Thomas Edison Biography: Success Story of Inventor and Businessman

Thomas Edison Biography

Thomas Edison

In this success story, we are going to share Thomas Edison biography, an American inventor, and entrepreneur. Edison is famous for his perfection of the incandescent light bulb, a device aimed to bring a commercially viable and safe light indoors. He is also the inventor of the Phonograph and one of the pioneers in the American motion picture industry. Edison was an extremely hard working personality, who implicitly thought that everyone should follow his example. He had a taste for fierce competition, assuming that other inventors only existed to be bested by him. Edison’s importance cannot be measured by the 1,093 patents in his name, nor the capital he accumulated. One can begin to understand it by entering a room and switching on the light.

The distinctive personality traits of Thomas Edison are persistence, passion to technology, innovativeness, diligence, and independence.

Early Life

Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in the bustling port of Milan, Ohio, the United States. He was the seventh son of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. (1804–1896) and Nancy Edison (1810–1871), and one of the four to survive to adulthood. His father was born to a Loyalist refugee, who had partaken in the War of 1812 as captain of the First Middlesex Regiment. The family moved to Ontario (then called Upper Canada) from Nova Scotia. After taking part in the unsuccessful Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837, Samuel had crossed into the United States through Michigan and eventually settled in Milan, Ohio. The Edison patrilineal family line was Dutch, and the surname had initially been “Edeson.” After Thomas was born, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan.

Thomas Edison was a very hyperactive kid in his youth. His persistent questioning and seemingly self-centered behavior did not work well with the other children at school. Thomas stayed in school for about 12 weeks until his overworked and short tempered teacher lost his patience with him. The teacher noted that Thomas Edison’s forehead was considerably larger than average, and considered him an addle-brained individual. Thomas’s hyperactive behavior only made matters worse, and his beloved mother had promptly withdrawn him from school, having become aware of the situation. In a modern American scenario, it is possible that Thomas Edison would have been considered a victim of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and prescribed a drug like Ritalin to keep him cooled off.

Home Education

Thomas’ mother as he recalledwas the making of me… she was always so true and so sure of me… And always made me feel I had someone to live for and must not disappoint.” Convinced that her son’s robust character and unusual physical appearance were purely signs of his remarkable intelligence, Nancy Edison, an accomplished school teacher, had decided to teach her son at home. Thomas obtained most of his early education from R.G. Parker’s scientific textbooks School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

At the age of 12, after convincing his parents that he was ready to work, Thomas Edison began making money by selling sweets and newspapers on trains that frequently ran between Port Huron, Michigan, and Detroit. He eventually added vegetables to the list supplementing his income. While Lincoln and Douglas were engaging in their public pre-Civil War debates – Edison, then 14, was busy exploiting his access to the associated news releases that were teletyped into the station each day. He published these statements in his little newspaper entitled Grand Trunk Herald.

Thomas Edison Biography

Young Edison, 14, printing his Grand Trunk Herald in a baggage car of the Grand Trunk Railway.

Thomas’ mini-publishing venture made him more than enough money to provide for his support. He had spent most of his extra income supplying the chemical laboratory that he set up in the basement of his parents’ house. His usually patient and easy-going mother finally complained about the stench and danger of all the chemical equipment, and he was forced to transfer most of it to a locked room in the basement. The rest was put in a storeroom room on the train.

One day, while crossing through a bumpy section of the track, the train lurched, and a stick of phosphorus rolled onto the floor and lit up. The fire spread quickly, and within moments, most of the baggage car was aflame. The angered conductor punished Thomas severely, striking him with a powerful blow to the side of the head. It is speculated that this may have been one of the reasons Edison had eventually developed severe hearing problems, the latter one being scarlet fever, and less prominently mastoiditis. After the incident, the station master restricted Thomas from trying to sell his newspaper at railroad stations along the track.


Telegraphy was prominent in reshaping communication in America in the 1860s, and Edison (being around railroad stations most of the time) was quickly intrigued by the potentials of this technology.

On a summer day of 1862, while Edison was on a train he saw a child wandering around the train tracks in front of an oncoming boxcar. Without a second thought, Thomas flung himself towards the helpless kid, pushing him and himself out of the way of the oncoming train. The kid just happened to be the son of stationmaster James MacKenzie, who rewarded Edison’s heroism by helping him master the Morse code and the telegraph.

MacKenzie apprenticed Edison, providing him with his first telegraphing job as an operator for the local Western Union in Port Huron. Edison was still a rookie; he proved to be a weak message transmitter. Being only fifteen at the time, he was still learning about discipline, and conducting electrical and chemical experiments during much of his shift.

Thomas Edison Biography

James MacKenzie, the father of the son Thomas Edison, saved from the oncoming train and the man who taught Edison telegraphy.

Edison’s habits cost him many of his early jobs, and he spent the years between 1863 and 1867 drifting around the Midwest as a “tramp telegrapher”. Going from city to city, he used the jobs mostly as workshops for his experiments. He called it “moonlighting”.

Edison was often fired for misbehaving, or not being an excellent telegrapher. On one such job in Indianapolis, in 1864, Edison created what he vowed to be his first authentic invention. It was called an “automatic repeater,” and was merely a device that made it easier for operators to translate Morse code messages at their speed and convenience. He never patented the initial version of the repeater.

After four years on the road, Thomas A. Edison returned home scruffy and penniless. It was 1868, and his mother’s mental health was beginning to decline, intensified by her often difficult life. His impulsive father Samuel Edison Jr. had just quit his job at the local bank, and the family was on the verge of poverty. Thomas had to come to grips with the grim pathos of the situation, and after a good deal of soul-searching, he decided to get right back out on the road to try to come back with a fortune.

Within days, Edison landed a job at a relatively high-status Western Union Company in Boston through a fellow telegrapher friend. The move was partially inspired by a free railway ticket, awarded to him by the local street railway company in return for some repairs. Edison was well on his way to Boston.

Boston: The Electrical Vote Recorder

Boston was America’s hub for science and culture at the time, and Edison reveled in it. While working for Western Union, Edison would often visit the Court Street factory of Charles Williams Jr., a telegraph manufacturer. The factory would be a meeting place for experiments where Edison was able to exchange equipment and ideas with like-minded individuals. On October 11, 1868, it was at the factory that Edison designed his first patented invention: an electric vote recorder for speeding up the voting process in the legislature by pressing one of the two available buttons. He was issued U.S. Patent 90,646 on June 01, 1869.

Thomas Edison Biography

Thomas Edison’s first patented invention: the Electrical Vote Recorder, October 11, 1868.

The government quickly rebuked the invention with a congressman telling Edison that if there is any invention they didn’t want here – it was this. The legislators wanted exactly the opposite – time to change the minds of fellow legislators, and this invention went in dissonance with their methods. Edison was desperately in need of money, and this scenario taught him a valuable lesson that would change his relatively naïve outlook in the sphere of business and marketing. From now on, Edison affirmed, he would “never waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy.”

It was during his 17 months in Boston that Edison stumbled upon lectures at Boston Tech. Founded in 1861; it would go on to become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916. Here he was exposed to great minds of his generation, expanding the possibilities of the telegraph, tinkering with communication technologies. Not surprisingly, Alexander Graham Bell (March 03, 1847 – August 02, 1922), who too lived in Boston at the time, was equally captivated by communication technology. Bell’s fascination would eventually lead him to develop the first articulating telephone, which would point Edison in the direction of one of his greatest inventions.

In Boston is where Edison became well acquainted with the ambitious Benjamin Barnard Redding (January 17, 1824 – August 21, 1882), a Canadian-born politician of California. Redding would eventually help Alexander Graham Bell to perfect long distance telephony, also providing crucial assistance in the manufacturing of the first reciprocating telephone and the magneto phone. Redding worked closely with prominent promoter George B. Stearns, who had beaten everyone to the punch when he boasted obtaining the first patent for a duplex telegraph line. The patent was sold to Western Union for $750,000. The device powerfully intrigued Edison, who went to Redding for a detailed introduction and understanding of the multiplex transmitter system. Unlike Edison, Redding was extremely modest and was not interested in boasting and self-promotion – which was ultimately his downfall. Redding was crushed under the harsh ‘survival of the fittest’ world of patenting inventions in the mid-19th century – merely spurring the tough-minded Edison to work on improving the duplex transmitter, only to later come up with the world’s first quadruplex transmitter system, which he then patented.

Eventually, Edison’s time in Boston left him deeply in debt and close to be dismissed by Western Union for not being focused on the job and “doing too much moonlighting.” Edison decided that he would do better in a more commercially oriented place, so he borrowed 35 dollars from Benjamin Redding to purchase a steamship ticket to New York City.

New York: Edison’s Improved Stock Ticker

Shortly after arriving in New York City Edison was allegedly “on the verge of starving to death.” When things began looking sad to the point of desperation, an amazing coincidence happened. When things started looking sad to the point of desperation, an amazing coincidence happened.

As Edison meandered through offices in New York’s financial district, he stumbled upon a manager of a local brokerage firm who had a panic attack because a significant stock-ticker had just broken down in his office. Noticing that every other member of the crowd was clueless on how to fix it, he made his way into the scene and seized the opportunity to try and repair the machine himself. Having been around for a couple of weeks, Edison already had a pretty good idea of the purpose of this device. He reached down and operated a single lose spring back in its place, and to everyone’s amazement (except Edison’s) the device began to run flawlessly.

The office manager was so thrilled that he offered Edison a repair job at the company for $300 per month, which was twice the rate for a good electrician in New York City at the time. Edison later recalls the incident as being almost surreal. Within a few minutes, he was “suddenly delivered out of abject poverty and into prosperity.

During his free time, Edison continued “moonlighting” with the telegraph, and an improved version of the stock ticker. When he introduced the improved stock ticker to the world, the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company paid him a check of $40,000 for all of his rights to the device. He was astonished at the sum, expecting $5,000 at most. After cashing it in, he laid out the money on his bed, counting it over and over in disbelief. He took the advice of a wise friend who told him to deposit the sum in a bank and just forget about it for a while.

Thomas Edison Biography

Edison’s improved ticker for Gold and Stock Company. Initially, the stock ticker was invented by Edward Calahan, who devised it in 1867 for the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. Edison improved stock ticker by adding a mechanism that synchronized all of the tickers on a line so that they printed out the same information.

Edison spent a few years in New York jumping from one business partnership to another, mostly developing and manufacturing telegraphic equipment, and perfecting other people’s machines. He worked primarily on printed, automatic, and multiplex telegraphs. Those jobs brought him a measure of financial freedom, allowing Edison to organize two new companies with business partners in 1870. The companies would not last for long, as Newark Telegraph Works ended in 1872 after the partner moved to New York, and American Telegraph Works was sold to Gold and Stock in 1871.

In 1870, Edison moved to Newark, California to run numerous telegraph manufacturing workshops where he supervised personnel and gained a reputation of a demanding employer. He continued working on a contract with Gold and Stock in New York City until Western Union acquired it in 1871.

The Quadruplex Telegraph

In 1874, Thomas Edison introduced the Quadruplex telegraph in Newark. It was a new type of electrical telegraph that enabled to transmit and receive four separate signals on a single wire simultaneously. He was under an informal contract where he agreed to sell each of his invention patents to Western Union. When Edison responded to Western Union’s query on the status of development, he informed them that he had sold his contract for the quadruplex telegraph to financier Jay Gould, sparking a court battle that would significantly reshape Edison’s contract with Western Union. After the court case had been settled in December 1875, Western Union gave Edison a formal contract, an assignment to develop an acoustic telegraph, and a substantial capital to finance his work. He would use the money to build his dream research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, twenty-five miles from New York City.

Thomas Edison Biography

Edison invented the Quadruplex telegraph in 1874.

The Menlo Park Laboratory

In 1876, Thomas Edison founded the lab at Menlo Park. It is considered a major innovation because it was the first institution set up with the explicit purpose of manufacturing technological innovations. The plan at Menlo Park, as Edison put it, was to produce a minor invention every ten days, and a significant thing every month or so. Edison was legally credited with most of the work that has come out of Menlo Park, although it was his employees who carried out research and development under his supervision.

Thomas Edison Biography

The Menlo Park Laboratory and its staff on the second floor. Thomas Edison (below the tallest organ pipe), February 22, 1880.

At the time, Edison was the only person with such a vast amount of resources in the field. He would push hard on his employees to produce results. Being a hardworking man himself, he implicitly thought that everyone should be like that. At the Menlo Park Laboratory, they would often work all night experimenting, and sleep till noon during the day. It is rumored that Edison would note down many hours that he would spend in a row doing something, and try to beat his record every time.

First Marriage

Edison’s life was changing rapidly in the early 1870s. His mother died in 1871, and in the same year, he married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell (September 06, 1855 – August 09, 1884) on Christmas Day, whom he met working at one of his subsidiaries, the News Reporting Telegraph Company in Newark. Mary was a silent and self-effacing girl from a Newark family.

Thomas Edison Biography

Edison’s first wife, Mary Stilwell Edison.

By 1878, they had three children: Marion Estelle Edison (1873–1965), nicknamed “Dot”, Thomas Alva Edison, Jr. (1876–1935), nicknamed “Dash”, William Leslie Edison (1878–1937). The marriage was not an easy one for Mary. Edison was mostly absent, working day and night at the Menlo Park Lab, and Mary had to run the house and take care of the children on her own most of the time. Thomas Edison could not afford to lose time, as he knew that if he had slowed down; his competitors would swiftly outrun him.

In July 1878, Edison and a few of his assistants decided to head for the woods to study an eclipse and take some time away from the constant hordes of curious people and reporters at Menlo Park. Mary Edison – then pregnant with their third son William – was left behind. She usually stayed at home and was often ill – suffering headaches, panic attacks, and fatigue. Her background did not fit well with Edison’s ambitions, and she immediately found out what it was like to be married to a man who simply wasn’t present. One time, while Edison was away, Mary had gotten so ill, that she was placed under the constant care of a doctor and Edison was advised to hurry back home. He was absent for three more weeks, and once he came back, he headed straight to the Menlo Park Laboratory.

Bell’s Telephone

The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, marked America’s theatrical debut as the world’s top industrial power. Innovations of all kinds were showcased there, from a massive steam engine able to run 100 machines simultaneously, to an elevator that helped a man climb 11 floors standing still; from a typewriter to a sewing machine.

Thomas Edison Biography

The Official Catalogue Cover of The Centennial Exhibition, 1876.

But no invention was as astonishing as Alexander Grande Bell’s telephone – a device that converted sound waves into electrical signals. The device was revolutionary in every sense of the word, foreshadowing an entirely new method of communication.

Edison had no respect for Bell and was keen on competition. To him, Bell only existed to be eventually beaten, as Edison put it “an inventor needs an enemy.” In 1876, after being presented at the Centennial Exhibition, the telephone became a subject of a patent dispute between Bell and Elisha Gray (August 02, 1835 – January 21, 1901), a Chicago electrical engineer who claimed to have invented the underlying technology in 1874. Bell triumphed over the courts but faced competition from Edison in the market. While Bell was busy trying to replace the telegraph with the telephone, Western Union had bought out Gray’s telephone patent and promptly gave Edison a mission to refine Bell’s device. Edison discovered the weakness of the telephone’s poor sound transmission and invented the carbon button transmitter, which would significantly improve the volume of the telephone, and allow it to become a commercially successful device.

Thomas Edison Biography

The working principle of Bell’s telephone (London news, 1872).

Western Union greatly benefitted from the Edison transmitter and used it with Gray’s telephone receiver to put the telephone on the market in their name. Bell was infuriated and threatened to sue Edison for patent infringement after the device was tested in England in 1878. To avoid court battles, Edison tried to invent his receiver, but the efforts were unsuccessful. Eventually, Western Union sparked a deal with Bell that granted him control over Edison’s carbon button transmitter. But Edison did not leave the telephone battle empty handed. His experiments with the device led him to stumble upon an invention that would change his life forever.

The Phonograph

While working on improvements to Gray’s telephone and the telegraph, Edison came across the idea of using a telephone diaphragm to produce sound waves in the summer of 1877. With the help of his staff, he started experimenting with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly moving tinfoil-coated cylinder and produced sound waves. Also, he equipped the machine with two diaphragm-and-needle units: one was for audio recording, and the other one was used for playback. When Edison spoke into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations were indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle. “Mary had a little lamb” were the first words Edison pronounced into a mouthpiece. The phonograph successfully recorded them, and he was amazed that it worked. Following seven years of research, Edison realized that to impress investors with the phonograph and make his device commercially viable, he would need to use the wax coating on the cylinder to improve the recording surface.

Edison invented the phonograph on August 12, 1877. However, some historians believe that it probably happened several months later, since Thomas Edison filed a patent for the phonograph only on December 24, 1877, and the patent was issued on February 19, 1878.

On January 24, 1878, he founded the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to sell the new machine. Edison earned $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and 20% of the profits.

In the spring of 1878, Edison gave a demonstration of the phonograph to members of Congress and the 19th US President Rutherford B. Hayes (October 04, 1822 – January 17, 1893). In April 1878, Edison sat in for a picture with Matthew Brady, a massive figure in the world of photography. Suddenly there were hordes of visitors at the Menlo Park Laboratory.

Thomas Edison Biography

A famous picture of Thomas Edison with his 2nd version phonograph. Photographed by Mathew Brady in Washington, April 1878.

Thomas Edison suggested some uses for his invented phonograph, such as letter writing, phonographic books for blind people, reproduction of music, music boxes and toys, educational purposes, and connection with the telephone to record conversations. Many of the suggested uses turned into a reality. Also, it is interesting to know that in 1917, when the U.S. became involved in World War I, the Edison Company designed a special version of the phonograph for the U.S. Army with the price tag of $60. It allowed soldiers to take music off to war with them. Music meant a lot to the soldiers as it could cheer them and remind them of home. Therefore, many Army Units bought the phonograph to playback music.

In 1919, Edison even recorded his speech on the phonograph titled “Let Us Not Forget – A Message To The American People”, in which he expressed his pride in the troops and asked Americans to remember the sacrifice and contribution made by the other allied nations to restore peace.

In the late 19th Century, it is evident that the United States began considering themselves as a nation of inventors. It was almost as if an American would be embarrassed going to his grave without having won a patent. The Scientific American would publish lists of new inventions and announcements of patents awarded every week, and newspapers would write editorials about how it was a patent office that represented American greatness. Once inferior to Europeans, the United States was then a growing industrial country on the verge of transforming the world, and to excel in this world meant to become a fully-fledged celebrity.

Edison, recognizing his status in society, began to mold out a ‘colorful’ public image of himself. At the Menlo Park Lab, he was never there to welcome a visitor, coming into the room from ‘elsewhere’, wearing his lab coat with a handkerchief around his neck and smudges on his face. Edison had immersive confidence in himself, and a sense of humor. Close people described him as a good storyteller, down to earth, but at the same time – a genius. In the public’s mind, Edison was regarded as equally a visionary, and a magician.

On April 01, 1878, the New York Daily Graphic humorously credited Edison with having invented the machine that made food out of the dirt. “Edison Invents a Machine that will Feed the Human Race!” the headlines read, “Manufacturing Biscuits, Meat, Vegetables, and Wine out of Air, Water, and Common Earth.” Suddenly there was a sort of ‘Edison Mania’. Schoolgirls would write compositions on Edison, funny papers published squibs on Edison, and the daily newspapers would report on his life activities. The press dubbed Edison ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park.’

Electric Light and The Light Bulb

But by the late summer of 1878, Edison started working on a system of electrical illumination. He had an idea in his mind how to create it, suggested by his physicist friend, and a few rough sketches he had done in his notebook entitled “electric light.” Edison started looking for solutions of how to create a long-lasting incandescent lamp that would be used for indoor use.

Two types of light illuminated American cities by that time. Gas lighting had been at homes for a while, but their drawbacks were evident. Apart from the dangers of having an open flame in the house, gas lights were filthy, reeked of acidic vapor, overheated rooms, and caused asphyxiation due to many sorts of accidental leaks.

Discontent is the first necessity of progress. – Thomas A. Edison Click To Tweet

Arc lighting was the only commercial electric light system that existed at the time. It was a method that forced a current to jump between two carbon rods – producing a light so blinding that people often used umbrellas to shield themselves from it. The alternative was an incandescent bulb – a technology that was patented six years before Edison was born. The method traces back to Alessandro Volta’s demonstration of a glowing wire in 1800, which perfected by Sir Humphrey Davy, who in 1802 first produced ‘incandescence’ – an electric current flowing through a wire. The primary challenge with incandescent light was to create a light bulb that would not burn out it seconds.

Since 1800, inventors on both sides of the Atlantic were puzzling over on how to build a reliable electric light system. Edison was sure he had cracked the problem after a few days of only preliminary experiments. He had announced to a New York Sun reporter that when it is known how I accomplished my object, everyone will wonder how they never thought of it. It is so simple.”

Now and then someone would announce to the press “Eureka! I have it!” but at this point, the media was focused on Edison. Edison mobilized his fame, dominating headlines for a month after claiming to have conceived of an entire electric system that would decrease the reliance on gas lamps. Gas stocks tumbled, and investors were lined up at the Menlo Park Laboratory, ready to pay Edison any price for a project that he did not even know was going to work out.

Edison’s experience with the telegraph allowed him to visualize the process of creating a lamp. The biggest problem was finding the right filaments for the incandescent spiral, and a bulb with high resistance which was able to run at a low voltage of 110 volts. On October 22, 1879, when the lamp with carbonized thread lasted for 13.5 hours, Edison realized that they had a breakthrough. Edison continued refining the device, and on November 04, 1879, filed for U.S. patent 223,898 for the electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platinum contact wires.” Granted on January 27, 1880, this was the first commercially viable incandescent light.

Thomas Edison Biography

On January 27, 1880, Thomas Edison received U.S. Patent No. 223,898 for Electric-Lamp.

On October 08, 1883, Edison’s patent for Electric-Lamp was ruled as invalid by The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). USPTO claimed it was based on the work of an American inventor, William E. Sawyer. It took almost six years for Edison when a court finally ruled on October 06, 1889 that Edison’s patent No. 223,898 for electric-light improvement was valid.

Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, D.Sc.h.c., FRS (31 October 1888 – 27 May 1914), a British physicist and chemist, received a patent for the development of the electric light bulb on November 27, 1880 (patent No. 4933), a year before Edison had been awarded his patent. To avoid a possible patent infringement battles with Joseph Swan, they established The Edison and Swan Electric Light Company Limited in 1883, merging the Swan United Electric Company and the Edison Electric Light Company.

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. – Thomas A. Edison Click To Tweet

Edison made the first public demonstration of Edison’s light bulb on New Year’s Eve, in 1879, in Menlo Park. The facility was swarmed by press, on-lookers, and investors. Coming out of New York on a train, the ride to Menlo Park was dark and snowy. When the train reached the facility, people were stunned to see 20 lamp posts lighting their way from the railway station towards Menlo Park, glowing up on a hill from the railroad. It was illuminated by the forty light bulbs that were shining into the night. Edison enthralled visitors by turning all forty light bulbs on and off with a flick of a switch. The presentation was intriguing, but the real innovation lay on a much larger scale. It consisted of creating an entire system which would be inexpensive and practical.

Thomas Edison Biography

In 1879, the first public demonstration of the bulb took place in Menlo Park on New Year’s Eve. The title of the image is “When the World came to Menlo Park” published in Menlo Park Reminiscences book written by Francis Jehl (September 06, 1860 – February 11, 1941), who was a laboratory assistant of Thomas Edison.

Electric Power Distribution

Edison devised a system that would depend on the central source of energy, similar to gas lighting. He did lots of hard research to develop his first generators. They were nicknamed them the “long-waisted Mary Ann” and the “Jumbo” for their size. The generators weighed hundreds of pounds and produced only about 100 kilowatts in modern terms. Therefore, Edison established the Edison Illuminating Company in 1880, and after having patented his system for electricity distribution, set up the first investor-owned electric utility on Pearl Street in New York City. The system provided 110 volts of direct current to customers in lower Manhattan when it was switched on in September 1882. By October 1882, the station served over 1,200 lamps.

Thomas Edison Biography

Workers laying DC electrical tubes under the streets in New York City in 1882.

War of the Currents

In the 1880s and early 1890s, Thomas Edison faced a series of legal events regarding the competing electric power transmission systems between the direct current (DC) inventor, Edison Electric Light Company, and the alternating current (AC) inventor, Westinghouse Electric Company. The Edison Group spent almost $2 million defending itself in courts, keeping its focus off inventing for half a decade.

The largest case was when Thomas Edison filed a lawsuit against George Westinghouse in 1885, for infringing the carbon-filament patent. Although Westinghouse lost the case, he would quickly make an effective comeback against Edison as he set his goals to beat him in the market.

George Westinghouse, Jr. (October 06, 1846 – March 12, 1914), the owner of Westinghouse Electric Company, had been a respected inventor, his primary focus being train technology. He had, among other things, invented an air brake for trains in 1869. Westinghouse became Edison’s biggest rival when he introduced the first commercial AC system in 1886.

Thomas Edison Biography

George Westinghouse, the founder of Westinghouse Electric Company and the inventor of the alternating current (AC), was the main Edison’s competitor in 1880s.

For years prior, AC system had been typically used for arc lighting outside and in various open spaces. In 1885 – 1186, Westinghouse Electric developed transformer devices in the US, and it became possible to transmit AC over very long distances – removing the need for a building a power station for DC every two miles. It also ran at 1000 Volts in comparison to Edison’s 240 Volts and was able to reduce the voltage to safe levels at substations along the wire line.

Edison resisted, ensuring that his DC system was more reliable and more efficient. When the AC system rapidly gained momentum in the market, Edison’s competition with Westinghouse turned into a crusade to stop AC for public safety.

In the spring of 1888, the media became outraged due to a rising public uproar over a series of deaths caused by high voltage AC lines. Edison took advantage of this and teamed up with fellow anti-alternating current (anti-AC) campaigner Harold Pitney Brown to launch an anti-AC propaganda triggered by a series of public electrocutions of animals. In further attempts to smear Westinghouse, Edison personally made sure that a Westinghouse AC generator powered his new dire invention – the first electric chair.

Since Edison installed over 100 DC-based systems, re-designing them to AC standard was not a priority for Edison. By the end of 1887, the market share of Edison Electric Company started dropping.  Westinghouse constructed 68 AC-based power stations and Edison – 121 DC-based stations.  Also, another AC-based competitor, The Thomson-Houston Electric Company of Lynn, Massachusetts made 22 power stations and that only heated up the competition.

The War of Currents came to an end in 1892, when Edison was forced out of his company for the commercial failure of DC. The same year, J. P. Morgan, a financier of Edison Electric Light Company, merged the company with Thomson-Houston, putting the Thomson-Houston board in charge of the company and dropping Edison from its name, thus creating General Electric. Being in control of most of the electrical business in the US, General Electric could go on to compete with Westinghouse on the AC market.

It is ironic that the individuals who supported Westinghouse’s AC system and helped it achieve its dominance were former Edison’s employees. Among them was Serbian electrical engineer Nikola Tesla (July 10, 1856 – January 07, 1943), who is credited with inventing the polyphase induction motor, a device dedicated to the long-distance application of the AC system. In 1884, Tesla quit the Edison factory shortly to work on his inventions, and although not commercially successful during his lifetime, he later became regarded as a real genius of his generation.

Second Marriage

Edison, along with a series of lawsuits, faced dramatic changes in his personal life when his first wife Mary Stilwell died on August 09, 1884, possibly from a morphine overdose leaving Edison, a widower at thirty-seven. Being relatively young and with a significant capital to his name, Edison instantly found himself surrounded by young women, offering him their sympathy. The one who caught his eye was the nineteen-year-old Mina Miller, whom he met in the winter of 1885.

Thomas Edison Biography

A portrait of Thomas Edison with his second wife, Mina Miller.

Unlike Mary, Mina grew up in a practical world and moved a lot in society circles. Her father was an inventor, and she had a better sense of what it meant to hang around well-known individuals than most women. Mina was independent and able to pursue her own interests without conflicting with Edison’s ‘big-shot’ personality. Edison was stunned by Mina and wrote about her frequently in his diary. He taught her Morse code so that they could communicate while in a room full of people by tapping each other on the hand. After proposing to her in the same manner, the two got married on February 24, 1886.

They same year, Edison and Mina moved to their new house known as Glenmont located in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey. That was his wedding gift to Mina. Also, in 1885, Thomas Edison bought property known as Seminole Lodge in Fort Myers, which became their winter retreat. They couple spent many winters together there.

Thomas Edison Biography

Edison’s estate known as Glenmont was his wedding present to his second wife, Mina Miller Edison.

Thomas Edison and Mina Miller also had three children together: Madeleine Edison (1888–1979), Charles Edison (1890–1969), and Theodore Miller Edison (1898–1992), who has more than 80 patents.

The West Orange Laboratory

When domestic life was finally settled, Edison was ready to return to his endeavors. On November 24, 1887, Edison relocated all his talented team to his brand new laboratory in the City of Orange, New Jersey. He boasted it to be the best equipped and largest laboratory, occupying a portion of Main Street, not far from his new house. In this 21-acre (85,000 m2) facility, there was, as Edison described, “everything from cowhide to eyeballs of a United States senator.” As opposed to the Menlo Park Laboratory, the new facility had a primary emphasis on manufacturing and business, but not invention. This would be the beginning of Edison emerging in the figure of a commercial businessman. Still, significant new inventions came out of the West Orange Laboratory, including the Kinetoscope (an early motion picture exhibition device), the motion picture camera, the dictating machine, sound recordings, and improved phonographs.

Thomas Edison Biography

The West Orange Laboratory, West Orange, New Jersey, 1917.

During the West Orange Lab times, Edison also set his gaze back to improving the phonograph when an old opponent, Alexander Graham Bell, announced the Graphophone, an invention that depended heavily on Edison’s technology. Only during the first four years at the lab in West Orange, Thomas Edison received more than eighty patents on improvements of the cylinder phonograph. Edison sold marketing rights for the perfected photograph for $500,000 to an entrepreneur who negotiated an under-the-table deal with Edison’s then-close friend and colleague George Ezra Gilliland. Gilliland stood to make $250,000 from the deal, and when Edison found that out, he annulled Gilliland’s contract, calling it an act of utter betrayal.

Although Edison is best known for his electric light and power systems, he was also a superb chemist. It was at the West Orange Laboratory where Thomas Edison invented the nickel-iron-alkaline battery in 1901. He hoped to create a battery to be a lighter and more efficient than lead batteries that were commonly used in automobiles of those times. Although his invention could not be an energy supply source for vehicles, it could store the electric energy. Most of the modern batteries are very similar to the alkaline batteries that were invented by Thomas Edison more than a century ago.

The Edison Ore-Milling Company

In the 1870s, Edison became interested in the iron ore milling industry. In 1881, he founded The Edison Ore-Milling Company. While developing his electric light system, he patented technology that would act as an electromagnet to separate iron from beach sand. Soon, he discovered the remnants of iron were of poor quality in the eastern part of the United States, and the separating process of iron from the rock was unprofitable. Edison adapted his methods to crush rocks delivered directly from mines breaking them into giant boulders. In 1886, Edison built a mill plant in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania and, in 1889, he constructed another one in Ogdensburg, New Jersey, which had the largest iron ore rock crushers in the world at those times. He wanted to process 1200 tons of iron ore every 20 hours.

Thomas Edison Biography

The tower containing magnetic ore separators at Ogden mine, New Jersey, 1895.

The boulders were polarized in giant interlocking drums, which broke them down further and further until pebble size. The rocks were sent through a screening system and then dropped past some magnets which would pull refined iron out, and let barren iron and other debris fall to the ground. This method had Edison building lots of gigantic machines that were automated – meaning they would never once be touched by human hand while operating.

Thomas Edison Biography

Iron-ore milling workforce at Ogdensburg mine, 1890s.

Unfortunately, there was not a single investor anywhere close to that mine, and Edison had to sink some $3 million into the project which never gained momentum. It was partial to the collapse of the iron ore milling industry in the years preceding the Panic of 1893. The project stretched for about eleven years and came to be known as “Edison’s Folly.” Although the machines Edison had invented turned out to be of little use, their intricate procedure of conveyor belts and assembly substantially influenced Henry Ford while he was building his Model T business. To finance the operation, he had sold his stock in General Electric. In 1899, he shut down the iron ore milling business. He realized that he could use his ore-milling technologies in the cement industry and opened Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899 which proved to be much more successful than the ore-milling business. Although his ore-milling company was a failing business, Edison did not look at it negatively. While talking to Edison, a reporter noted “you sure wasted a lot of money,” to which Edison responded, “yeah but we sure had fun doing it.”

To have a great idea, have a lot of them. – Thomas A. Edison Click To Tweet

Motion Picture Business

Edison was sparked by an idea to develop the first motion picture camera after having a conversation with English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (April 09, 1830 – May 08, 1904), who was famous for his animal motion images that became the basis for motion pictures. Later he encountered French psychologist Étienne-Jules Marey (March 05, 1830 – May 15, 1904), who had invented chronophotographic gun in 1882. This device that could take 12 consecutive frames per second recording all the frames on the same picture. Edison was intrigued by Marey’s filming of birds on the chronophotographic gun. As Marey pulled the trigger, he would take a series of pictures of the birds onto a stripped film.

Thomas Edison Biography

Illustration of Étienne-Jules Marey holding a chronophotographic gun, Napoli, 1882.

Soon, Edison assigned a project to develop the first motion picture camera to a young employee at West Orange named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (August 03, 1860 – September 28, 1935). Much of the credit for the devising of the motion picture camera belongs to Dickson, who improved the optical and photographic quality of the device. As a result of hard work, in 1888, Dickson invented the first motion picture camera, which was called Kinetograph or Kinetographic camera. On August 31, 1897, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent No. 589,168 for this invention to Thomas A. Edison.

On November 01, 1894, Annie Oakley (August 13, 1860 – November 03, 1926), a renowned American sharpshooter, demonstrated her skill by firing on target while all the performance was captured by Thomas Edison on the kinetograph.

On May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison and his lab team unveiled the sister invention to the kinetograph, the first prototype of Kinetoscope, that was exhibited to a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. It was a device on which one could view a movie. It ran a continuous 47-foot film on spools between an incandescent lamp and a shutter. On May 09, 1893, Edison made the first public presentation of the kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.

In 1895, Edison and his team invented another device called Kinetophone, by joining the kinetoscope with a cylinder phonograph that allowed to record and reproduce sound in films.

A few years later, the kinetoscope became the first commercially used viewing technology. They were inserted into small viewing parlors, called Nickelodeons, charging the customer twenty-five cents per film.

Soon the kinetoscope appeared in Europe. On October 17, 1894, American businessman Irving Tar Bush (July 12, 1869 – October 21, 1948), was the first to set up kinetoscope in London, United Kingdom. He purchased it from the Continental Commerce Company that belonged to Joseph D. Baucus and Frank Z. Maguire.

Also, Kinétoscope Edison Michel et Alexis Company imported several kinetoscopes to France. During 1894 – 1895, the Continental Commerce sold hundreds of kinetoscopes across European countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary.

Thomas Edison Biography

Illustration of Edison’s Kinetoscope with a peephole viewer at the top.

Edison Studios produced approximately 1,200 short films during their years of operation. Some of the most famous films are: short, black-and-white, silent documentary film – Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894), the first commercial film shown to the public – The Kiss (1896), silent short Western film – The Great Train Robbery (1903), 10-minute black-and-white silent film – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1910), and the first 16-minute horror short film – Frankenstein (1910).

Edison’s partners tried to convince him to improve the kinetoscope by moving from one Nickelodeon to a better viewing experience. Edison was hesitant. As a result, Auguste and Louis Lumière brothers outperformed him by patenting Cinematograph on February 13, 1895. Cinematograph was a motion picture film camera, which also served as a film projector and printer.

Thomas Edison Biography

The Lumière brothers, Auguste & Louis, patented cinematograph, which comparing to Edison’s kinetoscope with a peephole viewer at the top, allowed to project films onto the surface.

Investors were waiting impatiently for Edison’s new improved device. In the meanwhile, in the summer of 1894, an American pioneer of early cinema Charles Francis Jenkins (August 22, 1867 – June 06, 1934) had surprised a small group of friends by projecting tiny moving images onto a handkerchief with a film projection device. Jenkins together with Thomas J. Armat (October 25, 1866 – September 30, 1948) invented a film projection machine, called Phantascope. On March 26, 1895, Jenkins a patent No. 536,569 for this device.

Thomas Edison Biography

On November 24, 1894, Charles Francis Jenkins filed a patent No.536,569 for a film projection device, called Phantascope.

Thomas Edison decided to approach Jenkins and Armat and offered them to sell him the patent rights on this device. Jenkins and Armat had no other choice but agree, as they knew that they would never succeed in competing with Edison as everyone in the business was expecting Edison to design a new machine. Edison bought the patent rights for phantascope from Jenkins and Armat, but on the condition that the device would be promoted as a new Edison’s invention called Vitascope. The press started buzzing about the new device, and the Vitascope debuted on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial’s music hall in New York City – exhibiting quality images across a 20×3 foot screen and successfully launching the American Motion Picture Industry in Edison’s name.

Thomas Edison Biography

Advertising poster of the Vitascope, 1896.

The motion picture business instantly became a hot market, and because of a huge number of inventors involved in the advancement of the technology, there were some 500 legal actions on patent claims connected to the motion picture industry by 1900. In result, The Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) was formed in December 1908. The MPPC aimed to increase profits for everyone involved in the industry, although it came under fire from independent corporations for monopolism, it was disbanded in 1918. Thomas Edison himself was driven out of the market due to tumbling prices and competition. Edison sold his share in the MPPC to the Lincoln and Parker Film Company in 1918.

Thomas A. Edison, Inc. and Other Contributions

A series of illnesses deteriorated Edison’s health at the turn of the century, frightening the people around him. Edison’s staff and lawyers began to take necessary steps in preparing themselves for life without the inventor. The first significant step was to lessen the difficulty of running so many companies. Edison’s executives, key staff members, and lawyers suggested creating a centralized establishment that would bring everything that the inventor has created under a single roof. As a result, The National Phonograph Company that had been founded on January 27, 1896, was reincorporated as Thomas A. Edison, Inc. on February 28, 1911. They benefited from an initial capital of about $12 million, allowing Edison’s subdivision companies to have access to more assets for their development.

Thomas Edison, Inc. began to dominate the markets. The Edison Portland Cement Company won a contract to build the original Yankee Stadium. The works started on May 05, 1922 and were finished in 284 working days.

Edison revived the phonograph once more, this time for home entertainment. The Motion Picture Production started featuring longer narrative films. The West Orange lab expanded to include many new buildings where thousands of employees were put to work on cylinder records, bulbs, fan motors, medical equipment, and countless other things operating in a business empire under the name Thomas A. Edison Inc.

On December 09, 1914, an explosion at the West Orange Laboratory triggered a fire that burnt down most of the facility, setting four city blocks ablaze. The flames were visible all the way from Newark. While the flames were being subdued, Edison was making a list of what they needed to do to recover. By the next morning, most of West Orange was rubble, and the damages were estimated at $3.5 million. “Although I’m over 60 years old,” Edison said, “I’ll start all over again tomorrow.”

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. – Thomas A. Edison Click To Tweet

When the United States entered World War I, Thomas Edison responded with patriotism and support. Edison had submitted some forty plans and inventions to the United States Navy during the war. His suggestions were very useful although The U.S. Navy was cautious not to voice it out to him. One helpful contribution was suggesting that submarine sinkings be marked on the map outlining high-risk zones. In 1915, Edison became head of the Naval Consulting Board which linked together the Navy and the scientific community. He did not sit well with the board. He was agitated when his ideas were often rejected by naval officers and his propositions to build a military research facility, operating under his command, were rebuked. When the board agreed on establishing a laboratory, but not as Edison outlined, he resigned from the board in anger in December 1920.

Final Years

The 1920s would see Edison winding down. Public work had become less significant than devoting time to his family. He began coming home for dinner and found a lovely friend in his wife, Mina. Edison prepared his son Charles Edison (August 03, 1890 – July 31, 1969) for heading Thomas Edison Inc. upon his father’s passing.

Thomas Edison Biography

Charles Edison became the president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in 1927 and headed it until was merged with McGraw Electric Company in 1957.

He was also often seen with Henry Ford, who envisioned Edison as a role model. They had similar interests, talking lots about the automobile, and even took a series of gypsy car trips around the United States often grabbing the attention of the press. Edison encouraged Ford to continue developing the electric automobile, considering it to be the future of transportation.

Thomas Edison died at 9 P.M. on October 18, 1931, in New Jersey. He was 84 years old. Edison left a remarkable legacy that cannot be measured by the 1,093 patents to his name, nor the millions of dollars he earned and spent in his lifetime. Shortly before his departure, he woke up from a coma and whispered to his wife, who had been sitting all night by his side, saying “It is very beautiful over there…” His last breath is allegedly contained at the Henry Ford Museum. Ford reportedly persuaded Edison’s son Charles to take a sample of air from Edison’s room where he died, and seal it in a test tube shortly after his passing. His beloved wife Mina Edison died on August 24, 1947.

Edison’s body laid in the West Orange Public Library for two days, as more than fifty thousand people came to pay final respects to the man whose genius freed the world from darkness. On the third night, the U.S. President Herbert Hoover addressed radio listeners across the United States, urging them to dim or switch off their lights in harmony – almost an apocalyptic scenario reminding the world what lives without Edison would have been like.


For creating inventions that gave shape modern society, Edison’s name can be found carrying influence throughout the world. There are various schools and community colleges bearing his name. Some of them are Thomas Edison State College, Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida, Edison Community College in Piqua, Ohio or Thomas A. Edison High School in New York City. The town of Edison, New Jersey has also been named after him. Lake Thomas A. Edison in California was named after the inventor on the 75th anniversary of the incandescent bulb. Edison personally flicked the light switch at the Hotel Edison in New York City at its opening in 1931. There are three bridges in the United States named after Edison. His name is also commemorated in space on an asteroid 742 Edisona, that was discovered by Franz Kaiser on February 23, 1913.

The 13.5 acres of land at West Orange, New Jersey, is now called Thomas Edison National Historical Park operated by the National Park Service and the Edison National Historic Sites. His laboratory and workshops are still present at West Orange, as well as the Black Maria, the America’s First Movie Studio. In Port Huron, the original depot where Edison frequently sold newspapers to make a living has been restored and can now be found in the Port Huron Museum.

Thomas Edison Biography

Statue of young Thomas Edison by the Blue Water Bridges in Port Huron, Michigan, USA.

The town features various traces of Edison’s influence, including a monument along the St. Clair River. A group of Thomas Edison’s associates created the IEEE Edison Medal in 1904. It is being awarded annually “for a career of meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering or the electrical arts.”

Thomas Edison life story was full of obstacles, ups, and downs but he was able to see the big picture. Edison came into the world that was not fully industrialized. There was no method of recording sound and motion – and the only light available was either too dangerous or unavailable for individual use. What Edison left was the world well on its way to becoming the world we know today. For Edison, “Eureka! I have it!” was only the starting point in his life story. He was able to not only create technology that worked in the lab, but something that would be viable in the marketplace, and eventually end up in people’s homes.

Thomas A. Edison was the man who lit up the world. Part of his genius was his keen observation of how other people’s achievements, successes, and failures could all be connected to push his work forward to a large extent. He was the prime architect of invention able to take various revolutionary ideas and build the aqueduct to channel the river. We hope you have enjoyed exploring Thomas Edison biography and his success story, and it has inspired you to new discoveries.

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