New York, where he set up another laboratory. In 1882, the first commercial electric light system was installed on Pearl Street in Manhattan. Four hundred lamps were lit. Within a year's time, more than ten thousand lamps were being used by 513 customers. The lighting system was exhibited at the Paris Lighting Exposition in France in 1881 and elsewhere throughout Europe. Soon, Edison established several companies to manufacture and operate these electrical systems, both in America and abroad.
In 1884, Edison's wife died, and for a short while, his work suffered. The thirty-nine-year-old inventor married nineteen-year-old Mina Miller in 1886, and her support of his work allowed him to return full-time to his research. The couple would have three children. By the time of his second marriage, he had moved back to New Jersey. In 1887, he decided to build another laboratory. This new lab was larger than his first at Menlo Park, and it served as the research and development center for his many companies.
In 1889, Edison brought all his companies together to form Edison General Electric. His company merged with its main competitor, Thompson-Houston, in 1892, and became known simply as General Electric. With that merger, Edison left the electric light industry and used his profits from the deal to fund research on a piece of equipment that still interested him: the phonograph.
New and improved
Edison's 1887 lab included a phonograph department, and he had been trying to improve the apparatus since the lab was built. In 1896, Edison established the National Phonograph Company in the hopes of attracting customers to buy his invention for home entertainment.
Since first introducing the phonograph, Edison had worked to make necessary improvements. The phonograph initially played cylinders, not discs. The early cylinders were made of wax and did not last longer than two or three plays. Around the turn of the century, Edison and his staff developed the disc phonograph. Discs were longer lasting, easier to play and store, and more economical. Edison went into the disc-making business in 1912. His discs were designed for use with Edison phonographs only. His success in this venture was seriously hampered by Edison putting himself in charge of choosing which musical groups his company would record. The nearly deaf Edison saw his discs earn the reputation of featuring low-quality musicians. Because of the choice of music and the competition provided by the newly invented radio, Edison's disc business came to an end in 1929.
Although unsuccessful as a disc recorder, Edison was a leader in the disc-duplicating industry. He used the profits from that business to finance two more innovations: a cement manufacturing process, and an electrical storage battery. The battery was intended to be used to power electric automobiles, but it found more use in various industries. Within a few years, the battery became the most profitable invention of Edison's various businesses.
In 1888, Edison began working on a motion-picture camera in his lab. As pointed out by the Library of Congress's Web site on the inventor, American Memories, Edison wrote, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear."
Edison was not the actual inventor of the motion-picture camera. One of the researchers who worked in his lab, William K. L. Dickson (1860–1935), invented the camera in October 1889. After Edison further refined the camera, he applied for a patent in 1891 for a device called a Kinetograph (which would take photos for his next invention), and a motion-picture peephole viewer called a Kinetoscope.
The Kinetoscope's popularity was immediate, and Kinetoscope parlors opened up throughout New York and other major cities in 1894. In these establishments, customers could view short films featuring various singers, dancers, and other performers through the new Kinetoscope machines. It was a profitable business for Edison.
Dickson eventually helped Edison's competitors develop a different peephole device and was fired for his actions. Dickson went on to form a company with three other men. Edison worked with two other inventors in his lab to develop the Vitascope, a movie projector. The Vitascope, like the Kinetoscope, was immediately popular when it debuted on April 23, 1896.
Despite his success in films, it was never an industry that was as close to the inventor's heart as the phonograph inventions and innovations he had developed. In 1913, he merged the two industries when he developed the Kinetophone (kineto means "movement"), a device that synchronized sound on a phonograph to the picture shown through the movie projector. It was a flawed system, though, used for just two years before technicians gave up trying to get it to work properly. Within three years, Edison removed himself from the movie business.
As he aged, Edison had less to do with the day-to-day operation of his many companies. In 1911, he reorganized all of them into one large company, Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated. Unlike in the earlier years, his mission was not to invent as many useful devices as possible but to remain on the market with the inventions he had already developed.
During World War I (1914–18), Edison was involved in naval research and believed technology would be the future of war. Although he was appointed head of the Naval Consulting Board in 1915, he was frustrated by his position. He felt that the U.S. Navy was not open to many of his ideas and suggestions.
Edison's health began to fail in the 1920s. The highlight of the decade for him came on the fiftieth anniversary of the electric lamp, in 1929. Automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (1863–1947) hosted a huge celebration attended by such dignitaries as President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33), aviation pioneer Orville Wright (1871–1948), and chemist Madame Curie (1867–1934). Edison reenacted the invention of his incandescent lamp at the gathering.
Edison died at age eighty-four on October 18, 1931. His remains, along with those of his second wife, are buried on his New Jersey estate, known as Glenmont. It is maintained by the National Park Service and is called the Edison National Historic Site.
For More Information
Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York: Hyperion, 1995. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001.
Cousins, Margaret. The Story of Thomas Alva Edison. New York: Random House, 1965. Reprint, 1993.
Delano, Marfe Ferguson. Inventing the Future: A Photobiography of Thomas Alva Edison. Washington, DC: National Geographic Children's Books, 2002.
TIME for Kids Editors. Thomas Edison: A Brilliant Inventor. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Beals, Gerald. Thomas Edison's Home Page.http://www.thomasedison.com/ (accessed on September 1, 2006).
"Edison National Historic Site." National Park Service.http://www.nps.gov/edis/home.htm (accessed on September 1, 2006).
"The Edison Papers." Rutgers University.http://edison.rutgers.edu/ (accessed on September 1, 2006).
Library of Congress. "Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies." American Memory.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edhome.html (accessed on September 1, 2006).
Menlo Park Museum.http://www.menloparkmuseum.com/ (accessed on September 1, 2006).
PBS. "Edison's Miracle of Light." American Experience.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/edison/ (accessed on September 1, 2006).
Edison, Thomas Alva
EDISON, THOMAS ALVA
Inventor and entrepreneur Thomas A. Edison (1847–1931) was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, and became the most prolific inventor in U.S. history, with a record 1,093 patents. Through his technological innovations and companies, "The Wizard of Menlo Park" (in New Jersey, where his laboratory was located) helped found the electric light and power, sound recording, and motion picture industries, and contributed substantially to the telecommunications, battery, and cement industries. He was also close friends with Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production. Edison established the first industrial laboratories devoted to inventing new technologies and recast invention as part of a larger process of innovation that encompassed manufacturing and marketing. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously credited him with the invention of a method of invention. Edison died in West Orange, New Jersey, on October 18.
The Invention Process and Intellectual Property
After working as a telegraph operator in the mid-1860s, Edison began his inventive career by becoming a contract inventor in the telegraph industry. At a time when general incorporation laws were just beginning to reshape American business, these companies were learning how to deal with technological innovation. Concerns over conflict of interest were also just beginning to emerge, and Edison saw no conflict in working for companies in direct competition with each other.
Perhaps the best-known conflict of interest in Edison's early career arose over his most important telegraph invention—the quadruplex telegraph, which enabled four messages to be sent simultaneously over one wire. Edison worked on this invention under an informal arrangement with Western Union Telegraph. At the same time he was working under more formal contracts with officials of the Automatic Telegraph Company to develop a competing system that used machinery rather than human operators to send messages at high speeds. After successfully demonstrating his quadruplex in the fall of 1874 on Western Union lines, Edison sought payment from the company, but Western Union did not act promptly on what he believed were relatively modest demands for payment. Facing the loss of his house and shop in Newark due to the general economic depression caused by the Panic of 1873, Edison felt free to sell his rights in the invention to railroad financier Jay Gould, who was in the process of creating a competing telegraph network by combining several small competing firms including Automatic Telegraph. Although Western Union had to sue to assert its rights to the invention, the company nonetheless agreed to retain Edison's services to continue work on multiple telegraph systems, but this time under a formal contract. Later Edison signed another agreement with Western Union that secured all his work related to landline telegraphy, including the new telephone technology.
Edison entered into this latter contract in early 1877 in an effort to secure support for his new Menlo park laboratory, the first devoted to the creation and commercialization of new technologies. Edison's invention factory played a key role in the creation not just of specific devices but of methodological research and development leading to market innovation. Indeed, in order to make the incandescent light bulb commercially viable, Edison created a system for the distribution of electricity and designed the manufacturing technology for producing lamps.
As the laboratory and its workforce grew, Edison depended more and more on the assistance of a large staff of experimenters and machinists who made important contributions to his inventive efforts. As a consequence, he was faced with finding ways to give appropriate credit and financial awards for their work. At the time employees entered the laboratory they were made to understand that they were working on Edison's ideas, and that their work on his inventions would be credited to him.
Nonetheless the issue of credit remained a tricky one. While Edison and his assistants perceived their role as working on his ideas, he gave general directions and relied on their abilities to work out important details. Edison thus generally made it a policy to take out the key patents, while permitting assistants to take out ancillary patents he considered to be primarily their contribution. At the time, U.S. patent law gave priority to an employer in disputes with employees and discouraged joint inventions unless a true partnership in the invention could be demonstrated. In lieu of joint patents or other credit for their inventive assistance, Edison gave his chief experimenters an interest in royalties and other profits. He also placed many of them in management positions in his companies, and some became partners. Edison continued these policies at the larger laboratory he opened in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887.
The issue of credit was also a significant one for Edison's competitors, particularly because of the popular image of him as the primary inventor of several new technologies. Edison's reputation was partially a consequence of the fact that he had a much more sophisticated understanding of invention than his contemporaries. Edison saw invention as just the first stage of a larger process of innovation. Thus he took a leading role in marketing the inventions he developed through companies he established and that bore the Edison name. Because his name was associated with the technology he continued to make improvements to insure its reputation as well as his own. This kept him in the public eye as reporters wrote stories about his latest improvements.
Edison's public image was also a result of his skill at public relations. He had developed an understanding of the newspaper business while working as a press-wire telegraph operator and, after becoming famous for inventing the phonograph, he had established close relationships with several reporters in New York City who found Edison a ready source of news, opinion, and human interest. Thus even when other inventors made important technical contributions, the public credited Edison first.
While Edison's willingness to make announcements through the press aided his marketing efforts, it created problems for his scientific reputation. When Edison claimed that he had observed a new natural phenomenon and termed it etheric force in 1875, he made his first announcements through the newspapers and continued to press his claims through press interviews rather than through the scientific journals as did his opponents. Similarly after British inventor David Hughes's claim to the invention of the microphone appeared in the scientific journal Nature, Edison launched a public attack through the New York City newspapers rather than responding in the scientific press. In both cases, Edison's claims in the scientific community were weakened by his failure to adhere to the norms of scientific publication and debate.
While Edison saw himself as a member of the larger scientific community and presented papers before the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the 1870s and 1880s, he was foremost an inventor and more interested in attracting public interest in his work than advancing scientific knowledge. Nonetheless when his inventive work produced devices that were primarily useful for scientific research he was willing to forego royalties in their manufacture and make them available to the scientific community. This occurred with a heat measurer he called the tasimeter in 1878, when he gave some early light bulbs to scientific researchers in 1880, and with his work on X-ray technology in 1886.
Public Policy Issues
Because the public saw Edison as a leading figure of science and technology, his comments on important public issues could carry significant weight. In two instances his reputation proved crucial to the enactment of public policy.
In the first and more controversial instance, Edison was asked in 1888 for his expert opinion on the establishment of electrocution as a more humane form of execution than hanging. Although opposed to the death penalty, Edison agreed to support this position and also allowed Harold P. Brown, a self-taught electrician, to conduct experiments on animal electrocutions at his laboratory. These experiments in support of electrocution were undertaken in part due to Edison's firm belief in the dangers of high-voltage electricity, and thus his ethical opposition to its public use.
But it also stemmed from the increasing competition his low-voltage direct-current (DC) electrical system was receiving from the high-voltage alternating current (AC) system being marketed by George Westinghouse. The debate on electrocution thus became wrapped up in this commercial struggle. Edison's strong opposition to high-voltage and the demonstrations at his laboratory that showed high-voltage AC to be more dangerous than high-voltage DC led him to champion the electric chair and testify on behalf of the state in the appeals of the first death penalty case involving electrocution. Edison would later regret his role in the development of the electric chair but never gave up his opposition to high-voltage electricity.
Edison's other significant involvement in public policy came as the result of a 1915 New York Times interview in which he urged greater military preparedness and the need for a national research laboratory to develop new military technologies for defense. This led Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to ask Edison to establish and head a new Naval Consulting Board. The Board was made up of leading inventors, engineers, and industrial research scientists. Edison would eventually lose the larger debate within the Board over the nature of the research laboratory. Based on the newer style of industrial research laboratories, the new Naval Laboratory, which was not established until after World War I and was headed by naval officers rather than civilians, focused on science-based research leading to the development of small-scale prototypes. It was not a works laboratory like Edison's, equipped with extensive machine shop facilities for turning prototypes into commercial technology.
The differences over the Naval Laboratory were also reflected in Edison's own contribution to research during World War I. Although Edison developed forty-two inventions that he believed could contribute to the war effort, the Navy adopted none. Instead the Navy officers responsible for introducing new technology turned to the efforts of those researchers whose approach included the mathematical rigor and theoretical basis that their university educations had taught them were the foundations of modern research.
The growing differences between Edison and more youthful researchers marked a shift in the nature of scientific and technical training. This shift became more evident by the end of Edison's life, when news accounts treated him as the last of the lone cut-and-try inventors rather than the creator of the first industrial research laboratory. A closer study of his life, however, reveals that in the course of reshaping the ways in which invention took place, including at his laboratories, Edison was faced with many of the same ethical issues encountered by twenty-first-century inventors and industrial researchers.
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One of history's great inventive geniuses, Thomas Alva Edison, secured patents for more than a thousand inventions, most notably the incandescent electric light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture projector. His successes were the result of talent, intelligence, determination, and a lot of hard work. He was a classic example of the nineteenth century American success story—a young man who overcame poverty, a physical handicap, and financial setbacks, to become famous and wealthy.
Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, the seventh and youngest child of Samuel and Nancy Edison. The family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when he was seven years old. Edison spent only three months in primary school—his teacher thought he was mentally inferior. His mother, who was a schoolteacher, pulled him out of school and continued his education at home. With her encouragement, Edison began his lifelong habit of voracious reading. Many of his textbooks included instructions for physics and chemistry experiments and by the age of ten, he had set up a chemistry laboratory in the cellar and was conducting original experiments.
Edison's restless entrepreneurial spirit surfaced at an early age. At 12, he took a job on the Grand Trunk railroad that ran between Port Huron and Detroit selling newspapers, magazines, candy, apples, sandwiches, and tobacco. Identifying a potential market among the line's regular passengers, he set up a small printing press in an empty baggage car and produced a small newspaper and sold subscriptions for eight cents a month. He also used the baggage car for a chemistry laboratory. During long daily layovers in Detroit, he read every book he could find. "I didn't read a few books. I read the library," he said later in life.
As a teenager, Edison became fascinated by the telegraph. Legend has it that when he saved a three-year-old boy from being run over by a rail car in 1862, the grateful father, a skilled telegrapher, offered to teach him the very marketable skill. This offer came at a particularly favorable moment in Edison's life, since after the age of 12, he had become virtually deaf. He mastered telegraphy quickly, and for the next few years, during the American Civil War, Edison worked as a freelance telegraph operator in towns throughout the Midwest.
Edison married twice and was the father of six children. In 1871, Edison married Mary Stilwell with whom he had three children. Mary died of typhoid fever in 1884. Two years later, Edison married Mina Miller, the daughter of an inventor, and had three more children. Edison has been characterized as a workaholic and often worked more than 100 hours a week. He was also known to collect very unusual items and was always on the look out for things that would have some unique property. For example, he compressed some nuts from the rain forest to make phonograph needles and he used Japanese bamboo for a lightbulb filament.
In recognition of his accomplishments, he was appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France in 1878 and in 1889, Commander of the Legion of Honor. In 1892, he was awarded the Albert Medal of 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." Thomas Alva Edison died in West Orange, New Jersey on 18 October 1931.
In 1868, after the war, Edison found employment with Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston, which was the largest telegraphy company in the country. That same year, Edison bought a copy of Michael Faraday's book, Experimental Researches in Electricity, and performed all of the experiments in the book. At night, instead of sleeping, 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. The patent for this device, for which there was little market, was Edison's first. Thereafter, he operated as a freelance inventor.
In June 1869, Edison was in New York City, desperately poor and looking for work. He had a stroke of luck when a new telegraphic gold-price indicator for the Gold Exchange broke down. He happened to be on hand for a job interview and quickly repaired the instrument and was offered a job as general manager of Law's Gold Indicator Company. Several months after accepting his new job, he joined with Franklin L. Pope and James N. Ashland to form Pope, Edison, and Company. Soon, he received commissions to develop a new stock ticker. The result was the Edison Universal Stock Printer, which, 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, manufacturing stock tickers and high-speed printing telegraphs. His firm quickly employed fifty consulting engineers and, in the next six years, Edison was granted about two hundred new patents for inventions he and others made there including the mimeograph and improvements to the typewriter and telegraph.
In 1876, Edison began construction of a large research laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. He called it an "invention factory." Here, the "Wizard of Menlo Park" accomplished some of his most important work. It was Edison's goal to invent something new every ten days and for several years, he exceeded his own expectations and obtained a new patent every five days. In all, Edison had more than 600 patents. In 1877 he invented the phonograph, a primitive instrument in which sound vibrations were transferred by a steel stylus to a cylinder wrapped in tin foil. Despite the enormous popularity for the new toy, which he actively promoted, Edison didn't envision its commercial potential, and abandoned its development for ten years.
Meanwhile, he was working hard on inventing an economical, practical, and durable incandescent lamp. By the late-1870s, Edison had earned the reputation as someone who could do anything, so when he announced that he could greatly improve the incandescent lightbulb, an invention of the English Physicist, Sir Joseph Swan, the stock prices of gaslight companies dropped drastically. 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. When the thread was heated within the vacuum, it would glow, without breaking, melting, or evaporating. He patented his idea and promoted his version of the lightbulb. In 1879 Edison grandly demonstrated his light-bulb by lighting up his laboratory and half a mile of streets in Menlo Park. On December 17 1880, he founded the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which eventually became General Electric.
Edison realized the immense implications of his discovery. He spent the next few years adapting his invention for large-scale use. One problem needed to be solved. He needed to develop a method to generate and distribute electricity. His company began operating the world's first power station in 1882 on Pearl Street in New York City. It supplied power to four hundred incandescent lamps owned by eighty-five customers. Customers utilized a parallel wiring system which made it possible to turn off one lamp without turning out all the others. He also discovered, inadvertently, that negatively charged electrons would flow from the filament of the incandescent bulb to positively charged metal—the Edison Effect. In 1885, Edison developed and patented a way to transmit "aerial" signals.
In 1887, Edison constructed another large laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, where 5,000 persons were eventually employed. They produced a variety of new products, including improved phonographs using wax records, mimeographs, alkaline storage batteries, dictating machines, as well as motion picture cameras and projectors.
Chronology: Thomas Edison
1859: Started first job on the Grand Trunk Railroad.
1863: Learned telegraphy.
1868: Worked at Western Union.
1869: Invented universal stock ticker.
1876: Built Menlo Park.
1877: Invented phonograph.
1879: Invented modern, practical, light bulb.
1880: Founded Edison Electric Illuminating Company.
1883: Patented the Edison effect.
1887: Built factory at West Orange.
1903: Produced the motion picture The Great Train Robbery.
1913: Produced first talking motion picture.
Like Menlo Park, Edison built the West Orange facility with a chemistry lab and machine shop under one roof and surrounded himself with several assistants. His assistants were experts in areas where Edison was deficient or those who had similar interests. His closest associates included Charles Batchelor, Francis Upton, and Arthur Kennelly. Edison also had a talent for motivating the people that worked with him. He always kept informed about the research of his competitors and often worked on inventions that others had already worked on. Edison, however, had the capability of turning ideas into material products. Probably his best known invention from this period was the kinetoscope, a primitive moving picture camera and viewer. In 1903 Edison produced The Great Train Robbery, one of the first movies, with this technology. He later developed a prototype "talking picture" in 1913.
Unlike many of his friends and contemporaries, such as Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, Edison was not primarily a businessman. To raise funds, he sold businesses that had begun to manufacture and distribute some of his most potentially lucrative discoveries. The profits he earned from one invention were invested in the next. Edison was the only inventor of his time to maintain a completely equipped and fully staffed laboratory. As he moved from invention to invention, not all of them commercially successful, he repeatedly made and lost fortunes.
Social and Economic Impact
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. Edison was awarded more patents, 1,093, than anyone else in American history. For all who are curious, Edison is perhaps the quintessential role model. He would literally try something thousands of times and if something did not work, he counted it as a success because at least he would know what did not work. After 8,000 trials while he was developing a storage battery, he remarked, "Well at least we know 8,000 things that don't work!" And when he was attempting to develop a synthetic rubber, he experimented with over 17,000 botanical sources. While Edison is credited with making our daily lives easier or more entertaining with his inventions, he can also be credited for making our lives safer. In 1914, he developed an electric safety lantern which became a necessity when working in the mines. During World War I, Edison contributed over 45 inventions including, navigating equipment, smoke screen machines, an underwater searchlight, and devices for aiming and firing weapons. Edison left millions of pages of notes and drawings that reflect the scope of his genius. He had the focus to sift through billions of possibilities and find one solution. He was ahead of his time when it came to managing people: his style was actually an early form of "brainstorming." He would certainly fit into the late twentieth century with his "systems" approach. For example, he didn't just invent a good light bulb, he invented the fuse, the screw socket, and a way to generate and distribute the energy to light the bulb.
Sources of Information
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.
McAuliffe, Kathleen. "The Undiscovered World of Thomas Edison." The Atlantic Monthly, December 1995.
Millard, Andre. Edison and the Business of Innovation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Vanderbilt, Byron. Thomas Edison, Chemist. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1971.
World of Invention: History's Most Significant Inventions and the People Behind Them. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
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.
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 (1791–1867) on the subject of electricity.
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 can–shaped 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.
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 effect—electrons (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 (1874–1937).
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 (1914–18) 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 (1939–45).
With Henry Ford (1863–1947) 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 years—an 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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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). □
Edison, Thomas Alva
EDISON, THOMAS ALVA
As one of history's great inventive geniuses Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931) 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 (1914–1918) 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.
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.
Vanderbilt, Byron. Thomas Edison, Chemist. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1971.
Edison, Thomas Alva
Edison, Thomas Alva
(b. Milan, Ohio, 11 February 1847; d. West Orange, New Jersey, 18 October 1931)
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.
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
Thomas Alva Edison invented hundreds of devices, including the phonograph. He also developed a method of organized scientific research that hastened advances in American technology.
Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio . Edison's father was a jack-of-all-trades, and his mother was a former teacher. As a child, Edison spent only three months in school. His mother educated him herself at home. At the age of twelve, he went to work, selling fruit, candy, and newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad. During his teens, Edison lost his hearing, possibly caused by the scarlet fever he had as a child.
In 1862, Edison got an opportunity to learn telegraphy, a means of communicating over a great distance by using coded signals transmitted by wire. He soon mastered the art and for the next five years traveled throughout the country as a telegraph operator. During these years, he dreamed of becoming an inventor. He frequently purchased electrical gadgets or chemicals for his laboratory.
Not long after Edison went to work for Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston, Massachusetts , in 1868, he invented a device for electronically recording the voice votes taken in a legislative assembly. For this machine, he obtained his first patent, a grant made by the U.S. government that assures an inventor the exclusive right to manufacture, use, and sell the invention for a stated period of time. The machine worked well, but no one was interested in buying it.
invented a stock ticker, a machine that printed out stock quotes that came in through telegraphy. He sold the company, with the ticker, for $40,000.
Using the money from the sale of his company, Edison opened an “invention factory,” a lab for research in Newark, New Jersey . The factory employed as many as eighty researchers, including chemists, physicists, and mathematicians. It operated for six years, turning out a variety of inventions related primarily to improvements in stock tickers and telegraphy equipment.
In 1876, Edison built a new invention factory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Over the next ten years, he produced many important inventions, including the phonograph and an improved incandescent lightbulb.
Edison's most original and lucrative invention, the phonograph, or record player, was patented in 1877. The idea for the phonograph came to Edison while he was studying a telephone receiver. He attached a steel stylus (a hard-pointed, pen-shaped instrument) to the diaphragm (a disk that vibrates to generate sound waves) of the receiver so he could feel the sound vibrations with his finger as they were emitted. It dawned on him that the stylus might “etch” the vibrations onto a piece of moving tinfoil. He reasoned that a similar point could then trace the grooves left on the foil and pass the vibrations onto another diaphragm to produce sound. His original phonograph used a tinfoil-covered cylinder that was hand-cranked, while a needle traced a groove on it. By 1890, his phonograph had become a motor-driven machine playing cylindrical wax records.
The incandescent lightbulb
Edison did not invent the incandescent lightbulb, but he designed one that worked well and was cheap enough for everyone to buy. The concept of the lightbulb was simple enough: When an electrical current passes through a thin wire, or filament, it encounters resistance that causes the wire to become hot enough to glow, that is, to reach incandescence. The heat caused the wire to burn too quickly, so scientists encased the wire in a vacuum, a space devoid of matter. Edison tested ideal materials for use as the filament in a lightbulb. On October 21, 1879, he publicly demonstrated an incandescent bulb that burned continuously for forty hours.
The first central electric-light power plant
In 1878, Edison and other investors created the Edison Electric Light Company, which was later the General Electric Company. At that time, everyone who used electricity had to have their own dynamo, or generator. Edison opened the first commercial electric station in London in 1882, providing electric power to buildings in the area of the station. Within months, he opened the Pearl Street Station in New York City, lighting more than 5,000 lamps for 230 customers. Many towns and cities soon installed central stations.
A new lab
In 1887, when his laboratories outgrew the facilities at Menlo Park, Edison built an even larger invention factory in West Orange, New Jersey. By this time, his labs were so productive that he was receiving an average of one new patent every five days. The West Orange factory, which Edison directed from 1887 to 1931, was the world's most complete research laboratory, the forerunner of modern research and development laboratories, with teams of workers systematically investigating problems.
Probably the best-known invention of the late 1800s was the kineto-graph, a primitive form of the moving picture. Edison developed a method for arranging a series of photographs on a strip of celluloid film and then running the film through a projector. He used this technique in 1903 to produce The Great Train Robbery, one of the first moving pictures.
Edison's active nature and inquisitive mind led him to wander from subject to subject. Sometimes he stayed with a project long enough to see it to commercial production, and sometimes he spent time developing the early stages of an idea and then moved on to something new. Among the many inventions to which he made a contribution are the lead storage battery, the mimeograph machine (a copying machine), the dictaphone, and the fluoroscope (a type of X-ray machine).
Edison died in West Orange on October 18, 1931.
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).