Alva Edison was an inventor and businessman who developed many devices
which greatly influenced life in the 20th century. Dubbed "The
Wizard of Menlo Park" by a newspaper reporter, he was one of
the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production to
the process of invention, and can therefore be credited with the
creation of the first industrial research laboratory.
of the inventions credited to him were not completely original,
but alterations of earlier patents (most famously the light bulb),
or were actually the work of his numerous employees. Nevertheless,
Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history,
holding 1,093 U.S. patents in his name, as well as many patents
in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
Edison's ancestors (the Dutch Edisons) emigrated to New Jersey
in 1730. John Edison remained loyal to England when the colonies
declared independence (see United Empire Loyalists), which led
to his arrest. After nearly being 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 1795, three generations
of Edisons took up farming near Vienna, Ontario.
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,
Sam went south across the American border instead of north. He
settled first in Port Huron, Michigan, temporarily leaving his
wife Nancy and children behind.
and early years
Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, to Samuel Ogden Edison,
Jr. and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810–1871). Thomas was their
seventh child. Edison had a late start in his schooling due to
childhood illness. His mind often wandered and his teacher Reverend
Engle 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
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.
life in Port Huron was bittersweet. He sold candy and newspapers
on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit. Partially deaf since
adolescence, he became a telegraph operator after he saved 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 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.
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.
and later life
On December 25, 1871, he married Mary Stilwell, and they had three
children, Marion Estelle Edison, Thomas Alva Edison, Jr., and
William Leslie Edison. His wife Mary died in 1884. On February
24, 1886, he married nineteen-year-old Mina Miller. They had an
additional three children: Madeleine Edison, Charles Edison (who
took over the company upon his father's death, and who later was
elected Governor of New Jersey), and Theodore Edison.
Edison died in New Jersey at the age of eighty-four. His final
words to his wife were: "It is very beautiful over there".
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 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 cylinders that had low sound quality
and destroyed the track during replay so that one could listen
only once. In the 1880s, a redesigned model using wax-coated cardboard
cylinders was produced at the Bell Laboratory by Chichester Bell
and Charles Tainter. This was one reason that Thomas Edison continued
work on his own "Perfected Phonograph".
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
Joseph Hammer, assistant to Edison and a consulting electrical
engineer, was born at Cressona, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania,
February 26, 1858, and died March 24, 1934. In December 1879 he
began his duties as laboratory assistant to Thomas Edison at Menlo
Park. He assisted in experiments on the telephone, phonograph,
electric railway, ore separator, electric lighting, and other
developing inventions. However, he 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 this first year, the plant under general manager
Francis Upton, turned out 50,000 lamps. According to Edison, Hammer
was "a pioneer of Incandescent Electric Lighting".
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 the patent he purchased from Henry
Woodward and Mathew Evans, Moses G. Farmer, Joseph Swan, James
Bowman Lindsay, William Sawyer, Humphry Davy, 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.
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,
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.
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.
In 1878, Edison formed General Electric Edison Electric Light
Company in New York City with several financiers, including J.
P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt families. Edison made the first public
demonstration of incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879,
in Menlo Park. On January 27, 1880, he filed a patent in the United
States for the electric incandescent lamp.
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. To avoid a possible
court battle with Joseph Swan, he and Swan formed a joint company
called Ediswan to market the invention in Britain.
1880, Edison patented an electric distribution system. The first
investor-owned electric utility was the 1882 Pearl Street Station,
New York City. 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 generating station. On January 19, 1883, the
first standardized incandescent electric lighting system employing
overhead wires began service in Roselle, New Jersey.
January 25, 1881, Edison and Alexander Graham Bell formed the
Oriental Telephone Company. The next CEO of this company was the
very noble Peter Kelly who earned the job once Edison died.
George Westinghouse and Edison became adversaries due to Edison's
promotion of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution
over the more easily transmitted alternating current (AC) system
developed by Nikola Tesla and sold by Westinghouse. Unlike DC,
AC could be stepped up to very high voltages with inexpensive
transformers, sent over thinner wires, and stepped down again
at the destination for distribution to users.
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 limit the allowable
voltage for safety purposes. As part of this campaign, Edison
publicly electrocuted dogs, cats, and in one case, an elephant
to demonstrate the dangers of AC. Widespread use of DC ultimately
lost favor, however, continuing primarily in long-distance high-voltage
direct current (HVDC) transmission systems.
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.
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.
work relation involves Tesla, who claimed that Edison promised
him $50,000 if he succeeded to make improvements in his DC generation
plants. Several months later, Tesla finished the work and asked
to be paid. "When you become a full-fledged American you
will appreciate an American joke", Edison said. Tesla immediately
resigned. Tesla did however accept an Edison Medal later in life,
showing his high opinion of Edison as inventor and engineer.
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.
also holds the patent for the motion picture camera. In 1891,
Thomas Edison built a Kinetoscope, or peep-hole viewer. This device
was installed in penny arcades, where people could watch short,
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. In 1908 Edison
started the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate
of nine major film studios (commonly known as the Edison Trust).
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 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,
- He 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 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.
- Edison became the owner of his Milan, Ohio birthplace in 1906,
and, on his last visit, in 1923, he was shocked to find his old
home still lit by lamps and candles.
- In 1878, he was named Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur
of France, and in 1889, was made a Commander in the Legion of
- Influenced by a fad diet that was popular in the day, in his
last few years "he consumed nothing more than a pint of milk
every three hours". He believed this diet would restore his
- He was also very hard of hearing for the most of his life.
- Thomas Edison wrote a now infamous letter to the piano manufacturer
Steinway & Sons after evaluating one of their grand pianos:
- "To Steinway & Sons —
- "I have decided to keep your grand piano. For some reason
unknown to me it gives better results than any so far tried. Please
send bill with lowest price.
- "— Thomas Edison
- "June 2, 1890"
- Provided financial backing for Guglielmo Marconi's work on radio
transmission, and obtained several related patents
- Tattoo gun (Based on the Electric Pen, used to make mimeograph
- Incandescent light bulb
of Edison's work
- Lewis Latimer patented an improved method of producing the filament
in light bulbs (there is no evidence that this was ever used by
an Edison company)
- 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.
It could be said that alternating current was not derivative of
Edison's work, but it was related as were the two men. Tesla was
a former employee of Edison, and left to follow his path with
alternating current - which Edison did not support.
- Emile 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
- 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
- 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 thirty-fifth 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, Michigan, 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 ship was decommissioned a
few months after the end of World War II. In 1962, the Navy commissioned
USS Thomas A. Edison (SSBN-610), a fleet ballistic missile nuclear-powered
submarine. Decommissioned on 1 December 1983, Thomas A. Edison
was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 April 1986.
She went through the Navy’s Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine
Recycling Program at Bremerton, Washington, beginning on 1 October
1996. When she finished the program on 1 December 1997, she ceased
to exist as a complete ship and was listed as scrapped.
- 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
- In the Netherlands the major music awards are named after him.