Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 1847. One of the most prolific inventors in history, Edison created the phonograph, the electric light bulb, and the motion picture camera.
Edison was born in Ohio and grew up in Michigan. He attended public schools for only a few months and was mostly taught at home by his mother. As a result of scarlet fever and several untreated inner ear infections, he lost his hearing completely in one ear, and almost completely in the other.
Edison received his first patent in 1869, for an electric vote recorder. There wasn’t much interest in the device, but he had better luck a few years later when he devised a telegraph that could send multiple messages simultaneously on a single wire. He sold that to Western Union in 1876, and used the proceeds to create a research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
The Menlo Park lab was one of the first facilities dedicated entirely to scientific research and development. Edison had a large staff who carried out research and experiments under his direction. The lab grew quickly, and within a decade, it occupied two full city blocks.
The first major success out of Menlo Park was the phonograph, patented in 1877. The ability to record sound was a tremendous breakthrough, but the phonograph wasn’t a very useful device at first; it recorded on a tinfoil-covered cylinder that could only be played back a few times. The device didn’t really take off until the mid-1880s after other inventors devised a more durable wax-coated cardboard cylinder. You can hear some early cylinder recordings from the 1890s and 1900s on Cylinder Christmas.
In 1878, Edison began work on the electric light bulb. His first successful test, in October 1879, stayed lit for 13 and a half hours, and Edison received a patent in January 1880. It took several more months to find a filament that would be durable enough to be practical, but Edison and his team finally came up with a filament of carbonized bamboo that would burn for 1200 hours.
Edison invested heavily in the business of electrifying America, and his next decade was dominated by what came to be known as the “current wars.” There were two different systems for transmitting electricity. Edison was an advocate of direct current (DC); his rival, George Westinghouse, advocated alternating current (AC). The two men and their companies waged a fierce public relations campaign on behalf of their preferred current. Edison worked to make sure that the first electric chair, for instance, would be powered by a Westinghouse AC generator; he thought he could use that as a way to push the idea that AC was more dangerous.
Ultimately, the current wars turned on the fact that AC was more easily transmitted by wire; it was economically impractical to get DC electricity into smaller cities and rural America. Edison’s stubborn advocacy for DC led to his being forced out of Edison General Electric in 1892; the company dropped “Edison” from its name and switched to AC.
Several books have been written in recent years focusing on the current wars—Jill Jonnes’s Empires of Light (e-book | e-audio | print) and Tom McNichol’s AC/DC (e-audio | print) are histories of the battle, and Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night (e-book | e-audio | print) uses it as the basis for a historical mystery novel.
Edison’s next great invention came in 1891 when he created the “kinetograph,” the first motion picture camera. As he had done with electricity, Edison invested heavily in the business made possible by his new device. Between 1894 and 1918, Edison Studios made more than 1,200 short films, some of which are gathered in the Edison Album.
Among those early films was the 1903 “Electrocuting an Elephant,” a recording of the death of Topsy, a circus elephant who was to be killed after a serious of violent incidents. The original plans for Topsy’s death—a public hanging to which admission would be charged—were changed after protests by the ASPCA to an electrocution, to which only the press would be invited. Michael Daly tells the elephant’s story in Topsy (e-book | e-audio | print).
In 1908, Edison started the Motion Picture Patents Company, a collective of the nine major motion picture studios which enforced the use of Edison cameras and films in movie-making, warning producers that the use of other companies’ products were a violation of the MPPC’s patents. Indirectly, Edison was therefore responsible for the rise of Hollywood, as independent film producers headed to California, in part because it would be harder for Edison and the MPPC to enforce their patents at a distance.
Edison remained active as an inventor to the very end of his life. In 1915, he headed the Navy Consulting Board, a group of scientists who offered technical and scientific advice to the United States military. In 1930, Edison developed the electrical system for a new fleet of commuter trains in northern New Jersey, and he was at the throttle of the first train to leave the station; those trains remained in service until 1984.
Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931, of complications from diabetes. There are several full biographies of Thomas Edison, by Edmund Morris (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), Randall E. Stross (e-book | print), and Paul Israel (e-audio | print). PBS’s American Masters series covered the life of Edison in The Father of Invention (streaming | DVD).
In The Vagabonds (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), Jeff Guinn looks at the friendship between Edison and Henry Ford, who took summer road trips together each year between 1914 and 1925; the Los Angeles Theatre Works production of Mark St. Germain’s Camping With Henry and Tom (e-audio | audio) dramatizes one of those trips. Joel Martin and William J. Birnes explore one of the stranger chapters of Edison’s life in Edison vs. Tesla (e-book), as the rival inventors attempt to develop a “spirit phone” to talk to the dead.
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