Thomas Edison is the quintessential American inventor. He invented the phonograph, the transmitter for the telephone speaker, an improved light bulb, and key elements of motion-picture apparatus, along with numerous other inventions. The development of the world's first industrial research laboratory also goes to his credit.

Early Life


Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11,1847, in Milan, Ohio. He was the youngest of his parents, Samuel and Nancy Edison's, seven children. His father had escaped from Canada and his mother was a skilled school teacher. His mother had a major influence in Thomas' early life. Early in his life, Thomas suffered from scarlet fever. Though he recovered but he developed difficulty in hearing that left him nearly deaf as an adult.
In 1854, when Thomas was seven years old, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. Here, for the first time, Edison attended a public school though only for 12 weeks. Thomas was a hyperactive child and his constant distraction made his teacher call him a "difficult" child. Tired of the teacher's complaints, Thomas' mother pulled him out of the school and started home tutoring him. As an 11 year old, Thomas showed a voracious appetite for knowledge, and he started reading books on a wide range of subjects. In the process of reading books, Edison started teaching himself and began learning independently. His believe in self improvement became his motto for life.

Beginning of a Lifelong Career

At age 12, Edison decided to put all his education to use. He, therefore, began convincing his parents to let him sell newspapers to passengers along the Grand Trunk Railroad line. It was some time before his parents agreed. Exploiting his access to the news bulletins teletyped to the station office each day, Edison began publishing the Grand Trunk Herald, his own newspaper. The newspaper became a hit with the passengers. This venture also became the first among the many entrepreneurial undertakings Edison would start during his lifetime.
During this time, Edison also used his access to the railroad to conduct chemical experiments in a small laboratory which he had set up inside a train baggage car. One day when he was conducting some experiments, a chemical fire started inside the carriage and quickly the fire spread. Due to the efforts of the conductor, no terrible incident took place. However, the conductor did struck Edison on the side of the head which furthered his hearing loss. After this incident, Edison was kicked off the train and he had to sell his newspapers at various stations along the train route.
Things took a different turn when another incident changed the course of his life. During this time, Edison was still working for the railroad. The incident involved, Edison saving the life of a three- year-old from being run over by an errant train. Edison was greatly praised and the child's grateful father rewarded Edison by teaching him how to operate a telegraph. At 15, Edison had learnt so much that he could be easily employed as a telegraph operator. Then, for the next five years, Edison continued to travel throughout the Midwest as a telegrapher. Even then, he managed to study and experiment with telegraph technology. Soon, he became familiar with the electrical science.

Then, in 1866, at age 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky and started working for The Associated Press. After his shift was over, he continued to experiment. During this time, he continued to examine and experiment and prove things to himself. Initially, Edison excelled at his telegraph job but as improvements were made in the way telegraphs were sent by using sound, the improvements proved a disadvantage for Edison. He gradually had less employment opportunities.
In 1868, Edison returned home. At home, he found his mother mentally ill and learnt that his father had no work. Edison family was almost poverty stricken. In order to improve the condition of the family, Edison moved to Boston. There he started working for the Western Union Company. At the time, Boston was America's center for science and culture, and Edison couldn't have been at a better place. In his spare time, he continued to conduct his experiments. Then, he designed and patented an electronic voting recorder that could quickly tally the votes after an election. However, the lawmakers did not like the experiment as they did not want that the votes be quickly tallied.

Edison the Inventor

In 1869, Edison moved to New York City. It was here that he developed his first invention. It was an improved stock ticker, the Universal Stock Printer, which synchronized several stock tickers' transactions. Then, only at 22 years of age, Edison sold the rights of his invention for $40,000. With his first success, Edison quit his work as a telegrapher and devoted himself to inventing.
Thomas Edison, in 1870, set up his first laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey. He employed several machinists to help him with his work. As he was an independent entrepreneur, Edison developed many partnerships and made his products that made the highest bid. Mostly, he made products for Western Union Telegraph Company. In one instance, Edison devised for Western Union the quadruplex telegraph, which was capable of transmitting two signals in two different directions on the same wire. However, railroad tycoon Jay Gould paid Edison more than $100,000 in cash, bonds and stocks and snatched the product from Western Union followed by a lawsuit.

Edison was now financially prosperous. Then, in 1871, Edison married 16 year old Mary Stilwell. They had a thirteen year long marriage and they had three children, Marion, Thomas and William. Things again changed for Edison when Mary died of a suspected brain tumour at the age of 29 in 1884.
By the early 1870s, Thomas Edison had become well known. In 1876, he moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey and there he built an independent industrial research facility which included machine shops and laboratories. In December 1877, Edison developed a tin foil phonograph which recorded sound. It was the first machine that could record and reproduce sound created by a sensation and brought Edison international fame. Edison toured the country with the tin foil phonograph, and was even invited to the White House to demonstrate its working to President Rutherford B. Hayes in April 1878.

The Evolution of Light

Edison remained busy during the 1880s. Soon, he started working on his greatest challenge, the development of a practical incandescent, electric light. The idea of electric lighting was not new, and a number of people had worked on it, and had even developed various forms of electric lighting. But no one so far had been able to develop what was remotely practical for home use. Edison's greatest achievement lay in the fact that he was able to make incandescent light practical, safe, and economical.
Once he had got the patent for the light bullb in 1880, Edison began developing a company that would provide electricity and light up the world. In the same year, he founded the Edison Illuminating Company-the first investor-owned electric utility. The following year, Edison devoted his time to establish facilities in cities where electrical systems were being installed. 
In 1882, something revolutionary happened. After one and a half years of work, Edison achieved success when an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonized sewing thread burned for thirteen and a half hours. The first public demonstration of the Edison's incandescent lighting system took place in December 1879, when the Menlo Park laboratory complex was electrically lighted. Edison spent the next several years creating the electric industry.

That year, the first commercial power station located on Pearl Street provided 110 volts of electrical power and light to 59 customers in lower Manhattan. The electric age had begun. In 1886 Edison married Mina Miller who was 19 years his junior. In 1887, Edison set up an industrial research
laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. The laboratory was less than a mile from his home and it consisted of five buildings. It served as the primary research laboratory for Edison lighting companies.
The large size of the laboratory allowed Edison to work on a number of projects at any given time. Facilities were added to the laboratory or modified to meet Edison's changing needs as he continued to work here till his death in 1931. Over the years, factories were built around the laboratory to manufacture Edison inventions. The entire laboratory and factory complex eventually covered about twenty acres and employed around 10,000 people during World War I.

Meanwhile, the success of his electric light had taken Edison to new heights of fame and wealth, as electricity spread around the world. Edison's various electric companies continued to grow until in 1889 when they were combined to form the Edison General Electric. Though the company was named after him but Edison never controlled the company. So, there were partnerships with investment bankers to acquire capital to develop the incandescent lighting industry. It was later in 1892 that the company was renamed as simply General Electric.
Edison spent a majority of his time at West Orange supervising the development of lighting technology and power systems. It was here that he started developing the alkaline battery and the motion picture camera.

 Like his previous inventions, Edison developed a complete system for a working motion picture camera. His work in motion pictures was pioneering and original. Further over many years, more people added to it to improve the motion pictures. By the late 1890s, a thriving new industry of motion pictures had been firmly established, and by 1918 the industry had become so competitive that Edison got out of the movie business all together.

Edison General Electric

Becoming an Industrialist and a Business Manager

Over the next few decades, Edison transformed from being an inventor to being an industrialist and a business manager. Edison found that the laboratory in West Orange was too large to be properly managed. He also realised that he was not very successful here unlike his previous laboratory. He also saw that he worked best with a handful of assistants instead of working with a number of mathematicians and scientists.
However, not all that he invented was a success. But he also had the potential to turn a near failure into a success. During the 1890s, his magnetic iron-ore processing plant in northern New Jersey proved to be a failure. He, however, managed to convert it into a better method for producing cement. As the automobile industry grew, Edison worked on developing a suitable storage battery to power an electric car. Though the automobiles continued to be driven by gasoline but in 1921, Edison designed a battery for the self-starter on the Model T for Henry Ford. The system was used extensively in the auto industry.
During World War I, the US government asked Thomas Edison to head the Naval Consulting Board, which examined inventions submitted for military use. Edison worked on several projects including submarine detectors and gun-location techniques, limiting his examinations to only defensive weapons.

By the end of the 1920s Thomas Edison was in his 80s and it was then that he had applied for the last of his 1,093 U.S. patents. It was for an apparatus that held objects during the electroplating process.
By now, Edison and his wife, Mina, had started spending a majority of their time at their winter retreat in Fort Myers, Florida. Here, he befriended automobile tycoon Henry Ford. Together they worked on several projects. Their projects ranged from electric trains to finding a domestic source for natural rubber.
In 1928, in recognition of his lifelong the United States Congress voted Edison a special Medal of Honor. In 1929, the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of the incandescent light.

A Great Life Comes to an End

During the last two years of his life, Edison used to fall ill more often. He was unable to spend a lot of time in the laboratory and needed to rest. On October 18, 1931, Thomas Edison died of complications arising from diabetes at his home, Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey. He was 84 years old. When the news of his death became known, several corporations around the world dimmed or briefly turned off their lights to commemorate his passing. Edison's success was a classical rag to riches story. He is considered one of the leading American businessmen. He brought about America's first technological revolution and set the stage for the modern electric world.

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