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Thomas Alva Edison
February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931

 

 


Born

February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio, and grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.

He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. (1804–96, born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, Canada) and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810–1871, born in Chenango County, New York).

His father had to escape from Canada because he took part in the unsuccessful Mackenzie Rebellion of 1837.

Early Years

In school, the young Edison's mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him "addled". This ended Edison's three months of official schooling.

Edison 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."

His mother taught him at home.

Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union.

He developed hearing problems at an early age.

The cause of his deafness has been attributed to a bout of scarlet fever during childhood and recurring untreated middle-ear infections.

Around the middle of his career, Edison attributed the hearing impairment to being struck on the ears by a train conductor when his chemical laboratory in a boxcar caught fire and he was thrown off the train in Smiths Creek, Michigan, along with his apparatus and chemicals.

In his later years, he modified the story to say the injury occurred when the conductor, in helping him onto a moving train, lifted him by the ears.

Edison's family moved to Port Huron, Michigan after the railroad bypassed Milan in 1854 and business declined.

His life there was bittersweet.

He sold candy and newspapers on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit, and he sold vegetables to supplement his income.

He also studied qualitative analysis, and conducted chemical experiments on the train until an accident prohibited further work of the kind.

He obtained the exclusive right to sell newspapers on the road, and, with the aid of four assistants, he set in type and printed the Grand Trunk Herald, which he sold with his other papers.

This began Edison's long streak of entrepreneurial ventures, as he discovered his talents as a businessman.

These talents eventually led him to found 14 companies, including General Electric, which is still one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world.

Telegrapher

Edison became a telegraph operator after he saved three-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from being struck by a runaway train.

Jimmie's father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie of Mount Clemens, Michigan, was so grateful that he trained Edison as a telegraph operator.

Edison's first telegraphy job away from Port Huron was at Stratford Junction, Ontario, on the Grand Trunk Railway.

In 1866, at the age of 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where, as an employee of Western Union, he worked the Associated Press bureau news wire.

Edison requested the night shift, which allowed him plenty of time to spend at his two favorite pastimes—reading and experimenting.

Eventually, the latter pre-occupation cost him his job.

One night in 1867, he was working with a lead–acid battery when he spilled sulfuric acid onto the floor.

It ran between the floorboards and onto his boss's desk below. The next morning Edison was fired.

One of his mentors during those early years was a fellow telegrapher and inventor named Franklin Leonard Pope, who allowed the impoverished youth to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, New Jersey home.

Some of Edison's earliest inventions were related to telegraphy, including a stock ticker.

His first patent was for the electric vote recorder which was granted on June 1, 1869.

Married

On December 25, 1871, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell (1855-1884), whom he had met two months earlier; she was an employee at one of his shops.

They had three children: Marion Estelle Edison (1873–1965), nicknamed "Dot", Thomas Alva Edison, Jr. (1876–1935), nicknamed "Dash" and William Leslie Edison (1878–1937) Inventor, graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, 1900.

Mary Edison died at age 29 on August 9, 1884, of unknown causes: possibly from a brain tumor or a morphine overdose.

Doctors frequently prescribed morphine to women in those years to treat a variety of causes, and researchers believe that some of her symptoms sounded as if they were associated with morphine poisoning.

On February 24, 1886, at the age of thirty-nine, Edison married the 20-year-old Mina Miller (1866-1947) in Akron, Ohio.

She was the daughter of the inventor Lewis Miller, co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution and a benefactor of Methodist charities.

They also had three children together: Madeleine Edison (1888–1979), who married John Eyre Sloane, Charles Edison (1890–1969), who took over the company upon his father's death and who later was elected Governor of New Jersey.

He also took charge of his father's experimental laboratories in West Orange and Theodore Edison (1898–1992), (MIT Physics 1923), credited with more than 80 patents.

Mina outlived Thomas Edison, dying on August 24, 1947.

Early Inventions

Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention that first gained him notice was the phonograph in 1877.

This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical.

Edison became known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park," New Jersey.

His first phonograph recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder, but had poor sound quality and the recordings could be played only a few times.

In the 1880s, a redesigned model using wax-coated cardboard cylinders was produced by Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter.

This was one reason that Thomas Edison continued work on his own "Perfected Phonograph."

Menlo Park

Edison's major innovation was the first industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

It was built with the funds from the sale of Edison's quadruplex telegraph.
After his demonstration of the telegraph, Edison was not sure that his original plan to sell it for $4,000 to $5,000 was right,

so he asked Western Union to make a bid.

He was surprised to hear them offer $10,000, ($202,000 USD 2010) which he gratefully accepted.

The quadruplex telegraph was Edison's first big financial success, and Menlo Park became the first institution set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement.

Edison was legally attributed with most of the inventions produced there, though many employees carried out research and development under his direction.

His staff was generally told to carry out his directions in conducting research, and he drove them hard to produce results.

William Joseph Hammer, a consulting electrical engineer, began his duties as a laboratory assistant to Edison in December 1879.

He assisted in experiments on the telephone, phonograph, electric railway, iron ore separator, electric lighting, and other developing inventions.

However, Hammer worked primarily on the incandescent electric lamp and was put in charge of tests and records on that device.

In 1880, he was appointed chief engineer of the Edison Lamp Works.

In his first year, the plant under General Manager Francis Robbins Upton turned out 50,000 lamps.

According to Edison, Hammer was "a pioneer of incandescent electric lighting".

Nearly all of Edison's patents were utility patents, which were protected for a 17-year period and included inventions or processes that are electrical, mechanical, or chemical in nature.

About a dozen were design patents, which protect an ornamental design for up to a 14-year period.

As in most patents, the inventions he described were improvements over prior art.

The phonograph patent, in contrast, was unprecedented as describing the first device to record and reproduce sounds.

Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb, but instead invented the first commercially practical incandescent light.

Many earlier inventors had previously devised incandescent lamps, including Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans.

Others who developed early and commercially impractical incandescent electric lamps included Humphry Davy, James Bowman Lindsay, Moses G. Farmer, William E. Sawyer, Joseph Swan and Heinrich Göbel.

Some of these early bulbs had such flaws as an extremely short life, high expense to produce, and high electric current drawn, making them difficult to apply on a large scale commercially.

More Menlo Park

In just over a decade, Edison's Menlo Park laboratory had expanded to occupy two city blocks.

Edison said he wanted the lab to have "a stock of almost every conceivable material".

A newspaper article printed in 1887 reveals the seriousness of his claim, stating the lab contained "eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels ... silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark's teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell ... cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock's tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores ..." and the list goes on.

Over his desk, Edison displayed a placard with Sir Joshua Reynolds' famous quotation: "There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking."

This slogan was reputedly posted at several other locations throughout the facility.

With Menlo Park, Edison had created the first industrial laboratory concerned with creating knowledge and then controlling its application.

prolific inventor

Edison is the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

He is credited with numerous inventions that contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications.

These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures.

Died

Thomas Edison died of complications of diabetes on October 18, 1931, in his home, "Glenmont" in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey, which he had purchased in 1886 as a wedding gift for Mina.

He is buried behind the home

A Visit to Edison is drawn from an article in the first edition of
The Children's newspaper.
Sydney, Jan. 30, 1898

We went to see Mr. Edison at his laboratory and works, East Orange; We spent a most interesting day with the inventor.
He is devoted to his researches and told Julia, who asked him when he began to strive after invention, that at the age of ten he sat on hen's eggs in order to incubate them, but he found it tedious.
He said he did not try to do the possible, but impossible things.
In one of his inventions he was always confronted by an imperfection and at last overcame it by creating another.
I suggested that this showed that there were occasions when two blacks might make one white.
He has a beautiful house and grounds near his works but spends most of his time at work, sometimes working all night.
Indeed he simply lives for his work.
He eats to keep himself going. He does not care what it is, so long as it gives him sustenance. He likes smoking, but drinks nothing but milk or water.

His wife and children came calling during the afternoon.
Apart from his work he is as simple as a child.
It is curious to see this great creature doing what he is told to do.
Julia wanted his photograph and autograph.
Mr. Gilmore, a manager, produced a photograph and two cards and tols Edison to sign them, which he did.
I wish I could draw him in his suit of faded blue serge, spotted with chemicals - hands and nails stained with acids, rusty boots, slouching gait, eyes sweet and tender, but which every now and then throw out flashes as bright and expressiv as an X ray itself.
I was five hours with him and got to quite love the man.
He would not let us go, but kept bring out one thing and then another.
He gave me an X ray lamp and Julia several slips of photographa for the kinetoscope.
Quite a day to remember - From "Life of Sir Frank Lockwood."

Note : Sir Frank Lockwood (15 July 1846 – 18 December 1897) was an English lawyer and Liberal Party politician.
Lockwood married Julia Rosetta Salis Schwabe, daughter of Salis Schwabe of Manchester and Glyn-y-Garble, Anglesey, on 3 September 1874.

Edison said: "genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."



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