“He led no armies into battle, he conquered no countries, and he enslaved no peoples… Nonetheless, he exerted a degree of power the magnitude of which no warrior ever dreamed. His name still commands a respect as sweeping in scope and as world-wide as that of any other mortal – devotion rooted deep in human gratitude and untainted by the bias that is often associated with race, colour, politics, and religion.”
Today is the birthday of Thomas Edison (born who was February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) who was an American inventor, scientist, and businessman who developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (now Edison, New Jersey) by a newspaper reporter, he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large teamwork to the process of invention, and therefore is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.
Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. He is credited with numerous inventions that contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures. His advanced work in these fields was an outgrowth of his early career as a telegraph operator. Edison originated the concept and implementation of electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses, and factories – a crucial development in the modern industrialized world. His first power station was on Manhattan Island, New York.
Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison was not born into poverty in a backwater mid-western town. He was born on February 11, 1847, to middle-class parents in the bustling port of Milan, Ohio, a community that was the largest wheat shipping center in the world. In 1854, his family moved to the vibrant city of Port Huron, Michigan, which ultimately surpassed the commercial pre-eminence of both Milan and Odessa.
At age seven – after spending 12 weeks in a noisy one-room schoolhouse with 38 other students of all ages – Tom’s overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost his patience with the child’s persistent questioning and seemingly self centred behaviour. Noting that Tom’s forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average, he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster’s brains were scrambled. If modern psychology had existed back then, Tom would have probably been deemed a victim of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and proscribed a hefty dose of the “miracle drug” Ritalin. Instead, when his beloved mother, whom he recalled “was the making of me, because she was always so true and so sure of me and always made me feel I had someone to live for and must not disappoint,” became aware of the situation, she promptly withdrew him from school and began to “home-teach” him. Not surprisingly, she was convinced her son’s slightly unusual demeanor and physical appearance were merely outward signs of his remarkable intelligence.
Edison was the most prolific inventor of all time, receiving 1093 patents in the United States alone and laying the groundwork for many technological innovations of the 20th century.
Edison’s first invention was an automatic telegraph repeater (1864). His first patent was for an electric vote recorder. In 1869, as a partner in a New York electrical firm, he perfected the stock ticker and sold it. This money, in addition to that from his share of the partnership, provided funds for his own factory in Newark, N.J. Edison hired technicians to collaborate on inventions; he wanted an “invention factory.” As many as 80 “earnest men,” including chemists, physicists, and mathematicians, were on his staff. “Invention to order” became very profitable.
From 1870 to 1875 Edison invented many telegraphic improvements: transmitters; receivers; the duplex, quadruplex, and sextuplex systems; and automatic printers and tape. He worked with Christopher Sholes, “father of the typewriter,” in 1871 to improve the typing machine. Edison claimed he made 12 typewriters at Newark about 1870. The Remington Company bought his interests.
In 1876 Edison’s carbon telegraph transmitter for Western Union marked a real advance toward making the Bell telephone practical. (Later, Émile Berliner’s transmitter was granted patent priority by the courts.) With the money Edison received from Western Union for his transmitter, he established a factory in Menlo Park, N.J. Again he pooled scientific talent, and within 6 years he had more than 300 patents. The electric pen (1877) produced stencils to make copies.
Edison’s most original and lucrative invention, the phonograph, was patented in 1877. From a manually operated instrument making impressions on metal foil and replaying sounds, it became a motor-driven machine playing cylindrical wax records by 1887. By 1890 he had more than 80 patents on it. The Victor Company developed from his patents
To research incandescence, Edison and others, including J. P. Morgan, organized the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. (Later it became the General Electric Company.) Edison made the first practical incandescent lamp in 1879, and it was patented the following year. After months of testing metal filaments, Edison and his staff examined 6,000 organic fibers from around the world and decided that Japanese bamboo was best. Mass production soon made the lamps, although low-priced, profitable.
First Central Electric-Light Power Plant
Prior to Edison’s central power station, each user of electricity needed a dynamo (generator), which was inconvenient and expensive. Edison opened the first commercial electric station in London in 1882; in September the Pearl Street Station in New York City marked the beginning of America’s electrical age. Within 4 months the station was lighting more than 5,000 lamps for 230 customers, and the demand for lamps exceeded supply. By 1890 it supplied current to 20,000 lamps, mainly in office buildings, and to motors, fans, printing presses, and heating appliances. Many towns and cities installed central stations.
Increased use of electricity led to Edison-base sockets, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conduits, meters, and the three-wire system. Jumbo dynamos, with drum-wound armatures, could maintain 110 volts with 90 percent efficiency. The three-wire system, first installed in Sunbury, Pa., in 1883, superseded the parallel circuit, used 110 volts, and necessitated high-resistance lamp filaments (metal alloys were later used).
In 1883 Edison made a significant discovery in pure science, the Edison effect – electrons flowed from incandescent filaments. With a metal-plate insert, the lamp could serve as a valve, admitting only negative electricity. Although “etheric force” had been recognized in 1875 and the Edison effect was patented in 1883, the phenomenon was little known outside the Edison laboratory. (At this time existence of electrons was not generally accepted.) This “force” underlies radio broadcasting, long-distance telephony, sound pictures, television, electric eyes, x-rays, high-frequency surgery, and electronic musical instruments. In 1885 Edison patented a method to transmit telegraphic “aerial” signals, which worked over short distances, and later sold this “wireless” patent to Guglielmo Marconi.
Creating the Modern Research Laboratory
The vast West Orange, N.J., factory, which Edison directed from 1887 to 1931, was the world’s most complete research laboratory, an antecedent of modern research and development laboratories, with teams of workers systematically investigating problems. Various inventions included a method to make plate glass, a magnetic ore separator, compressing dies, composition brick, a cement process, an all-concrete house, an electric locomotive (patented 1893), a fluoroscope, a nickel-iron battery, and motion pictures. Edison refused to patent the fluoroscope, so that doctors could use it freely; but he patented the first fluorescent lamp in 1896.
The Edison battery, finally perfected in 1910, was a superior storage battery with an alkaline electrolyte. After 8000 trials Edison remarked, “Well, at least we know 8000 things that don’t work.” In 1902 he improved the copper oxide battery, which resembled modern dry cells.
Edison’s motion picture camera, the kinetograph, could photograph action on 50-foot strips of film, 16 images per foot. A young assistant, in order to make the first Edison movies, in 1893 built a small laboratory called the “Black Maria,” – a shed, painted black inside and out, that revolved on a base to follow the sun and kept the actors illuminated. The kinetoscope projector of 1893 showed the films. The first commercial movie theater, a peepshow, opened in New York in 1884. A coin put into a slot activated the kinetoscope inside the box. Acquiring and improving the projector of Thomas Armat in 1895, Edison marketed it as the Vitascope.
The Edison Company produced over 1,700 movies. Synchronizing movies with the phonograph in 1904, Edison laid the basis for talking pictures. In 1908 his cinemaphone appeared, adjusting film speed to phonograph speed. In 1913 his kinetophone projected talking pictures: the phonograph, behind the screen, was synchronized by ropes and pulleys with the projector. Edison produced several “talkies.”
Meanwhile, among other inventions, the universal motor, which used alternating or direct current, appeared in 1907; and the electric safety lantern, patented in 1914, greatly reduced casualties among miners. That year Edison invented the telescribe, which combined features of the telephone and dictating phonograph.
Work for the Government
During World War I Edison headed the U.S. Navy Consulting Board and contributed 45 inventions, including substitutes for previously imported chemicals (especially carbolic acid, or phenol), defensive instruments against U-boats, a ship-telephone system, an underwater searchlight, smoke screen machines, antitorpedo nets, turbine projectile heads, collision mats, navigating equipment, and methods of aiming and firing naval guns. After the war he established the Naval Research Laboratory, the only American institution for organized weapons research until World War II.
With Henry Ford and the Firestone Company, Edison organized the Edison Botanic Research Company in 1927 to discover or develop a domestic source of rubber. Some 17,000 different botanical specimens were examined over 4 years – an indication of Edison’s tenaciousness. By crossbreeding goldenrod, he developed a strain yielding 12 percent latex, and in 1930 he received his last patent, for this process.
The Man Himself
To raise money, Edison dramatized himself by careless dress, clowning for reporters, and playing the role of homespun sage with aphorisms like “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” and “Discovery is not invention.” He scoffed at formal education, thought 4 hours’ sleep a night enough, and often worked 40 or 50 hours straight. As a world symbol of Yankee ingenuity, he looked and acted the part. George Bernard Shaw, briefly an Edison employee in 1879, put an Edisontype hero into his novel The Irrational Knot: free-souled, sensitive, cheerful, and profane.
Edison had more than 10,000 books at home and masses of printed materials at the laboratory. When launching a new project, he wished to avoid others’ mistakes and to know everything about a subject. Some 25,000 notebooks contained his research records, ideas, hunches, and mistakes. Supposedly, his great shortcoming was lack of interest in anything not utilitarian; yet he loved to read Shakespeare and Thomas Paine.
Edison died in West Orange, N.J., on Oct. 18, 1931. The laboratory buildings and equipment associated with his career are preserved in Greenfield Village, Detroit, Mich., thanks to Henry Ford’s interest and friendship.