Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) American inventor and businessman.
Edison is best known for his invention of the electric light system (the first practical incandescent light bulb* and supporting materials), the phonograph, and motion pictures. He also held patents on the alkaline storage battery and synthetic rubber, among many others. Many of these were invented in part by his assistants and employees, which he called "muckers".
Born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio, the He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison, Jr. and Nancy Elliot Edison. He may have suffered from ADD; he was unruly enough that his parents withdrew him from school at the age of seven in order to teach him at home. Around the age of twelve, he lost most of his hearing. The cause of this is not known, but he claimed that it happened when he was grabbed by the ears and lifted onto a train. It might also have been the result of scarlet fever.
He took to business at a young age; by the time he was twelve he was selling newspapers and snacks on the Grand Trunk Railway, and had a separate business selling vegetables. He also started his own paper, which he called the Weekly Herald. He took the news that was teletyped daily to the train stations and printed it up in a flyer. This was the first paper to be printed and sold on a train (he set up a second-hand printing press in the baggage car). His profits went, in part, to setting up his own chemistry lab. When his mother complained of the smell (and danger), he moved part of this lab onto the train. Unfortunately, the movement of the train caused some phosphorous to spill, setting fire to some of the luggage. From that point on, Edison was not allowed to publish, experiment, or peddle goods on the trains (although he could still sell stuff at the stations).
By the age of 15, Edison was well versed in the field of telegraphy -- one story tells that he saved the station master's three-year-old son when the child wandered onto the tracks and into the path of an oncoming train. As a reward, the station master taught him Morse code, and how to work the telegraph. However he leaned these skills, from 1863 to 1867 Edison travelled from city to city working as a telegraph worker. (Historical note -- the American Civil War ends in 1865). In 1868 he took a job in Boston working for Western Union. During all this, of course, he was working on inventing stuff. His first invention was an automatic repeater for the telegraph; it would automatically forward telegraph messages, making unmanned telegraph stations feasible. He did not patent this invention.
In 1869 he quit his job in order to devote himself full time to inventing things. His first invention to receive a patent was the electric vote recorder. Unfortunately, no one was particularly interested in it, and Edison decided to work only on inventions that the public wanted. While working on this, he took a job in New York City as a repair man for stock tickers.
Edison's first 'useful' invention was the Edison Universal Stock Printer, an improvement on the stock ticker. He sold the rights for $40,000. His next spate of inventions were mostly improvements on the telegraph. During this time (1869) he, Franklin L. Pope, and James Ashley set up Pope, Edison and Co., a company constructing 'electrical devices'. This company merged with Gold and Stock Telegraph Co. in 1870. Edison also started up the Newark Telegraph Works to manufacture stock tickers in 1870, and the American Telegraph Works to work on developing the automatic telegraph.
In 1871 two important events happed: Edison's mother died, and later that year, on Christmas day, he married Mary Stilwell, a former employee. Their first child, Marion, was born in February 1873; their first son, Thomas, Jr., in January of 1876 (these two were nicknamed Dot and Dash by their father); and in October of 1878 William Leslie was born.
In 1876 Edison opened a laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison was not a good financial manager, and he needed money. This laboratory was to be a base from which he could concentrate on inventing more stuff more quickly (Edison said that he planned to build a small invention every ten days, and a large invention every six months). Here Edison invented the phonograph (1877), the electric light system (1879), and the carbon-button transmitter among others. He also tried to invent the telephone, but Alexander Graham Bell beat him to it; Edison did some important pioneering and refining work in the field of telephones, tho.
In 1878 Edison, J.P. Morgan, and the Vanderbilts set up the Edison Electric Light Company (later to be called General Electric, after its merger with Thomson-Houston Company). This company worked hard to introduce the wonders of electricity to the common masses (starting with the rich, the famous, and big industry). Edison, with the help of Francis Upton, developed a feasible DC generator in 1879. In 1880 the first electrical lighting system was installed in the steamship S.S. Columbia, and in 1881 the first land based, commercial lighting system was installed in Hinds and Ketcham, a New York printing firm.
Edison continued to set up factories and companies. I will spare you (and me) the full list.
In the early 1880s, Nikola Tesla invented the AC generator, which would allow electricity to be transmitted over greater distances than could be done with DC power, which required a generator every few miles. Tesla came to America to present this idea to Edison, only to find that Edison was dead set against it. Edison was making good money off of DC power, and didn't want to change, or worse, have someone else move in on his turf. Tesla and Edison had a long standing feud; Tesla believed the Edison had wronged him on multiple occasions, and had some justification for this. When Edison wouldn't help with the AC power project, Tesla went to George Westinghouse, who knew a good thing when he saw it.
When it was clear that AC power was a threat, Edison started a propaganda campaign against AC power, claiming that it was much more dangerous than DC power. Besides distributing pamphlets, he also set up demonstrations where he electrocuted dogs and cats to show the power of AC. He also convinced the authorities at Sing Sing to carry out death sentences not by hanging, but by AC power. Despite all of this, AC power 'won', and is what we use today.
In 1884 Edison's wife Mary died at the age of 29, possibly from a brain tumor (the cause was given as "congestion of the brain"). Edison remarried in 1886, to Mina Miller. They had three children together; Madeleine in 1888, Charles in 1890, and Theodore in 1898.
In 1887, Edison built a larger laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. This laboratory had a machine shop, phonograph and photograph departments, a library, and buildings for metallurgy, chemistry, woodworking, and galvanometer testings. Here he invented the motion picture camera, the alkaline storage battery (AKA Edison storage battery), the electric pen (an early printer), and improved the phonograph to the point where it could start to be sold commercially (it was first sold as a dictation machine).
Edison gave the task of inventing motion pictures to William K. L. Dickson, who presented him with the first projection device in 1889. In 1891 patent applications were put in for a motion picture camera (Kinetograph), and a small peephole viewer (Kinetoscope). Edison didn't work on a projections system, as he suspected than more money could be made with the peephole viewers. Dickson helped competitors to invent a projector, and was fired. Edison spent a lot of time tryng to oust the compitition, sueing everone he could for infringement, but in 1915 the courts finally decided that the Motion Picture Patents Company was an unfair monopoly. Edison also worked for a while on a Kinetophone (sound to go with the movies), but gave up in 1915.
In the 1890s Edison took on the challenge of inventing a machine for separating iron and platinum ore from rock by means of magnitism. The price of iron had been going up, so if he could find a way to get the iron from low-grade rejects, he might be able to make a profit off of abandoned mines. He managed to get the rights to 145 old mines, but couldn't get his system to work. He lost millions of dollars before giving up. This is Edison's biggest failure.
Jesse H. Lippincott had, in 1888, gotten control of most phonograph companies (including Edison's), and started the North American Phonograph Company. In 1894, the company finally went bankrupt, and Edison was able to buy back rights to the phonograph and, in 1896, start the National Phonograph Company, with the intent of making phographs avaialble to the general public. This company did well, but the company had a reputation of recording less talented performers, and in the 1920s, with the rising popularity of radio, business dropped.
In 1915 Edison was named head of Naval Consulting Board, in an attempt by the government to advance the technology they could bring to bear in the war (WWI). Much of Edison's attemps at new advances involved electric weapons, and most were ingnored.
Edison was in poor health for the last two years of his life. In October 14, 1931 he fell into a coma, and he died four days later at his home in West Orange, New Jersey. On October 21, 1931, electric lights were dimmed for one minute throughout the United States, as a sign of respect and mourning. At the time of his death he held 1,093 US patents and 1,239 foreign patents.
"Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
" I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent"
"My main purpose in life is to make money so that I can afford to go on creating more inventions"
"Unfortunately, there seems to be far more opportunity out there than ability"
"I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. "
"We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything."
"Religion is all bunk."
"There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish something."
* The 'incandescent filament lamp' was invented by Joseph Swan.
http://www.tomedison.org/invent.html (Doesn't distinguish Edison's inventions from his workers).
Tesla: Man Out of Time
by Margaret Cheney