An inventor and businessman, Thomas Edison is one of the most recognized people in history who had a profound effect on our lives. With over 1,000 patents (singly and jointly) and a number of inventions based on which companies like General Electric were established, he was also one of the most successful entrepreneurs and knew how to market his inventions.
He is better known for the invention of the incandescent light bulb, but he was also behind many other innovations including the earliest motion picture cameras and phonograph as well as the first-ever industrial research laboratory. Most of his well-known work was carried out in the same laboratory. Thomas Edison was also one of the very few men who gained such fame in their 30s.
Early Life of Thomas Edison
Born on 11 February 1847 in Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison was the last (seventh) child of Samuel Edison Jr. and one of the four to make it to adulthood. He spent most of his childhood in Port Huron, Michigan where her mother homeschooled him because he was not doing so well in school. She was a school teacher and taught him to read, write and arithmetic. He left school in 1859 after receiving just a little formal education (some months) after which he started working on the Detroit-Port Huron railroad.
He learned telegraphy during the Civil War, which was then an emerging technology. This also gave him a chance to travel around the country. However, he developed some serious hearing problems generally attributed to a blow to his head or scarlet fever, which turned out to be a big disadvantage with the use of auditory signals for telegraph. He then started working on inventions that eventually turned out to be a huge success. He quit telegraphy in early 1869 and started working full time in pursuing his dreams and inventing new things.
From selling vegetables to working on railroads and selling newspapers on trains, Edison was an active young man with a curious mind. He learnt most things he knew by reading on his own and experimenting at home.
Early Career of Thomas Edison
By the age of 13, Edison was making $50 per week profit by doing all sorts of things including selling candy, vegetables and newspapers on a train. Most of what he earned was spent on buying equipment for conducting chemical and electrical experiments. He saved a 3-year-old child from a runaway truck after which the child’s father trained Thomas Edison as a telegraph operator. He continued carrying out experiments on the train and also learnt qualitative analysis.
He became the exclusive newspaper seller on the train and set up a newspaper Grand Trunk Herald, which was sold along with other newspapers. This is believed to be the first of his long streak of business ventures. These companies included General Electric, which remains one of the world’s biggest publicly traded companies.
Edison moved to Louisville – Kentucky at the age of 19 and worked as a Western Union employee. He chose the night shift so he could have plenty of time for experimenting and reading. However, his favorite pastimes cost him his job while working with lead-acid batteries. He split sulfuric acid, which eventually landed onto the floor below on the desk of his boss.
His first patent (U.S Patent number 90,646) was granted on 1 June 1869 for an electric vote recorder. He had to move to New York City due to nonexistent demand for his first patent. He came under mentorship of a fellow inventor and telegrapher Franklin Leonard Pope who allowed Edison to work in his home’s basement in New Jersey. In 1869, they founded a company and started developing a multiplex telegraphic system able to simultaneously send two messages.
Menlo Park Laboratory
In addition to over 1,000 patents to his name, Edison’s one of the most prominent innovations was the establishment of Menlo Park Laboratory, which was an industrial research laboratory built in 1876 in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The first-of-its-kind park was part of what is now Edison Township (previously Raritan Township). The lab was established using the funds generated from the sales of quadruplex telegraph, which was the first major success and sold for $10,000 to Western Union.
The sole purpose of the lab was to innovate and improve in the field of technology. Most of Edison’s inventions were produced in the Menlo Park lab where many employees carried out R&D work under his watch, including research work for electric lighting, telephone, electric railway, phonograph and iron core separator. In 1880, Edison Lamp Works produced around 50,000 lamps. Almost all of the patients in Edison’s name were utility patents and included processes or inventions for electrical, chemical and mechanical as well as design patents.
The lab expanded to occupy two city blocks in just a decade. Edison wanted his lab to stock every conceivable material. The seriousness of his claim can be gauged from an 1887 article printed in a newspaper saying the lab had around 8,000 types of chemicals, all sizes of needles, all types of screws, all types of cables, animals, silk in all available textures, human hair, all ores, rubber followed by a very long list of other materials.
Thomas Edison’s Major Inventions
Edison started working on electrical illumination in 1878. The main challenge he faced was to create an incandescent lamp that was affordable and long-lasting. The light bulb was already invented in 1840 by Warren de la Rue. But it did not become a commercial success because of the use of platinum filament, which was very costly. Many other scientists also developed electric bulbs, but none of them became a commercial success due to flaws such as a very short life, high manufacturing cost and high electric current needed for operation.
Edison initially tried to address these issues using different methods before finally settling on using bamboo as a filament. US patent 223,898 was granted to Edison on 27 January 1880. However, it took several months after the grant of the patent that it was discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament has a longer life of more than 1,200 hours.
The first public demonstration of Edison’s incandescent lamp was carried out on 31 December 1879 in Menlo Park. After further research and innovation, Edison’s patent for the incandescent light bulb started gaining widespread popularity.
Early career of Edison revolved around working with automatic repeater and telegraphic devices. In 1877, he invented the phonograph, which was totally unexpected by the public and appeared to them as magical. That’s why he is also known as ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’ and treated like a celebrity.
He demonstrated his invention in April 1878 before the NAS (National Academy of Sciences) in Washington in front of US congressmen and the President. However, Edison did not further his research work for phonograph after he got a patent in 1878. Later on, in the 1880s other scientists including Alexander Graham improved on his ideas.
Electric Power Distribution
In order to compete with other gas-light utilities, Edison developed his own utility and patented an electricity distribution system during the 1880s. Edison Illuminating Company was established in December 1880 after which an electric utility was established in New York City. The system provided 110V DC to 59 consumers. The first steam-powered station was switched on in January 1882 in London, which provided electricity to several private dwellings and street lamps.
Edison faced tough competition as he expanded his power delivery system. Competitors were installing AC systems in the early 1880s, which made it possible to transmit electricity over long distances by using transformers and step-down equipment. Edison’s DC system was only suitable for high-density customers in large cities (up to one mile away from the plant). His system was not financially feasible for supplying electricity to rural areas and small cities.
Edison had an anti-AC stance and claimed it to be unworkable and deadly. The ‘War of Currents’ came to an end in 1892 when stockholders forced Edison to hand over control of his own company. Edison General Electric was merged with Thomson-Houston by the financier J.P Morgan, putting Thomson-Houston’s board in charge of the new company.
Carbon Telephone Transmitter
Edison developed a carbon microphone in 1876 to be used in telephones/transmitters. Previously, microphones used weak currents whereas Edison’s invention modulated direct current using a transformer for more reliable communication. An improved version of his invention with roasted carbon was used in almost all telephones until the 1980s.
Other Projects and Inventions by Thomas Edison
With 1,093 patents to his name, Thomas Edison was behind many inventions or improvements in the field of technology including:
- The first fluoroscope (commercially available) that took radiographs using X-rays. Its fundamental design is still in use today
- Tasimeter that measured infrared radiation. It was not patented because Edison did not anticipate a mass-market use for it
- Kinetograph, a motion picture camera Edison patented in collaboration with Willian Kennedy Dickson
- Edison also got involved in mining and tried to mine low-grade iron ore. He developed a process that could pulverize up to 10-ton rocks to extract iron ore
- Edison worked on developing a more efficient and lighter accumulator (rechargeable battery). In 1901, he got a patent for a nickel-iron battery and demonstrated a mature product in 1910, but it did not become a commercial success
- Edison also worked with chemicals and produced phenol @ 6 tons/day
- Edison promoted use of cement and in 1899 established Edison Portland Cement Co., but with his ideas, he was ahead of his time as widespread use of cement remained unfeasible
Final Years of Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison left 6 children, three from each of his two wives. One of his sons Thomas Alva Edison Jr. became a problem as he got involved in selling fraudulent products and used his father’s name to market them. Edison had to take him to court to prevent him from using his name.
Edison remained an active inventor and businessman until his death on 18 October 1931. He inaugurated an electric train service between Dover and New Jersey just a few months before his death. The train service remained active for the next 54 years until its retirement in 1984.
In the last two years, different ailments caused Edison’s health to decline even further. On 14 October 1931, Edison lapsed into a comma never to recover again. He died due to diabetes-related complications and other ailments in his New Jersey home. His last breath is reportedly contained in The Henry Ford museum in a test tube as a memento.