Thomas Alva Edison


Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 October 18, 1931) was an American inventor of Dutch origin and businessman who developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph and a long lasting light bulb. 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 therefore is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.

Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history, holding 1,368 separate and distinct patents during his lifetime.

Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, and was raised in Port Huron, Michigan. He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. (18041896) (born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, Canada) and Nancy Matthews Edison nee Elliott (18101871). His family was of Dutch origin.

In school, the young Edison's mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him "addled." This ended Edison's three months of official schooling. 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." His mother then home schooled him. Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union.

The cause of Edison's deafness has been attributed to a bout of scarlet fever during childhood and recurring untreated middle ear infections. Around the middle of his career Edison attributed the hearing loss to being struck on the ears by a train conductor when his chemical lab in a boxcar caught fire. In his later years he modified the story to say the injury occurred when the conductor, in helping him onto a moving train, lifted him by the ears.

Edison's family was forced to move to Port Huron, Michigan, when the railroad bypassed Milan in 1854, but his life there was bittersweet. He sold candy and newspapers on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit, as well as vegetables that he sold to supplement his income. This began Edison's long streak of entrepreneurial ventures as he discovered his talents as a businessman. These talents would eventually lead him to found General Electric, which is still a publicly traded company, and 13 other companies.

Edison became a telegraph operator after he saved three-year-old 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 trained Edison as a telegraph operator. Edison's first telegraphy job away from Port Huron was at Stratford Junction, Ontario, on the Grand Trunk Railway. In 1866, at the age of 19, Thomas Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where as an employee of Western Union he worked the Associated Press bureau news wire. Edison requested the night shift at work which allowed him plenty of time to spend at his two favorite pastimes -- reading and experimenting. Eventually, the latter pre-occupation cost him his job. One night in 1867, he was working with a battery when he spilled sulphuric acid onto the floor. It ran between the floorboards and onto his boss' desk below. The next morning he was fired. Edison_and

One of his mentors during those early years was a fellow telegrapher and inventor named Franklin Leonard Pope, who allowed the impoverished youth to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, New Jersey, home.

Some of Edison's earliest inventions were related to telegraphy, including a stock ticker. His first patent was for the electric vote recorder, (U. S. Patent 90,646), which was granted on June 1, 1869.

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 around a grooved cylinder and had poor sound quality. The tinfoil recordings could only be replayed 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 Phonograph."

Edison died at West Orange, New Jersey, U.S.A in 1931 when he was 84. He had been married twice and had 6 children.

Edison bulb - Thomas Edison's first light bulb used to demonstrate his invention at Menlo Park.


Major Inventions And Events In The Life Of Thomas Edison

1847 Born on February 11th at Milan, Ohio.

1854 Moved to Port Huron, Mich.

1857 Set up a chemical laboratory in the cellar of his home.

1859 Became a newsboy and "candy butcher" on the trains of the Grand Trunk Railway, running between Port Huron and Detroit.

1862 Printed and published "The Weekly Herald," the first newspaper ever to be typeset and printed on a moving train. The London Times features a story on him and his paper, giving him his first exposure to international notoriety.

1862 Saved - from otherwise certain death in a train accident - the young son of J. U. Mackenzie, station agent at Mount Clemens, Mich. In gratitude, the child's father taught him telegraphy.

1862 Strung a telegraph line from the Port Huron railway station to Port Huron village and worked in the local telegraph office.

1863 Obtained his first position as a regular telegraph operator on the Grand Trunk Railway at Stratford Junction, Canada. Later, is resigned by them to help develop a duplex system of telegraphy

1863-1868 Spent nearly five years as a telegraph "tramp operator" in various cities of the Central Western states, always experimenting with ways to improve the apparatus.


1868 Entered the office of Western Union in Boston as a telegraph operator. Becomes friendly with other early electricians - especially a later associate of Alexander Graham Bell named Benjamin Franklin Bredding - who was much more knowledgeable than both himself and Bell on the state-of-the-art of telegraphy and electricity. Entered the private telegraph line business on a very modest scale. Resigned from Western Union - was about to be fired anyway - in order to conduct further experimentation on multiplexing telegraph signals.

1868 Came up with his first patented invention, an Electrical Vote Recorder. Application for this patent was signed 0n October 11, 1968. Because the invention was way ahead of its time, it was heartily denigrated by politicians...  He now becomes much more oriented towards making certain there is a strong public demand and associated market for anything he tries to invent. 

1869 Landed in New York City by way of a Boston steamship, poor, penniless, and in debt. While seeking work, chanced being in the operating room of the Gold & Stock Telegraph Company when their ticker apparatus broke down. No one but he was able to fix it, As a result, he was given a job as superintendent at the remarkable wage of $300 per month.


1869 Went into partnership with Franklin L. Pope as an electrical engineer. Radically improved stock tickers and patented several associated inventions, among which were the Universal Stock Ticker and the Unison Device.

1870 Received the first cash payment for one of his inventions, a $40,000 check. Sent money back to his financially desperate parents. Opened a manufacturing shop in Newark, where he made stock tickers and worked on developing the quadruplex telegraph.

1871 Assisted Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, in making the first successful working model of that device.

1872-1876 Worked on and patented several of his most important inventions, including the motograph and automatic telegraph systems such as the quadruplex, sextuplex and multiplex telegraph which saved Western Union many millions of dollars in wiring. Also invented paraffin paper (which was first used for wrapping candies), the electric pen, the forerunner of the present day mimeograph machine, the carbon rheostat, the microtasimeter, etc.


1876-1877 Invented the carbon telephone transmitter "button", which finally made telephony a commercial success. Significantly, this invention not only led to the development of the microphone, which made early radio possible, but the solid state "diode" or transistor which makes so many of today's electronic devices possible. Invented the phonograph. (The patent on which was later issued by the United States Patent Office - within two months after its application - without a single reference.)

1878 Continued to improve the phonograph. Later in the year, went with an astronomical party to Rawlins, Wyoming for rest and to test his new microtasimeter during an eclipse of the sun. Associates key him in to the world-wide need for a workable incandescent light bulb. Upon returning, he began to investigate the "electric light problem in earnest."

1878 Became the first to apply the term "filament" to a fine wire that glows when carrying an electric current. In a prophetic article in the North American Review he foreshadowed ten prominent uses for the phonograph - all since accomplished - including its combination with the telephone, which became a reality in 1914 with the perfection of the Telescribe. edisonlamp


1879 Invented the first commercially practical incandescent electric lamp. The lamp itself was perfected on October 21st, 1879, on which day there was put into circuit the first bulb embodying the principles known as the "Edison modern incandescent lamp." This bulb maintained its incandescence for over 40 hours.

1879 Made radical improvements on the construction of dynamos, including the mica laminated armature and mica insulated commutator. Also constructed the first practical generators for the systems of distribution of current for lighting. Invented and improved upon numerous systems of generation, distribution, regulation and, measurement of electric current and voltage. Invented sockets, switches, insulating tape, etc. (Meanwhile, he also invented gummed paper tape now commonly used in place of twine or string for securing packages.)

1879 Constructed the first electric motor ever made for a 110 to 120 volt line at Menlo Park, N. J. This device is still in existence and operative, and is located in the Edison Historical Collection in New Jersey. On December 31, gave the first public demonstration of an electric lighting system in streets and buildings at Menlo Park, N. J., utilizing underground mains.

1880 Invented further improvements in systems and details for electric lighting and laid the first groundwork for introducing them on a commercial basis. Established the first incandescent lamp factory at Menlo Park, N. J.

1880 Invented a magnetic ore separator. Invented and installed the first life-sized electric railway for handling freight and passengers at Menlo Park, N. J.

1881 Opened business offices at No. 65 Fifth Avenue, New York City. Established his second and improved commercial incandescent lamp factory at Harrison, N. J. Also organized and established shops at 104 Goerck St., 108 Wooster St., and 65 Washington St. in New York City, for the manufacture of dynamos, underground conductors, sockets, switches, fixtures, meters, etc.

1882 On September 4th, he commenced operation of the first profit oriented central station in the United States in New York City, for the distribution of current for electric lighting.


1882-1883 Designed and contracted for the first three-wire central station for distributing electric light, power, and heat - in standardized form - in Brockton, Massachusetts. By October, had completed construction of that station. Discovered a previously unknown phenomenon that later came to be known as the "Edison effect," but he called "Etheric Force." Specifically, determined that an independent wire, grid, or plate placed between the legs of the filament of an incandescent lamp acted as a "damper" or valve to control the flow of current. The associated Patent No. 307,031 was issued to him later that year. Twelve years later these previously unknown phenomena were recognized as electric waves in free space and became the foundation of wireless telegraphy. Most significantly, this discovery - along with his carbon button - involved the foundation principles upon which the diode was later invented,  and upon which radio, television, and computer transistors are based. Moved from Newark to a new laboratory at Menlo Park...

1883 Constructed the first, relatively crude, three-wire central system for electric lighting in a simple wooden structure in Sunbury, Pa.

1880-1887 Underwent his most strenuous years of invention as he extended and improved greatly upon his electric light, heat, and power systems. Took out over three hundred patents, many of which were of extraordinary and fundamental importance. The most were those relating to "dividing" electric power and standardizing the three-wire system and improving its associated generation and feeder system.

1881 - 1887 Invented a system of wireless telegraphy, (by induction) to and from trains in motion, or between moving trains and railway stations. The system was installed on the Lehigh Valleys R. R. in 1887, and was used there for several years. Invented a wireless system of communication between ships at sea, ships and shore and ships and distant points on land. Patent No. 465,971 was issued on this invention, the application having been filed May 23, 1885 - two years prior to the publication of the work of Hertz. Most significantly, this patent was eventually purchased from Edison by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. Edison02

1887 Moved his center of experimentation to the laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey.

1887-1890 Made major improvements on the brown wax and black wax cylinder phonograph. Obtained over eighty related patents, while establishing a very extensive commercial business in the manufacture and sale of phonographs and records, including associated dictating machines, "shaveable" records, and shaving machines.

1891 Made a number of inventions associated with improving electric railways.

1891 Invented and patented the motion picture camera. This mechanism, with its continuous tape-like film, made it possible to take, reproduce, and project motion pictures as we see and hear them today.

1891-1900 Developed his great iron ore enterprise, in which he did some of his most brilliant engineering work. One of his most important inventions of this period was a giant roller machine for breaking large masses of rock and finely crushing them. Invented the Fluoroscope...realizing the necessity and value of a practical fluorescent screen for making examinations with X-rays, he made thousands of crystallizations of single and double chemical salts and finally discovered that crystals of Calcium Tungstate made in a particular way were highly fluorescent to the X-ray. Also made many several improvements on the X-ray tube.

1900 - 1910 Invented and perfected the steel alkaline storage battery and made it a commercial success.

1900 -1909 Established his once famous Portland Cement Co. and made many important inventions relating to the processes involved in the production of pre-cast buildings. In 1907, he introduced the first concrete mold  for making one-piece houses called "single piece cast concrete homes." The unique type of kiln he developed for making these houses proved to be of great importance in the cement industry.

1902-1903 Worked on improving the Edison Primary Battery. Continued to invent improvements to his phonograph - his favorite invention - and associated cylinders.

1905 Introduced a revolutionary new type of dictating machine, which enabled the dictator to hear repetitions and make paper scale corrections.

1907 Introduced the Universal Electric Motor which made it possible to operate dictating machines etc. on all lighting circuits.

1910-1914 Worked on - and much improved - the disc phonograph, resulting in the production of records and playing instruments which reproduce vocal and instrumental music with overtones that had  relatively "extraordinary fidelity and sweetness." Introduced the diamond point reproducer and the "indestructible" record, thereby commencing a new era in phonographs.

1912 Having spent many previous years in its general development and perfection, finally introduced the Kinetophone or talking motion picture.

1913 Introduced an important automatic correction device for the dictating machine.

1914 Being the largest individual user in the United States of carbolic acid (for making phonograph records), he found himself at the onset of World War One in danger of being compelled to close his factory by reason of a related embargo placed on exporting said substance by England and Germany. The basic issue was that carbolic acid was in great demand for the purpose of making explosives. He now devised an alternative method for making carbolic acid synthetically, and finally put crews of men to work twenty four hours a day to build a related plant. By the eighteenth day, was producing carbolic acid, and within four weeks was turning out a ton of it per day.

1914 On the night of December 9th his great plant at West Orange, N. J. was the scene of a spectacular fire. As soon as he saw the scope of this conflagration he enthusiastically sent word to several friends and members of his family, advising them to "Get down here quick.... you may never have another chance to see anything like this again!" Within hours after the fire had been extinguished, he had given orders for the complete rehabilitation of the plant. Early the next morning he arrived with a gang of men and began to supervise the task of clearing the debris. Hundreds more workers were added throughout the day, and the project continued around the clock for several months until an even larger and more efficient facility than the original had been completed.

1914 Invented the Telescribe, combining the telephone and the dictating phonograph, thus permitting - for the first time - the recording of both sides of a telephone conversation.

1915 Because military conflicts in Europe had created an enormous demand for phenols, and supplies were uncertain, he invented the first synthetic form of carbolic acid (C6H6O). Next, after evaluating all of the literature available on the erection and operation of benzol (C6H6) absorbing plants, he drew up plans for
benzine-making facility  that could be readily installed. Although it had previously taken nine months to a year to install such a facility, his first such structure was put into operation in just forty five days. A larger plant designed for the Woodward Iron Company at Woodward, Ala., was completed in only 60 days. At about this time, he also built two other large benzol plants in Canada, each of were was put into operation in less than sixty days. All these plants became highly successful commercial operations, producing benzol, toluol, solvent naphtha, xylol, and naphthalene.

1915 In the early months of this year, he conceived the idea of helping out the struggling textile and rubber industries of America by making myrbane, aniline oil, and aniline salt, which, are still important commercial substances, and which had been previously imported from Germany. Following his usual procedure, he first exhausted the literature on the subject, and then laid out the plant. By bringing great pressure to bear on his workers - and by working day and night himself - he constructed the plant in just forty five working days, commenced deliveries in June, and was soon turning out over 4,000 pounds of these products per day.

1915 During World War One, the dyeing industry was suffering from a great scarcity of paraphenylenediamine, formerly imported from Germany. Since he was using the chemical in the manufacture of records for his Diamond Disc Phonograph and was no longer able to procure it, he experimented until he found a way to synthesize it. Much pressure was now brought to bear upon him to supply some of it to fur dyers and others. He equipped a separate plant for this purpose and ultimately manufactured over a ton a day.

1915 The great scarcity of carbolic acid in America now brought innumerable requests to him to sell some of this product. His first such plant worked well, producing about 7,000 pounds a day. This, however, soon proved to be insufficient to supply the demand. He now projected and installed another plant with a capacity of about 7,000 pounds additional per day. As he devised improved processes for use in the latter plant there were a vast number of difficult problems to overcome. However, with his usual energy and dogged perseverance - involving many weeks of strenuous work - he finally prevailed.

1916 Worked several months making important improvements in the manufacture of disc phonograph records and new methods and devices for recording. Worked on improved methods and processes producing his chemical products. Worked out processes for making a paramidaphenol base, hydrochloride benzidine base, and sulphate and constructed new plants for their manufacture. As President of the Naval Consulting Board, he did a great deal of work connected with national defense.


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