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Edison, Thomas - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Thomas Edison, Social and Economic Impact

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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.

Personal Life

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.

Career Details

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

1847: Born.

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.

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