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Thomas Edison

one of the most prolific inventors of all time

Thomas Alva Edison

Early Life

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, the last of seven children born to Samuel and Nancy Elliott Edison. The family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when he was seven.

A very curious child, Thomas was always asking questions, and always looking for ways to answer them himself. Entering school at the age of seven, the young lad's constant questions so annoyed his teacher that the schoolmaster told the district school inspector that he was "addled," a comment that the boy overheard. When Thomas told his mother what the schoolmaster had said, she immediately pulled him out of school, thus ending his formal education.

Taking charge of her son's education herself, Nancy Edison soon found herself unable to keep up with Thomas's quick learning skills. When his mother bought him a chemistry book, Thomas took it upon himself to repeat every experiment in the book in an attempt to prove the author's conclusions wrong; he was all of nine years old at the time.

At the age of twelve, Edison became a "news butcher" on the Grand Trunk Railway, selling newspapers, sandwiches, and peanuts on a train that ran between Port Huron and Detroit. In his spare time, he experimented with chemicals in the baggage car. He also printed a newspaper, the Weekly Herald, the first newspaper ever published on a moving train. One day, a stick of phosphorus he was working with burst into flames and set the baggage car on fire. The conductor subsequently boxed the lad's ears and threw him off the train, along with his chemicals and printing press. Some time after this incident, while Edison was trying to board a moving train at Fraser Station, Michigan, a well-meaning conductor pulled him up to the platform by his ears. The combination of the two conductors' actions caused damage to Edison's ears which gradually led to his near-deafness.

After the baggage car incident, Edison sold newspapers at stations along the Grand Trunk Railway. One day, at Mount Clements, Michigan, station, Edison noticed a freight car rolling toward the station operator's son and managed to pull him to safety just in time. The boy's father thanked Edison by teaching him telegraphy.

Telegrapher and First Inventions

Edison's first telegraph job was on the Grand Trunk Railway in Ontario, Canada, when he was sixteen. The job required him to send a telegraph signal to Toronto every hour. Believing the task to be a waste of time, Edison rigged up a gadget attached to a clock that would send the signal even if he were asleep. Returning to the United States in the fall of 1863, he spent the last years of the Civil War roaming from city to city as a telegraph operator.

Edison was working as a telegrapher in Boston when, in 1868, he perfected his first patented invention, an electric vote-recording machine much like those now used in several state legislatures. Edison tried to sell the machine to the U.S. Congress, but was told in no uncertain terms that congressmen weren't interested in any device that shortened the time it took to do a full vote because they wanted to use that time to make deals and influence those congressmen who had not yet cast their votes. From that time on, Edison vowed to "never again invent anything which nobody wants."

Edison's vote-recording machine
Edison's vote-recording machine

Soon after moving to New York City in 1869, Edison happened to be in the operating room of the Gold & Stock Telegraph Company when the company's ticker apparatus broke down. Edison was able to do what the company's in-house team was unable to do, fix the machine, and was rewarded with a job as supervisor at the then-remarkable wage of $300 a month. Having successfully repaired his new employer's stock ticker, Edison set his mind and hands to improving the device in general. His work came to the attention of General Marshall Lefferts, president of the company, who in 1870 bought Edison's various stock ticker patents for $40,000. Edison sent some of the money back to his financially strapped parents and used the rest to open a workshop in Newark, New Jersey, where he began manufacturing his Universal Stock Ticker.

Edison's Universal Stock Ticker
Edison's Universal Stock Ticker

In addition to the stock ticker, Edison used his Newark workshop to develop automatic telegraph systems that ultimately saved Western Union millions of dollars in wiring, and to invent paraffin paper, the electric pen (the forerunner of the mimeograph machine and the tattoo gun), the carbon rheostat, and many other devices. In 1874, he improved the typewriter by substituting metal parts for wood and correcting the alignment of the letters and distribution of ink.

Menlo Park

In 1876, Edison moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he employed several apprentice inventors at a time in an "invention factory" that eventually produced a sizable number of the 1,093 patents Edison received in his lifetime. The first major innovation to come from Menlo Park was the addition of a carbon transmitter to the telephone that not only helped make Alexander Graham Bell's device a commercial success but also led to the (much later) development of the microphone and to the solid-state transistor.

Edison's Menlo Park laboratory, as reconstructed at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village
Edison's Menlo Park laboratory, as reconstructed at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village

The Phonograph was Edison's first truly original invention (as opposed to an improvement upon existing technology). The idea for such a device came to him while he was trying to find a way to record telegraph messages automatically. From his earlier telegraph experiments, he had learned how to make a vibrating disk (diaphragm) that would respond to sound vibrations, and, after some experimenting, he came up with a toy with a funnel attached to a mechanism. At one end of it stood a paper figure of man with a saw. When Edison shouted "Mary had a little lamb" into the funnel, the man started to saw wood, and it was that toy that ultimately became the first phonograph, which was patented in 1877. Edison originally intended his phonograph to be used primarily as a dictating machine in offices and, therefore, did very little to improve upon the device.

Edison's Phonograph
Edison's Phonograph

The Incandescent Lightbulb was not a truly unique invention, as scientists were already experimenting with electric illumination devices before Edison put his mind to the task. Edison came up with the basic concept of his lightbulb -- two wires inside a vacuum-sealed glass bulb filled with inert gas between which an electric current created light -- fairly quickly, but it took him two years to find the proper filament to carry the current and produce the light. He experimented with everything he could think of, including plant materials and even red hair from the beard of the station agent whose son he had saved years before, until, on October 19, 1879, he tried a filament made of ordinary cotton sewing thread burned to an ash. The bulb shed a good light, and kept burning until October 21st, when he decided to increase the voltage. He demonstrated his bulb to the general public on December 31, and from that time on he was known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park."

Edison's lightbulb
Edison's lightbulb

Later Work

In 1887, Edison moved to a larger and more modern laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, where he spent most of the rest of his life perfecting his previous inventions. He also organized numerous companies to manufacture and sell those inventions.

Edison's most notable work in West Orange was in the field of motion pictures, especially his invention of the Kinetoscope in 1891. He also tried to connect his phonograph with his Kinetoscope to create "talking pictures," but he was never successful in this venture. Other inventions and improvements made by Edison and his team at West Orange include the storage battery, a cement mixer, the dictaphone, and a duplicating machine. His last patented invention was a method of making synthetic rubber from goldenrod plants.

Thomas Alva Edison died in West Orange on October 18, 1931. At the time of his death, he held 1,093 patents.

Marriages and Children

On December 25, 1871, Edison married Mary Stilwell. The couple had three children -- Marion Estell, Thomas Alva Jr., and William -- before she died, on August 9, 1884. On February 24, 1886, he married Mina Miller, with whom he had three more children -- Charles, Madeleine, and Theodore. Mina survived him.

Sites of Interest

Thomas Edison Homepage
The Thomas Edison Papers

See Also

Civil War
Alexander Graham Bell
History of the Phonograph

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This page was last updated on December 20, 2018.