Thomas Edison was an American inventor who is considered one of America's leading businessmen and innovators. Edison rose from humble beginnings to work as an inventor of major technology, including the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb. He is credited today for helping to build America's economy during the Industrial Revolution.
Thomas Edison, in full Thomas Alva Edison, was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children of Samuel and Nancy Edison. He singly or jointly, held a world record 1,093 patents. In addition, he created the world’s first industrial research laboratory.
His father was an exiled political activist from Canada, while his mother was an accomplished school teacher and a major influence in Edison’s early life.
At an early age he developed hearing problems, which have been variously attributed but were most likely due to a familial tendency to mastoiditis. Whatever the cause, Edison’s deafness strongly influenced his behaviour and career, providing the motivation for many of his inventions.
In 1854 Samuel Edison became the lighthouse keeper and carpenter on the Fort Gratiot military post near Port Huron, Michigan, where the family lived in a substantial home. Alva, as the inventor was known until his second marriage, entered school there and attended sporadically for five years. He was imaginative and inquisitive, but because much instruction was by rote and he had difficulty hearing, he was bored and was labeled a misfit. To compensate, he became an avid and omnivorous reader. Edison’s lack of formal schooling was not unusual. At the time of the Civil War the average American had attended school a total of 434 days—little more than two years’ schooling by today’s standards.
In 1868 Edison moved to Boston where he worked in the Western Union office and worked even more on his inventions. In January 1869 Edison resigned his job, intending to devote himself fulltime to inventing things. His first invention to receive a patent was the electric vote recorder, in June 1869. Daunted by politicians' reluctance to use the machine, he decided that in the future he would not waste time inventing things that no one wanted.
Edison moved to New York City in the middle of 1869. A friend, Franklin L Pope, allowed Edison to sleep in a room at Samuel Laws' Gold Indicator Company where he was employed. When Edison managed to fix a broken machine there, he was hired to manage and improve the printer machines.
During the next period of his life, Edison became involved in multiple projects and partnerships dealing with the telegraph. In October 1869, Edison formed with Franklin L. Pope and James Ashley the organization Pope, Edison and Co. They advertised themselves as electrical engineers and constructors of electrical devices. Edison received several patents for improvements to the telegraph. The partnership merged with the Gold and Stock Telegraph Co. in 1870. Edison also established the Newark Telegraph Works in Newark, NJ, with William Unger to manufacture stock printers. He formed the American Telegraph Works to work on developing an automatic telegraph later in the year. In 1874 he began to work on a multiplex telegraphic system for Western Union, ultimately developing a quadruplex telegraph, which could send two messages simultaneously in both directions. When Edison sold his patent rights to the quadruplex to the rival Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Co, a series of court battles followed in which Western Union won. Besides other telegraph inventions, he also developed an electric pen in 1875.
Edison opened a new laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ, in 1876. This site later become known as an "invention factory," since they worked on several different inventions at any given time there. Edison would conduct numerous experiments to find answers to problems. He said, "I never quit until I get what I'm after. Negative results are just what I'm after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results." 2 Edison liked to work long hours and expected much from his employees.
In 1877, Edison worked on a telephone transmitter that greatly improved on Alexander Graham Bell's work with the telephone. His transmitter made it possible for voices to be transmitted at higer volume and with greater clarity over standard telephone lines.
Edison's experiments with the telephone and the telegraph led to his invention of the phonograph in 1877. It occurred to him that sound could be recorded as indentations on a rapidly-moving piece of paper. He eventually formulated a machine with a tinfoil-coated cylinder and a diaphragm and needle. When Edison spoke the words "Mary had a little lamb" into the mouthpiece, to his amazement the machine played the phrase back to him. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established early in 1878 to market the machine, but the initial novelty value of the phonograph wore off, and Edison turned his attention elsewhere.
In 1888, Edison met Eadweard Muybridge at West Orange and viewed Muybridge's zoopraxiscope. This machine used a circular disc with still photographs of the successive phases of movement around the circumference to recreate the illusion of movement. Edison declined to work with Muybridge on the device and decided to work on his own motion picture camera at his laboratory. As Edison put it in a caveat written the same year, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear."
The task of inventing the machine fell to Edison's associate William K. L. Dickson. Dickson initially experimented with a cylinder-based device for recording images, before turning to a celluloid strip. In October of 1889, Dickson greeted Edison's return from Paris with a new device that projected pictures and contained sound. After more work, patent applications were made in 1891 for a motion picture camera, called a Kinetograph, and a Kinetoscope, a motion picture peephole viewer.
Kinetoscope parlors opened in New York and soon spread to other major cities during 1894. In 1893, a motion picture studio, later dubbed the Black Maria (the slang name for a police paddy wagon which the studio resembled), was opened at the West Orange complex. Short films were produced using variety acts of the day. Edison was reluctant to develop a motion picture projector, feeling that more profit was to be made with the peephole viewers.
When Dickson aided competitors on developing another peephole motion picture device and the eidoloscope projection system, later to develop into the Mutoscope, he was fired. Dickson went on to form the American Mutoscope Co. along with Harry Marvin, Herman Casler, and Elias Koopman. Edison subsequently adopted a projector developed by Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins and re-named it the Vitascope and marketed it under his name. The Vitascope premiered on April 23, 1896, to great acclaim.
In 1911, Edison's companies were re-organized into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. As the organization became more diversified and structured, Edison became less involved in the day-to-day operations, although he still had some decision-making authority. The goals of the organization became more to maintain market viability than to produce new inventions frequently.
A fire broke out at the West Orange laboratory in 1914, destroying 13 buildings. Although the loss was great, Edison spearheaded the rebuilding of the lot.
When Europe became involved in World War I, Edison advised preparedness, and felt that technology would be the future of war. He was named head of the Naval Consulting Board in 1915, an attempt by the government to bring science into its defense program. Although mainly an advisory board, it was instrumental in the formation of a laboratory for the Navy which opened in 1923, although several of Edison's suggestions on the matter were disregarded. During the war, Edison spent much of his time doing naval research, in particular working on submarine detection, but he felt that the navy was not receptive to many of his inventions and suggestions.
In the 1920s, Edison's health became worse, and he began to spend more time at home with his wife. His relationship with his children was distant, although Charles was president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. While Edison continued to experiment at home, he could not perform some experiments that he wanted to at his West Orange laboratory because the board would not approve them. One project that held his fascination during this period was the search for an alternative to rubber.
Henry Ford, an admirer and friend of Edison's, reconstructed Edison's invention factory as a museum at Greenfield Village, Michigan, which opened during the 50th anniversary of Edison's electric light in 1929. The main celebration for Light's Golden Jubilee, co-hosted by Ford and General Electric, took place in Dearborn along with a huge celebratory dinner in Edison's honor attended by notables such as President Hoover, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., George Eastman, Marie Curie, and Orville Wright. Edison's health, however, had declined to the point that he could not stay for the entire ceremony.
For his last two years, a series of ailments caused his health to decline even more until he lapsed into a coma on October 14, 1931. He died on October 18, 1931, at his estate, Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey.