Wizard of Menlo Park

Thomas Alva Edison is considered one of the greatest inventors of all time. Through success and failure, Edison strived hard and, as a result, had more than 1,000 patents to his name. From the perceived invention of the light bulb to the ‘War of Currents’, Edison remains one of the most divisive figures in the history of the scientific community.

Published Categorized as Biography
A confident Thomas Edison posing with his phonograph
Thomas Edison and his early phonograph.

Last Updated on April 21, 2021

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) – Inventor

Thomas Alva Edison, the seventh child of Nancy and Samuel Edison, was born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847. He was born with a slight deformity in his head, which led to hearing problems when he was only twelve years old. A bout of ear infections left him completely deaf in one ear!

He was named Alva by his father in honor of his old friend. Edison went to The Reverend George Engle’s private school for a few months. Because he was inquisitive and asked a lot of questions (both of which were frowned upon) his mother decided to home-school him until he was 11 years old.

He then enrolled at Port Huron Public School in 1859, but after a year, Thomas decided to quit school and sell newspapers, tobacco, and vegetables on trains from Port Huron to Detroit and back. He spent a lot of time in the library of the Detroit Young Men’s Society and made a makeshift laboratory in the basement of his home and transferred it to one of the baggage compartments of a train.

He was 15 years old when he started his newspaper, Paul’s Pry, but the venture was rather short-lived. Thomas became interested in telegraphs and, by 1849, made a simple telegraph set and was taught the basics by James MacKenzie, his father’s friend, and the station master at Mount Clement, Michigan.

Portrait of a young Thomas Edison, smiling and wearing a cap
Young Thomas Edison, age 14

As a telegrapher, Edison was held responsible for a near miss as two trains came close to colliding while he was on duty at Stratford Junction, Ontario, on the Grand Trunk Railway.

This was the time he became aware of his entrepreneurial skills and realized that there was good money to be made in selling newspapers using the telegraph system. He would convince his boss to sell him more than what he usually sold in a day, and cajole a fellow telegraph operator to send a critical headline to each train station. Once the passengers had read the headlines and their curiosity was aroused, the lengthier newspapers sold out immediately!

Edison was quick to change jobs and devoted his spare time to reading books and experimenting with stuff. Most of his spare income went to buying equipment and chemicals. His fellow operators made light of his modest workplace and would joke amongst themselves. Edison, being deaf, couldn’t hear what they were saying, so according to him, they weren’t able to distract him as much as they would’ve liked.

Edison left his job again and went back to his hometown in Port Huron, where he became quite ill for a couple of months. When he recovered, his friend, Milt Adams, invited him to come to Boston to work for Western Union. So, in January 1868, he relocated there but was met by raised eyebrows because of his approach. The other operators gave him a bit of a hard time, underestimating his skills in coding. But Edison was to prove all of them wrong and successfully got the job. He was inspired to continue with his inventions because Boston at that time was the center of scientific innovation, especially in electricity and telegraphy.

Ever the imaginative and ambitious person that he was, a 22-year-old Edison wanted to invent a machine similar to the telegraph that could speed up the counting of votes in US Congress and filed for a patent application in November 1869. It was a surprise to him that the politicians rejected his idea because they wanted their usual slow process of tallying the voting of bills so they still had time to convince people whether to reject or pass their laws. Edison felt humiliated.

At the time, other inventors, namely Franklin Pope, Edward Callahan, Alexander Graham Bell, and Nikola Tesla, were all working on the telegraphing project. They were helping one another, either intentionally or unintentionally. Edison wanted to go to New York to present his duplex telegraph to Franklin Pope and James Ashley, editors of The Telegrapher. Both were impressed.

Edison asked Pope to fund his duplex project. Pope wasn’t able to give him support for his contraption but instead, offered Edison a place to stay in his office. An unfortunate incident at the company gave Edison his big break. The company’s machine broke down and failed to transmit quotes to stockbrokers, which resulted in quite an uproar. Edison quickly inspected the machine and managed to repair it which earned him lots of praise and was made an assistant to Pope. Edison eventually took over Pope’s job in Samuel Law’s Gold and Stock Reporting Telegraph Company and continued with his experimentation using the materials he had at hand.

In 1870, Callahan’s Gold and Stock Telegraph Company bought Samuel Law’s company, and again Edison was left jobless. Edison was recruited by Pope and James Ashley to establish a business in Newark, New Jersey, which Edison gladly accepted. Pope, Edison, and Company offered services as electrical engineers and builders, and developed several telegraph lines. The three of them established a second business as well, Financial and Commercial Telegraph Company competing with Gold and Stock Company. The trio’s company provided gold and stock quotations to firms in lower Manhattan.

In February 1870, the president of Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, Marshall Lefferts, made Edison a consulting electrician for a year. Edison jumped at the opportunity. With enough funds secured to establish a new enterprise, he and an electrician from Gold and Stock, William Unger, founded Newark Telegraph Works, which they later renamed Edison and Unger.

Eventually, Financial and Commercial Telegraph Company was sold to their competitors, Gold and Stock, on April 30, 1870. Not only did Gold and Stock buy the trio’s company, but also demanded they get all their equipment, designed by Pope and Edison. All this happened while Edison was still with their company and as a result, Pope and Ashley were furious.

During this time, Edison met his future bride, Mary Stilwell, and married her on December 25, 1871. They had their first child, Marion on February 18, 1873; Edison was twenty-four while Mary was only nineteen years old. Edison still had several conflicting interests with competing companies and finally decided to establish a small lab for his inventions.

Edison started experimenting with acoustic telegraphy and other practical devices. In 1875, he was able to save up to buy several acres of land in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he moved his whole family and by March 1876, completed the setup of his new lab. With his lab established, he hired Charley, John Kruesi, Charles Batchelor, James Adams, and Ezra Gilliland.

By that time, Edison and his wife had a son, Thomas Alva Junior. Edison, together with his colleagues, won prizes at the 1875 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia for their automatic telegraph system and an electric pen. At the same exhibition, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone created seismic waves in the scientific community.

Edison began to thoroughly inspect Bell’s telephone, pointing out that he could make a receiver and transmitter for the telephone instead of Bell’s device that only has one part, which serves as both transmitter and receiver. In April 1877, Edison applied for a patent for his improvements on Bell’s telephone, but it took several years before he got the license. He and his workmates eventually settled on a carbon-button transmitter and were given a chance to present this to the British officials. Edison sent his nephew, Charley, to do this task, and to their surprise, earned the approval of the British Parliament to establish a telephone company in London. This was a major breakthrough in Edison’s career.

In July 1877, Edison successfully invented the phonograph, where the machine could receive people’s voices and transmit the message by making marks on a paper. Wanting to take a step further, he asked Kruesi to help him improve the device so that instead of just having plain needle marks on a paper for voice transmission, people could listen to their recorded voices. He applied for a patent for the machine on December 15, 1877, and immediately sought to sell it. Edison even demonstrated the working of the phonograph to President Rutherford Hayes.

In following years, he managed to add to his collection of inventions, until he became interested in electric lighting, especially the incandescent light. The team worked hard and finally produced a nearly perfect lamp with a lamp life of almost 1200 hours and presented it to the public on December 3, 1878. He famously remarked:

‘We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles’

Edison spent less and less time with his family and when his wife became ill, he still prioritized his inventions. In September 1882, Edison successfully lit up several houses on Pearl Street. At the peak of Edison’s successes, Mary became sick and died on August 9, 1884.

He met Mina in 1886 at the age of 39, the daughter of another inventor, Lewis Miller. They grew close and married on February 24, 1886. Together, they had three children; Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore.

Edison continued to work on his phonograph, and by 1887, he developed a new model with a wax cylinder and a sapphire needle in replacement of the metal ones. A year after, Edison had another inspiration based on Eadweard Muybridge’s simple invention of making photographs seem like they are moving. Edison made a few significant tweaks and he and another crew member, Dickson, were able to build the kinetoscope which can document movements. They also developed the kinetograph, known as motion pictures nowadays, and by 1893, established the first motion pictures studio.

Thomas Edison posing in his NJ laboratory
The most famous inventor of the Age – Thomas. A. Edison, in his laboratory, East Orange, N.J, 1901

Working long nights and endless days in his workshop resulted in the decline of his health. His alkaline-battery had failed earlier, but he perfected it in 1909 and used it for miner’s lamps. Edison spent eight years as head of the Naval Consulting Board and around fifty of his patents and inventions were rejected by the officials.

He was regularly sick and on October 18, 1931, Edison died at the age of 84 years old. At the time of his death, Thomas Alva Edison was already considered one of the greatest inventors of all time, and the city of New York paid tribute to him by dimming all lights for a few minutes.

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