Thomas Edison

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Thomas Alva Edison
Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847October 18, 1931) was an inventor and businessman who developed many important devices. "The Wizard of Menlo Park" was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production to the process of invention. In 1880 Edison founded the journal Science, which in 1900 became the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors, holding a record 1,093 patents in his name. Most of these inventions were not completely original but improvements of earlier patents, and were actually made by his numerous employees. Edison was frequently criticized for not sharing the credits. Nevertheless, Edison received patents worldwide, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Edison started the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate of nine major film studios (commonly known as the Edison Trust).


Family background

Thomas Alva Edison's ancestors, the Dutch Edesons, came to New Jersey in 1730. John Edeson remained loyal to England when the colonies revolted. That got him arrested and nearly hanged. He and his family fled to Nova Scotia, Canada, settling on land the British government gave those who had been loyal to it. In 1811, three generations of Edisons took up farming near Vienna, Ontario. Among them was Samuel Ogden Edison II, of Marshalltown, Annapolis, Nova Scotia, a shingle maker, tailor, and tavern keeper. He married Nancy Matthews Elliott, of Chenango County, New York. Samuel Edison was a rebel in the MacKenzie Rebellion that sought Canadian independence. The revolt failed and, like his grandfather, Sam fled for his life. He went to Port Huron, Michigan, temporarily leaving his wife Nancy and children behind. From Port Huron, Sam Edison moved to Detroit, then Peru, Ohio, and finally to Milan, Ohio.


Thomas Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio to Samuel Ogden Edison II (1804-1896); and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810-1871). Thomas was their seventh child. When he was seven years old the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan.

Early years

Thomas had a late start in his schooling due to childhood illnesses. His mind often wandered and shortly into his schooling his teacher, Alexander Crawford, was overheard calling him "addled." This ended Edison's three-months of formal schooling. His mother had been a school teacher in Canada and happily took over the job of schooling her son in his academics. Mrs. Edison encouraged and taught her son to read and experiment. Many of his lessons came from reading R.G. Parker's School of natural philosophy. Edison's life in Port Huron, Michigan was a bittersweet experience. Partially deaf since adolescence, he became a telegraph operator after he saved the life of J.U. MacKenzie's son, Jimmie, from being struck by a runaway railcar. MacKenzie was so grateful that he took Edison under his wing and trained him as a telegraph operator. Edison's deafness aided him with his telegraphy work as it blocked out noises and prevented Edison from hearing the telegrapher sitting next to him. Some of his earliest inventions related to electrical telegraphy, included a stock ticker. Edison applied for his first patent, the electric vote recorder, on October 28, 1868.

First marriage

On December 25,1871 he married Mary Stilwell (1855-1884), and they had three children:

  • Marion Estelle Edison (1873-1965) who married Karl Oscar Oeser
  • Thomas Alva Edison II (1875-1935) who married Marie Louise Toohey and later married Beatrice Heyzer
  • William Leslie Edison (1878-1935) who married Blanche Travers


Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey with the automatic repeater and other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention which first gained Edison wide fame was the phonograph in 1877. While non-reproducible sound recording was first achieved by Leon Scott de Martinville (France, 1857), and others at the time (notably Charles Cros) were contemplating the notion that sound waves might be recorded and reproduced, Edison was the first to publicly demonstrate a device to do so. This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical. Edison became known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park" after the New Jersey town where he resided. His first phonograph recorded onto tinfoil cylinders that had low sound quality and destroyed the track during replay so that one could listen only once. A redesigned model using wax cylinders was produced soon after by Alexander Graham Bell. Sound quality was still low, and replays were limited before wear destroyed the recording, but the invention enjoyed popularity. The "gramophone," playing gramophone records, was invented by Emile Berliner in 1887, but in the early years, the audio fidelity was worse than the phonograph cylinders marketed by Edison Records.

Second marriage

On February 24,1886 he married Mina Miller (1865-1946) and had an additional three children:

  • Madeleine Edison (1888-1979) who married John Eyre Sloane
  • Charles Edison (1890-1969) who took over the company upon his father's death and married Carolyn Hawkins
  • Theodore Miller Edison (1898-1992) who married an Osterhout

Middle Career

Menlo Park

Edison's major innovation was the Menlo Park research lab, which was built in New Jersey. It was the first institution set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement. Edison invented most of the inventions produced there, though he primarily supervised the operation and work of his employees.

Most of Edison's patents were utility patents, with only about a dozen being design patents. Many of his inventions were not completely original, but improvements which allowed for mass production. For example, contrary to public perception, Edison did not invent the electric light bulb. Several designs had already been developed by earlier inventors including Joseph Swan, Henry Woodward, Mathew Evans, James Bowman Lindsay, William Sawyer, Humphrey Davey, and Heinrich Göbel. In 1878, Edison applied the term filament to the element of glowing wire carrying the current, although English inventor Joseph Swan 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. After Edison purchased the Woodward and Evans patent of 1875, his employees experimented with a large number of different materials to increase the bulb's burning time. By 1879, they had increased the burning time enough to make the light bulb commercially viable. While the earlier inventors had produced electric lighting in laboratory conditions, 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 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. The quadruplex telegraph 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.

Incandescence era

U.S. Patent #223898 Electric Lamp
U.S. Patent #223898 Electric Lamp

In 1878, Edison formed Edison Electric Light Company in New York City with several financiers, including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts. Edison made the first public demonstration of incandescent lighting on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. On January 27, 1880, he filed a patent in the United States for the electric incandescent lamp.

On October 8, 1883, the U.S. patent office ruled that Edison's patent was based on the work of William Sawyer and was invalid. Litigation continued 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. After losing a court battle with Joseph Swan, they formed a joint company (Ediswan) to market the invention. This company and its technological heritage became General Electric in 1892.

In 1880, Edison patented a electric distribution system. The first investor-owned electric utility was the 1882 Pearl Street Station, New York City. On January 25, 1881, Edison and Alexander Graham Bell formed the Oriental Telephone Company. On September 4, 1882, Edison switched on the world's first electrical power distribution system, providing 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan, around his Pearl Street laboratory. On January 19, 1883, the first standardized electric lighting system employing overhead wires began service in Roselle, New Jersey.

Edison speech on light bulb (info)
Video clip of Thomas Edison talking about the invention of the light bulb, late 1920s.
Problems seeing the videos? Media help.

War of Currents era

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.
Extravagant displays of electric lights quickly became a feature of public events, as this picture from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition shows.

During the initial years of electricity distribution, Edison's DC was the standard for the United States, and Edison was not disposed to lose all his patent royalties. During the "War of Currents" era, Nikola Tesla and Edison became adversaries due to Edison's promotion of DC for electric power distribution over the more efficient alternating current (AC) advocated by Tesla, who patented AC in Graz, Austria. Edison (or, reportedly, one of his employees) employed the tactics of misusing Tesla's patents to construct the first electric chair for the state of New York to promote the idea that AC was deadly. Popular myth has it that Edison invented the electric chair, despite being against capital punishment, solely as a means of impressing the public that AC was more dangerous than DC. In fact, like most of the output of the Menlo Park operations, the chair was primarily invented by a few of his employees, in particular Harold P. Brown, while Edison supervised their operations. [1]

Edison went on to carry out a càmpaign to discredit and discourage the use of AC. Edison presided personally over several electrocutions of animals, primarily stray cats and dogs, for the benefit of the press to prove that his system of DC was safer than that of AC. Edison's series of animal executions peaked with the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant.

Many of Edison's inventions using DC ultimately lost to AC devices proposed by others. AC distribution systems replaced DC, extending the range and improving the safety and efficiency of power distribution. Since the 1950s, high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission systems have become more common in certain situations.

Work relations

As exemplified by the light bulb, most of Edison's inventions were improvements of ideas by others, achieved through a diligent and industrial approach and team-based development. He was the undisputed head of the team, but usually did not share credit for the inventions. He himself said: "genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." Nikola Tesla, possibly Edison's most famous employee who went on to be a great scientist and inventor in his own right, said about Edison's method of problem-solving: "If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor." He profited from his good connections with Europe - European inventors often did not apply for US patents for their ideas, so that Edison was free to develop their ideas further himself and then obtain his own US patents

Frank J. Sprague, a former naval officer, was recruited by Edward H. Johnson, and joined the Edison organization in 1883. Sprague was a good mathematician, and one of Sprague's significant contributions to the Edison Laboratory at Menlo Park was the introduction of mathematical methods. Prior to his arrival, Edison conducted many costly trial-and-error experiments. Sprague's approach was to calculate the optimum parameters and thus save much needless tinkering. He did important work for Edison, including correcting Edison's system of mains and feeders for central station distribution. 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.

Media inventions

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 holds the patent for the motion picture camera, but it is argued that William Kennedy Laurie Dickson actually invented it while working in the Menlo Park research lab. As with the electric light, an improvement upon ideas developed by others. Edison established the standard of using 35 mm (then 1 and 3/8 inches) film with 4 perforations on the edge of each frame that allowed film to emerge as a mass medium. He built what has been called the first movie studio, the Black Maria, in New Jersey. There, he made the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott's Sneeze. In 1902, a US court rejected Edison's claim that he be granted sole rights over all aspects of movie production in the case "Edison v. American Mutoscope Company" [2].

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. This was especially important to Thomas Edison because he had been searching for a way to entertain customers that were listening to music on his phonograph. Now, people could go to a penny arcade, put in a coin, put on the headphones, and watch a film through the peep-hole.

On August 9, 1892, Edison received a patent for a two-way telegraph.

In 1894, Edison experimented with synchronizing audio with film; the Kinetophone loosely synchronized a Kinetoscope image with a cylinder phonograph. In April of 1896, Edison and Thomas Armat's Vitascope was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City.


In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison bought a house in Fort Myers, Florida (Seminole Lodge) as a winter retreat. Henry Ford, the automobile magnate lived across the street at his winter retreat (The Mangoes). Edison even contributed technology to the automobile. They were friends until Edison died. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are now open to the public.


  • Thomas Edison was a freethinker, and was most likely a deist, claiming he did not believe in "the God of the theologians," but did not doubt that "there is a Supreme Intelligence." However, he rejected the idea of the supernatural, along with such ideas as the soul, immortality, and a personal God. "Nature," he said, "is not merciful and loving, but wholly merciless, indifferent."5
  • Edison was a vegetarian: "Non-violence" he said, "leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages."
  • He purchased a home known as Glenmont in 1886 as a wedding gift for Mina in West Orange, New Jersey. The remains of Thomas and Mina Edison 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.
  • His contributions to technology benefited people world-wide, and in 1878 he was named Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur of France, and in 1889 was made a Commander in the Legion of Honor.

List of contributions

Main article : List of Edison patents

Improvements of Edison's work


The town of Edison, New Jersey, and Thomas Edison State College, a nationally-known college for adult learners in Trenton, New Jersey, are named for the inventor. There is a Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower and Museum in the town of Edison.

The Edison Medal was created on 11 February 1904 by a group of Edison's friends and associates. Four years later the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), later IEEE, entered into an agreement with the group to present the medal as its highest award. The first medal was presented in 1909 to Elihu Thomson, and surprisingly to Tesla in 1917. The Edison Medal is the oldest award in the area of electrical and electronics engineering, and presented annually "for a career of meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering or the electrical arts."

Life magazine (USA), in a special double issue, placed Edison first in the "100 Most Important People in the Last 1000 Years," noting that his light bulb "lit up the world." He was ranked #35 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.

The City Hotel, in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, was the first building to be lit with Edison's three-wire system. The hotel was renamed The Hotel Edison, and retains that name today.

The Port Huron Museums, in Port Huron, MI, restored the original depot that Thomas Edison worked out of as a young newsbutcher. The depot is appropriately been named the Thomas Edison Depot Museum. The town has many Edison historical landmarks including the gravesites of Edison's parents.

The United States Navy named the USS Edison (DD-439), a Gleaves-class destroyer, in his honor in 1940. The vessel was decommissioned a few months after the end of World War II.

In recognition of the enormous contribution inventors make to the nation and the world, the Congress, pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 140 (Public Law 97 - 198), has designated February 11, the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Alva Edison, as National Inventors' Day

Fictional appearances

Thomas Edison appears prominently as a ghost in the novel Expiration Date by Tim Powers. In the novel, it is postulated that many of Edison's inventions were related to his dabblings with the electromagnetic spirit world.

External links

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Historic sites



Writings and speech

Cross references in popular culture


  • 1847 Birth in Ohio
  • 1871 Marriage to Mary Stilwell (1855-1884)
  • 1880 US Census in Raritan, New Jersey
  • 1884 Death of Mary Stilwell, his wife
  • 1886 (circa) Marriage to Mina Miller (1865-1946)
  • 1900 US Census in West Orange, New Jersey
  • 1910 US Census in West Orange, New Jersey
  • 1920 US Census in West Orange, New Jersey
  • 1930 US Census in in West Orange, New Jersey
  • 1930 US Census in Fort Myers, Florida
  • 1931 Death of Edison
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