Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 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
works of his numerous employees. Edison was
frequently criticized for not sharing the credit. 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).
Thomas Alva Edison's
ancestors, the Dutch Edesons, emigrated to New Jersey in 1730. John Edeson remained
loyal to England
when the colonies revolted (see United Empire Loyalists). That got him arrested
and nearly hanged. He and his family fled to Nova Scotia,
Canada, settling on land the
colonial government gave those who had been loyal to Britain. In 1811, three generations
of Edisons took up farming near Vienna,
Ontario. Among them was Samuel
Ogden Edison, Jr. (1804-1896), an erstwhile shingle maker, tailor, and tavern
keeper from Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. He married Nancy Matthews
Elliott, of Chenango County,
New York. In 1837, Samuel Edison
was a rebel in the MacKenzie Rebellion that sought land reform and autonomy
from Great Britain.
The revolt failed and, like his grandfather before him, Samuel Edison was
forced to flee for his life. Unlike his grandfather, he went south across the
American border instead of north. He settled first in Port Huron, Michigan,
temporarily leaving his wife Nancy and children behind.
Thomas Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio
to Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810-1871). Thomas was
their seventh child. When he was seven years old the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan.
Edison had a late start in his schooling due to childhood
illness. 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. She
encouraged and taught him to read and experiment. 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.". Many of his
lessons came from reading R.G. Parker's School of natural philosophy'.
Edison's life in Port Huron was
bittersweet. Partially deaf since adolescence, he became a telegraph operator
after he saved Jimmie MacKenzie from being struck by a runaway train. Little
Jimmie's father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie of Mount Clemens, Michigan was so
grateful that he took Edison under his wing and trained him as a telegraph
operator. Edison's deafness aided him as 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 then impoverished youth
to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth,
New Jersey home.
Some of his earliest
inventions related to electrical telegraphy, including a stock ticker. Edison applied for his first patent, the electric vote
recorder, on October 28, 1868.
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.
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 Smidlap Edison
(1898-1992) who married an Osterhout
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 Moses G.
Farmer (see), 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.
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.
U.S. Patent #223898 Electric
LampIn 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 therefore 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 he lost another
court battle with Joseph Swan, he and Swan formed a joint company called
Ediswan to market the invention. This company and its technological heritage
became General Electric in 1892.
In 1880, Edison
patented an 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.
U.S. Patent #223898
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.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. 
Edison went on to carry out a
campaign 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 demonstrations peaked with the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant.
Many of Edison's
inventions using DC ultimately lost favor 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
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
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.
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
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 that allowed film to
emerge as a mass medium. The film included four perforations on the edge of
each frame to enable the projector to advance the film properly. 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" .
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. In 1894, Edison
experimented with synchronizing audio with film; the Kinetophone loosely
synchronized a Kinetoscope image with a cylinder phonograph. 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 headphones, and watch
a film through the peep-hole.
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
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
Edison provided financial backing for Guglielmo Marconi's
work on Radio transmission, and obtained several related patents
Edison purchased the Woodward and Evans patent for the
electric bulb (incandescent light bulb) and improved the design
Tattoo gun (enabling
Improvements of Edison's work
Lewis Latimer patented an
improved method of producing the filament in light bulbs.
Nikola Tesla developed
alternating current distribution, which could be used to transmit electricity
over longer distance than Edison's direct
current due to the ability to transform the voltage.
Emil Berliner developed the
gramophone, which is essentially an improved phonograph, with the main
difference being the use of flat records with spiral grooves.
Edward H. Johnson had light
bulbs specially made, hand-wired, and displayed at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City on the
first electrically-illuminated Christmas tree on December 22, 1882.
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
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
The Port Huron Museums, in Port Huron, Michigan,
restored the original depot that Thomas Edison worked out of as a young
newsbutcher. The depot is appropriately been named the Thomas Edison
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 Inventor's