Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), was one of the most prolific American inventors of the 19th century. He was born on February 11, 1847, Milan, Ohio; the seventh and last child of Samuel and Nancy Edison.
Edison did not learn to talk until he was almost four years of age. His delay in speaking was not an indication of being mentally challenged. He may have started late but once he started speaking he seemed to never tire of asking “Why?”
Thomas was known for his never ceasing inquiries of how things worked. This inquiring mind invented many things and had 1093 patents. So what was the secret to Edison’s success? First of all, it is easy to look back on Edison’s life and weave all his successes together into a beautiful collage. Not to tarnish Edison’s image in any way, but like every inventor, engineer, and scientists, Edison had many ideas that did not work. Let me clarify this, he had many ideas that did not work the first time they were tried.
Edison’s response to failure and often times repeated failure is the key to his successes. Edison is quoted as saying,
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Edison was a man that lived up to the many different statements he made. For example, he was determined to create an electric light bulb that would last an extended time. At first, the problem was not being able to pump enough air out of the bulb. This was important because the more oxygen in bulb the faster the filament burned and broke. When Edison came on a problem such as this, he solved it. As with the vacuum pump, he generally improved on existing devices.
Edison did not invent the electric light bulb. This is credited to English scientist Humphry Davy in 1805. In 1875 Herman Sprengel invented the mercury vacuum pump. If these devices were already invented, what did Edison do that was so important?
The answer to this question defines this great inventor, engineer, and scientist. Edison was always trying to make things better–more useful, and with the electric light bulb he sought to make a more practical and even affordable bulb.
Discover for Yourself
What did Edison use as the filament in his first successful light bulb? What did Edison have to remove from the bulb to keep the filament from burning?
The following videos provides the answers.
ACTIVITY: For Step-by-Step Instructions to draw a light bulb, see DRAGOART
What was the secret to Edison’s success?
Following, in Edison’s own words he describes the process that he used for each new inquiry.
“I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable. Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved. This was the only possible way for me to work out the problem. … I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty was in constructing the carbon filament. . . . Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials used, until finally the shred of bamboo, now utilized by us, was settled upon.”
Did you notice how Edison used theory for what we now would label as hypothesis?
Did you notice that he tested and tested his ideas until he felt it was a hopeless cause. No sulky aboutbeing a failure. I envision him clearing his lab table and starting over with a blank sheet that quickly had new ideas being drawn on it.
A skeleton outline of Edison’s Life Follows.
1854: Edison’s family moved to Port Huron, Michigan.
In Port Huron, Edison attended school for a short 12 weeks. It was a one-room schoolhouse with 38 other students of all ages. Tom’s teacher was short tempered and preferred that students only speak when spoken to. He lost his patience with Tom’s persistent questioning.
Tom’s forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average. Whether it was this or just being exhausted with Tom’s never ending questions, Tom’s teacher called him addled. Tom reported this to his mother and she escorted him to school the following day. The teacher told Mrs. Edison that Thomas couldn’t learn, and he made no secret of his belief that the hyperactive youngster’s brains were “addled” or scrambled.Tom was taken out of school and his mother taught him at home. Tom now had the freedom to explore, investigate, experiment, and discover for himself.
1857: At age 10, Tom set up a science laboratory in the basement of the family’s home.
Mr. Edison wanted Tom to study things other than science, so he paid Tom a penny for every novel or His father did not approve of all the time that he spent on science, so he paid Thomas a penny to read other topics, the classics –history–anything other than science. That was no problem for Tom, in fact he decided that he would read every book that was in the public library. His plan was to start with books on the bottom shelf and work his way to the top. His selection of books was guided more by his mother and the librarian.
Tom’s seemly voracious appetite for reading was not what his father hoped for. Tom collected payment for reading and generally spent the money on supplies for his experiments and inventions.
1859: At age 12, Tom starts sells newspapers and sundries on the train between Port Huron, Michigan, and Detroit.
He sets up a chemistry lab and a printing press on the train. He also campaigned for Lincoln for president by creating fliers with a very flattering picture of Lincoln. He printed and published “The Weekly Herald,” the first newspaper ever to be typeset and printed on a moving train. The London times featured a story about Edison and his paper–this was his first but not last exposure to international fame.
Edison’s hearing had never been perfect, but at 15 he was late and while trying to jump onto the moving train, a conductor (his friend) grabbed Edison’s ears to help pull him up. Edison later commented that he felt something snap inside his head, and soon he began to lose much of his hearing. While surgery could have cured his hearing problem, even when he later could afford the operation Edison refused. He is quoted as saying that his deafness helped him concentrate and encouraged him to read more. Edison was afraid that hearing noises around him might distract him. His individualistic style of learning basically made him much of a loner. He could be described as having a ” kaleidoscopic mind, ” and a legendary memory.
Edison is quoted as never accepting anything as true when it came to electricity unless he has first tested it himself. Testing and testing again was one of his traits that led to his success as an inventor.
- Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
1862: Edison rescued the young son of a train station agent. The small child was in danger of being killed by a train. In gratitude the child’s father taught Edison telegraphy. This started a new career as well as ideas about how to improve telegraph devices. It was a slow means of communication. How could he make it faster? More efficient? I think Edison was one of the best efficiency experts ever.
1864-67: Years as a traveling telegrapher. Edison was able to be a telegrapher at the young age of 16. While he didn’t have to understand the electromagnetic properties of moving current, his interest in these properties led to further inventions dealing with electric and magnetic properties.
Another trait of Edison that led to his success was that he did not let his lack of knowledge stop him. He was a self taught man, and one thing he learned early was to team up with someone who knows what you need to know.
1868: Edison patents his first invention, Boston. Edison’s first invention was an automatic vote recorder for legislatures.
Just because you invent something and even get a patent for it doesn’t mean you can sell it. While his automatic vote recorder was a great idea, legislatures at the time didn’t accept it. Edison said that from that time on he would make things that people wanted. But his own creative juices must have blinded him when he decided that people would embrace the idea of concrete furnishing. Not just building material, I am talking about concrete pianos and cabinets.
As with many of his brainstorms, Edison not only created the product, but formed a business to produce it. Edison Portland Cement Co. was formed in 1899. This shows real confidence in his own ideas. Unfortunately Edison may have been the only one who wanted a concrete piano, plus at the time concrete was expensive. His investment was not a total loss, his company was hired to build Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
1869: Moves to New York. While seeking a job was in Gold & Stock Telegraph Company when their ticker apparatus broke down. No was but Edison was able to fix it. He was hired as superintendent with an extraordinary salary of $300/month.
Edison was now concentrating on how to improve stock ticker devices. He formed a partnership with an electrical engineer, Franklin L. Pope. With Edison’s creative mind and Pope’s knowledge of electronics, they radically improved stock tickers and patented other devices associated with stock tickers. These inventions were his first substantial income.
Becoming wealthy is generally the goal of every inventor. No doubt Edison wanted to be rewarded for his efforts, but the money he made was invested in another idea or in creating a work place where more inventions could be developed.
1871: Edison moves to Newark, New Jersey, and with money from a contract with the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, he opens a telegraph manufacturing shop where he also conducts his inventive work.
Another example of the pattern that Edison repeated again and again–he put everything into his creation, including his money. He not only invented devices, he manufactured them.
He was always experimenting. Not just mentally designing things, he experimented to see if they would work.
1871: Marries Mary Stilwell
Mary Stilwell (1855-1884) was 15-years old when Edison asked her to marry him. She was a worker in his laboratory. Being a shy girl and Edison being basically deaf, there had been little communication between the two until one day Edison asked Mary what she thought of him and if she would marry him. During their courtship, the couple had little to no time alone. Being so young, Mary’s parents kept a watchful eye on them. One source states that Edison taught Mary Morse code so he could tap secret messages into the palm of her hand. In a short time Edison asked Mary’s father for permission to marry her. They were married on Christmas Day of 1871. About an hour after the ceremony, Edison remembered something he needed to do at his laboratory and rushed off. He claimed that he returned by dinner time, but others say he got so involved in his work that he had to be reminded to go home. It was not unusual for Edison to be in his laboratory for several days without going home. This behavior continued throughout the marriage.
Mary and Tomas Edison had three children, a daughter Marion, born in 1873, who Edison nicknamed “Dot” and his first son Thomas Jr., born in 1876, was nicknamed “Dash.” Since the Morse code that was so much a part of Edison’s life only had dots and dashes, the third child, William Leslie, born in 1878, did not have a nickname.
1874: Edison invented the quadruplex telegraph for Western Union company, which transmitted four messages simultaneously (two in each direction).
1875: He invented the electric pen, an early copying device, and worked on various telegraph inventions.
1876: Edison moves to Menlo Park, New Jersey, and established the first industrial research laboratory. His lab was a combination of an electrical and chemical laboratory with an experimental workshop. In other words, not only were his ideas tested but the lab had the tools and materials to construct a working model.
1877: Edison invents a device called the carbon transmitter, which improved the telephone.
Edison Invents the Phonograph
Of all his inventions, Edison’s favorite was the phonograph. It was serendipitous. In his efforts to improve the telegraph as well as the telephone, Edison discovered a way to record sound on tinfoil-coated cylinders. His phonograph machine had two needles: one needle for recording and second needle for playback.
Sound waves are produced when something vibrates. Edison’s machine worked by speaking into a mouthpiece. The sound of his voice caused vibrations resulting in the needle vibrating. The vibrating needle indented the foil on the rotating cylinder. Edison’s first recorded word were, “Mary had a little lamb.”
1878: By now it should be no surprise that Edison established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to sell his new favorite machine.
Edison saw the value in his phonograph other than just being entertaining and great fun at parties, that is if he ever went to one. Some of Edison’s suggested uses for his phonograph include, letter writing and dictation, phonographic books for blind people, a family record (recording family members in their own voices), music boxes and toys, clocks that announce the time, and a connection with the telephone so communications could be recorded. He did not see all his ideas come to fruition, but because of him we do have these things today.
In 1917, when the U.S. became involved in World War I, the Edison Company created a special model of the phonograph for the U.S. Army. Many Army units purchased these phonographs (sold for $60.00) so that soldiers could have music to cheer them and remind them of home.
1879: He invented a direct current generator for incandescent electric lighting and the carbon filament lamp.
1880-1890: It is hard to think that Edison could have increased his productivity, but during this time period he he must have given up sleeping. Actually, sleeping didn’t seem to fit into Edison’s schedule very often.
“I owe my success to the fact that I never had a clock in my workroom. Seventy-five of us worked twenty hours every day and slept only four hours – and thrived on it.”
Edison extended and improved greatly upon his electric light, heat, and power systems.
1884: Wife Mary dies. Certainly contributed to his being more involved in his work.
1886: Marries Mina Miller
1887: Newer, larger laboratory, West Orange, New Jersey
A review of some of his inventions-improvements-and businesses during this era are:
Invented and made improvements on the brown wax and black wax cylinder phonograph. He obtained over eighty patents related to the phonograph. As was his style, Edison established businesses that manufactured as well as sold phonographs and records and dictating machines.
A system of wireless telegraphy, which worked to and from trains in motion as well as between two moving trains.
A wireless system of communication between ships at sea and ships and shore.
A Big Dud-Iron Ore
Like his concrete piano idea, Edison was not successful in his ideas for creating a practical way to remove iron from low-grade iron ore. There was a great demand for this metal, so he would not only be helping supply a needed product but would have a very marketable process or product. He invested all his money into this project but was never able to extract iron from low-grade ores. He finally gave up but not before he had lost all his money. But some of the machinery he designed were very effective and useful. It made removing iron from quality ore easier.
The fluoroscope was and still is a very useful machine. It allows medical exams to be more easily performed. Edison saw the value and the necessity of a practical fluorescent screen for making examinations with X-rays. He was now into chemistry and fluorescence. No doubt he had a backup team of chemists searching for a crystal that was highly fluorescent. But as with all his inventions he needed some that was practical-meaning easy to make or find. For the fluoroscope, he discovered that Calcium Tungstate crystals are highly fluorescent. Of course while he was at it he made several improvements in the current x-ray tubes.
Edison was convinced that direct current was the safest source of electricity for homes. George Westinghouse disagreed. Edison said the new alternating-current electric systems was dangerous and proceeded to prove his point with evidence from animal electrocutions conducted at his laboratory.
But soon the Columbian Exposition in Chicago chose to be powered by alternating-current. Another vote for AC was that the Niagara Falls Commission approves AC as the system for the first large-scale electrical generator in the world. Did all of this dampen Edison’s creativity? If so it was so short lived that most likely no one noticed. Instead, at the Expo, Edison demonstrates his system for making and showing motion pictures.
Storage Batteries for Electric Cars
While the electric car idea did not develop, several years later it was sold for other uses.
1891: He Invented and patented the motion picture camera. This mechanism, with its continuous tape-like film, made it possible to take, reproduce, and project motion pictures as seen and heard today.
1905: He invented a revolutionary new type of dictating machine, which enabled the dictator to hear repetitions and make paper scale corrections.
1883: Discovers and experiments with electrical discharge inside lamp, which was called the “Edison Effect.” This discovery was the foundation of the invention of vacuum tubes, such as the cathode ray tubes used by Rutherford in his discovery of protons.
1915 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels convinces Edison to head a Naval Consulting Board to investigate new military technology.
1916 Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone begin a tradition of vacationing together. It is not a surprise that they are followed by the press everywhere they go. These three over achievers were perfect for each other. No doubt they shared ideas. Firestone tires were needed by Ford’s cars and of course Edison was there to improve on every thing. He did later try to find a replacement for natural rubber.
1929: Inauguration of Menlo Park laboratory as a museum, Dearborn, Michigan
1931: Dies October 18, West Orange, New Jersey
Edison was one of the most important men of this era and there is little doubt that his inventions have shaped the development of the modern world. His methods outline the scientific method. He identified problems and made experimental investigations to find answers. I would call him a genius. But if I use Edison’s own definition of a genius, some so called genius fall short of the mark while others would be added to the list. No matter the criteria, Edison is tops on any list of Geniuses.
“Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”