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Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931), “The Wizard of Menlo Park”

Early Life

Born in Milan, Ohio, Edison was the youngest in a family of seven. He was something of an eccentric as a child and only spent three months in formal education. Seeing that he was someone apart from the rest, his mother, a former school teacher, taught him at home. Edison proved to be an avid reader and especially liked mathematics, chemistry, and electricity. In order to pursue these interests, he made a makeshift laboratory in his basement. He also found part-time work selling newspapers and snacks aboard the Grand Trunk Railways to fund his experiments. When he wasn’t working, he spent his time at the Detroit Library, wading his way through weighty tomes. Also, he set up his own newspaper, using his hard-earned cash, called the “Weekly Herald.” Edison also hired other children to help in his endeavors. He learned telegraphy from a grateful father whose son’s life he had saved. Edison proved to be the premier operator in the United States. It was during this time that he grew increasingly deaf. This partial deafness actually played a significant role in his work refining the phonograph system.

Life as an Inventor: Menlo Park

In 1868, Edison patented his first invention and also learned a tough lesson. He took his electric vote recording machine to Washington for a demonstration. He was later told that his machine was too efficient and did not allow sufficient time for negotiation and maneuvers. Thus, Edison found that inventions are often only good when they are needed. He would not make the same mistake again.

Three years later, Edison devised an improved version of the stock ticker. Offering it for sale, he was reluctant to ask for the $50,000 he wanted, so he asked what it was worth. He was offered $40,000, which provided the capital for an engineering firm in Newark, New Jersey. Edison was only twenty-three years old at the time. During the next six years, he developed mimeography and improved upon the telegraph and the typewriter; he also invented wax paper.

Around 1876, Edison wanted to expand further and create an “invention factory.” Edison said he wanted to turn out an invention every ten days. What seemed like a grandiose plan proved to be achievable, and often a patent was obtained every five days. He had a committed staff that helped produce many significant inventions. One of these was the carbon telephone transmitter; this device greatly improved the sound clarity of the telephone. One of Edison’s favorites was the phonograph, which was mainly his brainchild. He put tin foil on a cylinder that was etched by a needle that responded to sound waves. The foil represented a physical record of the vibrations and could be used to reproduce sounds. He demonstrated this by reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb” and replayed it to a stunned audience. The invention was a sensation and firmly placed him as a major inventor.

Probably what Edison is most famous for is the electric light bulb. Though not an original Edison invention, it was he who made it practical. The problem had been the inability to make it work for long periods of time. Edison rectified this by using scorched cotton thread as a filament. It sustained light for forty straight hours. More importantly, he helped devise a system whereby homes and businesses could be supplied with electricity.

In 1884, Edison moved to West Orange, New Jersey, and continued to invent. With the help of William Dickson, he developed the kinetoscope, an early motion picture camera. Again, not an original invention but his refinements proved crucial to its development.

Death

As he grew older, Edison became more rigid and autocratic. This hindered the promotion of the phonograph and other inventions. It also possibly cost him the Nobel Prize. He and Nikola Telsa, a former employee, were jointly nominated. However, their dispute over the merits of alternating current versus direct current cost them the prize as they refused to share it. He also lost millions of dollars on technically brilliant inventions that were financially unsound. After a life of amazing successes and spectacular failures, Edison died peacefully in West Orange in 1931.