The Wizard of Menlo Park
Meet Thomas Alva Edison, America’s most renowned inventor! He’s famous for inventing many things that have had a significant impact on our daily lives, such as the practical light bulb, audio recording, electrical power distribution, motion picture camera, mechanical vote recorders, telephone-microphone, and electric car battery.
Edison’s innovative spirit wasn’t limited to just inventing. He also established the first industrial research and development laboratory. It was a resounding success, leading some historians to attribute the invention of the research and development (R&D) lab to Edison. This collaborative, team-based model was later emulated by other R&D centers such as AT&T’s Bell Labs, the DuPont Experimental Station, and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).
Edison was a prolific inventor, holding a whopping 1,093 US patents in his name. He also founded 14 companies, including General Electric, which is still a significant player in the tech industry today.
Thomas Alva Edison, c. 1922.
Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. He was the youngest of seven children born to Samuel Edison Jr. and Nancy Elliott Edison, although only four of the children survived to adulthood. Edison’s father was a political activist exiled from Canada, and his mother was a talented school teacher who played a significant role in his upbringing. Edison spent his childhood in Port Huron, Michigan, where he began his career as a railway telegraph operator at the age of 16. Alongside his job, he also sold newspapers on trains along the Grand Trunk Railway, including one he printed himself called the Grand Trunk Herald.
In later years, Edison claimed that his deafness developed from being struck on the ears by a train conductor when his homemade laboratory in a box car caught on fire. However, others attribute Edison’s deafness to the scarlet fever he had as a child. Both his experience as a telegrapher and his hearing impairment motivated his first inventions—the improved telegraph and printer for converting electrical signals into letters.
In 1866, at age 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to work for the Associated Press. He chose to work the night shift to read and experiment. He was fired after a year when he spilled sulfuric acid from a battery, and it ate through the floor onto his boss’ desk below. However, after this setback, Edison soon patented the quadruplex telegraph—one capable of handling four messages simultaneously—whose sales then funded the construction of the laboratory where he created his famous inventions.
Edison and his first wife, Mary Stillwell, were both less than fantastic with finances, so Edison hired his father to build a laboratory in rural Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he could focus on work. There, in his “invention factory,” in 1877, he developed the phonograph, the first audio recording of any kind, and became known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park.”
Edison’s Menlo Park upstairs lab, 1880.
His first phonograph recorded audio by indenting tinfoil wrapped around a grooved cylinder; it was not practical for commercial development. Edison did not work on it further until several years later when competition appeared with inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell using wax-coated cardboard cylinders.
Photograph of Edison with his phonograph (2nd model), taken in Mathew Brady’s Washington, DC studio in April 1878.
Edison did not exactly invent the light bulb; he invented the first truly useful one and a power system to light it. Previous bulbs were expensive, drew too much power, and didn’t last long. Edison realized the need for a bulb using low current and a high-resistance filament. After famously experimenting with all sorts of metals, he got one to work for 13 hours using carbon filament and immediately filed his patent; a few weeks thereafter, he and his team discovered one that could last 1200 hours—a carbonized bamboo filament. It was the light bulb that motivated Edison to construct the first electrical power station in Manhattan in order to light city businesses with his bulbs. A competition ensued between Edison’s DC (direct current) and the AC (alternating current) promoted by Nikola Tesla; stay tuned for our upcoming episode on Tesla for that story.
U.S. Patent #223898: Electric-Lamp, issued January 27, 1880.
A motion picture camera called the kinetograph was also a product of Menlo Park. Edison did not invent the projector. His original goal had been to sync video with sound recordings, but he found that too difficult, so ended up inventing silent movies instead. Edison’s film studio eventually made over 1,000 films, including Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein, and The Great Train Robbery. Edison was not fond of “talkies” (motion pictures with sound) when they later came out. He said that there was no more good acting on screen after they began concentrating on the voice; of course, by then, Edison was deaf.
Despite facing failures, Edison remained unwavering in his passion for innovation. While his later projects did not achieve the same level of success as his earlier ones, he persisted in his work even into his 80s.
Edison and Mary had three children, Marion, Thomas, and William, during their 13-year marriage. Unfortunately, Mary passed away in 1884 at the age of 29 due to a suspected brain tumor. Two years later, Edison married Mina Miller, who was 19 years younger than him.
In addition to his many inventions, Thomas Edison is known for his words of wisdom on innovation and hard work. Here is one of his most famous quotes:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Edison thought that failure is not necessarily a bad thing but rather a necessary step in the process of invention and discovery. As a prolific inventor who faced many failures and setbacks, he never gave up. He believed that every failed attempt brought him one step closer to finding the right solution.
Edison’s inventions revolutionized the way we live, work, and communicate, and his contributions to science and technology paved the way for countless advancements in these fields. From the phonograph to the light bulb, Edison’s innovations continue to influence our daily lives more than a century after his death. His legacy serves as a reminder of the incredible power of human innovation and serves as an inspiration for future generations to pursue their own inventions and discoveries.
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” —Thomas Edison
“We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” —Thomas Edison
“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” —Thomas Edison
“Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” ―Thomas A. Edison
“The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.” ―Thomas A. Edison
“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this - you haven’t.” ―Thomas A. Edison
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