Thomas Edison, The ‘Invention Factory’ Wizard

An 1890 portrait of Thomas Edison working in his laboratory by artist Abraham Archibald Anderson
An 1890 portrait of Thomas Edison working in his laboratory by artist Abraham Archibald Anderson

by Ray Setterfield


February 11, 1847 — It took climate change to motivate the development of electric cars in the 21st Century, but Thomas Edison had been working on the same project about 120 years earlier.

The great inventor was convinced that cars should be powered by electricity rather than oil-based products and in 1899 he began to develop an alkaline storage battery that would power them. He planned to produce a battery that would run the car for 160 kilometres (100 miles) before it needed to be re-charged.

Edison worked on the project for about ten years then gave up because the abundant supply of cheap petrol made the dream redundant.

His efforts were not in vain, though. Storage batteries became his most profitable invention and his friend Henry Ford used them in his Model T cars. Variations of Edison’s storage batteries also had a number of uses, from railroad signals to the lamps in miners’ helmets.

In another modern-day Edison link, when running for the presidency Joe Biden asked in a Wisconsin speech: “Why in God's name don't we teach history in history classes? A black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Edison.”

He was probably referring to the black American inventor Lewis Howard Latimer who worked on development of both the light bulb and the telephone. But Mr Biden needs to have a word with his history teacher, for neither Thomas Edison nor Lewis Latimer created the light bulb, even though, as Mr Biden said, Edison’s name is most often associated with the invention.

The first person to show that electrically heated wires could give out light was 18th Century English scientist Humphry Davy. But a successful incandescent light needed a cheap material that burned brightly and was long-lasting, and Davy could not solve the problem. Nor could others who tried and failed. But Edison could and in 1879 he introduced his groundbreaking carbon filament light bulb based on Davy’s research.

Historians agree that Edison did not invent the electric light bulb, but he did produce the first commercially viable one.

It was just one achievement in the extraordinary life of a remarkable man who began work as a scientist in the 1860s at a time when low-voltage current from huge batteries was the only source of electrical power. When he died some 70 years later the modern age of electricity had been created, much of it by his guiding hand, and Edison was the holder of a world record 1,093 patents.

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison Jr and his wife Nancy. Samuel drifted in and out of various jobs in his lifetime, from splitting shingles for roofs to keeping a tavern.

Unlike her husband, Nancy, a devout Presbyterian, had some formal education, which was soon put to good use.

Thomas, known to his family as “Al”, struggled at school because he had developed hearing problems at an early age. In later life he was almost deaf. One teacher, considering him to be slow or dim, described him as “addled” – much to the fury of Nancy who decided to take the boy out of school and teach him herself at home.

Edison later wrote: “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.”

By the time he was eleven years old, Nancy had noted that her son possessed an insatiable appetite for knowledge. It showed itself not only in his interest in taking things apart to see how they worked but also in the huge range of books that he read.

At 15, after studying and experimenting with telegraph technology he started work as a telegraph operator.

At 19, he worked for the Associated Press for a couple of years but only because the night shift allowed him to spend most of his time reading and experimenting. After that he landed a job with the Western Union Company in Boston, then America’s hub of science and culture. While there, he designed and patented an electronic voting recorder for quickly tallying votes in the legislature.

But it was the next invention that would set Edison firmly on the path to fame and fortune. In 1869, at the age of 22, he developed the Universal Stock Printer, which synchronised several stock tickers' transactions. No big deal for the ordinary man in the street, perhaps, but executives of New York’s Gold and Stock Telegraph Company were so impressed that they paid him $40,000 (equivalent to $766,000 in 2020) for the rights.

Now he could really get going and the following year he set up his first small laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey.

There, he spotted and fell in love with a girl punching telegraph tape in one of his offices. Her name was Mary Stilwell. She was 16, he was 24 and they were married on Christmas Day 1871.

It seems, though that marriage was not the only thing on Edison’s mind. He had inventions to worry about and according to reports he returned to his laboratory after the ceremony and worked late into the night, forgetting about his waiting bride!

While still young, Mary’s health began to deteriorate and she died in August, 1884 aged just 29, probably from typhoid. Edison's daughter Marion later recalled that Mary's death left him “shaking with grief, weeping and sobbing so he could hardly tell me that mother had died in the night.”

In 1876 Edison moved his expanding operations to nearby Menlo Park where he built an independent industrial research facility with machine shops and laboratories. The site later become known as an "invention factory," because several different inventions were worked on at any given time.

It was there that he created the phonograph, his first commercially successful invention. It relied upon tin-coated cylinders with two needles – one for recording sound, and another for playback.

Edison’s first words spoken into the mouthpiece were “Mary had a little lamb.” The phonograph was greeted with incredulity, and public amazement was quickly followed by universal acclaim, Edison being dubbed “the Wizard of Menlo Park.”

In February 1886, by then a widower with three young children, he married 19-year-old Mina Miller, the daughter of a prosperous Ohio manufacturer. Edison was 39.

The marriage meant that Mina became the matriarch of Glenmont, a magnificent 29-room Victorian mansion that Edison had bought for her as a wedding gift. It was located on a 13-acre New Jersey estate at West Orange where the inventor built his new laboratories and it was there that he lived for the rest of his life.

Apart from the light bulb and the phonograph, Edison also won public acclaim by becoming, in 1896, the first person to project a motion picture, holding the world's first motion picture screening at a music hall in New York City.

His inventions fall into eight main categories – batteries; electric lights and power; phonographs and sound recording; cement; mining; motion pictures; telegraphs; and telephones.

In 1880 he founded the Edison Illuminating Company – the first investor-owned electric utility – which Edison hoped would deliver electricity to power and light the cities of the world. It later became General Electric.

One invention that he regretted was the first commercially available fluoroscope, a machine that uses X-rays to take radiographs. While working on the project exposure to radiation led to the death of his assistant, Clarence Dally and in 1903, a shaken Edison said: “Don’t talk to me about X-rays. I am afraid of them.”

Edison died at Glenmont on October 18, 1931, from complications of diabetes. He was 84. Many communities and corporations throughout the world respectfully dimmed their lights or briefly turned off their electrical power to note his passing.

Published: January 23, 2021


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