In this success story, we will share the biography of Thomas Edison, 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 extremely hard-working and implicitly thought 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 or the capital he accumulated. One can understand it by entering a room and switching on the light.
The distinctive personality traits of Thomas Edison are persistence, passion for technology, innovativeness, diligence, and independence.
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 adulthood. His father was born to a Loyalist refugee who had partaken in the War of 1812 as the First Middlesex Regiment captain. The family moved from Nova Scotia to Ontario (then called Upper Canada). After participating in the unsuccessful Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837, Samuel crossed 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 promptly withdrew 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.
Thomas’ mother, as he recalled, “was 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 signs of his remarkable intelligence, Nancy Edison, an accomplished schoolteacher, decided to teach her son at home. Thomas obtained most of his early education from R.G. Parker’s scientific textbooks, the School of Natural Philosophy, and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
At 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 daily associated news releases that were teletyped into the station. He published these statements in his little newspaper entitled Grand Trunk Herald.
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 he set up in the basement of his parent’s 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 most of the baggage car was aflame within moments. 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 eventually developed severe hearing problems, the latter 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 potential of this technology.
On a summer day in 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 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 then, he was still learning about discipline and conducting electrical and chemical experiments during much of his shift.
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 often visited the Court Street factory of Charles Williams Jr., a telegraph manufacturer. The factory would be a meeting place for experiments where Edison could 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’s first patented invention: the Electrical Vote Recorder, October 11, 1868.
The government quickly rebuked the invention, with a congressman telling Edison that it was this if there was any invention they didn’t want here. The legislators wanted precisely the opposite – time to change the minds of fellow legislators, and this invention went in dissonance with their methods. Edison desperately needed 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.”
During his 17 months in Boston, Edison stumbled upon lectures at Boston Tech. It was founded in 1861 and became the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916. Here, he was exposed to the 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 lived in Boston then, was equally captivated by communication technology. Bell’s fascination would eventually lead him to develop the first articulating telephone, pointing Edison toward one of his greatest inventions.
In Boston, 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 perfect long-distance telephony, also providing crucial assistance in manufacturing 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 of 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 extraordinarily 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 being dismissed by Western Union for not being focused on the job and “doing too much moonlighting.” Edison decided 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. A fantastic coincidence occurred when things started looking low to the end of despair.
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 about how to fix it, he entered the scene and seized the opportunity to try to 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 loose 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, twice the rate for a good electrician in New York City. Edison later recalls the incident as being almost surreal. He was “suddenly delivered out of abject poverty and into prosperity within a few minutes.”
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 repeatedly in disbelief. He took the advice of a wise friend who told him to deposit the sum in a bank and forget about it for a while.
Edison’s improved ticker for Gold and Stock Company. The stock ticker was initially invented by Edward Calahan, who devised it in 1867 for the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company. Edison improved the 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, mainly developing and manufacturing telegraphic equipment and perfecting other people’s machines. He worked primarily on printed, automatic, and multiplex telegraphs. Those jobs brought him 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 as 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. A new electrical telegraph enabled the simultaneous transmission and reception of four separate signals on a single wire. 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 settling the court case in December 1875, Western Union gave Edison a formal agreement, an assignment to develop an acoustic telegraph, and 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.
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 significant innovation because it was the first institution set up to manufacture technological innovations. As Edison put it, the plan at Menlo Park 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 came out of Menlo Park, although his employees carried out research and development under his supervision.
At the time, Edison was the only person with vast resources in the field. He would push hard on his employees to produce results. Being a hardworking man, he implicitly thought everyone should be like that. At the Menlo Park Laboratory, they often worked all night experimenting and slept till noon. It is rumored that Edison would note down many hours he would spend doing something in a row and try to beat his record every time.
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.
By 1878, they had three children: Marion Estelle Edison (1873–1965), nicknamed “Dot,” Thomas Alva Edison, Jr. (1876–1935), nicknamed “Dash”, and William Leslie Edison (1878–1937). The marriage was not an easy one for Mary. Edison was mainly absent, working day and night at the Menlo Park Lab, and Mary had to run the house and take care of the children most of the time. Thomas Edison could not afford to lose time, as he knew that if he 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 home and was often ill – suffering headaches, panic attacks, and fatigue. Her background did not fit with Edison’s ambitions, and she immediately found out what it was like to marry a man who 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.
The Centennial International Exhibition 1876, held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, marked America’s theatrical debut as the world’s top industrial power. Innovations 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.
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 said, “An inventor needs an enemy.” In 1876, after being presented at the Centennial Exhibition, the telephone became the 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 trying to replace the telegraph with the telephone, Western Union 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. He invented the carbon button transmitter, which would significantly improve the volume of the telephone and allow it to become a commercially successful device.
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. Edison tried to invent his receiver to avoid court battles, 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.
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 with an embossing point that was held against a rapidly moving tinfoil-coated cylinder and produced sound waves. Also, he equipped the machine with two diaphragm-and-needle units: one for audio recording and the other for playback. When Edison spoke into a mouthpiece, the recording needle indented the sound vibrations onto the cylinder. “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 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 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 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 a 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,” expressing his pride in the troops and asking 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 itself a nation of inventors. It was almost as if an American would be embarrassed going to his grave without winning 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.
After recognizing his status in society, Edison began to mold 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 a sense of humor and immersive confidence in himself. Close people described him as a good storyteller, down to earth, but also a genius. In the public’s mind, Edison was regarded as a visionary and a magician.
On April 01, 1878, the New York Daily Graphic humorously credited Edison with inventing the machine that made food from 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 to create a long-lasting incandescent lamp that would be used indoors.
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 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 then. 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 patented six years before Edison was born. The method traces back to Alessandro Volta’s demonstration of a glowing wire in 1800, which was 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 in seconds.
Since 1800, inventors on both sides of the Atlantic have been puzzling over how to build a reliable electric light system. After a few days of preliminary experiments, Edison was sure he had cracked the problem. He told the New York Sun reporter, “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 he did not know would work out.
Edison’s experience with the telegraph allowed him to visualize creating a lamp. The biggest problem was finding suitable filaments for the incandescent spiral and a bulb with high resistance that could 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.
On January 27, 1880, Thomas Edison received U.S. Patent No. 223,898 for Electric-Lamp.
On October 08, 1883, Edison’s Electric-Lamp patent was ruled 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 (October 31, 1888 – May 27, 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 battle 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. Press, on-lookers, and investors swarmed the facility. 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 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 was much larger. It consisted of creating an entire system that would be inexpensive and practical.
In 1879, the first public demonstration of the bulb took place in Menlo Park on New Year’s Eve. The image title is “When the World came to Menlo Park,” published in Menlo Park Reminiscences book written by Francis Jehl (September 06, 1860 – February 11, 1941), a laboratory assistant of Thomas Edison.
Electric Power Distribution
Edison devised a system that would depend on the central energy source, similar to gas lighting. He did lots of hard research to develop his first generators. They were nicknamed 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, after having patented his system for electricity distribution, and 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.
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. Among other things, he invented an air brake for trains in 1869. Westinghouse became Edison’s biggest rival when he introduced the first commercial AC system in 1886.
George Westinghouse, the founder of Westinghouse Electric Company and the inventor of the alternating current (AC), was the main Edison competitor in the 1880s.
For years prior, AC systems 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 transmitting AC over very long distances became possible, removing the need to build a power station for DC every two miles. It also ran at 1000 Volts compared to Edison’s 240 Volts, reducing the voltage to safe levels at substations along the wireline.
Edison resisted, ensuring his DC system was more reliable and efficient. When the AC system rapidly gained momentum in the market, Edison’s competition with Westinghouse became 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 standards 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, which only heated the competition.
The War of Currents ended in 1892 when Edison was forced out of his company for the commercial failure of DC. The same year, J. P. Morgan, an Edison Electric Light Company financier, 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 in the AC market.
Ironically, former Edison employees supported Westinghouse’s AC system and helped it achieve its dominance. 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 to work on his inventions, and although not commercially successful during his lifetime, he later became regarded as a real genius of his generation.
Along with a series of lawsuits, Edison 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.
Unlike Mary, Mina grew up in a practical world and moved a lot in societal circles. Her father was an inventor, and she understood what it meant to hang around well-known individuals better than most women. Mina was independent and could pursue her 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 they could communicate by tapping each other on the hand in a room full of people. After proposing to her similarly, the two married on February 24, 1886.
The same year, Edison and Mina moved to their new house, Glenmont, 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. The couple spent many winters together there.
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
Edison was ready to return to his endeavors when domestic life was finally settled. On November 24, 1887, Edison relocated his talented team to his 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 near 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’s emergence as 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.
During the West Orange Lab times, Edison also focused on improving the phonograph when an old opponent, Alexander Graham Bell, announced the Graphophone. This invention depended heavily on Edison’s technology. Only during the first four years at the lab in West Orange did Thomas Edison receive more than eighty patents on improvements to 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. At the West Orange Laboratory, Thomas Edison invented the nickel-iron-alkaline battery in 1901. He hoped to create a lighter and more efficient battery 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 electric energy. Most modern batteries are very similar to the alkaline batteries 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 acting 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 that time. He wanted to process 1200 tons of iron ore every 20 hours.
The boulders were polarized in giant interlocking drums, breaking them down until they were pebble-sized. 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 many automated gigantic machines, meaning they would never be touched by a human hand while operating.
Unfortunately, no single investor was anywhere close to that mine, and Edison had to sink some $3 million into the project, which never gained momentum. It was partially responsible for the collapse of the iron ore milling industry in the years preceding the Panic of 1893. The project stretched for about eleven years and became 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. He opened Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899, which proved much more successful than the ore-milling business. Although his ore-milling company was failing, Edison did not look at it negatively. While talking to Edison, a reporter noted, “You sure wasted a lot of money,” 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 conversing 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 the chronophotographic gun in 1882. This device 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 pictures of the birds onto a striped film.
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 devising 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 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 Thomas Edison captured all the performance on the Kinetograph.
On May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison and his lab team unveiled the sister invention to the Kinetograph, the prototype of a Kinetoscope, exhibited at 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 the Kinetophone by joining the Kinetoscope with a cylinder phonograph that allowed the recording and reproduction of sound in films.
The Kinetoscope became the first commercially used viewing technology a few years later. 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 a Kinetoscope in London, United Kingdom. He purchased it from the Continental Commerce Company, which belonged to Joseph D. Baucus and Frank Z. Maguire.
Also, Kinétoscope Edison Michel et al. exis 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.
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 the Cinematograph on February 13, 1895. A Cinematograph is a motion picture camera, film projector, and printer.
The Lumière brothers, Auguste & Louis, patented the cinematograph, which, compared to Edison’s kinetoscope with a peephole viewer at the top, films were projected onto the surface.
Investors were waiting impatiently for Edison’s new, improved device. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1894, an American pioneer of early cinema, Charles Francis Jenkins (August 22, 1867 – June 06, 1934), surprised a small group of friends by projecting tiny moving images onto a handkerchief with a film projection device. Jenkins and Thomas J. Armat (October 25, 1866 – September 30, 1948) invented a film projection machine called Phantascope. On March 26, 1895, Jenkins had patent No. 536,569 for this device.
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 choice but to agree, as they knew 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 the 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.
The motion picture business instantly became a hot market. Because of the huge number of inventors involved in advancing the technology, there were some 500 legal actions on patent claims connected to the motion picture industry by 1900. As a 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 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 many companies. Edison’s executives, key staff members, and lawyers suggested creating a centralized establishment to bring everything the inventor had created under a single roof. As a result, The National Phonograph Company, 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 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 most of the facility, setting four city blocks ablaze. The flames were visible 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. During the war, Edison had submitted some forty plans and inventions to the United States Navy. His suggestions were very useful, although the U.S. Navy was cautious not to voice them out to him. One helpful contribution suggested that submarine sinkings be marked on the map outlining high-risk zones. In 1915, Edison became head of the Naval Consulting Board, which linked the Navy and the scientific community together. 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 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.
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.
Charles Edison became the president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in 1927 and headed it until it 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 the future of transportation.
Thomas Edison died in New Jersey at 9 P.M. on October 18, 1931. 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, 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 lay 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, 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.
Edison’s name carries influence throughout the world for creating inventions that shaped modern society. Various schools and community colleges are bearing his name. Some 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. 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, 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 and the Black Maria, 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.
The town features various traces of Edison’s influence, including a monument along the St. Clair River. 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’s life story was full of obstacles, ups, and downs, but he could see the big picture. Edison came into a 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 could 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 enjoyed exploring Thomas Edison’s biography and success story.
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