Photograph of Edison (c. 1922)
|Born||Thomas Alva Edison
February 11, 1847
Milan, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||October 18, 1931 (aged 84)
West Orange, New Jersey, U.S.
|Relatives||Lewis Miller (father-in-law)|
Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor and businessman. He developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork to the process of invention, and because of that, he is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.
Edison was a prolific inventor, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. More significant than the number of Edison’s patents was the widespread impact of his inventions: electric light and power utilities, sound recording, and motion pictures all established major new industries worldwide. Edison’s inventions contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures.
His advanced work in these fields was an outgrowth of his early career as a telegraph operator. Edison developed a system of electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses, and factories – a crucial development in the modern industrialized world. His first power station was on Pearl Street in Manhattan, New York. He has been described as America’s greatest inventor.
- 1Early life
- 3Marriages and children
- 4Beginning his career
- 5Menlo Park
- 6Electric power distribution
- 7Other inventions and projects
- 8West Orange and Fort Myers (1886–1931)
- 9Final years
- 11Views on politics, religion and metaphysics
- 12Views on money
- 15List of people who worked for Edison
- 16See also
- 19External links
Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, and grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. (1804–1896, born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia) and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810–1871, born in Chenango County, New York). His father, the son of a Loyalist refugee, had moved as a boy with the family from Nova Scotia, settling in southwestern Ontario (then called Upper Canada), in a village known as Shewsbury, later Vienna, by 1811. Samuel Jr. eventually fled Ontario because he took part in the unsuccessful Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837. His father, Samuel Sr., had earlier fought in the War of 1812 as captain of the First Middlesex Regiment. By contrast, Samuel Jr.’s struggle found him on the losing side, and he crossed into the United States at Sarnia-Port Huron. Once across the border, he found his way to Milan, Ohio. His patrilineal family line was Dutch by way of New Jersey; the surname had originally been “Edeson.”
His mother taught him at home. Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
Edison developed hearing problems at an early age. The cause of his deafness has been attributed to a bout of scarlet feverduring childhood and recurring untreated middle-ear infections. Around the middle of his career, Edison attributed the hearing impairment to being struck on the ears by a train conductor when his chemical laboratory in a boxcar caught fire and he was thrown off the train in Smiths Creek, Michigan, along with his apparatus and chemicals. In his later years, he modified the story to say the injury occurred when the conductor, in helping him onto a moving train, lifted him by the ears.
Edison’s family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, after the railroad bypassed Milan in 1854 and business declined. Edison sold candy and newspapers on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit, and sold vegetables to supplement his income. He also studied qualitative analysis, and conducted chemical experiments on the train until an accident prohibited further work of the kind.
Edison obtained the exclusive right to sell newspapers on the road, and, with the aid of four assistants, he set in type and printed the Grand Trunk Herald, which he sold with his other papers. This began Edison’s long streak of entrepreneurial ventures, as he discovered his talents as a businessman. These talents eventually led him to found 14 companies, including General Electric, which is still one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world.
Edison became a telegraph operator after he saved three-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from being struck by a runaway train. Jimmie’s father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie of Mount Clemens, Michigan, was so grateful that he trained Edison as a telegraph operator. Edison’s first telegraphy job away from Port Huron was at Stratford Junction, Ontario, on the Grand Trunk Railway.
In 1866, at the age of 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where, as an employee of Western Union, he worked the Associated Press bureau news wire. Edison requested the night shift, which allowed him plenty of time to spend at his two favorite pastimes—reading and experimenting. Eventually, the latter pre-occupation cost him his job. One night in 1867, he was working with a lead–acid battery when he spilled sulfuric acid onto the floor. It ran between the floorboards and onto his boss’s desk below. The next morning Edison was fired.
One of his mentors during those early years was a fellow telegrapher and inventor named Franklin Leonard Pope, who allowed the impoverished youth to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, New Jersey, home. Some of Edison’s earliest inventions were related to telegraphy, including a stock ticker. His first patent was for the electric vote recorder, (U.S. Patent 90,646), which was granted on June 1, 1869.
Marriages and children
On December 25, 1871, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell (1855–1884), whom he had met two months earlier; she was an employee at one of his shops. They had three children:
- Marion Estelle Edison (1873–1965), nicknamed “Dot”
- Thomas Alva Edison, Jr. (1876–1935), nicknamed “Dash”
- William Leslie Edison (1878–1937) Inventor, graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, 1900.
Mary Edison died at age 29 on August 9, 1884, of unknown causes: possibly from a brain tumor or a morphine overdose. Doctors frequently prescribed morphine to women in those years to treat a variety of causes, and researchers believe that some of her symptoms sounded as if they were associated with morphine poisoning.
On February 24, 1886, at the age of thirty-nine, Edison married the 20-year-old Mina Miller (1865–1947) in Akron, Ohio.She was the daughter of the inventor Lewis Miller, co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution and a benefactor of Methodistcharities. They also had three children together:
- Madeleine Edison (1888–1979), who married John Eyre Sloane.
- Charles Edison (1890–1969), Governor of New Jersey (1941 – 1944), who took over his father’s company and experimental laboratories upon his father’s death.
- Theodore Miller Edison (1898–1992), (MIT Physics 1923), credited with more than 80 patents.
Beginning his career
Thomas Edison reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”
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Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention that first gained him notice was the phonograph in 1877. This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical. Edison became known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” New Jersey.
His first phonograph recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder. Despite its limited sound quality and that the recordings could be played only a few times, the phonograph made Edison a celebrity. Joseph Henry, president of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the most renowned electrical scientists in the US, described Edison as “the most ingenious inventor in this country… or in any other”. In April 1878, Edison travelled to Washington to demonstrate the phonograph before the National Academy of Sciences, Congressmen, Senators and US President Hayes. The Washington Post described Edison as a “genius” and his presentation as “a scene… that will live in history”. Although Edison obtained a patent for the phonograph in 1878, he did little to develop it until Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter produced a phonograph-like device in the 1880s that used wax-coated cardboard cylinders.
Edison’s major innovation was the first industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, a part of Raritan Township, Middlesex County, New Jersey (today named Edison in his honor). It was built with the funds from the sale of Edison’s quadruplex telegraph. After his demonstration of the telegraph, Edison was not sure that his original plan to sell it for $4,000 to $5,000 was right, so he asked Western Union to make a bid. He was surprised to hear them offer $10,000 ($209,500 in today’s dollars.), which he gratefully accepted. The quadruplex telegraph was Edison’s first big financial success, and Menlo Park became the first institution set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement. Edison was legally attributed with most of the inventions produced there, though many employees carried out research and development under his direction. His staff was generally told to carry out his directions in conducting research, and he drove them hard to produce results.
William Joseph Hammer, a consulting electrical engineer, began his duties as a laboratory assistant to Edison in December 1879. He assisted in experiments on the telephone, phonograph, electric railway, iron ore separator, electric lighting, and other developing inventions. However, Hammer worked primarily on the incandescent electric lamp and was put in charge of tests and records on that device (see Hammer Historical Collection of Incandescent Electric Lamps). In 1880, he was appointed chief engineer of the Edison Lamp Works. In his first year, the plant under General Manager Francis Robbins Upton turned out 50,000 lamps. According to Edison, Hammer was “a pioneer of incandescent electric lighting”. Frank J. Sprague, a competent mathematician and former naval officer, was recruited by Edward H. Johnson and joined the Edison organization in 1883. One of Sprague’s contributions to the Edison Laboratory at Menlo Park was to expand Edison’s mathematical methods. Despite the common belief that Edison did not use mathematics, analysis of his notebooks reveal that he was an astute user of mathematical analysis conducted by his assistants such as Francis Robbins Upton, for example, determining the critical parameters of his electric lighting system including lamp resistance by an analysis of Ohm’s Law, Joule’s Law and economics.
Nearly all of Edison’s patents were utility patents, which were protected for a 17-year period and included inventions or processes that are electrical, mechanical, or chemical in nature. About a dozen were design patents, which protect an ornamental design for up to a 14-year period. As in most patents, the inventions he described were improvements over prior art. The phonograph patent, in contrast, was unprecedented as describing the first device to record and reproduce sounds.
In just over a decade, Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory had expanded to occupy two city blocks. Edison said he wanted the lab to have “a stock of almost every conceivable material”. A newspaper article printed in 1887 reveals the seriousness of his claim, stating the lab contained “eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels … silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell … cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores …” and the list goes on.
Over his desk, Edison displayed a placard with Sir Joshua Reynolds‘ famous quotation: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” This slogan was reputedly posted at several other locations throughout the facility.
With Menlo Park, Edison had created the first industrial laboratory concerned with creating knowledge and then controlling its application.
Carbon telephone transmitter
In 1877–78, Edison invented and developed the carbon microphone used in all telephones along with the Bell receiver until the 1980s. After protracted patent litigation, in 1892 a federal court ruled that Edison and not Emile Berliner was the inventor of the carbon microphone. The carbon microphone was also used in radio broadcasting and public address work through the 1920s.
In 1878 Edison began working on a system of electrical illumination, something he hoped could compete with gas and oil based lighting. He began by tackling the problem of creating a long lasting incandescent lamp, something that would be needed for indoor use. Many earlier inventors had previously devised incandescent lamps, including Alessandro Volta‘s demonstration of a glowing wire in 1800 and inventions by Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans. Others who developed early and commercially impractical incandescent electric lamps included Humphry Davy, James Bowman Lindsay, Moses G. Farmer, William E. Sawyer, Joseph Swan and Heinrich Göbel. Some of these early bulbs had such flaws as an extremely short life, high expense to produce, and high electric current drawn, making them difficult to apply on a large scale commercially.:217–218 Edison realized that in order to keep the thickness of the copper wire needed to connect a series of electric lights to an economically manageable size he would have to come up with a lamp that would draw a low amount of current. This meant the lamp would have to have a high resistance and run at a relatively low voltage (around 110 volts).
After many experiments, first with carbon filaments and then with platinum and other metals, in the end Edison returned to a carbon filament. The first successful test was on October 22, 1879;:186 it lasted 13.5 hours. Edison continued to improve this design and by November 4, 1879, filed for U.S. patent 223,898 (granted on January 27, 1880) for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires”. This was the first commercially practical incandescent light.
Although the patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including “cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways”, it was not until several months after the patent was granted that Edison and his team discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that could last over 1,200 hours. The idea of using this particular raw material originated from Edison’s recalling his examination of a few threads from a bamboo fishing pole while relaxing on the shore of Battle Lake in the present-day state of Wyoming, where he and other members of a scientific team had traveled so that they could clearly observe a total eclipse of the sun on July 29, 1878, from the Continental Divide.
In 1878, Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City with several financiers, including J. P. Morgan, Spencer Trask, and the members of the Vanderbilt family. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. It was during this time that he said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
Henry Villard, president of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, had attended Edison’s 1879 demonstration. Villard quickly became impressed and requested Edison install his electric lighting system aboard his company’s new steamer, the Columbia. Although hesitant at first, Edison relented and agreed to Villard’s request. Following most of its completion in May 1880, the Columbia was sent to New York C