Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, the seventh and last child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. (1804–1896) (born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, Canada) and Nancy Matthews Edison nee Elliott (1810–1871). His family was of Dutch origin.
Thomas Edison as a boy.
In school, the young Edison's mind often wandered, and his teacher the Reverend Engle was overheard calling him "addled." This ended Edison's three months of official schooling. He recalled later, "My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint." His mother then home schooled him. Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy.
The cause of Edison's deafness has been attributed to a bout of scarlet fever during childhood and recurring untreated middle ear infections. Edison around the middle of his career attributed the hearing loss to being struck on the ears by a train conductor when his chemical lab in a boxcar caught fire. In his later years he modified the story to say the injury occurred when the conductor, in helping him onto a moving train, lifted him by the ears.
Edison's family was forced to move to Port Huron, Michigan when the railroad bypassed Milan, but his life there was bittersweet. He sold candy and newspapers on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit.
Edison became a telegraph operator after he saved three-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from being struck by a runaway train. Jimmie's father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie of Mount Clemens, Michigan, was so grateful that he trained Edison as a telegraph operator. After three months of training, Edison mastered the skill and was hired at a Western Union telegraph office. Edison's deafness allegedly aided him because it blocked out noises and prevented Edison from hearing the telegrapher sitting next to him. One of his mentors during those early years was a fellow telegrapher and inventor named Franklin Leonard Pope, who allowed the impoverished youth to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, New Jersey, home.
Marriages and children
On December 25, 1871, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell, whom he had met two months earlier. They had three children,
- Marion "Dot" Estelle Edison (1873–1965)
- Thomas "Dash" Alva Edison, Jr (1876–1935)
- William Leslie Edison (1878–1937)
Mary Edison died on August 9, 1884.
- Madeleine Edison (1888–1979)
- Charles Edison (1890–1969), who took over the company upon his father's death and who later was elected Governor of New Jersey
- Theodore Edison (1898–1992).
Beginning his career
Edison and early phonograph, 1877
Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention which first gained him fame was the phonograph in 1877. This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical. Edison became known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park," New Jersey, where he lived. His first phonograph recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder and had poor sound quality. The tinfoil recordings could only be replayed a few times. In the 1880s, a redesigned model using wax-coated cardboard cylinders was produced by Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter. This was one reason that Thomas Edison continued work on his own "Perfected Phonograph."
Thomas Edison was a freethinker, claiming he did not believe in "the God of the theologians," but did not doubt that "there is a Supreme Intelligence." He is quoted, "I believe that the science of chemistry alone almost proves the existence of an intelligent creator." However, he rejected the idea of the supernatural, along with such ideas as the soul, immortality, and a personal God. He maintained a position on the supernatural and the Christian religion that was best described as "truculent agnosticism." "Nature," he said, "is not merciful and loving, but wholly merciless, indifferent."
U.S. Patent #223898 Electric Lamp
Edison's major innovation was the first industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was the first institution set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement. Edison was legally attributed with most of the inventions produced there, though many employees carried out research and development work under his direction.
William Joseph Hammer, a consulting electrical engineer, began his duties as a laboratory assistant to Edison in December 1879. He assisted in experiments on the telephone, phonograph, electric railway, iron ore separator, electric lighting, and other developing inventions. However, Hammer worked primarily on the incandescent electric lamp and was put in charge of tests and records on that device. In 1880, he was appointed chief engineer of the Edison Lamp Works. In his first year, the plant under General Manager Francis Robbins Upton turned out 50,000 lamps. According to Edison, Hammer was "a pioneer of incandescent electric lighting."
Most of Edison's patents were utility patents, which were protected for a 17 year period and included inventions or processes that are electrical, mechanical, or chemical in nature. About a dozen were design patents, which protect an ornamental design for up to a 14 year period. Like most patents, the inventions he described were improvements over prior art. The phonograph patent, on the other hand, was unprecedented as the first device to record and reproduce sounds. Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb, but instead invented the first commercially practical incandescent light. Several designs had already been developed by earlier inventors including the patent he purchased from Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, Moses G. Farmer, Joseph Swan, James Bowman Lindsay, William Sawyer, Sir Humphry Davy, and Heinrich Göbel. Some of these early bulbs had such flaws as extremely short life, high expense to produce, and high current draw, making them difficult to apply on a large scale commercially. In 1878, Edison applied the term filament to the element of glowing wire carrying the current, although English inventor Joseph Swan had used the term prior to this. Edison took the features of these earlier designs and set his workers to the task of creating longer-lasting bulbs. By 1879, he had produced a new concept: a high resistance lamp in a very high vacuum, which would burn for hundreds of hours. While the earlier inventors had produced electric lighting in laboratory conditions dating back to a demonstration of a glowing wire by Alessandro Volta in 1800, Edison concentrated on commercial application and was able to sell the concept to homes and businesses by mass-producing relatively long-lasting light bulbs and creating a complete system for the generation and distribution of electricity.
The Menlo Park research lab was made possible by the sale of the quadruplex telegraph that Edison invented in 1874, which could send four simultaneous telegraph signals over the same wire. When Edison asked Western Union to make an offer, he was shocked at the unexpectedly large amount that Western Union offered; the patent rights were sold for $10,000. The quadruplex telegraph was Edison's first big financial success.
In just over a decade Edison's Menlo Park laboratory had expanded to consume two city blocks. Edison said he wanted the lab to have "a stock of almost every conceivable material." A newspaper article printed in 1887 reveals the seriousness of his claim, stating the lab contained "eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels...silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark's teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell...cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock's tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores..." and the list goes on.
With Menlo Park, Edison had created the first industrial laboratory concerned with creating knowledge and then controlling its application.
Carbon telephone transmitter
In 1877 and 1878, Edison invented and developed the carbon microphone used in all telephones along with the Bell receiver until the 1980s. After protracted patent litigation, a federal court ruled in 1892 that Edison and not Emile Berliner was the inventor of the carbon microphone. (Josephson, p146). The carbon microphone was also used in radio broadcasting and public address work through the 1920s.
Main article: History of the light bulb
After many experiments with platinum and other metal filaments, Edison returned to a carbon filament. The first successful test was on October 22, 1879; and lasted 13.5 hours. Edison continued to improve this design and by November 4, 1879, filed for U.S. patent 223,898 (granted on January 27, 1880) for an electric lamp using "a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected ... to platina contact wires." Although the patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including "cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways," it was not until several months after the patent was granted that Edison and his team discovered a carbonized bamboo filament could last over 1200 hours.
Edison in 1878
In 1878, Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City with several financiers, including J. P. Morgan and the members of the Vanderbilt family. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. It was during this time that he said, "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles."
On October 8, 1883, the U.S. patent office ruled that Edison's patent was based on the work of William Sawyer and was therefore invalid. Litigation continued for nearly six years, until October 6, 1889, when a judge ruled that Edison's electric light improvement claim for "a filament of carbon of high resistance" was valid. To avoid a possible court battle with Joseph Swan, whose English patent had been awarded a year before Edison's, he and Swan formed a joint company called Ediswan to market the invention in Britain.
Electric power distribution
Edison patented an electric distribution system in 1880, which was essential to capitalize on the invention of the electric lamp. On December 17, 1880, Edison founded the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. The company established the first investor-owned electric utility in 1882 on Pearl Street Station, New York City. It was on September 4, 1882, that Edison switched on his Pearl Street generating station's electrical power distribution system, which provided 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan. - Earlier in the year, in January 1882 he had switched on the first steam generating power station at Holborn Viaduct in London. The DC supply system provided electricity supplies to street lamps and several private dwellings within a short distance of the station.
On January 19, 1883, the first standardized incandescent electric lighting system employing overhead wires began service in Roselle, New Jersey.
War of currents
Main article: War of Currents
Extravagant displays of electric lights quickly became a feature of public events, as this picture from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition shows.
Despite Edison's contempt for capital punishment, the war against AC led Edison to become involved in the development and promotion of the electric chair as a demonstration of AC's greater lethal potential versus the "safer" DC. Edison went on to carry out a brief but intense campaign to ban the use of AC or to limit the allowable voltage for safety purposes. As part of this campaign, Edison's employees publicly electrocuted dogs, cats, and in one case, an elephant to demonstrate the dangers of AC. AC replaced DC in most instances of generation and power distribution, enormously extending the range and improving the efficiency of power distribution.
Though widespread use of DC ultimately lost favor for distribution, it exists today primarily in long-distance high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission systems. Low voltage DC distribution continued to be used in high density downtown areas for many years and was replaced by AC low voltage network distribution in many central business districts. DC had the advantage that large battery banks could maintain continuous power through brief interruptions of the electric supply from generators and the transmission system. Utilities such as Commonwealth Edison in Chicago had rotary converters, also known as motor-generator sets, which could change DC to AC and AC to various frequencies in the early to mid 20th century. Utilities supplied rectifiers to convert the low voltage AC to DC for such DC loads as elevators, fans and pumps. There were still 1,600 DC customers in downtown New York City when the service was discontinued in 2005. The New York City Subway system is still run by DC power to this day.
Frank J. Sprague, a competent mathematician and former naval officer, was recruited by Edward H. Johnson and joined the Edison organization in 1883. One of Sprague's significant contributions to the Edison Laboratory at Menlo Park was to expand Edison's mathematical methods. (Despite the common belief that Edison did not use mathematics, analysis of his notebooks reveal that he was an astute user of mathematical analysis, for example, determining the critical parameters of his electric lighting system including lamp resistance by a sophisticated analysis of Ohm's Law, Joule's Law and economics.) A key to Edison's success was a holistic rather than reductionist approach to invention, making extensive use of trial and error when no suitable theory existed. Since Sprague joined Edison in 1883 and Edison's output of patents peaked in 1880, it could be interpreted that the shift towards a reductionist analytical approach may not have been a positive move for Edison. Sprague's important analytical contributions, including correcting Edison's system of mains and feeders for central station distribution, form a counter argument to this. In 1884, Sprague decided his interests in the exploitation of electricity lay elsewhere, and he left Edison to found the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company. However, Sprague, who later developed many electrical innovations, always credited Edison for their work together.
Another of Edison's assistants was Nikola Tesla, who claimed that Edison promised him $50,000 if he succeeded in making improvements to his DC generation plants. Several months later, when he had finished the work and asked to be paid, Tesla claimed that Edison said, "When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke." Tesla immediately resigned. This anecdote is somewhat doubtful, since at Tesla's salary of $18 per week the bonus would have amounted to over 53 years pay, and the amount was equal to the initial capital of the company. Tesla resigned when he was refused a raise to $25 per week (Jonnes, p110). Although Tesla accepted an Edison Medal later in life and professed a high opinion of Edison as an inventor and engineer, he remained bitter. The day after Edison died, the New York Times contained extensive coverage of Edison's life, with the only negative opinion coming from Tesla who was quoted as saying, "He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene" and that, "His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense." When Edison was a very old man and close to death, he said, in looking back, that the biggest mistake he had made was that he never respected Tesla or his work.
There were 28 men recognized as Edison Pioneers.
The key to Edison's fortunes was telegraphy. With knowledge gained from years of working as a telegraph operator, he learned the basics of electricity. This allowed him to make his early fortune with the stock ticker, the first electricity-based broadcast system. Edison patented the sound recording and reproducing phonograph (or gramophone in British English) in 1878. Edison was also granted a patent for the motion picture camera or "Kinetograph". He did the electromechanical design, while his employee W.K.L. Dickson, a photographer, worked on the photographic and optical development. Much of the credit for the invention belongs to Dickson. In 1891, Thomas Edison built a Kinetoscope, or peep-hole viewer. This device was installed in penny arcades, where people could watch short, simple films. The kinetograph and kinetoscope were both first publicly exhibited May 20, 1891.
On August 9, 1892, Edison received a patent for a two-way telegraph. In April 1896, Thomas Armat's Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in Edison's name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City. Later he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film.
Officially the kinetoscope entered in Europe when the rich American Businessman Irving T. Bush (1869-1948) bought from the Continental Commerce Company of Franck Z. Maguire and Joseph D. Bachus a dozen machines. Bush placed from October 17, 1894 on the first kinetoscopes in London. At the same time the French company Kinétoscope Edison Michel et Alexis Werner bought these machines for the market in France. In the last three months of 1894 The Continental Commerce Company sold hundreds of kinetoscopes in Europe (i.e. the Netherlands and Italy). In Germany and in Austria-Hungary the kinetoscope was introduced by the Deutsche-österreichische-Edison-Kinetoscop Gesellschaft, founded by the Ludwig Stollwerck of the Schokoladen-Süsswarenfabrik Stollwerck & Co of Cologne. The first kinetoscopes arrived in Belgium at the Fairs in early 1895. The Edison's Kinétoscope Français, a Belgian company, was founded in Brussels on January 15, 1895 with the rights to sell the kinetoscopes in Monaco, France and the French colonies. The main investors in this company were Belgian industrialists. On May 14, 1895 the Edison's Kinétoscope Belge was founded in Brussels. The businessman Ladislas-Victor Lewitzki, living in London but active in Belgium and France, took the initiative in starting this business. He had contacts with Leon Gaumont and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. In 1898 he also became shareholder of the Biograph and Mutoscope Company for France.
In 1908, Edison started the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate of nine major film studios (commonly known as the Edison Trust). Thomas Edison was the first honorary fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, which was founded in 1929.
Edison celebrates his 82nd birthday with President Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone. Ft. Myers, Florida, February 11, 1929.
Edison became the owner of his Milan, Ohio, birthplace in 1906. On his last visit, in 1923, he was shocked to find his old home still lit by lamps and candles.
Influenced by a fad diet that was popular in the day, in his last few years "the only liquid he consumed was a pint of milk every three hours." He believed this diet would restore his health.
Edison was active in business right up to the end. Just months before his death in 1931, the Lackawanna Railroad implemented electric trains in suburban service from Hoboken to Gladstone, Montclair and Dover in New Jersey. Transmission was by means of an overhead catenary system, with the entire project under the guidance of Thomas Edison. To the surprise of many, Thomas Edison was at the throttle of the very first MU (Multiple-Unit) train to depart Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, driving the train all the way to Dover. As another tribute to his lasting legacy, the same fleet of cars Edison deployed on the Lackawanna in 1931 served commuters until their retirement in 1984. A special plaque commemorating the joint achievement of both the railway and Edison, can be seen today in the waiting room of Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, presently operated by New Jersey Transit.
Edison purchased a home known as "Glenmont" in 1886 as a wedding gift for Mina in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey. The remains of Edison and his wife, Mina, are now buried there. The 13.5 acre (55,000 m²) property is maintained by the National Park Service as the Edison National Historic Site. Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931, in New Jersey at age 84. His final words to his wife were "It is very beautiful over there." Mina died in 1947. Edison's last breath is reportedly contained in a test tube at the Henry Ford Museum. Ford reportedly convinced Charles Edison to seal a test tube of air in the inventor's room shortly after his death, as a memento. A plaster death mask was also made.
In the 1880s, Thomas Edison bought property in Fort Myers, Florida, and built Seminole Lodge as a winter retreat. Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, later lived a few hundred feet away from Edison at his winter retreat, The Mangoes. Edison even contributed technology to the automobile. They were friends until Edison's death.
- Edison was a strong supporter of Montessori schools in the United States.
- While working with Alexander Graham Bell to discover words of greeting, Edison is credited as creating the word "Hello" as a telephone greeting in 1877. Bell, however, preferred "Ahoy-hoy" as a greeting. (Hello is a variant on the old word hallo.)
- Edison was so fascinated by Morse Code that he taught it to his girlfriend Mina Miller, proposed marriage to her in the code. He nicknamed his first two children "Dot" and "Dash" (from his first marriage to Mary Stilwell).
- Edison's company was considerably late in the business of releasing music on phonographs. Reportedly, Edison considered his invention to be limited to a business dictation machine, and the concept of pre-recorded music never crossed his mind.
- At the turn of the last century, Edison saw modern medicine at the crossroads. In 1902 he wrote of Medicine being "played out" which prompted his oft repeated quote: "The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease." he continued in that vein: "There were never so many able, active minds at work on the problems of diseases as now, and all their discoveries are tending to the simple truth — that you can't improve on nature." for full quote see wikiquote.
- Mrs. Thomas Alva Edison was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.