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Thomas Edison

One of the world's most famous inventors

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

A picture of inventor and scientist Thomas Edison.

American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (circa 1929)

(Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Who Was Thomas Edison?

Thomas Edison is regarded as one of history's most influential inventors, whose contributions to the modern era transformed the lives of people the world over. Edison is best known for having invented the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and the first motion-picture camera; however, in all, Edison held an astonishing 1,093 patents. In addition to his inventions, Edison built his famous laboratory in Menlo Park, which is considered the forerunner of the modern-day research facility. Despite Thomas Edison's incredible productivity, some consider him a controversial figure and have accused him of profiting from the ideas of other inventors.

Dates: February 11, 1847 -- October 18, 1931

Also Known As: Thomas Alva Edison, "Wizard of Menlo Park"

Famous Quote: "Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration."

Childhood in Ohio and Michigan

Thomas Alva Edison, born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847, was the seventh and last child born to Samuel and Nancy Edison. Since three of the youngest children did not survive early childhood, Thomas Alva (known as "Al" as a child and later as “Tom”) grew up with one brother and two sisters. Edison's father, Samuel, had fled to the U.S. in 1837 to avoid arrest after having openly rebelled against British rule in his native Canada. Samuel eventually resettled in Milan, Ohio, where he opened a successful lumber business.

Young Al Edison grew into a very inquisitive child, constantly asking questions about the world around him. His curiosity got him into trouble on several occasions. At three years old, Al climbed a ladder to the top of his father's grain elevator, then fell in as he leaned over to look inside. Fortunately, his father witnessed the fall and rescued him before he was suffocated by the grain. On another occasion, six-year-old Al started a fire in his father's barn just to see what would happen. The barn burned to the ground. An enraged Samuel Edison punished his son by giving him a public whipping.

In 1854, the Edison family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. That same year, seven-year-old Al contracted scarlet fever, an illness that possibly contributed to the future inventor's gradual hearing loss.

It was in Port Huron that eight-year-old Edison started school, but he only attended for a few months. His teacher, who disapproved of Edison's constant questions, considered him somewhat of a mischief-maker. When Edison overheard the teacher refer to him as "addled," he became upset and ran home to tell his mother. Nancy Edison quickly withdrew her son from school and decided to teach him herself. While Nancy, a former teacher, introduced her son to the works of Shakespeare and Dickens as well as to scientific textbooks, Edison's father also encouraged him to read, offering to pay him a penny for each book he completed. Young Edison absorbed it all.

A Scientist and Entrepreneur

Inspired by his science books, Edison set up his first lab in his parents' cellar. He saved his pennies to purchase batteries, test tubes, and chemicals. Edison was fortunate that his mother supported his experiments and didn't close down his lab after the occasional small explosion or chemical spill.

Edison's experiments didn't end there, of course; he and a friend created their own telegraph system, crudely modeled upon the one invented by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1832. After several failed attempts (one of which involved rubbing two cats together to create electricity), the boys finally succeeded and were able to send and receive messages on the device.

When the railroad came to Port Huron in 1859, 12-year-old Edison persuaded his parents to let him get a job. Hired by the Grand Trunk Railroad as a train boy, he sold newspapers to passengers on the route between Port Huron and Detroit. Finding himself with some free time on the daily trip, Edison convinced the conductor to let him set up a lab in the baggage car. The arrangement did not last long, however, for Edison accidentally set fire to the baggage car when one of his jars of highly flammable phosphorus fell to the floor.

Once the Civil War began in 1861, Edison's business really took off, as more people bought newspapers to keep up with the latest news from the battlefields. Edison capitalized upon this need and steadily raised his prices. Ever the entrepreneur, Edison bought produce during his layover in Detroit and sold it to passengers at a profit. He later opened his own newspaper and produce stand in Port Huron, hiring other boys as vendors. By 1862, Edison had started his own publication, the weekly Grand Trunk Herald.

Edison the Telegrapher

Fate -- and an act of bravery -- handed Edison a most welcome opportunity to learn professional telegraphy, a skill which would help determine his future. In 1862, as 15-year-old Edison waited at the station for his train to change cars, he spotted a young child playing on the tracks, oblivious to the freight car heading straight for him. Edison leapt onto the tracks and lifted the boy to safety, earning the eternal gratitude of the boy's father, station telegrapher James Mackenzie. To repay Edison for having saved his son's life, Mackenzie offered to teach him the finer points of telegraphy. After five months of studying with Mackenzie, Edison was qualified to work as a "plug," or second-class telegrapher.

With this new skill, Edison became a traveling telegrapher in 1863. He stayed busy, often filling in for men who had gone off to war. Edison worked throughout much of the central and northern United States, as well as parts of Canada. Despite unglamorous working conditions and shabby lodgings, Edison enjoyed his work. As he moved from job to job, Edison's skills continually improved. Unfortunately, at the same time, Edison realized that he was losing his hearing to the extent that it might eventually affect his ability to work at telegraphy.

In 1867, Edison, by now 20 years old and an experienced telegrapher, was hired to work in the Boston office of Western Union, the nation's largest telegraph company. Although he was at first teased by his co-workers for his cheap clothes and countrified ways, he soon impressed them all with his rapid messaging abilities.

Edison Becomes an Inventor

Despite his success as a telegrapher, Edison longed for a greater challenge. Eager to advance his scientific knowledge, Edison studied a volume of electricity-based experiments written by 19th-century British scientist Michael Faraday. In 1868, inspired by his reading, Edison developed his first patented invention -- an automatic vote recorder designed for use by legislators. Unfortunately, although the device performed flawlessly, he could not find any buyers. (Politicians didn't like the idea of locking in their votes immediately without the option of further debate.) Edison resolved to never again invent something for which there was no clear need or demand.

Edison next became interested in the stock ticker, a device that had been invented in 1867. Businessmen used stock tickers in their offices to keep them informed of changes in stock market prices. Edison, along with a friend, briefly ran a gold-reporting service that used the stock tickers to transmit gold prices into subscribers' offices. After that business failed, Edison set about improving the performance of the ticker. He was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with working as a telegrapher.

In 1869, Edison decided to leave his job in Boston and move to New York City to become a full-time inventor and manufacturer. His first project in New York was to perfect the stock ticker that he had been working on. Edison sold his improved version to Western Union for the enormous sum of $40,000, an amount that enabled him to open his own business.

Edison established his first manufacturing shop, American Telegraph Works, in Newark, New Jersey in 1870. He employed 50 workers, including a machinist, a clockmaker, and a mechanic. Edison worked side-by-side with his closest assistants and welcomed their input and suggestions. One employee, however, had captured Edison's attention above all others -- Mary Stilwell, an attractive girl of 16.

Marriage and Family

Unaccustomed to courting young women and hampered somewhat by his hearing loss, Edison behaved awkwardly around Mary, but he eventually made it clear that he was interested in her. After a brief courtship, the two married on Christmas Day, 1871. Edison was 24 years old.

Mary Edison soon learned the reality of being married to an up-and-coming inventor. She spent many evenings alone while her husband stayed late at the lab, immersed in his work. Indeed, the next few years were very productive ones for Edison; he applied for nearly 60 patents. Two notable inventions from this period were the quadruplex telegraph system (which could send two messages in each direction simultaneously, rather than one at a time), and the electric pen, which made duplicate copies of a document.

The Edisons had three children between 1873 and 1878: Marion, Thomas Alva, Jr., and William. Edison nicknamed the two eldest children "Dot" and "Dash," a reference to the dots and dashes from the Morse code used in telegraphy.

The Laboratory at Menlo Park

In 1876, Edison erected a two-story building in rural Menlo Park, New Jersey, conceived for the sole purpose of experimentation. Edison and his wife bought a house nearby and installed a plank sidewalk connecting it to the lab. Despite working close to home, Edison often became so involved in his work, he stayed overnight in the lab. Mary and the children saw very little of him.

Following Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone in 1876, Edison became interested in improving the device, which was still crude and inefficient. Edison was encouraged in this endeavor by Western Union, whose hope it was that Edison could create a different version of the telephone. The company could then make money from Edison's telephone without infringing upon Bell's patent. Edison did improve upon Bell's telephone, creating a convenient earpiece and mouthpiece; he also built a transmitter that could carry messages over a longer distance.

Invention of the Phonograph

Edison began to investigate ways in which a voice could not only be transmitted over a wire, but recorded as well. In June 1877, while working in the lab on an audio project, Edison and his assistants inadvertently scratched grooves into a disc. This unexpectedly produced a sound, which motivated Edison to create a rough sketch of a recording machine, the phonograph. By November of that year, Edison's assistants had created a working model. Incredibly, the device worked on the first try, a rare outcome for a new invention.

Edison became an overnight celebrity. He had been known to the scientific community for some time; now, the public at large knew his name. The New York Daily Graphic christened him "the Wizard of Menlo Park." Scientists and academics from around the world praised the phonograph and even President Rutherford B. Hayes insisted upon a private demonstration at the White House. Convinced that the device had more uses than as a mere parlor trick, Edison started a company devoted to marketing the phonograph. (He eventually abandoned the phonograph, however, only to resurrect it decades later.)

When the chaos had settled down from the phonograph, Edison turned to a project that had long intrigued him -- the creation of an electric light.

Lighting the World

By the 1870s, several inventors had already begun to find ways to produce electric light. Edison attended the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 to examine the arc light exhibit displayed by inventor Moses Farmer. He studied it carefully and came away convinced that he could make something better. Edison's goal was to create an incandescent light bulb, which was softer and less glaring than arc lighting.

Edison and his assistants experimented with different materials for the filament in the light bulb. The ideal material would withstand high heat and continue to burn for longer than just a few minutes (the longest time they had observed up until then). On October 21, 1879, the Edison team discovered that carbonized cotton sewing thread exceeded their expectations, staying lit for nearly 15 hours. Now they began the work of perfecting the light and mass-producing it.

The project was immense and would require years to complete. In addition to fine-tuning the light bulb, Edison also needed to consider how to provide electricity on a large scale. He and his team would need to produce wires, sockets, switches, a power source, and an entire infrastructure for delivering power. Edison's power source was a giant dynamo -- a generator that converted mechanical energy into electric energy.

Edison decided that the ideal place to debut his new system would be downtown Manhattan, but he needed financial backing for such a grand project. To win investors over, Edison gave them a demonstration of electric light at his Menlo Park lab on New Year's Eve, 1879. Visitors were enthralled by the spectacle and Edison received the money he needed to install electricity to a portion of downtown Manhattan.

After more than two years, the complex installation was at last completed. On September 4, 1882, Edison's Pearl Street Station delivered power to a one square mile section of Manhattan. Although Edison's undertaking was a success, it would be two years before the station actually made a profit. Gradually, more and more customers subscribed to the service.

Alternating Current Vs. Direct Current

Soon after the Pearl Street Station had brought power to Manhattan, Edison became caught up in the dispute over which type of electricity was superior: direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC). Scientist Nikola Tesla, a former employee of Edison's, became his chief rival in the matter. Edison favored DC and had used it in all of his systems. Tesla, who had left Edison's lab over a pay dispute, was hired by inventor George Westinghouse to build the AC system which he (Westinghouse) had devised.

With most of the evidence pointing to AC current as the more efficient and economically feasible choice, Westinghouse chose to support AC current. In a shameful attempt to discredit the safety of AC power, Edison staged some disturbing stunts, purposely electrocuting stray animals -- and even a circus elephant -- using AC current. Horrified, Westinghouse offered to meet with Edison to settle their differences; Edison refused.

In the end, the dispute was settled by consumers, who preferred the AC system by a margin of five to one. The final blow came when Westinghouse won the contract to harness Niagara Falls for the production of AC power.

Later in life, Edison admitted that one of his biggest mistakes had been his reluctance to accept AC power as superior to DC.

Loss and Remarriage

Edison had long neglected his wife Mary, but was devastated when she died suddenly at the age of 29 in August 1884. Historians suggest that the cause was probably a brain tumor. The two boys, who had never been close to their father, were sent to live with Mary's mother, but twelve-year-old Marion ("Dot") stayed with her father. They became very close.

Edison preferred to work from his New York lab, allowing the Menlo Park facility to fall into ruin. He continued to work on improving the phonograph and the telephone.

Edison married again in 1886 at the age of 39, after proposing in Morse code to eighteen-year-old Mina Miller. The wealthy, educated young woman was better suited to life as the wife of a famous inventor than had been Mary Stilwell. Edison's children moved with the couple to their new mansion in West Orange, New Jersey. Mina Edison eventually gave birth to three children: daughter Madeleine and sons Charles and Theodore.

West Orange Lab

Edison built a new laboratory in West Orange in 1887. It far surpassed his first facility at Menlo Park, comprising three stories and 40,000 square feet. While he worked on projects, others managed his companies for him. In 1889, several of his investors merged into one company, called Edison General Electric Company, the forerunner of today's General Electric (GE).

Inspired by a series of groundbreaking photos of a horse in motion, Edison became interested in moving pictures. In 1893, he developed a kinetograph (to record motion) and a kinetoscope (to display the moving pictures). Edison built the first motion picture studio on his West Orange complex, dubbing the building the "Black Maria." The building had a hole in the roof and could actually be rotated upon a turntable in order to capture the sunlight. One of his best-known films was The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903.

Edison also became involved in mass-producing phonographs and records at the turn of the century. What had once been a novelty was now a household item and it became very lucrative for Edison.

Fascinated by the discovery of X-rays by Dutch scientist William Rontgen, Edison produced the first commercially-produced fluoroscope, which allowed real-time visualization inside the human body. After losing one of his workers to radiation poisoning, however, Edison never worked with X-rays again.

Later Years

Always enthusiastic about new ideas, Edison was thrilled to hear about Henry Ford's new gas-powered automobile. Edison himself attempted to develop a car battery that could be recharged with electricity, but was never successful. He and Ford became friends for life, and went on yearly camping trips with other prominent men of the time.

From 1915 until the end of World War I, Edison served on the Naval Consulting Board -- a group of scientists and inventors whose goal it was to help the U.S. prepare for war. Edison's most important contribution to the U.S. Navy was his suggestion that a research laboratory be built. Eventually the facility was built and led to important technical advances that benefited the Navy during World War II.

Edison continued to work on several projects and experiments for the remainder of his life. In 1928, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, presented to him at the Edison Laboratory.

Thomas Edison died at his home in West Orange, New Jersey on October 18, 1931 at the age of 84. On the day of his funeral, President Herbert Hoover asked Americans to dim the lights in their homes as a way of paying tribute to the man who had given them electricity.

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