The Inventor Thomas Alva Edison

Updated on October 31, 2017
Young Thomas Edison
Young Thomas Edison

Early Years


The prolific American inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847. He was the youngest of a brood 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. His mother was Nancy Matthews Elliott from New York. Thomas and his siblings grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. The family moved there when business declined due to the bypassing of their hometown Milan by the railroad in 1854.

Like all 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 made his parents decide that he would then 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 books.

One of the earliest health problems encountered by Thomas Edison at a young age concerned his hearing. He suffered from recurrent middle-ear infections, which went untreated. He also caught scarlet fever, which might have contributed to his loss of hearing which affected him the rest of his life.

As a young man, Thomas earned his living vending food and candy on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit. He also started delving into chemistry experiments. Later on, he obtained the rights to sell newspapers. Edison printed the Grand Trunk Herald and sold it on the road with the help of four assistants.

Work at the railroad and as telegraph operator

Thomas Edison amassed plenty of experience as a telegraph operator. His first job posting was in Ontario, at the Grand Trunk Railway in Stratford Junction. He ventured into this line of work after a nearly fatal incident at the railroad. He learned how to operate the telegraph from a train station agent named J.U. MacKenzie. Edison saved Jimmie, MacKenzie’s three-year old son from a runaway train. To express his gratitude, he taught Thomas Edison the skills that he would need to work as a telegraph operator.

In 1866, Thomas was assigned to the Associated Press bureau news wire in Louisville, Kentucky. He was an employee of Western Union at that time. While working the night shift, he continued his preoccupation with experimentation and read many books. His experience as a telegraph operator contributed much to his future endeavors involving telegraph machines, which not only cemented his reputation as an inventor. His invention of the stock ticker and the two-way telegraph, earned him a small fortune, which he used to further technological developments.

Edison's Stock Ticker Telegraph

Edison Quote

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

The Entrepreneur

Aside from the devices that he invented, he was a pioneer in the entrepreneurial approach of mass production. He was also one of the originators of the idea of teamwork on a large scale to move the process of invention. Because of these principles that he espoused during his lifetime, he is credited as the creator of the first industrial research laboratory. During his lifetime, Edison founded 14 companies. One of the most prominent of these is General Electric, which grew to be one of the biggest publicly traded enterprises in the world.

Some of Edison’s first inventions were telegraphic devices and the automatic repeater. Thomas Alva Edison held patents in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. In the United States alone, he held 1,093 patents for processes and inventions that are chemical, mechanical, and electrical in nature. Edison’s first patent was an electric vote recorder which was granted to him on June 1, 1869. Majority of the patents under Edison’s name were utility patents which were good for 17 years. Meanwhile, about a dozen were design patents that were protected for 14 years.

The phonograph was the first invention that turned the public’s attention to Thomas Edison. It was the first device invented by a human being that recorded and produced sounds. He obtained a patent for it in 1878. It was unveiled in 1877 and it was so novel a device and largely unexpected that many thought the device had magical powers. 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 he made was rather limited 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 the President of the United States, 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.”

Aside from the phonograph, Thomas Edison’s other great inventions were the electric light bulb, the carbon telephone transmitter, and the motion picture camera (kinetograph). He developed many other devices that changed the lives of the people of his time, and influenced 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.

Another important invention by Thomas Edison was a system of electric-power generation and distribution, which accelerated the development of industrialization. Edison also pioneered a power station in New York on Pearl Street in Manhattan.

Edison's Early Phonograph

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

“The Wizard of Menlo Park”

Menlo Park in Middlesex County, New Jersey, now known as “Edison,” was the location of the first industrial research laboratory. The primary function of the facility was to produce technological innovations. Under his supervision and direction, Edison’s staff thrived on research and development and produced their own significant inventions. Edison also continued to invent various kinds of devices and he had high expectations from the staff of Menlo Park. They were driven to excel and to produce concrete results and were encouraged to create knowledge and control the application of this new knowledge.

The main source of the funding for the facility was the proceeds from the sale of the quadruplex telegraph, one of Thomas Edison’s many inventions. This particular invention was purchased by Western Union for $10,000, which is equivalent to almost $210,000 in today’s money.

Edison worked hard to expand Menlo Park Laboratory and he did his best to stock it with “every conceivable material.” Eventually, the laboratory complex occupied two city blocks. The facility largely succeeded in this goal. Everyone was reminded of the important mission that Menlo Park has embarked upon by the slogan that was displayed on a placard in Thomas Edison’s office. The quotation by Sir Joshua Reynolds was featured in many other locations in the lab complex, read “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

Thomas Edison started working on a worthy competition for oil-based lighting and lighting that utilizes gas a fuel in 1878. His primary objective was to develop an incandescent lamp that is long-lasting and adequate for indoor use. Before Edison, many inventors have 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 high amounts of electricity, or were very short-lived. Edison experimented with 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, on December 1879, Edison gave a public demonstration at Menlo Park, showcasing the first successful model of a light bulb. His model was the first light bulb ever made to fit the qualities of a product that can be produced commercially 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 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 Thomas Edison’s 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, mechanism moved and caused a light bulb to glow.

Edison Biography Podcast

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. 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, the 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 sample and eventually discovered the plant “goldenrod” as a source of latex rubber. The laboratory was responsible for many important discoveries of the industrial uses of plants and operated five years after Edison’s death.

Edison's winter home in Ft Meyers, Florida.
Edison's winter home in Ft Meyers, Florida.

Recognition and legacy

The last major recognition he received before his death was the Congressional Gold Medal, which was awarded in 1928. In 1920, he was granted the Distinguished Service Medal. While he was alive, Thomas Edison received the Franklin Medal in 1915, the John Fritz Medal in 1908, the Edward Longstreth Medal in 1899, the Rumford Prize in 1895, the John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium in 1889, and the Matteucci Medal in 1887.

Thomas Edison is buried in a plot at the back of Glenmont, his home in West Orange, New Jersey. He died on October 18, 1931 from complications due to diabetes. Thomas Edison’s name is one of the most familiar and popular in the realm of science and invention. His genius is celebrated everyday by people who, watch movies, listen to music, and turn on an electric switch to illuminate their home.

Mina Edison

Thomas Edison's second wife.
Thomas Edison's second wife.

Personal life

Two months after they first met in one of his shops, Thomas Edison married a former employee of his named Mary Stilwell, who was aged 16 when she became Mrs. Edison. They were married on December 25, 1871. The couple was blessed with three children. Thomas and Mary’s eldest child was named Marion Estelle “Dot” Edison. She was born in 1873. Thomas Alva Edison, Jr. was born in 1876 and was nicknamed “Dash.” The youngest child was born in 1878 and was named William Leslie Edison, who 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. She was 29 years old. After Mary’s death Edison purchased a home, which became known as “Glenmont” in West Orange, New Jersey’s Llewellyn Park.

On February 24, 1886, Thomas Edison remarried at the age of 39. He tied the knot with Mina Miller, the 20-year-old daughter of the co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution, Lewis Miller. Glenmont was his wedding gift to his second wife. The couple also spent time at their winter retreat, which they named “Seminole Lodge” at Fort Myers in Florida.

Thomas had three more children with his second wife, namely Madeleine (1888), Charles (1890), who became Governor of New Jersey, and Theodore, who was an inventor and alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in Physics.

Reference

Young, Aiden. The Inventor Thomas Edison – A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.

Stross, Randall. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Tomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. Crown Publishers. 2007.

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