Born: February 11,
Milan, Ohio, United States
Died: October 18, 1931
West Orange, New Jersey, United States
Occupation: Inventor, entrepreneur
Spouse: Mary Edison, Mina Edison
Thomas Alva Edison
(February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor
and businessman who developed many devices which greatly influenced
life in the 20th century. Dubbed "The Wizard of Menlo Park"
by a newspaper reporter, he was one of the first inventors to apply
the principles of mass production to the process of invention, and can
therefore be credited with the creation of the first industrial research
laboratory. Some of the inventions attributed to him were not completely
original but amounted to improvements of earlier inventions or were
actually created by numerous employees working under his direction.
Nevertheless, Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors
in history, holding 1,097 U.S. patents in his name, as well as many
patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, the seventh child of Samuel Ogden
Edison, Jr. (1804–1896) (born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, Canada)
and the former Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810–1871). His family
was of Dutch origin. Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, the seventh
child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr.(1804-1896)(born in Marshalltown, Nova
Scotia, Canada) and the former Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810-1871). His
family was of Dutch origin. His mind often wandered and his teacher
the Reverend Engle was overheard calling him "addled". This
ended Edison's three months of formal schooling. His mother had been
a school teacher in Canada and happily took over the job of schooling
her son. She encouraged and taught him to read and experiment. He recalled
later, "My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure
of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint."
Many of his lessons came from reading R.G. Parker's School of Natural
Philosophy. Edison became hard of hearing at the age of twelve. There
are many theories of what caused this; according to Edison he went deaf
because he was pulled up to a train car by his ears.
Edison's life in
Port Huron, Michigan was bittersweet. He sold candy and newspapers on
trains running from Port Huron to Detroit. Partially deaf since adolescence,
he became a telegraph operator after he saved 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 took Edison
under his wing and trained him as a telegraph operator. Edison's deafness
aided him as it blocked out noises and prevented Edison from hearing
the telegrapher sitting next to him. One of his mentors during those
early years was a fellow telegrapher and inventor named Franklin Leonard
Pope, who allowed the then impoverished youth to live and work in the
basement of his Elizabeth, New Jersey home.
Some of his earliest
inventions related to electrical telegraphy, including a stock ticker.
Edison applied for his first patent, the electric vote recorder, on
October 28, 1868.
Marriages and children
On December 25, 1871, Edison married the then 16 year old Mary Stilwell
whom he had met two months earlier. They had three children,
Estelle Edison (1873–1965)
Thomas "Dash" Alva Edison, Jr (1876–1935)
William Leslie Edison (1878–1935)
Mary Edison died on August 9 1884.
On February 24,
1886, at the age of thirty-nine, Edison married 19-year-old Mina Miller
in Akron, Ohio. They also had three children:
Charles Edison (1890–1969), who took over the company upon his
father's death and who later was elected Governor of New Jersey)
Theodore Edison (1898–1992)
Mina died on August 24, 1947 and outlived Thomas Edison.
Beginning his career
Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey,
with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices,
but the invention which first gained him fame 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, where he lived. His first phonograph recorded
on tinfoil cylinders that had low sound quality and destroyed the track
during replay so that one could listen only a few times. In the 1880s,
a redesigned model using wax-coated cardboard cylinders was produced
by Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter. This
was one reason that Thomas Edison continued work on his own "Perfected
Thomas Edison was
a freethinker, and was most likely a deist, claiming he did not believe
in "the God of the theologians", but did not doubt that "there
is a Supreme Intelligence". He is quoted, "I believe that
the science of chemistry alone almost proves the existence of an intelligent
creator." However, he rejected the idea of the supernatural, along
with such ideas as the soul, immortality, and a personal God. "Nature",
he said, "is not merciful and loving, but wholly merciless, indifferent."
U.S. Patent #223898 Electric LampEdison's major innovation was the first
industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
It was 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 work under his direction.
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. 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."
Most of Edison's
patents were utility patents, which during Edison's lifetime protected
for a 17 year period inventions or processes that are electrical, mechanical,
or chemical in nature. About a dozen were design patents, which protect
an ornamental design for a 14 year period. Like most inventions, his
were not typically completely original, but improvements to prior art.
The phonograph patent, on the other hand, was unprecedented as the first
device to record and reproduce sounds. Edison did not invent the first
electric light bulb, but instead invented the first commercially practical
incandescent light. Several designs had already been developed by earlier
inventors including the patent he purchased from Henry Woodward and
Mathew Evans, Moses G. Farmer, Joseph Swan, James Bowman Lindsay,
William Sawyer, Sir Humphry Davy, and Heinrich Göbel. Some of these
early bulbs had such flaws as extremely short life, high expense to
produce, and high current draw, making them difficult to apply on a
large scale commercially. In 1878, Edison applied the term filament
to the element of glowing wire carrying the current, although English
inventor Joseph Swan had used the term prior to this. Edison took the
features of these earlier designs and set his workers to the task of
creating longer-lasting bulbs. By 1879, he had produced a new concept:
a high resistance lamp in a very high vacuum, which would burn for hundreds
of hours. While the earlier inventors had produced electric lighting
in laboratory conditions dating back to a demonstration of a glowing
wire by Alessandro Volta in 1800, Edison concentrated on commercial
application and was able to sell the concept to homes and businesses
by mass-producing relatively long-lasting light bulbs and creating a
complete system for the generation and distribution of electricity.
The Menlo Park research
lab was made possible by the sale of the quadruplex telegraph that Edison
invented in 1874, which could send four simultaneous telegraph signals
over the same wire. When Edison asked Western Union to make an offer,
he was shocked at the unexpectedly large amount that Western Union offered;
the patent rights were sold for $10,000. The quadruplex telegraph was
Edison's first big financial success.
In 1878, Edison
formed the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City with several
financiers, including J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt families. Edison
made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on
December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. On January 27, 1880, he filed a patent
in the United States for the electric incandescent lamp; it was during
this time that he said, "We will make electricity so cheap that
only the rich will burn candles."
On October 8, 1883,
the U.S. patent office ruled that Edison's patent was based on the work
of William Sawyer and was therefore invalid. Litigation continued for
nearly six years, until October 6, 1889, when a judge ruled that Edison's
electric light improvement claim for "a filament of carbon of high
resistance" was valid. To avoid a possible court battle with Joseph
Swan, whose English patent had been awarded a year before Edisons, he
and Swan formed a joint company called Ediswan to market the invention
Other designs for
a light bulb included Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla's idea of utilizing
radio frequency waves emitted (in the Tesla effect) from the side electrode
plates to light a wireless bulb. He also developed plans to light a
bulb with only one wire with the energy refocused back into the center
of the bulb by the glass envelope with a center "button" to
emit an incandescent glow. Edison's design won out during this time,
although Tesla did go on to invent fluorescent lighting.
an electric distribution system in 1880, which was critical to capitalize
on the invention of the electric lamp. The first investor-owned electric
utility was the 1882 Pearl Street Station, New York City. On September
4, 1882, Edison switched on the world's first electrical power distribution
system, providing 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower
Manhattan, around his Pearl Street generating station. On January 19,
1883, the first standardized incandescent electric lighting system employing
overhead wires began service in Roselle, New Jersey.
contempt for capital punishment, the war against AC led Edison to become
involved in the development and promotion of the electric chair as a
demonstration of AC's greater lethal potential versus the "safer"
DC. Edison went on to carry out a brief but intense campaign to ban
the use of AC or to limit the allowable voltage for safety purposes.
As part of this campaign, Edison's employees publicly electrocuted dogs,
cats, and in one case, an elephant to demonstrate the dangers of
AC. AC replaced DC in most instances of generation and power distribution,
enormously extending the range and improving the efficiency of power
distribution. Though widespread use of DC ultimately lost favor for
distribution, it exists today primarily in long-distance high-voltage
direct current (HVDC) transmission systems. Low voltage DC distribution
continued to be used in high density downtown areas for many years and
was replaced by AC low voltage network distribution in many central
business districts. DC had the advantage that large battery banks could
maintain continuous power through brief interruptions of the electric
supply from generators and the transmission system. Utilities such as
Commonwealth Edison in Chicago had rotary converters which could change
DC to AC and AC to various frequencies in the early to mid 20th century.
Utilities supplied rectifiers to convert the low voltage AC to DC for
such DC load as elevators, fans and pumps. There were still 1600 DC
customers in downtown New York City when the service was discontinued
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 significant 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,
for example, determining the critical parameters of his electric lighting
system including lamp resistance by a sophisticated analysis of Ohm's
Law, Joule's Law and economics.) A key to Edison's success was a holistic
rather than reductionist approach to invention, making extensive use
of trial and error when no suitable theory existed. (See Edisonian approach).
Since Sprague joined Edison in 1883 and Edison's output of patents peaked
in 1880 it could be interpreted that the shift towards a reductionist
analytical approach may not have been a positive move for Edison. Sprague's
important analytical contributions, including correcting Edison's system
of mains and feeders for central station distribution, form a counter
argument to this. In 1884, Sprague decided his interests in the exploitation
of electricity lay elsewhere, and he left Edison to found the Sprague
Electric Railway & Motor Company. However, Sprague, who later developed
many electrical innovations, always credited Edison for their work together.
Another of Edison's
assistants was Nikola Tesla who claimed that Edison promised him $50,000
if he succeeded in making improvements to his DC generation plants.
Several months later, when he had finished the work and asked to be
paid, Tesla claimed that Edison said, "When you become a full-fledged
American you will appreciate an American joke". Tesla immediately
resigned. This anecdote is somewhat doubtful, since at Tesla's salary
of $18 per week the bonus would have amounted to over 53 years pay,
and the amount was equal to the initial capital of the company. Tesla
resigned when he was refused a raise to $25 per week (Jonnes, p110).
Although Tesla accepted an Edison Medal later in life and professed
a high opinion of Edison as an inventor and engineer, he remained bitter.
The day after Edison died the New York Times contained extensive coverage
of Edison's life, with the only negative opinion coming from Tesla who
was quoted as saying, "He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement
of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules
of hygiene" and that, "His method was inefficient in the extreme,
for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless
blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness
of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would
have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt
for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely
to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense." When
Edison was a very old man and close to death, he said, in looking back,
that the biggest mistake he had made was that he never respected Tesla
or his work.
The key to Edison's fortunes was telegraphy. With knowledge gained from
years of working as a telegraph operator, he learned the basics of electricity.
This allowed him to make his early fortune with the stock ticker, the
first electricity-based broadcast system. Edison patented the sound
recording and reproducing phonograph (or gramophone in British English)
in 1878. Edison also holds the patent for the motion picture camera,
although the invention itself was the work of Edison's British employee,
W.K. Dickson. In 1891, Thomas Edison built a Kinetoscope, or peep-hole
viewer. This device was installed in penny arcades, where people could
watch short, simple films.
On August 9, 1892,
Edison received a patent for a two-way telegraph. In April 1896, Thomas
Armat's Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in
Edison's name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings
in New York City. Later he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack
on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film. In
1908 Edison started the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a
conglomerate of nine major film studios (commonly known as the Edison
Trust). Thomas Edison was the first honorary fellow of the Acoustical
Society of America, which was founded in 1929.
Ft. Myers, Florida, February 11, 1929.Edison became the owner of his
Milan, Ohio, birthplace in 1906, and, on his last visit, in 1923, he
was shocked to find his old home still lit by lamps and candles. Influenced
by a fad diet that was popular in the day, in his last few years "he
consumed nothing more than a pint of milk every three hours".
He believed this diet would restore his health.
Edison was active
in business right up to the end. Just months before his death in 1931,
the Lackawanna Railroad implemented electric trains in suburban service
from Hoboken to Gladstone, Montclair and Dover in New Jersey. Transmission
was by means of an overhead catenary system, with the entire project
under the guidance of Thomas Edison. To the surprise of many, Thomas
Edison was at the throttle of the very first MU (Multiple-Unit) train
to depart Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, driving the train all the
way to Dover. As another tribute to his lasting legacy, the very same
fleet of cars Edison deployed on the Lackawanna in 1931 served commuters
until their retirement in 1984. A special plaque commemorating the joint
achievement of both the railway and Edison, can be seen today in the
waiting room of Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, presently operated by
New Jersey Transit.
a home known as "Glenmont" in 1886 as a wedding gift for Mina
in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey. The remains of Edison
and his wife, Mina, are now buried there. The 13.5 acre (55,000 m²)
property is maintained by the National Park Service as the Edison National
Historic Site. Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931, in New Jersey
at the age of 84. His final words to his wife were "It is very
beautiful over there." Mina died in 1947. Edison's last breath
is purportedly contained in a test tube at the Henry Ford Museum. Ford
reportedly convinced Charles Edison to seal a test tube of air in the
inventor's room shortly after his death, as a memento. A plaster death
mask was also made.
In the 1880s, Thomas
Edison bought property in Fort Myers, Florida, and built Seminole Lodge
as a winter retreat. Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, later lived
a few hundred feet away from Edison at his winter retreat, The Mangoes.
Edison even contributed technology to the automobile. They were friends
until Edison's death.
Although in his early years Edison worked alone, he built up a research
and development team to a considerable number while at his Menlo Park
research laboratory. This large research group, which included engineers
and other workers, often based their research on work done by others
before them, as is true of all research and development. Many have claimed
that when his staff succeeded, he presented the inventions as his own
and got the credit for them as they were patented in his name.[citation
needed] His staff generally carried out his directions in conducting
research, and when he was absent from the lab, the pace of work slowed
greatly. Other inventors had worked on the development of an incandescent
light bulb before Edison invented the first which was commercially practical.
He is commonly credited as its inventor, even though a number of employees
also worked on the device under his direction. His was the first incandescent
light bulb with high resistance, a small radiating area, and a commercially
useful lifetime. Other critics have claimed that he put obstacles in
the way of his competitors, and used other methods which were ethically
questionable, even if their technology was superior to what was created
by his own workers.
Thomas Edison made
an electric light bulb and said that in six weeks, he would have a light
bulb industry and would be generating electricity from Niagara Falls.[citation
needed] Investors, including JP Morgan, invested large amounts of money
in Edison's scheme. The breakthrough came in the fourteenth month when
they finally found material suitable for use as a filament. They put
lights around Menlo Park and lots of people came to see them. After
two years, there was a prototype lighting system at his complex. The
people working at Menlo Park couldn't create enough light bulbs, so
he wanted to mass produce them, however the investors didn't want to
spend any more money until the original promise was met. Four years
after the original promise, the lights turned on at Central Station.
Some other towns then began to install lights. Soon after that, competitors
emerged, including George Westinghouse.
a propaganda campaign to convince people that AC was too dangerous.
He repeatedly electrocuted animals with 1000V of alternating current
to 'prove' that AC was unsafe. Thomas Edison introduced execution by
electrocution. In 1889, a murderer (William Kemmler) was executed by
electrocution. The executioners left the current on for 17 seconds.
He was smoking, so it was turned off, but he wasn't dead; he was bleeding
out of multiple places and was having spasms, so they quickly turned
it back on and left it on for 72 seconds. His body was smouldering.
After this, the public outrage was so strong that he was fired from
his company, it was renamed "General Electric" and it joined
with George Westinghouse. Finally, the company built
the hydro-electric plant at Niagra Falls.
One of the more
notable occasions when Edison electrocuted animals was when in 1903,
he electrocuted Topsy the elephant at Luna Park. Edison claimed that
it was the AC power's fault that the animals died; not his. [citation
needed]He claimed that the animals being electrocuted were being "Westinghoused".
Edison even filmed the death of Topsy and gladly distributed the video.[citation