My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.
Who Was Thomas Edison?
Maybe once in a century does a man or woman come along who transforms the entire world. Thomas Alva Edison was such a man, and his century was the nineteenth or, as historians call it, the “Age of Electricity.” Edison showed his fearless nature when, at age twenty-two, he took the bold step to become a full-time inventor, a true leap of faith for a young man without the backing of family money. Most people remember Thomas Edison as the inventor of the practical light bulb, however, he was first thrust onto the public stage years before with the invention of the phonograph.
The prolific inventor held more than one thousand patents in the United States with many more in Europe. More significant than just the number of patents was their impact on the lives of average men and women. As a direct result of his work, major new industries sprang up: electric lighting, power utilities, recorded music, and motion pictures. At the end of his personal journey lay the technological revolution of the twentieth century, the birth of the modern era.
The prolific American inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. He was the youngest of seven children. His father was Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr., a native of Nova Scotia, Canada, who fled to the United States after taking part in the Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837. At the time of Thomas’s birth, Samuel was a prosperous shingle manufacturer and his family lived comfortably. His mother was Nancy Matthews Elliott from New York. The family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when business declined in Milan due to the railroad bypassing the town in 1854.
Like most young boys and girls in his community, Thomas was sent to school by his parents. However, the young Thomas was a distracted student. Reverend Engle, one of his teachers, called him “addled,” which led his parents to the decision that he would be schooled at home under the tutelage of his mother. He spent his childhood reading School of Natural Philosophy by R.G. Parker and many other fascinating books.
As a young boy, Edison began to lose his hearing, possibly because he suffered from recurrent middle-ear infections which went untreated. He also caught scarlet fever, which might have also contributed to his loss of hearing. He wrote in 1885 that, “I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old.” His deafness was a definite handicap, but it was one he overcame to rise to the zenith of worldwide acclaim.
As a young man, Thomas showed his entrepreneurial spirt when he earned his living vending food and candy on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit. Later, he obtained the rights to sell newspapers on the train. Edison printed the Grand Trunk Herald and sold it on the road with the help of four assistants. It was during this time that his interest in science and technology started to blossom.
Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.
— Thomas Edison
Work at the Railroad and as a Telegraph Operator
Edison learned to become a telegraph operator after a nearly fatal incident at the railroad. A three-year-old boy named Jimmie MacKenzie was in the path of a runaway train when Edison jumped in and saved the boy. Jimmy’s father, the station’s agent, expressed his gratitude and taught Edison to work as a telegraph operator. This would be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Thomas Edison and the telegraph. His first job posting as a telegraph operator was in Ontario, at the Grand Trunk Railway in Stratford Junction.
At age nineteen, Edison move to Louisville, Kentucky, to work for the Associated Press as a telegrapher. Working the night shift left him time to experiment and read. The invention and development of the telegraph in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse and others had revolutionized long distance communications. The rapid growth of the telegraph industry across the nation gave Edison the opportunity to travel widely working as a “tramp” telegrapher. By 1868 his travels had landed him in Boston where he worked for the Western Union Company.
Edison's Stock Ticker Telegraph
The Budding Entrepreneur
In Boston, the twenty-one-year-old Edison began to change his profession from telegrapher to inventor. His first patent was an electronic voting machine that sped up the voting process. In 1869 he moved to New York City to continue his career as an inventor. He made improvements to the telegraph and developed his first commercially successful invention, an improved stock ticker machine known as the Universal Stock Printer. His key contribution to the machine was to improve the mechanism so that all the stock tickers on the line were in synchronization, thus all printing the same stock price. For this improvement and others, he was paid forty-thousand dollars, a very large sum of money at the time.
The sale of the stock ticker gave Edison the money he needed to set up his first small manufacturing facility and laboratory in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871. There Edison focused his energies on making improvements to the telegraph. After five years, Edison sold his Newark facility and moved his wife, children, and staff to the small village of Menlo Park, New Jersey, twenty-five miles southwest of New York City. The sale of the quadruplex telegraph to Western Union for $10,000 provided the funding to set up the Menlo Park laboratory. It was there that Edison established his research and development laboratory, the first of its kind. At Menlo Park, Edison and his team of engineers and technicians began to create inventions that would change the world.
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“The Wizard of Menlo Park”
The primary function of the Menlo Park facility was to produce technological innovations and new products. Under his supervision and direction, Edison’s staff thrived on research and development and produced their own significant inventions. In the beginning the lab turned out no major inventions, rather a string of odds and ends. Edison established the American Novelty Company to market the products of the lab: duplicating ink, an electric drill, an electric engraver for jewelers, an electric sheep-shearing machine, and a host of other curiosities. The American Novelty Company failed in less than a year and Edison returned his focus to improving the telegraph.
Edison also continued to invent various kinds of devices. He had high expectations from the staff of Menlo Park. Edison and his staff worked to stock the lab with “every conceivable material” that could be used in the process of invention. The laboratory complex continued to grow and eventually occupied two city blocks. Everyone was reminded of the important mission of Menlo Park by a sign on the wall of Edison’s office that read, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”
During the peak of the inventive process, Edison worked long hours, sometimes the whole night. When he worked late into the night, he expected his assistant to do the same. With an “all-nighter” there developed a tradition of midnight meals brought up by the night watchman. The meal was one of the few times Edison allowed himself to relax at work. An employee described the typical midnight meal: “Hilarity came with the filling of stomachs, bantering and story telling were interlarded, until Edison arose, stretched, took a hitch at his waistband in sailor fashion and began to saunter away–the signal that dinner was over, and it was time to begin work again.”
Invention of the Phonograph
The phonograph was the first invention that turned the public’s attention to Edison. It was so novel a device that many thought it had magical powers. The first to see the newly invented phonograph outside the Menlo Park lab came in late 1877 when Edison and two of his crew visited the office of Scientific American in New York. Edison placed a small machine on the editor’s desk, and with a crowd around, turned the crank. “How do you do!” asked the machine, followed by, “How do you like the phonography?” After a few closing remarks by the machine the demonstration ended. The editors at Scientific American were completely amazed. This was stop-the-press news, which they did, rushing an article on the invention into the next edition of the important magazine. The magazine article would end Thomas Edison’s obscurity and start him on a journey that would one day make him a household name throughout much of the world.
Edison became an instant celebrity after he demonstrated the capacity of the device for sound recording and playback. The sound quality of the first phonograph was rather poor as the recording was made around a grooved cylinder on tinfoil. The recording could be played back only a few times as well. Nevertheless, it was a masterful invention. Edison gave a demonstration of the phonograph before President Rutherford B. Hays, prominent members of Congress, and the members of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, in April of 1878. According to the Washington Post, Thomas Edison was “a genius.” Edison also received praise from more prominent scientists at that time, including the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Joseph Henry, who called him the “most ingenious inventor in this country... or in any other.”
Other inventors began to work on improving Edison’s basic design, including Alexander Graham Bell. Bell, along with his assistants, modified the phonograph to make it reproduce sound from wax paper instead of tinfoil. Work continued on improvements to the phonograph at Bell’s Volta Laboratory in Washington, DC, culminating in an 1886 patent for recording on wax. Bell coined the term “Graphophone” for his modified phonograph and began to market the device to the public.
Invention of the Electric Light Bulb
Thomas Edison started working on a replacement for oil-based lighting and lighting that utilized gas a fuel in 1878. His primary objective was to develop an electrical incandescent lamp that was long-lasting and adequate for indoor use. Before Edison, many inventors had tried to devise incandescent lamps with various degrees of success. The inventions were mostly impractical for daily use, expensive to produce en masse, used very large amounts of electricity, or were very short-lived. Edison experimented with hundreds of different types of filaments including platinum, carbon, and other metals.
The first successful test for Edison’s light bulb, which utilized a carbon filament, was conducted on October 22, 1879. A couple of months later, Edison gave a public demonstration at Menlo Park, showcasing the first successful model of a light bulb. This model was the first light bulb that could be manufactured and sold on a large scale. Edison’s light bulb was successful because it ran at a low voltage and drew a low amount of current due to its high electrical resistance. The first commercially reproducible electric light was granted a US patent on January 27, 1880. It was described as “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires.” After the patent was granted to Edison, his research and development team came up with a carbonized bamboo filament with the capacity to last 1,200 hours.
During the public demonstration at Menlo Park, Edison said that, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” One of the first people to embrace this new technology was the president of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, Henry Villard, who was present during the demonstration. He immediately asked Edison Electric Light Company to install the new lighting system aboard the Columbia, the company’s new steamer. In 1880, the Columbia became the first commercial application of Edison’s electric incandescent lighting system.
The incandescent light bulb is now a permanent fixture in homes, businesses, and industries. To honor Edison’s unparalleled achievement, Google featured an animated Google Doodle on February 11, 2011, on the anniversary of Edison’s 164th birthday. The homepage featured a graphic that presented some of the devices he invented. Upon placing the cursor over the doodle, mechanisms moved and caused a light bulb to glow.
The War of the Currents
After Edison’s development of the first practical light bulb, which used direct-current (DC) electricity, there was the obvious need for a power generation and distribution systems to light the homes of the nation and the world. Edison’s DC electrical system had a serious fundamental limitation, however: it could not efficiently transmit electricity over long distances. Power generation stations were required about every mile, and the copper cables were as big as a man’s arm. These limitations didn’t make the system practical for sparsely populated areas. In competition was a system that used alternating-current (AC) electricity. Devices used to generate and transmit AC power had been the work of the electrical genius Nikola Tesla. Edison had hired Tesla initially as an engineer and the two men disagreed on the type of current that would be best in the growing electrical power industry. In a dispute with Edison, Tesla quit Edison’s company and ended up working for Edison’s competitor, the inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse.
George Westinghouse was determined to bring AC power to a commercial success and bought many of Tesla’s AC equipment patents. Edison realized the threat to his electrical supremacy that Westinghouse and Tesla presented, and thus began the “War of the Currents.” Westinghouse Electric company started installing AC generators around the country, focusing on less populated areas that were not practical for Edison’s DC system. Westinghouse even sold electricity at below his cost to undercut Edison. By 1887, Westinghouse had more than half as many generating stations as Edison.
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The War of Currents Played Out in the Press
Edison went on the defensive, touting the safety of the DC system over the inherently dangerous AC form of electricity. Edison was approached by a dentist, Alfred Southwick, who was convinced that electrocution was a more humane method to execute prisoners sentenced to the death penalty. At first Edison was reluctant to get involved but soon realized the public relations value of an electric chair based on AC power to execute convicts. If this didn’t convince the public of the danger of AC power then nothing would! In the summer of 1888 Edison staged a demonstration before reporters on the dangers of the lethal AC power. He electrified a sheet of tin with an AC generator and led a dog onto the tin to drink from a pan made of metal. When the dog drank from the pan it was immediately shocked to death, horrifying the spectators. Edison claimed that AC power could be used to electrocute a human in less than a second.
Edison continued to develop the electric chair and railed against the dangers of AC electricity. The convicted murderer William Kemmler would be the first person to be executed by electrocution. Edison went so far as to say the criminal would be “Westinghoused” instead of electrocuted. George Westinghouse was livid with Edison’s propaganda campaign and spent a hundred thousand dollars of his own money to appeal Kemmler’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued that death by electrocution was “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Westinghouse’s efforts to keep Kemmler out of the electric chair were unsuccessful and the execution by electrocution occurred on August 6, 1890. The execution turned out to be anything but quick and painless. After seventeen seconds of electrical AC power coursed through Kemmler’s body the power was shut down. To everyone’s horror, Kemmler was not dead and he started to revive. The electrical dynamo needed time to recharge before more power could be applied and it would be several long and agonizing minutes before the convict died. Edison, never the quitter, continued to refine the electric chair until it was a viable method of execution.
Edison was not alone in his quest to expose the danger of AC power. As more of New York City became electrified by Westinghouse’s AC system, accidents and deaths started to occur by electrocution. Westinghouse worked feverishly to solve the many technical problems over the safety issues associated with AC power. By the early 1890s the “War” was winding down as Westinghouse’s AC-based power distribution system was winning out. Many within Edison Electric became believers in AC power. In 1892, Edison Electric merged with its chief AC rival, Thomas-Houston, to form the General Electric Company. The giant corporation formed by the merger controlled three quarters of the electrical business. At this point, both General Electric and Westinghouse Electric were marketing AC power systems. Even though Edison was disappointed with the way the battle of the current had played out, this did not end his career as an inventor; rather, he focused his energies on the burgeoning motion picture industry.
Birth of the Motion Picture Industry
The concept of projecting images on a screen was not the work of Thomas Edison; others before him had experimented with various techniques of making images appear to move. Rather, Edison set about the task of doing for the eye what phonograph had done for the ear. A key event occurred in the evolution of motion pictures when George Eastman of Rochester, New York, introduced “roller photography,” or film as we know it today. Edison used the film in his peep-show Kinetoscope, which was the ancestor of all motion picture mechanisms. Edison’s invention was only one of several it would take to bring to life on the big screen the countless stories we see today. The device was installed in arcades where people could watch short films for a few cents. By 1895 the Kinetoscopes were sold widely in the United States and Europe.
The Kinetoscope had the limitation that only one person could view the film at a time. The problem was overcome by Thomas Armat in 1895 when he invented a machine that would project a picture from the film to a screen. The following year Edison acquired the patent and it became known as the Edison Vitascope. In Europe, others began to copy and improve on the Vitascope, resulting in a rapid expansion of the motion picture industry. Edison and his employees continued to expand the nascent film industry. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter, a former cameraman for Edison, made one of the first films, titled The Great Train Robbery. The twelve-minute film helped spawn the “Nickelodeon Era” of the motion picture industry. With the proliferation of film in the U.S. and Europe came a steady stream of patent infringements on Edison’s patents, resulting in numerous lawsuits.
The Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate of smaller studios, was started by Edison in 1908. For the next ten years the “trust” as it was called would dominate the film industry, producing dozens of films and moving into the acquisition of movie theaters. One of Edison’s favorite films was The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, which was a nearly three-hour drama of the sequel to the American Civil War. The movie star Mary Pickford said of the controversial film: "Birth of a Nation was the first picture that really made people take the motion picture industry seriously." The film cost $100,000 to produce, which was a huge gamble but paid off in the millions with its popularity. The advent of the “talkies” spoiled the experience of the movies for Edison, as he was nearly completely deaf by that time.
Edison’s Winter Retreat and Laboratory: Seminole Lodge
In 1885, Edison purchased acreage next to Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Meyers, Florida, for a winter retreat that he named the “Seminole Lodge.” The lumber for the two post-and-beam homes built on the property was pre-cut in Maine and transported by ship to the site, where local laborers assembled the homes. The next year, Edison and his new bride, Mina, began to spend time at their winter home, a family tradition that would last for the next several decades. Edison’s friend, auto giant Henry Ford, purchased the home next to the Edison’s in 1916, providing him the opportunity to vacation with his mentor and friend. The two families enjoyed fishing, boating, and exploring Southwest Florida together.
In addition to Edison and Ford, a third industrial giant, Harvey Firestone, would vacation at Seminole Lodge. All three were concerned about America’s dependence on foreign rubber for tires and other industrial uses; as a result, they formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in 1927. Under Edison’s guidance, the corporation sought a source of rubber that could be grown and produced in the United States in the event of a disruption of foreign supply. At the laboratory, Edison and his staff tested over 17,000 plant samples and eventually discovered the plant “goldenrod” as a source of latex rubber. The laboratory was responsible for many important discoveries of industrial uses of plants and continued to operate five years after Edison’s death.
Two months after they first met in one of his shops, Thomas Edison married one of his employees, named Mary Stilwell, who at sixteen-years-old became Mrs. Thomas Edison. They were married on December 25, 1871. Thomas and Mary’s eldest child was named Marion Estelle “Dot” Edison. Thomas Alva Edison, Jr., was born in 1876 and was nicknamed “Dash.” The youngest child, born in 1878, was named William Leslie Edison and grew up to become an inventor like his father, graduating from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1900. Mary Edison died on August 9, 1884, from suspected morphine poisoning at age 29.
On February 24, 1886, Thomas Edison remarried at the age of 39 to Mina Miller, the 20-year-old daughter of the co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution, Lewis Miller. “Glenmont,” his large home and estate in West Orange, New Jersey, was his wedding gift to his second wife. The couple also spent time at their winter retreat in Fort Myers, Florida. Mina and Thomas had three children together, with the last one born in 1898. Their middle child, Charles Edison, would go on to become the governor of New Jersey and took over his father’s company after his death. Their youngest son graduated with a degree in physics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is credited with more than 80 patents. Mina outlived her husband and died in 1947.
Recognition and legacy
During his long and productive career as an inventor and industrialist, Thomas Edison was recognized many times with honors and awards. The last major recognition he received before his death was the Congressional Gold Medal, which was awarded in 1928. Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931, from complications due to diabetes at 84 years of age. He was buried in a plot at the back of Glenmont, his home in West Orange, New Jersey. To honor his passing, many communities and corporations throughout the world dimmed their lights or briefly turned off their electrical power.
Thomas Edison developed many devices that changed the lives of the people of his time and continued to influence technological development decades after his death. Many of his inventions served as the ancestors of modern machines that make life more convenient and comfortable for modern man. His inventions in the field of motion picture and sound recording helped establish the new industries of communications and entertainment. Edison’s name is one of the most familiar and popular in the realm of science and invention. His genius is celebrated every day by people who watch movies, listen to music, or turn on an electric switch to illuminate their homes.
- Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. Hyperion. 1995.
- Brittain, James E. “Electric Power and Light Industry,” in Dictionary of American History, Third Edition, edited by Stanley I. Kutler, Vol. 3, pp.172-176. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2003.
- Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. Random House Trade Paperbacks. 2003.
- Ramsaye, Terry. “Moving Pictures: The History of Moving Pictures,” in The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition, Vol. 19, pp 534-539. Americana Corporation. 1968.
- Stross, Randall. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Tomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. Crown Publishers. 2007.
- Young, Aiden. The Inventor Thomas Edison – A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.
- Young, Ryan. Nikola Tesla: Father of the Electric Age – A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.
Questions & Answers
Question: Where did Thomas Edison die?
Answer: Edison died at his home in New Jersey.
© 2016 Doug West
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on January 25, 2019:
I remember my teacher sharing with us a true story about Edison. He assumed birds could fly because they ate worms. The story goes that he gave his sister worms, encouraging her to fly while they were children. It didn't work out well. Although it's a funny story, it shows how Edison was always trying to figure things out.
However, your article provided very interesting details about Edison. Your writing is always some of the best on this site, Doug.
Have a great evening.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on January 24, 2019:
I have never heard of the "The Electric Sunshine Man." Glad you brought it up.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on January 24, 2019:
One of my greatest pleasures as a child was portrayijng Thomas Edison in the musical "The Electric Sunshine Man." A line I remember singing from that musical said: "The sky will be the limit, and even that might be, a little too confining, for what I hope to see." A true fitting description of the man.
I also recall reading how Edison and Tesla tried to combine forces, but they fought ferociously.
Much respect and admiration,