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Thomas Alva Edison:
“America’s Greatest Inventor”

Can you imagine what life would be like without light bulbs or fluorescent lamps? Audio recordings and motion picture projectors? Electric generators and alkaline storage batteries? These were all invented by one man, Thomas Edison. This great American was the world’s most prolific inventor. To this day, Edison holds the record for producing the most inventions – over 1,000! Few men have had such a direct effect on the technology of modern society.

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, the youngest of seven children. “Little Al,” as he was called, did not learn to speak until he was nearly 4 years old. But even before he could talk, Al showed a fascination for mechanical objects. When he was seven, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan.

Edison spent three months in a one-room school in Port Huron, and that was the sum total of his formal education. Edison was so imaginative that he found school boring and his mind wandered. Edison also had a hearing problem which made rote learning difficult, so he was thought to be a dull student. Yet Edison was such an inquisitive child that he often pestered his teacher with questions.

Edison’s teacher soon lost patience with him and said that his brain must be “addled.” So Edison’s mother pulled him out of school to educate him herself. Edison enjoyed being taught by his mother. At the same time, he spent many hours reading - both in their home library and at the public library. His father gave him a 10-cent reward for each book that he completed.

Edison was deeply interested in world history and English literature. By age 12, Edison had read Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Sears' History of the World, Hume's History of England, Paine's Age of Reason, and Newton's Principia. Edison also liked to learn things by observing, investigating, and experimenting. He constructed intricate models of a working sawmill and a railroad engine, both powered by steam. Edison developed a keen interest in science and at the age of nine he set up a chemistry laboratory in the basement of his home.

Edison wanted to buy for himself what he needed for his experiments. To earn money, he sold vegetables that he grew in a garden on his father’s farm. Then when he was 12, he became a newsboy on a train. Edison printed a weekly newspaper on a small printing press in the back of a baggage car. He sold papers along with candy, cigars and sundries.

When Edison was 15, he saved the life of the stationmaster’s 3-year-old son who had ventured onto a railroad track in front of a rolling boxcar. The boy’s grateful father rewarded Edison by teaching him how to be a telegraph operator. Edison learned about the mechanical, electrical, and chemical elements of telegraphy. He read scientific and telegraphic journals and books, and experimented with telegraphic equipment.

In 1868 at age 21, Edison moved to Boston which was considered to be the center of science, education, and culture. It was there that Edison was granted his first patent for an electronic vote recorder. However, his first major invention was an improved version of the stock ticker, a machine used by stockbrokers to record the purchase and sale of stocks.

Edison relocated to Newark, New Jersey, in 1870. There he worked in cooperation with machine shop operators on other inventions. In 1874, Edison developed a quadruplex telegraph that could send four messages at the same time, two in each direction.

On December 25, 1871, 24-year-old Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell, an employee at one of his shops. They had three children: Marion Estelle Edison (nicknamed “Dot”), Thomas Alva Edison Jr. (nicknamed “Dash”), and William Leslie Edison.

In the spring of 1876, Edison set up a laboratory with a staff of assistants in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It expanded over the years to occupy two city blocks and included a machine shop, library, phonograph and photograph departments, and auxiliary buildings for metallurgy, chemistry, woodworking, and galvanometer testing. This was the first institution established with the specific purpose of producing technological innovations and improvements. Much of their early research was devoted to working on telegraph technology, with the financial support of Western Union.

Edison was disappointed when Alexander Graham Bell invented the “speaking telegraph” before he did. As a result, Edison stepped up his speed of progress for inventions in order not to be beaten to any patents again. He even improved on Bell’s telephone invention by developing a better microphone and transmitter, which helped to make the speaker’s voice much louder and clearer when talking over a long distance. While doing so, Edison coined the phrase “Hello.” Edison’s microphone was also used in radio broadcasting and public address systems.

Next, Edison invented the phonograph and experimented with recording sound on cylinders, tapes and disks. Edison originally wanted such a device for dictating messages over a telegraph or telephone. On December 4, 1877, Thomas Edison recited the first stanza of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to test his invention’s ability to record and play back the human voice. This so amazed the general public that they called Edison “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Although the phonograph was first marketed as a dictation machine, it was later modified for use in playing music to compete with the gramophone.

Now proven to be a successful inventor, Edison turned to experimenting with electric light. At that time, gas lamps were still common. A type of electric arc lamp was in use, but it was so blindingly bright that it could not be used indoors. Incandescent lamps had been invented previously, although as a light source they were short-lived and impractical.

Edison began working on his version of the incandescent light bulb in 1878. It contained a fine thread, or filament, sealed inside a glass bulb from which he pumped out the air. Passing electricity through the filament caused it to heat up enough to become incandescent and radiate light, while the vacuum prevented the filament from oxidizing and burning up. Edison then worked on perfecting a filament that would glow white-hot for a long time. He found that a carbonized coil of bamboo fiber could last over 1200 hours. Modern light bulbs are similar to Edison’s original bulb, although today they use tungsten wire filaments.

Following the invention of his incandescent light bulb in 1879, Edison had to design sockets, switches, generators, and electric meters in order to make a lighting system that was usable for practical purposes. Edison was backed by leading financiers J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts. This allowed him to create the Edison Electric Lamp Company, the Edison Machine Works, and other companies to produce his electric lighting system. Edison moved to New York City to promote the building of power plants there and in other large cities. In 1882, he supervised the installation of the first commercially successful, centralized power station capable of delivering affordable electricity for widespread lighting in lower Manhattan. Eventually, Edison organized all of his various business ventures into the Edison General Electric Company.

Edison's wife, Mary, died on August 9, 1884. Two years later, at the age of thirty nine, Edison married 20-year-old Mina Miller, the daughter of inventor Lewis Miller. They had three children: Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore. At this time, Edison was considered to be one of three leaders in American industry – the other two being his friends Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford. Edison, Firestone, and Ford were part of an exclusive group called “The Millionaires Club.” They often worked and vacationed together.

However, Edison had a rival in George Westinghouse, a successful inventor and entrepreneur in his own right. Westinghouse began promoting the alternating current (AC) system invented by Nikola Tesla over Edison’s direct current (DC) power distribution. The DC system was already farther along in commercial development, but AC power allowed electricity to be more easily transmitted over greater distances. Edison started a propaganda campaign against AC power, claiming that it was much more dangerous than DC power. He even introduced the electric chair to demonstrate the lethality of alternating current. Nevertheless, the Westinghouse system eventually gained the upper hand in “The Battle of the Currents.” But direct current is still used in low-voltage applications such as batteries, solar cells, and power supplies for electronics.

A group of bankers headed by J.P. Morgan took control of Edison’s and other electric companies in 1888 to build a “trust,” i.e. “monopoly.” Westinghouse was the only major electric company to resist the bankers and remain independent. The “trust,” now known as General Electric, became three times as large as the Westinghouse Electric Company. George Westinghouse ran into financial trouble during a recession at the turn of the century. Ironically, he lost control of Westinghouse Electric to the bankers in 1908.

Edison went on to develop a motion picture camera capable of recording successive images, as well as the first motion picture projector. It looked like a cylinder phonograph but showed a number of images on celluloid film in rapid succession. Edison’s peep-hole viewers were installed in penny arcades where people could watch short, simple films. Edison also built the first indoor film studio. His most famous early film was The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903. In 1912, by using the phonograph and the motion picture camera together, Edison produced a talking motion picture.

Seemingly ahead of his time in the area of self-sufficient living, Edison designed an all-electric country home billed as a “Twentieth Century Suburban Residence.” It was full of luxuries like electric air heating and cooling units, an electric clothes washing and wringing machine, an electric cooking range, an electric vacuum cleaner, an electric iron, electric fans, electric lights, and plenty of storage batteries. The house was completely off the grid, receiving its electricity from a wind turbine or gas-powered generator. Of course, Edison’s main reason for building such a home would be so he could sell electric appliances to homeowners who were not yet on the city’s electric system.

Initially, electricity was used mainly for street lighting, industrial and business purposes (e.g. factories, hotels, restaurants, theatres, etc.). In prosperous sections of town, new houses and apartments had electricity from about 1905. In older homes and rural areas, many didn’t get electricity until the interwar period. But by the 1930’s most people except the most rural had electricity.

In addition to his more famous inventions, Edison developed an electric automobile, an electric pen, a mimeograph, police call boxes and fire alarm systems. Edison produced the first commercially available fluoroscope machine that became the standard for medical x-ray examinations. One of Edison’s engineers, William J. Hammer, made a discovery dubbed the “Edison effect,” which later led to the electron tube. Edison made a device to transmit horn-like sounds and crude images over telegraph wires – could this have been the first Internet? The last two major inventions by Edison were the fluorescent lamp and the battery-powered miner’s headlamp. Edison received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1926 for all of his contributions.

Edison always worked with amazing concentration, probably because his deafness helped to reduce distractions. He often lived in his laboratory, sleeping on a cot and only getting a few hours of sleep at night but taking 15-minute naps during the day. An astute businessman, Edison always made sure that his inventions would be workable and useful. Many of his patents were improvements on already existing products, or in response to demand for new products. He was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production to the process of invention, and is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research lab.

Talented not only at devising new and improved technologies, Edison was an entrepreneur keenly skilled at selling them. He remained active in business right up to the end. Just months before his death in 1931, the Lackawanna Railroad implemented an electric train service. The entire project was done under Edison’s guidance. The same fleet of cars deployed in 1931 served commuters until their retirement in 1984. Toward the end of his life, Edison was also working on deriving rubber from Goldenrod, a common weed.

Edison died on October 21, 1931, at age 84. Across the United States, people turned off their power for one minute as a tribute to the inventor who “lit up the world.” During his lifetime, Edison had 1,093 patents granted to him by the U.S. Patent Office, and he worked on at least a thousand other inventions. Thomas Edison was the first inductee into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1973. In 1983, the United States Congress designated February 11, Edison’s birthday, as National Inventor's Day. Life magazine, in a special double issue in 1997, placed Edison first in the list of the “100 Most Important People in the Last 1000 Years.”

A Brief List of Thomas Edison's Inventions

  • Electric Vote Recorder 1868
  • Printing Telegraph 1869
  • Stock Ticker 1869
  • Telegraph Transmitter 1870
  • Telegraphic Recorder 1871
  • Electric Typewriter 1871
  • Automatic Telegraph 1872
  • Galvanic Storage Batteries 1872
  • Duplex Telegraphs 1873
  • Quadruplex Telegraph Repeater 1875
  • Telephonic Telegraphs 1876
  • Acoustic Telegraphs 1876
  • Pneumatic Stencil Pens 1877
  • Perforating Pens 1877
  • Phonograph or Speaking Machine 1877
  • Carbon Button Microphone 1878
  • Dynamo 1879
  • Incandescent Electric Lamp 1879
  • Magnetic Ore Separator 1880
  • Process for Preserving Fruit 1880
  • Electric Meter 1881
  • Electric Motor 1881
  • Dynamo Current regulator 1881
  • Underground Electric Conductors 1882
  • Telephone Repeater 1884
  • Fuse Block 1885
  • Thermo Electric Battery 1888
  • Phonograph Recorder 1888
  • Phonograph Reproducer 1888
  • Kinetograph and Projecting Kinetoscope 1897
  • Reversible Galvanic Battery 1900
  • Disc Phonograph 1911
  • Kinetophone 1913
  • Portable Disc Phonograph 1929

Thomas Edison Quotes

“I remember that I was never able to get along at school. I was always at the foot of the class.... I almost decided I must be a dunce.”

“I used to feel that the teachers did not sympathize with me, and that my father thought I was stupid.”

“My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

“I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being . . . The present system casts the brain into a mold. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning.”

“There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

“Our greatest need is to teach people who think— not what, but how.”

“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.”

“There is no substitute for hard work.”

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

“Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”

“I never quit until I get what I’m after. Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.”

“Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

“Keep on the lookout for novel ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea has to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you’re working on.”

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

“I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom.”

“I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.”

“I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence, I do not doubt.”

“We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Additional Resources - The Life of Thomas A. Edison. - The Edison Papers. - Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory – National Historic Site (Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan). - The First Electric Power Station. – Thomas Edison Lesson Plan.

What A Great Idea! Inventions That Changed The World, by Stephen M. Tomecek.

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