“Thomas Alva Edison”
Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an
inventor and businessman who developed many important devices. «The
Wizard of Menlo Park» was one of the first inventors to apply the
principles of mass production to the process of invention. In 1880
Edison founded the journal Science, which in 1900 became the journal of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Edison is
considered one of the most prolific inventors, holding a record 1,093
patents in his name. Most of these inventions were not completely
original but improvements of earlier patents, and were actually works of
his numerous employees. Edison was frequently criticized for not sharing
the credit. Nevertheless, Edison received patents worldwide, including
the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Edison started
the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate of nine
major film studios (commonly known as the Edison Trust).
Thomas Alva Edison’s ancestors, the Dutch Edesons, emigrated to New
Jersey in 1730. John Edeson remained loyal to England when the colonies
revolted (see United Empire Loyalists). That got him arrested and nearly
hanged. He and his family fled to Nova Scotia, Canada, settling on land
the colonial government gave those who had been loyal to Britain. In
1811, three generations of Edisons took up farming near Vienna, Ontario.
Among them was Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. (1804-1896), an erstwhile
shingle maker, tailor, and tavern keeper from Marshalltown, Nova Scotia.
He married Nancy Matthews Elliott, of Chenango County, New York. In
1837, Samuel Edison was a rebel in the MacKenzie Rebellion that sought
land reform and autonomy from Great Britain. The revolt failed and, like
his grandfather before him, Samuel Edison was forced to flee for his
life. Unlike his grandfather, he went south across the American border
instead of north. He settled first in Port Huron, Michigan, temporarily
leaving his wife Nancy and children behind.
Thomas Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio to Samuel Ogden Edison,
Jr. and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810-1871). Thomas was their seventh
child. When he was seven years old the family moved to Port Huron,
Edison had a late start in his schooling due to childhood illness. His
mind often wandered and shortly into his schooling, his teacher
Alexander Crawford, was overheard calling him «addled». This ended
Edison’s three-months of formal schooling. His mother had been a school
teacher in Canada and happily took over the job of schooling her son in
his academics. She encouraged and taught him to read and experiment. He
recalled later, «My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so
sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not
disappoint.». Many of his lessons came from reading R.G. Parker’s School
of natural philosophy’.
Edison’s life in Port Huron was bittersweet. Partially deaf since
adolescence, he became a telegraph operator after he saved Jimmie
MacKenzie from being struck by a runaway train. Little Jimmie’s father,
station agent J.U. MacKenzie of Mount Clemens, Michigan was so grateful
that he took Edison under his wing and trained him as a telegraph
operator. Edison’s deafness aided him as it blocked out noises and
prevented Edison from hearing the telegrapher sitting next to him. One
of his mentors during those early years was a fellow telegrapher and
inventor named Franklin Leonard Pope, who allowed the then impoverished
youth to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, New Jersey
Some of his earliest inventions related to electrical telegraphy,
including a stock ticker. Edison applied for his first patent, the
electric vote recorder, on October 28, 1868.
On December 25, 1871 he married Mary Stilwell (1855-1884), and they had
Marion Estelle Edison (1873-1965) who married Karl Oscar Oeser
Thomas Alva Edison II (1875-1935) who married Marie Louise Toohey and
later married Beatrice Heyzer
William Leslie Edison (1878-1935) who married Blanche Travers
Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey with
the automatic repeater and other improved telegraphic devices, but the
invention which first gained Edison wide fame was the phonograph in
1877. While non-reproducible sound recording was first achieved by Leon
Scott de Martinville (France, 1857), and others at the time (notably
Charles Cros) were contemplating the notion that sound waves might be
recorded and reproduced, Edison was the first to publicly demonstrate a
device to do so. This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at
large as to appear almost magical. Edison became known as «The Wizard of
Menlo Park» after the New Jersey town where he resided. His first
phonograph recorded onto tinfoil cylinders that had low sound quality
and destroyed the track during replay so that one could listen only
once. A redesigned model using wax cylinders was produced soon after by
Alexander Graham Bell. Sound quality was still low, and replays were
limited before wear destroyed the recording, but the invention enjoyed
popularity. The «gramophone», playing gramophone records, was invented
by Emile Berliner in 1887, but in the early years, the audio fidelity
was worse than the phonograph cylinders marketed by Edison Records.
On February 24, 1886 he married Mina Miller (1865-1946) and had an
additional three children:
Madeleine Edison (1888-1979) who married John Eyre Sloane
Charles Edison (1890-1969) who took over the company upon his father’s
death and married Carolyn Hawkins
Theodore Smidlap Edison (1898-1992) who married an Osterhout
Edison’s major innovation was the Menlo Park research lab, which was
built in New Jersey. It was the first institution set up with the
specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and
improvement. Edison invented most of the inventions produced there,
though he primarily supervised the operation and work of his employees.
Most of Edison’s patents were utility patents, with only about a dozen
being design patents. Many of his inventions were not completely
original, but improvements which allowed for mass production. For
example, contrary to public perception, Edison did not invent the
electric light bulb. Several designs had already been developed by
earlier inventors including Moses G. Farmer (see), Joseph Swan, Henry
Woodward, Mathew Evans, James Bowman Lindsay, William Sawyer, Humphrey
Davey, and Heinrich Goebel. In 1878, Edison applied the term filament to
the element of glowing wire carrying the current, although English
inventor Joseph Swan used the term prior to this. Edison took the
features of these earlier designs and set his workers to the task of
creating longer-lasting bulbs. After Edison purchased the Woodward and
Evans patent of 1875, his employees experimented with a large number of
different materials to increase the bulb’s burning time. By 1879, they
had increased the burning time enough to make the light bulb
commercially viable. While the earlier inventors had produced electric
lighting in laboratory conditions, Edison concentrated on commercial
application and was able to sell the concept to homes and businesses by
mass-producing relatively long-lasting light bulbs and creating a system
for the generation and distribution of electricity.
The Menlo Park research lab was made possible by the sale of the
quadruplex telegraph that Edison invented in 1874. The quadruplex
telegraph could send four simultaneous telegraph signals over the same
wire. When Edison asked Western Union to make an offer, he was shocked
at the unexpectedly large amount that Western Union offered; the patent
rights were sold for $10,000. The quadruplex telegraph was Edison’s
first big financial success.
U.S. Patent #223898 Electric LampIn 1878, Edison formed Edison Electric
Light Company in New York City with several financiers, including J.P.
Morgan and the Vanderbilts. Edison made the first public demonstration
of incandescent lighting on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. On January
27, 1880, he filed a patent in the United States for the electric
On October 8, 1883, the U.S. patent office ruled that Edison’s patent
was based on the work of William Sawyer and was therefore invalid.
Litigation continued until October 6, 1889, when a judge ruled that
Edison’s electric light improvement claim for «a filament of carbon of
high resistance» was valid. After he lost another court battle with
Joseph Swan, he and Swan formed a joint company called Ediswan to market
the invention. This company and its technological heritage became
General Electric in 1892.
In 1880, Edison patented an electric distribution system. The first
investor-owned electric utility was the 1882 Pearl Street Station, New
York City. On January 25, 1881, Edison and Alexander Graham Bell formed
the Oriental Telephone Company. On September 4, 1882, Edison switched on
the world’s first electrical power distribution system, providing 110
volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan, around his
Pearl Street laboratory. On January 19, 1883, the first standardized
electric lighting system employing overhead wires began service in
Roselle, New Jersey.
U.S. Patent #223898 Electric Lamp
War of Currents era
Main article: War of Currents
Extravagant displays of electric lights quickly became a feature of
public events, as this picture from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial
Exposition shows.During the initial years of electricity distribution,
Edison’s DC was the standard for the United States, and Edison was not
disposed to lose all his patent royalties. During the «War of Currents»
era, Nikola Tesla and Edison became adversaries due to Edison’s
promotion of DC for electric power distribution over the more efficient
alternating current (AC) advocated by Tesla, who patented AC in Graz,
Austria. Edison (or, reportedly, one of his employees) employed the
tactics of misusing Tesla’s patents to construct the first electric
chair for the state of New York to promote the idea that AC was deadly.
Popular myth has it that Edison invented the electric chair, despite
being against capital punishment, solely as a means of impressing the
public that AC was more dangerous than DC. In fact, like most of the
output of the Menlo Park operations, the chair was primarily invented by
a few of his employees, in particular Harold P. Brown, while Edison
supervised their operations. 
Edison went on to carry out a campaign to discredit and discourage the
use of AC. Edison presided personally over several electrocutions of
animals, primarily stray cats and dogs, for the benefit of the press to
prove that his system of DC was safer than that of AC. Edison’s
demonstrations peaked with the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant.
Many of Edison’s inventions using DC ultimately lost favor to AC devices
proposed by others. AC distribution systems replaced DC, extending the
range and improving the safety and efficiency of power distribution.
Since the 1950s, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission systems
have become more common in certain situations.
As exemplified by the light bulb, most of Edison’s inventions were
improvements of ideas by others, achieved through a diligent and
industrial approach and team-based development. He was the undisputed
head of the team, but usually did not share credit for the inventions.
He himself said: «genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent
perspiration.» Nikola Tesla, possibly Edison’s most famous employee who
went on to be a great scientist and inventor in his own right, said
about Edison’s method of problem-solving: «If Edison had a needle to
find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the
bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his
search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little
theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his
labor.» He profited from his good connections with Europe — European
inventors often did not apply for US patents for their ideas, so that
Edison was free to develop their ideas further himself and then obtain
his own US patents.
Frank J. Sprague, a former naval officer, was recruited by Edward H.
Johnson, and joined the Edison organization in 1883. Sprague was a good
mathematician, and one of Sprague’s significant contributions to the
Edison Laboratory at Menlo Park was the introduction of mathematical
methods. Prior to his arrival, Edison conducted many costly
trial-and-error experiments. Sprague’s approach was to calculate the
optimum parameters and thus save much needless tinkering. He did
important work for Edison, including correcting Edison’s system of mains
and feeders for central station distribution. In 1884, Sprague decided
his interests in the exploitation of electricity lay elsewhere, and he
left Edison to found the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company.
However, Sprague, who later developed many electrical innovations,
always credited Edison for their work together.
The key to Edison’s fortunes was telegraphy. With knowledge gained from
years of working as a telegraph operator, he learned the basics of
electricity. This allowed him to make his early fortune with the stock
ticker, the first electricity-based broadcast system.
Edison holds the patent for the motion picture camera, but it is argued
that William Kennedy Laurie Dickson actually invented it while working
in the Menlo Park research lab. As with the electric light, an
improvement upon ideas developed by others. Edison established the
standard of using 35 mm (then 1 and 3/8 inches) film that allowed film
to emerge as a mass medium. The film included four perforations on the
edge of each frame to enable the projector to advance the film properly.
He built what has been called the first movie studio, the Black Maria,
in New Jersey. There, he made the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s
Sneeze. In 1902, a US court rejected Edison’s claim that he be granted
sole rights over all aspects of movie production in the case «Edison v.
American Mutoscope Company» .
In 1891, Thomas Edison built a Kinetoscope, or peep-hole viewer. This
device was installed in penny arcades, where people could watch short,
simple films. In 1894, Edison experimented with synchronizing audio with
film; the Kinetophone loosely synchronized a Kinetoscope image with a
cylinder phonograph. This was especially important to Thomas Edison
because he had been searching for a way to entertain customers that were
listening to music on his phonograph. Now, people could go to a penny
arcade, put in a coin, put on headphones, and watch a film through the
In April of 1896, Edison and Thomas Armat’s Vitascope was used to
project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City.
In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison bought a house in Fort Myers, Florida
(Seminole Lodge) as a winter retreat. Henry Ford, the automobile magnate
lived across the street at his winter retreat (The Mangoes). Edison even
contributed technology to the automobile. They were friends until Edison
died. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are now open to the public.
Thomas Edison was a freethinker, and was most likely a deist, claiming
he did not believe in «the God of the theologians,» but did not doubt
that «there is a Supreme Intelligence.» However, he rejected the idea of
the supernatural, along with such ideas as the soul, immortality, and a
personal God. «Nature,» he said, «is not merciful and loving, but wholly
Edison was a vegetarian: «Non-violence» he said, «leads to the highest
ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all
other living beings, we are still savages.»
He purchased a home known as Glenmont in 1886 as a wedding gift for Mina
in West Orange, New Jersey. The remains of Thomas and Mina Edison are
now buried there. The 13.5 acre (55,000 m?) property is maintained by
the National Park Service as the Edison National Historic Site.
His contributions to technology benefited people world-wide, and in 1878
he was named Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur of France, and in 1889
was made a Commander in the Legion of Honor.
List of contributions
Main article : List of Edison patents
Edison provided financial backing for Guglielmo Marconi’s work on Radio
transmission, and obtained several related patents
Edison purchased the Woodward and Evans patent for the electric bulb
(incandescent light bulb) and improved the design
Tattoo gun (enabling technology)
Improvements of Edison’s work
Lewis Latimer patented an improved method of producing the filament in
Nikola Tesla developed alternating current distribution, which could be
used to transmit electricity over longer distance than Edison’s direct
current due to the ability to transform the voltage.
Emil Berliner developed the gramophone, which is essentially an improved
phonograph, with the main difference being the use of flat records with
Edward H. Johnson had light bulbs specially made, hand-wired, and
displayed at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City on the first
electrically-illuminated Christmas tree on December 22, 1882.
The town of Edison, New Jersey, and Thomas Edison State College, a
nationally-known college for adult learners in Trenton, New Jersey, are
named for the inventor. There is a Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower and
Museum in the town of Edison.
The Edison Medal was created on 11 February 1904 by a group of Edison’s
friends and associates. Four years later the American Institute of
Electrical Engineers (AIEE), later IEEE, entered into an agreement with
the group to present the medal as its highest award. The first medal was
presented in 1909 to Elihu Thomson, and surprisingly to Tesla in 1917.
The Edison Medal is the oldest award in the area of electrical and
electronics engineering, and presented annually «for a career of
meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering or
the electrical arts.»
Life (magazine) (USA), in a special double issue, placed Edison first in
the «100 Most Important People in the Last 1000 Years,» noting that his
light bulb «lit up the world.» He was ranked #35 on Michael H. Hart’s
list of the most influential figures in history.
The City Hotel, in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, was the first building to be
lit with Edison’s three-wire system. The hotel was renamed The Hotel
Edison, and retains that name today.
The Port Huron Museums, in Port Huron, Michigan, restored the original
depot that Thomas Edison worked out of as a young newsbutcher. The depot
is appropriately been named the Thomas Edison Depot Museum. The town has
many Edison historical landmarks including the gravesites of Edison’s
The United States Navy named the USS Edison (DD-439), a Gleaves-class
destroyer, in his honor in 1940. The vessel was decommissioned a few
months after the end of World War II.
In recognition of the enormous contribution inventors make to the nation
and the world, the Congress, pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 140
(Public Law 97 — 198), has designated February 11, the anniversary of
the birth of Thomas Alva Edison, as National Inventor’s Day
1847 Birth in Ohio
1854 Went to school first time
1855 Had scarlet Fever
1869 Moved to New York
1871 Marriage to Mary Stilwell (1855-1884)
1880 US Census in Raritan, New Jersey
1884 Death of Mary Stilwell, his wife
1886 (circa) Marriage to Mina Miller (1865-1946)
1900 US Census in West Orange, New Jersey
1910 US Census in West Orange, New Jersey
1920 US Census in West Orange, New Jersey
1928 Won an award
1930 US Census in West Orange, New Jersey
1930 US Census in Fort Myers, Florida
1931 Death of Edison