Thomas Alva Edison
The Wizard of Menlo Park

1847 - 1931

Thomas Alva Edison was one of the greatest inventors and industrial leaders in history. His most famous contributions include practical electric lighting, the phonograph, and improvements to the telegraph, telephone, and motion pictures. Edison also created one of the first modern research laboratories. Some scientists and historians regard his development of the research lab as his greatest achievement.

Edison looked for many different solutions when attempting to solve problems. When he created new or improved devices, he made a variety of designs. Sometimes he borrowed features from one technology and adapted them to another. Edison obtained 1,093 United States patents, the most the U.S. patent office has ever issued to one person. Altogether, he received thousands of patents from some two dozen nations.

Edison's promotion of the research laboratory grew out of his methods of work. He usually worked alongside his assistants. He wanted to see how others had solved mechanical, electrical, and chemical problems and then tried to improve upon their ideas. Early in his career, Edison hired machine shop assistants to help him. Within a few years, he established a laboratory for inventing. By the early 1900's, U.S. corporations had seen the success of research labs, such as Edison's and those in Germany, and began establishing their own.

Edison was also a good businessman. He not only loved to design new devices but also wanted them to be used by many people. He found financial partners worldwide and created new companies to manufacture and sell his products. Income from selling his products helped support his research laboratory and the development of more devices. As a result, Edison and other manufacturing pioneers in the late 1800's helped make the United States an industrial world power.

Armed with self-confidence and determination, Edison overcame a number of technical and commercial failures. He became world famous by his mid-30's and a millionaire by his mid-40's. Today, Edison's name and electric light bulb are worldwide symbols of bright ideas and technical creativity.

Early life

Boyhood. Edison was born on Feb. 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. He was the seventh and youngest child of Samuel and Nancy Elliott Edison. Edison's father fled from Canada during the Rebellions of 1837 and worked in Milan as a shingle maker and land investor. When Al--as the family called the young Edison--was 7 years old, the Edisons moved to Port Huron, Mich. There his father ran businesses in lumbering and land investing.

Edison received limited formal education. His mother, a former teacher, guided his learning. Edison was mischievous and inquisitive. He loved to pull pranks and practical jokes. He was also eager to read, particularly science books. His reading led him to experiment with chemicals and to construct elaborate models. He built models of a working sawmill and a railroad engine, both of which were powered by steam.

Even as a child, Edison was venturesome in business. He grew vegetables on his father's farm and sold them in town. At age 12, Edison began to sell newspapers, candy, and sandwiches on passenger trains between Port Huron and Detroit. Later, he hired others to work for him selling goods on the train and at stops. When he was 15, he published and sold a newspaper called the Weekly Herald. By this time, Edison had also developed hearing problems. His condition worsened as he grew older, and late in life he could only hear people if they shouted directly into his ear.

The young telegrapher. At age 15, Edison rescued the son of a telegraph operator from the path of a railroad car. As a reward, the operator gave Edison telegraph lessons. In 1863, Edison began work as a telegraph operator for the Western Union Telegraph Company in Port Huron. During the following four years, he worked as a telegrapher in a number of Midwestern cities. Edison learned much about the mechanical, electrical, and chemical elements of telegraphy. He read scientific and telegraph journals and books, and experimented with telegraph equipment.

Despite Edison's hearing difficulties, he mastered the art of receiving news reports by telegraph. He used a skill common among hearing-impaired people called "filling the gaps," or guessing. Many telegraph operators used this skill to finish interrupted and incomplete messages. Edison used it even more. He read newspapers in his spare time to gather information that might help him complete messages. As a telegraph operator, Edison learned of news and information that helped him develop a keen awareness of political and business matters throughout the nation.

Inventor and businessman

Telegraph innovator. In 1868, Edison moved to Boston as a telegraph operator. While in Boston, he made improvements on a town fire alarm system, on printing telegraphs for stockbrokers, and on a device to transmit images over telegraph lines. Edison also applied for his first patent. But the invention, an electrical vote-recorder for legislatures, was never used.

In 1869, Edison moved to New York City. There he met the leaders of the telegraph industry and important people in the financial community. He also developed improvements in stock tickers, telegraph devices used to report the purchase and sale of stocks.

In 1870, Edison moved to Newark, N.J. In partnership with a machine shop operator, he started a stock ticker manufacturing company. To keep the business successful, Edison continually tried to improve the devices he sold. Charles Batchelor and other mechanically talented associates joined the new manufacturer in developing a steady stream of inventions.

In 1874, Edison completed the design of the quadruplex. This improved telegraph was faster and more efficient than the regular telegraph. The quadruplex could send four messages at a time on a single wire instead of just one message. This important invention strengthened Edison's reputation as an inventor in the telegraph community.

The Wizard of Menlo Park. In the spring of 1876, Edison built a laboratory in rural Menlo Park, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Newark. With financial support from Western Union, Edison and his assistants began research that transformed the world.

Telephone transmitter. Edison was one of many inventors who tinkered with the "speaking telegraph," as the telephone was then called. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876. In 1877, Edison designed a superior transmitter, which made a speaker's voice louder and clearer on the telephone. For the next century, most phones used transmitters based on Edison's improvement. Before his invention, people had difficulty hearing anything said over the telephone.

The phonograph. In 1876 and 1877, Edison worked on important experiments for recording and playing back messages sent over the telegraph and telephone. These experiments led to his invention of the cylinder phonograph. To record messages, Edison attached a needle to a diaphragm, a metal disk that vibrated in response to the sound waves of a voice. The needle rested against a rotating cylinder that was wrapped with tinfoil. When the disk vibrated, the needle made varying impressions in the foil. To reproduce the sound, another needle was attached to a diaphragm and funnellike horn. This needle retraced the impressions or grooves in the foil. While developing the cylinder phonograph, Edison also made designs for recording sound on disks and tapes.

In December 1877, Edison exhibited his cylinder phonograph to the editors of the prominent magazine Scientific American. The next spring, he demonstrated it to scientific societies and at the White House for U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. The device seemed like magic--nothing like it had ever been invented. As a result, Edison became world famous as the Wizard of Menlo Park.

However, the invention was so unusual that at first no one knew what to do with it. Edison envisioned the phonograph being used as a dictating machine. But he also sought other uses. He designed toys that would use the device, including talking dolls and children's pianos. Later, other people introduced the idea of selling musical recordings for the phonograph, and soon Edison began making his own recordings.

The electric light. In 1878, Edison began important research on electric lighting. Inventors worldwide also were investigating the process. In September, Edison saw a demonstration of a carbon arc light. This device produced an extremely bright light by sending electricity across a gap between two carbon terminals.

Edison then began work on an incandescent lamp for use in homes. An incandescent lamp would produce a less intense light by passing electricity through a filament (wire) to make the filament glow. Edison and his associates spent months searching for the filament material that would produce the best light. In October 1879, they successfully tested a carbon filament made from burned sewing thread, producing the first practical incandescent light bulb. In 1880, they began using bamboo filaments, which increased the life of the bulbs.

At first, Edison's electric light was only a novelty because few homes and businesses had electricity. To make his invention practical for everyday use, electricity had to be readily available to customers. He began working to produce electricity in central power plants and distribute it over wires to businesses and homes.

Electric utilities and electrical manufacturing. In 1881, Edison and his associates moved to New York City to promote the construction of electric power plants in cities. Edison built the Pearl Street Station, a steam electric power plant near Wall Street. The station opened in 1882 and soon provided electricity to many customers. By the 1890's, hundreds of communities throughout the world had Edison power stations.

To make the electric lighting system commercially successful, other equipment also had to be readily available, such as generators, power cables, electric lamps, and lighting fixtures. Thus, Edison and some of his associates invested in companies that manufactured these products. These companies combined with others to become the General Electric Company in 1892.

Inventor-industrialist of West Orange. In 1886, Edison moved to Llewellyn Park, a residential area of West Orange, N.J. Just blocks away, he built a laboratory 10 times the size of the one in Menlo Park. The new lab included a three-story office that housed thousands of journals and books. The lab also provided space for chemical, mechanical, and electrical experiments. Eventually, it included facilities for manufacturing the devices designed by Edison and his associates. For the remaining years of Edison's life, this lab was his true home.

Motion pictures. Edison helped found the motion-picture industry. In early 1888, he met British-born photographer Eadweard Muybridge. One of many people experimenting with photography of motion, Muybridge inspired Edison to investigate the field. By fall, Edison envisioned a motion-picture device that looked like the cylinder phonograph. He wrote, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear."

Edison and his lab photographer, W. K. L. Dickson, began to record a series of images on celluloid film. Showing the images in rapid succession would make them look like continuous action. Over the next five years, Edison and his assistants invented the peephole kinetoscope. The kinetoscope was the first practical motion-picture device that used a roll of film. It consisted of a cabinet with a peephole or eyepiece on top. A customer who put a coin in the machine could watch a short motion picture through the hole. In 1893, Dickson built the Black Maria, Edison's film studio. The Black Maria was the first building designed for the purpose of making commercial motion pictures.

From the mid-1890's to about 1915, Edison tried to control the motion-picture industry in the United States. In 1896, his company introduced projectors designed by other inventors. It soon became a principal producer and distributor of motion pictures. In 1908, Edison and most other movie inventors pooled their patents. Together they formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, which largely controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures. But in 1917, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a ruling that the company was an illegal monopoly. As a result, Edison and most other members of the Motion Picture Patents Company lost much of their influence in filmmaking. Many of them abandoned the industry that Edison had helped found.

Ore milling. In the late 1800's, Edison designed gigantic equipment to process low-grade iron ore into high-grade ore for steel mills in the Eastern United States. He established a processing plant in northern New Jersey in the early 1890's. At the plant, raw ore moved continuously on conveyor belts in a system like the assembly line later popularized by American automaker Henry Ford.

Edison invested more than $1 million in ore milling. His advanced technology was successful, but the project still ended in failure. It failed largely because rich iron ore discovered in the Mesabi Range of northeastern Minnesota was less expensive to mine and process.

Primary and storage batteries. During the 1880's and 1890's, Edison and his associates had experimented with batteries. They worked on designing and producing lighter, more durable, and more powerful batteries. By the early 1900's, one of Edison's companies began to manufacture batteries. Railroads used his batteries to power signals and switches. Edison batteries also were used in electric automobiles and for electric starters in gasoline-powered cars.

Cement manufacture. In the early 1900's, one of Edison's companies began mass-producing portland cement, a gray powder used to make concrete. Edison had built one of the largest cement plants in the United States in western New Jersey. The plant used some equipment from his failed ore project. To help make the works profitable, Edison searched for new uses of cement. He introduced poured concrete houses. He sold cement for use in large factories and for building Yankee Stadium and other structures in New York City. He even designed concrete furniture.

Phonograph developments. Also at West Orange, Edison improved and sold his favorite invention, the phonograph. He and his associates investigated materials on which to make recordings. He then produced chemicals to manufacture the recording materials.

Cylinder phonographs, such as Edison's, were mechanically and acoustically better than disk phonographs. But disk records were easier to produce and store than cylinder recordings. Reluctantly, Edison switched to the disk format in 1913. However, he continued to develop and later sold the Ediphone, a dictating machine based on his cylinder phonograph.

Last work. During World War I (1914-1918), Edison headed the Naval Consulting Board of the United States, a group of inventors and business people who aided the war effort. After the war, Edison returned to his experiments at the laboratory. But he turned over most of the administrative work to his son Charles.

In the late 1920's, Edison sought a substitute for rubber plants as a source of latex. He examined thousands of plant specimens and finally selected a variety of goldenrod. American tire manufacturer Harvey S. Firestone presented Edison with four automobile tires made of the new rubber. However, Edison's rubber proved to be less profitable than desired, and the project was abandoned.

Edison continued to work and experiment while suffering from several illnesses that struck him in his later years. He died in bed, at his home in Llewellyn Park, on Oct. 18, 1931.

Edison the man

Family and friends. On Dec. 25, 1871, Edison married Mary Stilwell, who had worked in one of his companies. The couple had three children--Marion Estelle; Thomas Alva, Jr.; and William Leslie. Edison nicknamed Marion and Tom "Dot" and "Dash" after the telegraph code. Mary died in 1884.

In 1885, Edison met Mina Miller, the daughter of a wealthy Ohio industrialist. Although she was only a few years older than Edison's daughter, Edison married her in early 1886. While her husband worked many hours, Mina developed an independent life of charitable and social activities. Edison and his second wife had three children--Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore. Of Edison's six children, Charles became the most famous. He served as secretary of the U.S. Navy in 1940 and as governor of New Jersey from 1941 to 1944.

Edison attracted friends through his storytelling, sense of humor, and fame. But the inventor-industrialist developed his strongest relationships among business associates. One of Edison's closest and most famous friends was Henry Ford. The industrial leaders became friends after Edison encouraged Ford to apply the gasoline engine to the automobile. The two friends later took automobile camping trips with Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs.

Philosophy. Always a man of ideas, Edison was well informed about technical matters, business, and current affairs. Journalists liked to interview him because he had a down-to-earth manner and a frank opinion on most matters. Edison had great faith in progress and industry. He believed that mass production offered people better jobs and more and cheaper goods. In addition, he said that inventing for industry offered everyone a chance for fame and wealth while benefiting society.

Edison valued long, hard work. Throughout his career, he spent many hours on his projects. With his saying, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," Edison encouraged all people to work hard.

Edison lived in an era when business people aggressively marketed their goods. He was surrounded by a business philosophy that encouraged self-promotion. As a result, he often made claims and promises, then found himself under great pressure to fulfill them. Yet he repeatedly met many of his promises and gained a reputation for innovation and quality.

Honors. From the time he invented the phonograph, Edison was honored throughout the world. France appointed him to the Legion of Honor in 1878, and the United States Congress presented him with the Medal of Honor in 1928. Henry Ford brought Edison the biggest public attention with an international event called "Light's Golden Jubilee" in 1929. The celebration honored Edison and the 50th anniversary of his invention of the incandescent lamp. At the banquet that followed, U.S. President Herbert Hoover gave the principal address, and praises flowed in from prominent people from many nations.

Another tribute to Edison took place on the evening of his funeral, Oct. 21, 1931. At President Hoover's request, the lights were dimmed for a short time at the White House and in businesses and homes throughout the nation. Thus, momentary darkness was created to honor one who had brought light to many.

Four major historical sites and museums honor Edison. They include his birthplace in Milan, Ohio, and his winter home in Fort Myers, Fla. There is also the restored Menlo Park laboratory, which Ford moved from New Jersey to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. The National Park Service manages the Edison National Historic Site at West Orange, which includes Edison's West Orange laboratory and the inventor's home in Llewellyn Park.

Contributor: Reese V. Jenkins, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Rutgers The State Univ. of New Jersey.

Additional resources

Buranelli, Vincent. Thomas Alva Edison. Silver Burdett, 1989. For younger readers.

Friedel, Robert D., and Israel, Paul. Edison's Electric Light: Biography of an Invention. Rutgers, 1986.

Josephson, Matthew. Edison. Wiley, 1992. First published in 1959. A standard biography.

Millard, Andre J. Edison and the Business of Innovation. Johns Hopkins, 1990.

The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Vol. 1, The Making of an Inventor, February 1847-June 1873. Ed. by Reese V. Jenkins and others. Johns Hopkins, 1989. Vol. 2, From Workshop to Laboratory, June 1873-March 1876. Ed. by R. A. Rosenberg and others. 1991.

Working at Inventing: Thomas A. Edison and the Menlo Park Experience. Ed. by William S. Pretzer. Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, 1989.

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