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Thomas Alva Edison

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Thomas Alva Edison: Biography

Born: 11 February 1847

Died: 18 October 1931

It is difficult to imagine the modern world without the contributions of Thomas Edison. Although Edison’s inventions are well known and his place in history firmly established, familiarity with his work doesn’t lessen the awe inspired by it. While many can lay claim to creative genius, few demonstrate the remarkable breadth of Edison’s interests. Fewer still demonstrate Edison’s business insight. His inventions, coupled with a soup-to-nuts business approach, gave rise to three major industries: recording, motion pictures, and electric utilities.

Edison was born on 11 February 1847 in Milan, Ohio, the last of seven children. Like many children during that era, Edison had little formal education. During his early youth his mother taught him at home. As he grew older he became more self-directed in his reading and sought out scientific books and technical journals.

Born to modest means, Edison began his working life early. At age thirteen he took a job as a newsboy on the local railroad. At age sixteen, acting on his interest in telegraphy, he found full-time work as a telegraph operator. In 1868 Edison settled in Boston and began his transformation from tinkering telegrapher to world-class inventor. In that year Edison received his first patent—an electric vote recorder intended for use by elected bodies to speed the voting process. Although Edison’s instincts were noble, the machine was a commercial failure. For the rest of his career Edison focused on inventions that had strong commercial appeal, and therefore the potential of financial reward.

In 1869 Edison moved to New York City, and it was there that he made an improved stock ticker. With the money generated by the stock ticker’s success, Edison set up his first laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey. After several years, Edison left Newark for the small village of Menlo Park, New Jersey. At Menlo Park, Edison created the first industrial research laboratory, which contained equipment and materials necessary to work on any idea that might pique his interest. Akin to an inventor’s playground, the lab at Menlo Park became the prototype for later, modern research and development (R & D) facilities such as the famous Bell Laboratories. The Menlo Park Laboratory was followed in 1887 by a laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. This complex consisted of five buildings which housed, among other things, a power plant, machine shops, a physics lab, a chemistry lab, and a metallurgy lab. Over the years, factories to manufacture Edison inventions were built around the laboratory. At its peak during World War I, the complex covered more than twenty acres and employed 10,000 people.

Upstairs at Thomas Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory (removed to Greenfield Village) Note the organ against the back wall.  Photo by Andrew Balet
Upstairs at Thomas Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory (removed to Greenfield Village) Note the organ against the back wall. Photo by Andrew Balet
With everything he needed on hand in his laboratories, Edison launched a flurry of creative and business activity that earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” His first great invention (and, he once said, his favorite) was the phonograph, the first device that could record and reproduce sound. His invention found a receptive public and Edison became internationally famous. His companies manufactured both the phonograph as well as the wax cylinders and, later, the disks, that the phonograph played. In one of the rare cases of Edison shortsightedness, he refused to acknowledge the growing popularity of disc records in the early 1900s. While other companies, such as Columbia, made both discs and cylinders and let consumers make the choice, Edison stuck with the cylinder far too long. Eventually, his declining market share forced him to introduce a disc record in 1912.

The second of the Edison-created industries was that of electric power generation and distribution. Edison developed practical electrical lighting and, in essence, ushered in the electrical age. Edison’s monumental achievement was not the invention of the incandescent light bulb, for which he is often mistakenly credited, but rather the invention of a complete system of electric light and power and the launching of the modern electric utility industry. The Pearl Street station, which opened in lower Manhattan in September 1882 featured safe and reliable central power generation, efficient distribution, and a successful end use (i.e., the long-lasting incandescent light bulb and electric motors developed by Edison), all at a competitive price. The one-square mile lit up by the Pearl Street station demonstrated the potential of electric power.

Edison Movie Projector
Edison Movie Projector
Black Maria Movie Studio
Black Maria Movie Studio

In the 1890s Edison began working on motion picture technology, and in the process created a third industry. Edison began commercial production of short movies in 1893, often filming in the famous “Black Maria,” the first motion picture studio. Like the electric light and phonograph before it, Edison developed a complete system that encompassed everything needed to both film and show motion pictures. Although Edison’s work in motion pictures was pioneering, the industry quickly became so competitive that Edison left the business.

Edison’s inventions bought him great fame and wealth. A savvy publicist, Edison carefully cultivated a public image of eccentric genius combined with common man. By the dawn of the twentieth century Edison had become an icon of American ingenuity. During the last years of his life, Edison’s health deteriorated and on 18 October 1931, he died at the age of 84.

See also: Papers of Thomas Edison