Thomas Alva Edison is one of America’s most famous inventors. Edison saw huge change take place in his lifetime. He was responsible for making many of those changes occur. His inventions created and contributed to modern night lights, movies, telephones, records and CDs. Edison was truly a genius.
Edison is most famous for his development of the first electric light bulb. When Edison was born, electricity had not been developed. By the time he died, entire cities were lit byy electricity. Much of the credit for electricity goes to Edison.
Some of his inventions were improvements on other inventions, like the telephone. Some of his inventions he deliberately tried to invent, like the light bulb and the movie projector. But some inventions he stumbled upon, like the phonograph. Of all his inventions, Edison was most proud of the phonograph.
Edison invented and improved upon things that transformed our world. Some things he invented by himself. Some things he invented wiith other people. Just about all his inventions are things we still use in some form today. Throughout his life, Edison tried to invent things that everyone could use.
Edison created the world’s first “invention factory”. He and his partners in
A business friend once asked Edison about the secret to his success. Edison replied, “Genius is hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense”. But his “common sense” was very uncommon. More patents were issued to Edison than have been issued to any other single person in U.S. history: 1,093. A patent is something that says no one can copy your idea.
Thomas Edison was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison, Jr. and Nancy Elliot Edison. His parents had no special mechanical background. His moother was a former schoolteacher; his father was a jack-of-all-trades – from running a grocery store to real-estate. When Thomas was seven years old, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. He was a very curious child who asked a lot of questions.
The Education of Thomas Edison
Edison began school in Port Huron, Michigan when he was seven. His teacher, the Reverend G. B. Engle considered Thomas to be a dull student. Thomas especially did not like math. And he as
The next day, Nancy Edison brought Thomas back to school to talk with Reverend Engle. The teacher told his mother that Thomas couldn’t learn. Nancy also became angry at the teacher’s strict ways. She took Thomas out of school and decided to home-school him. It appears he briefly attended two more schools. However, his school attendance was not very good. So nearly all his childhood learning took place at home.
Edison Loved to Read
Edison’s parents loved to read. They read to him works of good literature and history. They had many books that young Tom eagerly devoured. Before he was 12, he had read works by Dickens and Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon’s Fall of the Roman Empire and Decline , and more.
Nancy Edison encouraged her curious son to learn things for himself. His parents were dedicated to teaching their children. They did not force him to learn about things he didn’t enjoy. So he learned about things that interested him the most.
When Thomas was nine Nancy Ed
At age 10, Thomas built his first science laboratory in the basement of the family’s home. His father disapproved of all the time Thomas spent in the basement. Sometimes Sam offered a penny to Thomas if he would go back to reading books. But Thomas often used his pennies to buy more chemicals for experiments. He labeled all his bottles “Poison”.
When Edison was 12 years old, he took a job as a trainboy on the Grand Trunk Railway. The train traveled from Port Huron, to Detroit, and back to Port Huron, all in one day. Thomas sold newspapers and candy to passengers. He also printed a weekly newspaper, the Weekly Herald. He spent all he earned on books and equipment for his chemical laboratory.
After about a year, he got permission to move his home science laboratory to the train baggage car. He di
Edison had many ear problems throughout his childhood. When he was 15, a train accident injured his ears more. When he tried to jump on a moving train, a conductor grabbed the boy’s ears to help pull him up. Thomas said he felt something snap inside his head. He soon began to lose much of his hearing. His deafness could have been cured by an operation. But Thomas refused the operation. He said being deaf helped him concentrate.
“Deafness probably drove me to reading,” he said later in life. He was one of the first people to use the Detroit Free Library. His library card was number 33. He went through shelf by shelf, reading every book.
Edison enjoyed science books best of all. He devoured books on electricity, mechanics, chemical analysis, manufacturing, technology and more. He realized his future would be in finding ways to make our lives better, instead of just learning how something works.
Nine years before Edison was born, Samuel F. B. Morse was famous for inventing the telegraph. The telegraph sent messages over wires using “Morse code”. In morse code, the alphabet and numbers are written in combinations of dots, dashes, and short and long sounds. By the time Edison began doing experiments, telegraph lines went across the country. He wanted to learn how to be a telegrapher and send messages over telegraph wires.
While selling newspapers along the railroad, something happened that changed his life. Edison saved the life of a station official’s child. The child fell onto the tracks of an oncoming train. The boy’s father thanked Edison by teaching him how to use the telegraph. Edison used scrap metal to build a telegraph set and practiced the Morse code.
When Edison was 16, he moved to Toronto, Canada. He became a telegraph assistant. His job was to report to Toronto every hour by telegraph signal. Edison thought this was a waste of time. He invented a gadget that sent a signal even if he was asleep. This was his first invention – the transmitter and receiver for the automatic telegraph. His boss found him asleep. Edison was almost fired.
Edison moved back to the United States. In his later teens he worked as a roaming telegraph operator. He went from city to city in the eastern US.
He hung around railroad yards, newspaper offices, and machine shops. He worked in a jewelry shop and at telegraph offices. He worked with clockwork, printing equipment, and different telegraphy instruments. He studied and experimented with these tools during his spare time.
He became an expert on the telegraph. The more he learned about telegraphy, the more he wanted to learn. He took apart equipment and reassembled it until he understood how it worked. He experimented with ways to make it better.
He visited used bookstores for science books. He ordered chemistry books from London and Paris. He filled his rented rooms with chemicals and junk metal for his experiments. The story goes he spent all his money buying science things and books, and wouldn’t buy clothing. One winter he went without a winter coat.
First Invention that made Money
When Edison was 21, he got a job in Boston as an expert night telegraph operator. Even though he worked nights, he slept little during the day. He was too busy experimenting with electrical currents. Edison worked to improve a telegraph machine that would send many messages at the same time over the same wire. He borrowed money from a friend, and soon quit his job. Now he could spend all his time inventing!
The first invention that he tried to sell was an electric vote recorder. It made voting faster and more accurate. But no one wanted to buy it. Today it is used in many states to record votes of legislators.
He moved to New York City in the summer of 1869. He had no money. A friend let him sleep in a basement office below Wall street.
Edison spent a lot of time studying the stock market ticker. That was the machine that gave information about stock market prices. It was a spin-off of the Morse telegraph device. Once, Edison fixed a broken stock ticker so well that that the owners hired him to build a better one. Within a year he made the Edison Universal Stock Printer. Edison sold the rights for the stock ticker. He thought he might get paid around $4,000 for it. He got $40,000!
With all this money, Edison started a business in Newark, New Jersey. He built stock tickers and high-speed printing telegraphs. At this shop he improved on the typewriter. Until Edison improved it, you could write faster than you could type!!
Menlo Park – 1876
Edison was a poor financial manager. In his late 20’s, he began to have money problems. After six years at his workshop in Newark, New Jersey, Edison asked his father to help build a new “invention factory”.
Edison built his new science laboratory at the village of Menlo Park, NJ. Now he and his two business partners could devote their full attention to inventing. Edison promised that he would build a small invention every ten days and a big invention every six months! He also said he would “take orders” for inventions.
They moved into the new building in March, 1876. His first invention was an improvement on the telephone. Before Edison’s improvement, people had to shout when they used the telephone.
The new lab had around 60 workers. It didn’t matter to Edison what a person’s background was. If he thought someone had talent, that was enough.
Edison achieved his greatest successes in this laboratory. Soon he had 40 different projects going at the same time. He applied for as many as 400 patents a year. His ideas and inventions ranged from the practical to the crazy. Edison worked at Menlo Park for over 10 years.
Edison Electric Light Company – 1876
Edison became business partners with some of New York’s richest people, J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts. Together they formed the Edison Electric Light Company. They made this company before electric light bulbs had been invented. Today this company is called General Electric
Phonograph – 1877
The phonograph was Edison’s favorite invention. He invented the “talking machine” by accident while working on telegraphs and telephones. The first words he recorded were “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. He was 30 years old. Edison received his first patent for the talking machine in 1878. The tinfoil phonograph was sold to the public from 1878 – 1880 at prices ranging from $10 to $200. His wax-cylinder machines didn’t go on the market until 1888 – 1889 as rentals.
Edison called the tinfoil phonograph a “talking machine” and a “sound writing” machine. This was no improvement of existing technology. It was not something he planned to invent. This was something brand new and Edison’s most original invention. And it happened by accident. He was working on ways to record telegraph messages automatically. Edison continued to work on cylinder and disk phonographs for the rest of his long life, even receiving patents on them well into the 1920’s – over 40 years later! It was his longest continuing interest.
Invention of Electric Light – 1879
Scientists had been working to invent electric light for many years. Back then people used candles and gaslights to light their homes. But gaslights were smelly and smoky. After two years in his new laboratory, Edison boasted he would invent a safe, mild, and inexpensive electric light.
Edison searched for the proper “filament” or wire, that would give good light when electricity flowed through it. He sent people to the jungles of the Amazon and forests of Japan in his search for a perfect filament material. He tested over 6,000 vegetable growths (baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, bamboo) as filament material.
In 1879, after spending $40,000, and performing 1,200 experiments, he succeeded. He made a light bulb using carbonized filaments from cotton thread. Carbonized thread is ordinary cotton sewing thread that has been burned to an ash. The light bulb burned for two days. The electric light took the greatest amount of time and required the most complicated experiments of all his experiments.
At the laboratory an Menlo Park, scientists could turn on and off different lights. This was something very new for the world. His bulbs were first installed on the steamship “Columbia” and later in a New York City factory.
World’s First Power Station – 1882
Edison invented a system where many lamps could get electricity all at the same time. He set up the world’s first “electric light-power station” in lower Manhattan. New York City was the first city in the world to have electric lights. The Edison Electric Light Company sent electricity to houses and lamps.
The Edison Effect – 1883
One of Edison’s engineers, William J. Hammer, made a discovery which later led to the electron tube. The electron tube led to the electric signal, which led to electronics. Electronics is a branch of science that is related to electricity. Without electronics we might not have radio, TV, CDs, computers, X-Ray machines or space travel. The discovery of electrons was patented as the “Edison effect” which is the basis of electronics.
The Wizard of Menlo Park
People called Edison “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. Edison was often able to see possibilities others missed because he was constantly learning. When he was 30 and 40 years old he read everything he could about the latest developments in photographic optics. This helped him in his inventions for movie cameras.
West Orange, NJ Laboratory
In 1887 Edison built a bigger invention factory in West Orange, New Jersey. This Edison Laboratory was 10 times larger than his first lab in Menlo Park. It is now a national monument.
This Laboratory Unit had fourteen buildings. Six of these buildings were devoted to the “business of inventing.” The main building alone was the size of three football fields!! It had space for machine shops, glass-blowing operations, electrical testing rooms, chemical stockrooms, electrical power generation, and other functions.
At the Edison Laboratory they made new products and improved old products. Over 5,000 people worked there. Edison attempted to personally manage this large staff. The story goes that when a new employee once asked about lab rules, Edison said, “there ain’t no rules around here! We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.”
Every day Edison toured this huge facility to see what was going on. But he spent most of his time doing paperwork instead of experiments. He did his paperwork in the library. The research library was an office and trophy room. Edison received many, many awards throughout his life. In the center of his office, Edison sat at a desk with three dozen pigeonholes, surrounded by over 10,000 books.
At West Orange, Edison improved the phonograph using wax records. Now he could build phonographs to sell to the public.
Out of the West Orange laboratories came the motion picture camera and silent and sound movies. His factory improved the alkaline storage battery, the electric pen, the copy machine, the dictating machine. Other inventions and improvements included a cement mixer, the microphone, and a magnetic process to separate iron ore.
Edison invented the concept of film reels for motion-picture cameras. He also connected a motion picture camera to a phonograph. Now he could put sound with motion pictures! In 1913, Edison introduced the first talking moving pictures.
Before photocopying machines were invented, Edison invented an electric “pen” which was really a puncturing device that rapidly punched holes in a sheet of waxed paper. A historian suggested this “pen” looked like a sewing machine.
There were silly moments in the lab also. Sometimes they tried mixing chemicals that seemed foolish – coffee, eggs, sugar, and milk. His lab held everything for experimenting – whalebone, tortoise shell, elephant hide, and even the hair of a person, a native Amazonian. It is rumored that one of Edison’s friends said the lab storeroom even had the eyeballs of a US senator!
Most of these lab substances had no practical use, but a few did. Edison used rain-forest nuts to make phonograph needles. Japanese bamboo was used to make filament (wire) for his light bulb. The hair of the Amazon was used for a wig for the first talking doll. In the doll’s chest was hidden a tiny phonograph speaker.
In 1915, Edison was appointed president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board. He believed that electricity would make weapons more powerful. He claimed to have made an explosive that would explode if yelled at. He invented an electric torpedo. Edison urged Congress to establish the Naval Research Laboratory in 1920. This was the first military research laboratory.
For more than forty years, the laboratory created by Thomas Alva Edison in West Orange, NJ, had enormous impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. Edison’s last patented invention was a way to make manmade rubber. The lab continued to invent things even after Edison died in 1931.
It is Okay to Fail
Edison thought of disasters as learning opportunities. One time his lab stove went out in the dead of winter. Many expensive chemicals froze. Another time unprotected chemicals were damaged by sunlight. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Edison stopped all other projects and thought of ways to solve the problem. He learned to change the makeup of some of the chemicals.
Some historians believe Edison learned his positive attitude from his energetic father. Sam Edison was not afraid to take risks and he never gave up when a business project failed. Sam Edison brushed himself off and started a new business. This positive message of persistence may have been why Edison learned it’s okay to fail.
One challenge that Edison failed at was the invention of an undersea telegraph. Edison designed a laboratory model of a transatlantic cable. But the rumble of traffic outdoors shook the equipment so much they couldn’t complete the experiments. Edison finally abandoned this project.
But what ruined Edison’s underwater telegraph experiments – noise vibrations and sound waves – is what made his telephone experiments work. He learned things from the undersea telegraph experiments that could help Alexander Graham Bell improve the telephone.
Edison, the Man
Edison married Mary Stilwell. Edison was upset to discover that his new wife would not be his partner in his science laboratory. Just over a month after marrying Mary, the twenty-four-year-old Edison wrote in a notebook, “My wife Dearly Beloved Cannot invent worth a Damn!!” In 1884, Mary died, leaving him with three young children. He married Mina Miller in 1886. He had three more children with Mina.
Edison was five feet, 10 inches tall, gray eyes, long hair that looked as if he cut it himself. He wore baggy acid-stained pants and scruffy shoes. His hands were discolored by chemicals. Later he began wearing all black. Strangers mistook him for a priest.
Edison was a workaholic. He could not tolerate laziness. He often worked as many as 112 hours a week. Both his wives complained that he spent all his time in the laboratory. He and his lab partners often worked late into the wee hours of the morning. Instead of going home to s
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Why was Edison a Genius?
• Edison believed in hard work and determination.
• Work habits. Edison sometimes worked twenty hours a day.
• He was very good at bringing people together to make an inventing team.
• He was able to reason with many different people.
• He encouraged creativity in his employees.
• He knew a lot about what his competitors were working on.
• He almost never worked on any invention that wasn’t already being worked on by several other people.
• One of his biggest strengths – Perseverance. He never gave up. This idea is captured in his famous statement, “Invention is ninety-nine percent perspiration, and one percent inspiration.”
• Failure did not stop him. Edison rarely got discouraged when experiments didn’t work out. A failed experiment shifted his thinking in different directions.
• He was able to solve problems and learn from failure.
• Attitude. He saw every failure as a success. The story goes that he failed 10,000 times in his storage battery experiments. But Edison said, “Why, I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Edison was a home-schooled, self-educated person. He learned education was his own responsibility. He learned to be persistent. He learned reading was very important. He learned from watching others. He learned that science is fun. He learned that education is something that lasts your whole life.
What is a patent?
One of the first laws our new country passed back in 1790 was a “patent” law. If you have a good idea for an invention, you don’t want anyone to copy it. You need a patent so no one can copy it and make money from it. To stop someone from copying it, you apply for a patent from the US government. The government gives you a patent if your invention is new and useful. When a patent is granted, no one can copy that object, pattern, or design. Anyone can apply for a patent, as long as the idea is new.
A patent cannot be written material. A book is protected by a copyright, not a patent. The life of the patent depends on what kind of patent it is. Patents last from 14 – 17 years.
A lawyer can help you find out if anything about your invention is already protected by another patent. A lawyer can help fill out the right papers for a patent. For more information write: Office of Information US Patent Office Washington, DC 20231
If you have an idea for a new or improved product, you need to know: Is there a patent? How can I sell it to others? Can I claim all of it as new? Or part of it? Which parts are new? What is it good for?
Before building something, meet with different people. Talk with them about how they would use your invention. What do they like about it? What don’t they like about it? This will help decide if your invention is worth building or not.
What inspired Thomas Edison?
Have you ever wondered how brilliant people such as Thomas Edison came up with the ideas for their scientific discoveries? As the story goes, Thomas Edison came up with the idea for the light bulb while on a fisihng trip in the beautiful Sierre Madre mountains of south-central Wyoming. Although this tale has not been authenticated, it is part of early Wyoming history.
In July of 1878, Edison was included in a party of dignitaries who traveled to Seperation Stage Station, Wyoming to view a solar eclipse. This small station, located thirteen miles north of Rawlings, Wyoming afforded the best location in the country to view the eclipse. After the eclipse, Edison went fishing at a beautiful spot called Battle Lake in the Sierre Madre mountains. It was told that Edison broke his bamboo fishing rod on the heavy brush surrounding the lake and tossed it into the campfire later that night. He noticed how very long the fibers glowed without disintegrating. That event supposedly inspired Edison with the idea of a glowing filament within an incandescent light bulb and led to his experiments with the light bulb back in his laboratory.
So how plausible is this story? Was it possible that Edison really got his idea for the light bulb on a fishing trip to Wyoming? Will a bamboo rod glow in the dark without disintegrating? How about a science experiment along these line and let us know what you think? Are there other stories out there which can confirm or deny this tale? Please let us know!
Hufsmith, George W. “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate”, 1889, High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyoming. From the endnotes on page 319, the author states, “Although this story cannot be authenticated, it has become part of Wyoming’s legendary early history. There is a granite stone memorial to this unusual occurrence about two miles uphill from Battle Lake on the only road across this gorgeous, sylvan Sierre Madre mountain range, practically unvisited by teh travelling public. The highway pass is now almost completely paved west-east from Encampment to Baggs, Wyoming.”
Edison using one of his motion cameras.
Edison using the telescribe machine
Advertisement for Edison’s film, “The Great Train Robbery” Man using a sound version of the kinetoscope