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EDISON'S STORY

Growing up

Edison’s parents, Samuel and Nancy. (Edison National Historic Site 14.300/2)

Thomas Alva Edison (nicknamed Al) was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. Edison was an inquisitive boy who began experimenting at an early age. His hometown of Milan, Ohio, was a busy place. Canals were the highways of the early 19th century. The Huron Canal connected Milan to the Huron River, which flowed into Lake Erie, giving eventual access to the Atlantic Ocean, making Milan an important shipping port. But when the railroad reached that part of Ohio, it bypassed Milan and the town's trade faded. So when Al was seven, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, hoping for a better future.

In this new location Al's father engaged in a variety of trades, including lumbering, land speculation, farming, and carpentry. Seeking a way to make money, he built a tall observation tower beside their home. Tourists paid a fee to climb the tower and enjoy the expansive view of the Lake Huron area. But the tower was never a great money maker.

Al, the youngest child in the family, was rather sickly and a great concern for his mother, who had already lost two children in infancy and a third before Al's first birthday. He had three older brothers and sisters, only one still living at home.

Al didn't attend public school for very long. Instead, his mother, a former schoolteacher, taught him at home. She organized lessons and an extensive reading program for her son. He loved to read and was especially interested in science and in what was going on in the world outside of Port Huron.

Learning about electricity

The Grand Trunk Railroad connected Port Huron to Detroit, the nearest big city, and the young Edison at 12, always fascinated by the steam locomotives and eager for adventure, got a job selling newspapers and candy on the train. Edison continued to devour science books and the newspapers, magazines, and novels he sold on the train. He later claimed that he had decided to read through all the books in the library but "gave it up after reading about 10 books that were pretty dry reading." (1)

Around this time, Edison realized that his hearing was deteriorating, and this grew worse later in his life. His deafness has been attributed to various things, but was probably caused by a childhood illness or ear infections that went untreated. In those days, without penicillin or other antibiotics for treatment of illnesses and infection, deafness was fairly common, even in young people. Edison said that his deafness was actually an asset! He said "it allowed him to work with less distraction and to sleep deeply, undisturbed by outside sounds." (2)

As a teenager Edison was very enterprising. In Port Huron he opened two stands selling newspapers and magazines and hired other boys to run them. “For about six months in 1862 he also published his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald, which he printed in the baggage car of the train with the help of a friendly conductor. It concerned itself largely with local news and railroad matters and attracted many subscribers along the Grand Trunk’s Michigan line. (3)

Some of the profits Edison received from his various businesses went into building a small laboratory in one of the baggage cars. Bottles, batteries, and test tubes filled the shelves in the little lab, which thrived until one of his experiments involving phosphorous started a fire in the train car. The conductor ejected Edison, his laboratory, and his printing press at the next station! But Edison kept his job on the railroad. (4)

Then his life took an unexpected turn--a telegraph operator's young son wandered out onto the tracks in front of a rolling freight car. Edison ran out onto the tracks and snatched the child to safety. As a reward the child's grateful father offered to teach Al the intricate skills of railroad telegraphy. At 16, Edison had found a new career as a telegraph operator. The job demanded very fast thinking and sharp reflexes to turn codes into words and vice versa. Not only were the wages excellent, the position was prestigious.

Variations on the telegraph

Edison patented his first invention, an electric vote recorder, in 1869. (Edison National Historic Site)

Riding the rails, Edison learned about the new technology of telegraphy. Morse's telegraph, patented in 1840, was the 19th century's equivalent to the World Wide Web and Edison wanted to learn all he could about navigating this "information superhighway."

Telegraphers in those days were the links that joined the country together. In many respects the telegraph molded the world in which Edison matured. Major newspapers relied heavily on telegraph reports purchased from news services. The telephone had not yet been invented and email was a long way off!

For the next 4 years, Al "went on the tramp," traveling around the South and Midwest as an itinerant telegrapher, that is, taking jobs as they came, never settling down in any one place for very long. Telegraphers translated messages into electric impulses and sent them over the ribbons of telegraph wires that stretched across the continent. Since telegraphers not only sent and received messages but had to keep the equipment running, Edison learned a lot about practical electricity--how batteries work, how to wire circuits, and all about electromagnetism. This curiosity spurred his first serious efforts at invention.

In Boston in 1869, Edison earned his first patent, for an electrical vote recorder designed for the Massachusetts State Legislature. But he found that the politicians weren't interested in speeding up their voting process, so they didn't want to use his machine. Edison later quipped that this experience taught him never to invent something people didn't want! He refused to become discouraged or view anything as a "failure." As he would say, "Every wrong attempt discarded is a step forward." (5)

Starting a business, starting a family

Edison's shop in Newark, N.J., 1873. (Edison National Historic Site 10.260/2)

In 1871, Edison set up a workshop and laboratory in Newark, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. Newark was known at the time for its community of fine machinists, the kind of people Edison needed to build his telegraph equipment. In that same year, he married Mary Stillwell, who worked for his Newark business.

In 1874 Edison had his first big financial success with his quadruplex telegraph system. This was a way of sending more than one message in one direction over a single wire--in this case, two messages in opposite directions simultaneously. Telegraph companies were eager for such a scheme because it let them send more messages over fewer wires, increasing their profits while cutting their costs.

The story goes something like this: Thomas Edison approached the Western Union Telegraph Company with several inventions of his relating to the telegraph, especially the quadruplex telegraph system he had just completed. When asked how much he wanted for the inventions Edison thought of asking for about $2000, but instead he turned the question around and replied, "Well suppose you make me an offer." (6) Edison was amazed when they offered him $40,000! This was a lot of money for those days and it allowed him to fulfill his wish to become a full time inventor.

Edison signed a highly profitable contract with Western Union, took the money to the New Jersey countryside, and built a laboratory complex at Menlo Park, nicknamed "The Invention Factory."

The “Invention Factory”

Edison (center, wearing a hat) with his “muckers” in his Menlo Park lab. The pipe organ in the background was used for entertainment during breaks in late night work. (Edison National Historic Site 14.710/3)

Edison set up his new complex in rural Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1876. Menlo Park was a town on the main rail line between New York City and Philadelphia. He chose the location because the land was cheap and there was easy access to the resources of the cities (especially the rich investors Edison needed to support his work), but it didn't have the "distractions" of the big city.

He had a large staff of specialists, ranging from machinists to physicists, who helped turn his ideas into realities. He created what he nicknamed "The Invention Factory," a complex of a laboratory, machine shop, office, and a library. In short, he put everything he needed for inventing in one place.

The Menlo Park "gang" produced an incredible variety of inventions and improvements to existing inventions. They include the following:

  • The phonograph
  • An improved telephone transmitter
  • The electric pen (a machine that created a stencil that was could be used to make multiple copies of a document)
  • The electric light bulb

Edison worked long hours in his laboratory, quite unaware of the time. He would say, "I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom." (7) He would work for 16 hours at a stretch, gaining a reputation for not sleeping! Actually, he took cat naps whenever he needed them and wherever he was located, sometimes snoozing in the middle of the day stretched out on the ground under a bush, on his workbench or on his cot located in the back of his laboratory.

The Menlo Park Laboratory was "equipped with 2,500 bottles of chemicals lining the wall and a pipe organ at the back, which was the focal point for after hours singing and beer drinking". (8) Many times the various scientists and technicians would stay up all night inventing, working and munching on ham, crackers, beer, soda, and cheese. About midnight, Edison himself would sit down at the pipe organ and everyone would join in for a sing along. Many years later his employees would say that these were the happiest years of their lives.

Telephone

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone. Edison, with the help of Charles Batchelor, came up with an invention that vastly improved the transmission of the speaker's voice across the wires. The carbon button transmitter is a part of the mouthpiece of a telephone. Western Union wanted to get around Bell's patents so they wouldn't have to pay Bell to use the technology he'd invented, so they put Edison on the problem. His transmitter produced clearer, stronger sounds and is still used in most telephones today.

Phonograph

Edison’s original “tin-foil phonograph.” (Edison National Historic Site 29.110/13)

The tiny phonographs inside Edison’s talking dolls were too fragile for the doll to become a commercial success. (Edison National Historic Site 29.140/4)

Workers assembling talking dolls. (Smithsonian Institution)

Edison's experiments with the telephone also got him thinking about ways to record telephone messages so they could be copied later; this idea was similar to the devices used with the telegraph to write down the dots and dashes of Morse code. But then Edison turned the problem in a new direction and started to think about recording sound--any sound--as something separate. He sketched and tested and modified ways to capture sound on the surfaces of cylinders or disks.        

In 1877, one of these designs worked! He wrapped a thick sheet of tinfoil around a metal cylinder. Then, turning a crank that moved the cylinder along a screw and shouting into a cone attached to a thin diaphragm and needle (or stylus), Edison tested the new machine. When the sound waves of his speech vibrated the diaphragm, it moved the needle up and down, making dents in the tinfoil. Cranking the cylinder back to its original position and putting the needle back into the grooves it had made, Edison and his workers listened in amazement to the first recording of a human voice--Edison reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

One of his first reactions to hearing the playback was to be worried! He often said, "I was always afraid of things that worked the first time." (9)

Originally, Edison didn't think of using the phonograph for entertainment. He expected that businesses would use it for dictating letters. He manufactured an entire line of "Ediphones" for office use. But the real future of the phonograph lay in bringing music into people's homes.

Edison's company not only made phonographs but also ran recording studios and produced cylinder recordings of some of the most famous talent of the day. He also tried putting miniature phonographs inside of dolls, but the talking doll was never a commercial success.

Electric light

Of course, Edison's most famous invention to come out of Menlo Park was the light bulb. Edison didn't invent electric lights--there were arc lights already, which were similar to today's street lights. They were very, very bright so people didn't want them inside their houses. At home, people used gas lights, but their open flames were dangerous and they flickered a lot.

Edison didn't just invent a light bulb, either. He put together what he knew about electricity with what he knew about gas lights and invented a whole system of electric lighting. This meant light bulbs, electricity generators, wires to get the electricity from the power station to the homes, fixtures (lamps, sockets, switches) for the light bulbs, and more. It was like a big jigsaw puzzle--and Edison made up the pieces as well as fitted them together.

One tough piece was finding the right material for the filament--that little wire inside the light bulb. He filled more than 40,000 pages with notes before he finally had a bulb that withstood a 40 hour test in his laboratory. (10) In 1879, after testing more that 1600 materials for the right filament, including coconut fiber, fishing line, and even hairs from a friend's beard, Edison and his workers finally figured out what to use for the filament--carbonized bamboo.

The first large-scale test of the system in the United States took place when Edison’s Pearl Street station in New York City’s financial district sent electricity to lights in 25 builidings on September 4, 1882.

Starting fresh

Mina Miller around the time of her marriage to Edison. (Edison National Historic Site 14.351/26)

Edison with his children Madeline, Theo, and Charles; his wife, Mina; and the children's nurse, Lena; about 1902. (Smithsonian Institution 87-1626)

Edison’s West Orange, N.J. laboratory, around 1888. (Edison National Historic Site 10.381/10)

After the success of Menlo Park, Edison built a new laboratory complex in 1887, bigger and better equipped in every way, in West Orange, New Jersey. There, he worked on all sorts of projects, ranging from movies to ore mining to batteries to cement.

There were happy times and sad ones in his personal life. His first wife, Mary, died in 1884 and he remarried two years later to a young socialite named Mina Miller. From the two marriages, he had 6 children, one of whom became governor of New Jersey, another who followed his own career of invention.

Motion pictures

Edison’s motion picture camera, the strip kinetograph, about 1889. (Edison National Historic Site 23.100/9)

Charles H. Kayser with Edison’s first motion picture camera, the strip kinetograph, about 1889. (Edison National Historic Site 23.100/29)

The first big invention to come out of Edison’s new lab was motion pictures. In October 1888, he began working on a machine he called a “kinetoscope,” writing that he was “experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap, practical, and convenient.” (11)

Working with a small research team that included photographer William Kennedy Laurie Dickson and machinist Charles Brown, Edison developed a motion picture camera, called the kinetograph, and a machine for watching movies, called a kinetoscope. the first movies were “peep shows” which only allowed one person at a time to watch. With the development of the projecting kinetoscope, though, audiences of several people could enjoy silent movies.

Of course, no one was making movies at the time, so Edison also set up a studio on the laboratory grounds. Covered in black tar paper, it was nicknamed the “Black Maria,” slang for the police wagons of the day. The Black Maria had a roof that opened to the sun to let in daylight (the electric lights of the time weren’t strong enough for motion photography) and was set on a turntable so the entire building could be rotated to follow the sun.

Failure

Edison at the ore mill in Ogdensburg, N.J., 1895. (Edison National Historic Site 14.610/17)

Iron-ore-mill rock crushers, about 1890. (Smithsonian Institution 87-1621)

One of Edison’s concrete houses under construction, 1909. (Smithsonian Institution 87-1659)

Through most of the 1890s, Edison focused his attention on the iron mines of northwestern New Jersey. As the demand for the raw materials for steel production grew, Edison thought he could develop a system for retrieving the remaining valuable iron ore from exhausted mines. His idea was to crush the leftover rock and send it past an electromagnet that would attract the iron particles and let the other, worthless material pass.

Unfortunately, the system never worked as planned. The iron ore produced was lower in quality than expected, the machinery broke down often, and the fine, crushed iron was difficult to work with--and then the price of iron fell. After investing millions of dollars in the iron milling venture, Edison had to admit defeat.

Never one to be beaten by failure, though, Edison later redesigned the ore milling machinery for the production of Portland cement, a new building material that was gaining favor around the turn of the 20th century. While his cement works didn’t prove to be his biggest money maker, Edison did realize some projects of note--for example, the original Yankee Stadium was made of Edison Portland cement. He also tried to market a line of prefabricated cement houses and cement furniture, but that wasn't a big success!

Electricity in a box

In 1899, Edison began working on a better storage battery for electric vehicles. He thought that electric cars were better than gasoline or steam-powered vehicles, but realized that the storage batteries in existence limited the practicality of electric cars. With typical optimism, he announced to the press in 1902 that his batteries would “run for 100 miles or more without recharging,” and he proclaimed, “I do not know how long it would take to wear out one of the batteries, for we have not yet been able to exhaust the possibilities of one of them.” (12)

Despite those claims, the battery still required a lot of work--about a decade of research went into it. And by that time, cars with gasoline engines were clearly the market leader. Edison’s batteries, however, found many other uses in things like railroad signals, miners’ head lamps, and marine buoys. The storage battery was his most profitable invention.

Leisure time

Edison (left), Harvey Firestone Jr., R.J.H. Deloach, John Burroughs, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone at Old Evans Mill, Bolar Springs, Va., 1918. (Edison National Historic Site 14.475/119)

Edison and Francis Jehl reenacted the evacuation of an experimental light bulb during the dedication ceremonies at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, 1929. (Smithsonian Institution 87-1732)

Edison was the most famous inventor of his time. Never shy around reporters, Edison spent more time in the spotlight as he grew older, serving on boards, attending public ceremonies, receiving awards, and more.

In his leisure time, he became good friends with other famous people, like automobile maker Henry Ford, tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone, and naturalist Luther Burbank. He began taking annual camping trips with them in 1916.

Henry Ford was a special admirer of Edison’s and recreated the Menlo Park lab at his new museum (now the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village) in Dearborn, Michigan. Edison and Menlo Park experimenter Francis Jehl reenacted the crucial light bulb experiments as part of the dedication ceremony in 1929.

Serving the nation

Edison (at left) with members of the Naval Consulting Board in a Preparedness Parade, New York City, 1916. (Edison National Historic Site 25.300/13)

Edison (center right) with his wife Mina at the presentation of his Congressional Medal of Honor, 1928. (Smithsonian Institution 87-1700)

In 1915, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels asked Edison to head the newly-created Naval Consulting Board. The United States was on the brink of entering World War I and the Board was tasked with reviewing inventions of military promise submitted to the government. Though more than 100,000 invention ideas came to the Board, only one of them was ever built. Still, the Naval Consulting Board marked the beginning of increased collaboration between the military and industry.

Edison’s place as America’s premier inventor was secured in 1928 when he received the Congressional Gold Medal. The Medal noted, “He illuminated the path of progress by his inventions.”

One last grand experiment

Edison (on left) examining a sample of goldenrod, 1931. (Edison National Historic Site 14.400/75)

Edison found time to relax at his Fort Myers estate, too--though this pelican may not have felt too relaxed! (Edison National Historic Site 14.400/39)

In 1886, the Edisons built a winter home in Fort Myers, Florida. Edison also established a laboratory on the estate and carried out his last grand experiment there in the late 1920s. To lessen U.S. dependence on foreign sources of natural rubber, Edison’s friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone encouraged him to find a domestic substitute for rubber.

In a search reminiscent of his hunt for the light bulb filament, Edison tested thousands of plant samples. By 1930, he had decided that goldenrod held the most potential as a rubber producer. But Edison was 80 years old by then and in poor health. He never completed his rubber experiments.

Legacy

Crowds wait outside the West Orange lab to view Edison's body, October 19, 1931. (Edison National Historic Site 14.500/6)

Troubled by diabetes and stomach ailments for many years, Edison’s health declined and he died at West Orange, N.J. on October 18, 1931. Crowds lined up for blocks to pass by his coffin in the lab’s library. President Herbert Hoover requested a minute of silence--and darkness--to honor the great inventor and at 10 p.m. on October 22, 1931, people around the United States turned off their electric lights.

Thomas Alva Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” never stopped inventing. At the end of his life, he had 1,093 patents to his name. To this day, no one has topped his record.

Prepared by Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center senior historian


Footnotes

1. Reese V. Jenkins, et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas: The Making of an Inventor, February 1847 - June 1873, vol. 1, pg. 20 (13), (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Unversity Press, 1989).

2. Thomas Edison / Henry Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Meyers, Florida, Terrell Publishing Co., Kansas City, MO, (ISBN 0-935031-67-7).

3. Reese V. Jenkins, et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas: The Making of an Inventor, February 1847 - June 1873, vol. 1, pg. pg. 7, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Unversity Press, 1989).

4. Reese V. Jenkins, et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas: The Making of an Inventor, February 1847 - June 1873, vol. 1, pg. 8, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Unversity Press, 1989).

5. Time Machine magazine, in partnership with the National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution, Feb./March 1997, pg. 5, New York, N.Y.

6. Thomas Edison / Henry Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Meyers, Florida, Terrell Publishing Co., Kansas City, MO, (ISBN 0-935031-67-7), pg. 27.

7. Thomas Edison / Henry Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Meyers, Florida, Terrell Publishing Co., Kansas City, MO, (ISBN 0-935031-67-7), pg. 11.

8. Time Machine magazine, in partnership with the National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution, Feb./March 1997, pg. 8, New York, N.Y.

9. Time Machine magazine, in partnership with the National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution, Feb./March 1997, pg. 2, New York, N.Y.

10. Thomas Edison / Henry Ford Winter Estates, Ft. Meyers, Florida, Terrell Publishing Co., Kansas City, MO, (ISBN 0-935031-67-7), pg. 32.

11. Quoted in Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1998), pg. 292.

12. Quoted in Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1998), pg. 415.


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