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Thomas Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor and businessman who has been described as America's greatest inventor.[1][2][3] He developed many devices in fields such as electric power generationmass communicationsound recording, and motion pictures.[4] These inventions, which include the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and early versions of the electric light bulb, have had a widespread impact on the modern industrialized world.[5] He was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of organized science and teamwork to the process of invention, working with many researchers and employees. He established the first industrial research laboratory.[6]

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison2.jpg
Edison, c. 1922
Thomas Alva Edison

February 11, 1847
MilanOhio, U.S.
DiedOctober 18, 1931(aged 84)
Burial placeThomas Edison National Historical Park
EducationSelf-educated; some coursework at Cooper Union
OccupationInventor, businessman
Years active1877–1930
  • Mary Stilwell
    (m. 1871d. 1884)
  • Mina Miller
    (m. 1886)
6, including
RelativesLewis Miller(father-in-law)
Thomas Alva Edison Signature.svg

Edison was raised in the American Midwest; early in his career he worked as a telegraph operator, which inspired some of his earliest inventions.[4] In 1876, he established his first laboratory facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where many of his early inventions were developed. He later established a botanic laboratory in Fort Myers, Florida, in collaboration with businessmen Henry Ford and Harvey S. Firestone, and a laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, that featured the world's first film studio, the Black Maria. He was a prolific inventor, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as patents in other countries. Edison married twice and fathered six children. He died in 1931 of complications of diabetes.

Early life

Edison as a boy

Thomas Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio, but grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, after the family moved there in 1854.[7] He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Ogden Edison Jr. (1804–1896, born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia) and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810–1871, born in Chenango County, New York).[8][9] His patrilineal family line was Dutch by way of New Jersey;[10] the surname had originally been "Edeson".[11]

Edison was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother who used to be a school teacher. He attended school for only a few months. However, one biographer described him as a very curious child who learned most things by reading on his own.[12] As a child, he became fascinated with technology and spent hours working on experiments at home.[13]

Edison developed hearing problems at the age of 12. The cause of his deafness has been attributed to a bout of scarlet fever during childhood and recurring untreated middle-ear infections. He subsequently concocted elaborate fictitious stories about the cause of his deafness.[14] Being completely deaf in one ear and barely hearing in the other, it is alleged that Edison would listen to a music player or piano by clamping his teeth into the wood to absorb the sound waves into his skull.[15] As he got older, Edison believed his hearing loss allowed him to avoid distraction and concentrate more easily on his work. Modern-day historians and medical professionals have suggested he may have had ADHD.[13]

It is known that early in his career he enrolled in a chemistry course at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, to support his work on a new telegraphy system with Charles Batchelor. This appears to have been his only enrollment in courses at an institution of higher learning. [16][17][18]

Early career

Thomas Edison began his career selling candy, newspapers and vegetables on the trains running from Port Huron to Detroit. He turned a $50 a week profit by age 13, most of which went to buying equipment for electric and chemical experiments.[19] He 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.[20] He was held responsible for a near collision. He also studied qualitative analysis and conducted chemical experiments on the train until he left the job.[21][22]

Edison 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.[22]This began Edison's long streak of entrepreneurial ventures, as he discovered his talents as a businessman. Ultimately, his entrepreneurship was central to the formation of some 14 companies, including General Electric, still one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world.[23][24]

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.[25]

His first patent was for the electric vote recorder, U.S. Patent 90,646, which was granted on June 1, 1869.[26] Finding little demand for the machine, Edison moved to New York City shortly thereafter. 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, while Edison worked for Samuel Laws at the Gold Indicator Company. Pope and Edison founded their own company in October 1869, working as electrical engineers and inventors. Edison began developing a multiplex telegraphic system, which could send two messages simultaneously, in 1874.[27]

Other inventions and projects


Edison is credited with designing and producing the first commercially available fluoroscope, a machine that uses X-rays to take radiographs. Until Edison discovered that calcium tungstate fluoroscopy screens produced brighter images than the barium platinocyanide screens originally used by Wilhelm Röntgen, the technology was capable of producing only very faint images.

The fundamental design of Edison's fluoroscope is still in use today, although Edison abandoned the project after nearly losing his own eyesight and seriously injuring his assistant, Clarence Dally. Dally made himself an enthusiastic human guinea pig for the fluoroscopy project and was exposed to a poisonous dose of radiation; he later died (at the age of 39) of injuries related to the exposure, mediastinal cancer.[85]

In 1903, a shaken Edison said: "Don't talk to me about X-rays, I am afraid of them."[86] Nonetheless, his work was important in the development of a technology still used today.[87]


Edison invented a highly sensitive device, that he named the tasimeter, which measured infrared radiation. His impetus for its creation was the desire to measure the heat from the solar corona during the total Solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. The device was not patented since Edison could find no practical mass-market application for it.[88]

Telegraph improvements

The key to Edison's initial reputation and success was his work in the field of telegraphy. With knowledge gained from years of working as a telegraph operator, he learned the basics of electricity. This, together with his studies in chemistry at the Cooper Union, allowed him to make his early fortune with the stock ticker, the first electricity-based broadcast system.[89][90] His innovations also included the development of the quadruplex, the first system which could simultaneously transmit four messages through a single wire.[91]

Motion pictures

The June 1894 Leonard–Cushing bout. Each of the six one-minute rounds recorded by the Kinetoscope was made available to exhibitors for $22.50.[92] Customers who watched the final round saw Leonard score a knockdown.

Edison was granted a patent for the motion picture camera or "Kinetograph". He did the electromechanical design while his employee William Kennedy Dickson, a photographer, worked on the photographic and optical development. Much of the credit for the invention belongs to Dickson.[50] In 1891, Thomas Edison built a Kinetoscope or peep-hole viewer. This device was installed in penny arcades, where people could watch short, simple films. The kinetograph and kinetoscope were both first publicly exhibited May 20, 1891.[93]

In April 1896, Thomas Armat's Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in Edison's name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City. Later, he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film.

Officially the kinetoscope entered Europe when wealthy American businessman Irving T. Bush (1869–1948) bought from the Continental Commerce Company of Frank Z. Maguire and Joseph D. Baucus a dozen machines. Bush placed from October 17, 1894, the first kinetoscopes in London. At the same time, the French company Kinétoscope Edison Michel et Alexis Werner bought these machines for the market in France. In the last three months of 1894, the Continental Commerce Company sold hundreds of kinetoscopes in Europe (i.e. the Netherlands and Italy). In Germany and in Austria-Hungary, the kinetoscope was introduced by the Deutsche-österreichische-Edison-Kinetoscop Gesellschaft, founded by the Ludwig Stollwerck[94] of the Schokoladen-Süsswarenfabrik Stollwerck & Co of Cologne.

The first kinetoscopes arrived in Belgium at the Fairs in early 1895. The Edison's Kinétoscope Français, a Belgian company, was founded in Brussels on January 15, 1895, with the rights to sell the kinetoscopes in Monaco, France and the French colonies. The main investors in this company were Belgian industrialists.[95]

On May 14, 1895, the Edison's Kinétoscope Belge was founded in Brussels. Businessman Ladislas-Victor Lewitzki, living in London but active in Belgium and France, took the initiative in starting this business. He had contacts with Leon Gaumont and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. In 1898, he also became a shareholder of the Biograph and Mutoscope Company for France.[95]

Edison's film studio made nearly 1,200 films. The majority of the productions were short films showing everything from acrobats to parades to fire calls including titles such as Fred Ott's Sneeze(1894), The Kiss (1896), The Great Train Robbery (1903), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1910), and the first Frankenstein film in 1910. In 1903, when the owners of Luna Park, Coney Islandannounced they would execute Topsy the elephant by strangulation, poisoning, and electrocution (with the electrocution part ultimately killing the elephant), Edison Manufacturing sent a crew to film it, releasing it that same year with the title Electrocuting an Elephant.

A Day with Thomas Edison (1922)

As the film business expanded, competing exhibitors routinely copied and exhibited each other's films.[96] To better protect the copyrights on his films, Edison deposited prints of them on long strips of photographic paperwith the U.S. copyright office. Many of these paper prints survived longer and in better condition than the actual films of that era.[97]

In 1908, Edison started the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate of nine major film studios (commonly known as the Edison Trust). Thomas Edison was the first honorary fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, which was founded in 1929.

Edison said his favorite movie was The Birth of a Nation. He thought that talkieshad "spoiled everything" for him. "There isn't any good acting on the screen. They concentrate on the voice now and have forgotten how to act. I can sense it more than you because I am deaf."[98]His favorite stars were Mary Pickfordand Clara Bow.[99]


Starting in the late 1870s, Edison became interested and involved with mining. High-grade iron ore was scarce on the east coast of the United States and Edison tried to mine low-grade ore. Edison developed a process using rollers and crushers that could pulverize rocks up to 10 tons. The dust was then sent between three giant magnets that would pull the iron ore from the dust. Despite the failure of his mining company, the Edison Ore Milling Company, Edison used some of the materials and equipment to produce cement.[100]

In 1901, Edison visited an industrial exhibition in the Sudbury area in Ontario, Canada and thought nickel and cobalt deposits there could be used in his production of electrical equipment. He returned as a mining prospector and is credited with the original discovery of the Falconbridge ore body. His attempts to mine the ore body were not successful, and he abandoned his mining claim in 1903.[101] A street in Falconbridge, as well as the Edison Building, which served as the head office of Falconbridge Mines, are named for him.

Rechargeable battery

Share of the Edison Storage Battery Company, issued 19. October 1903

In the late 1890s, Edison worked on developing a lighter, more efficient rechargeable battery (at that time called an "accumulator"). He looked on them as something customers could use to power their phonographs but saw other uses for an improved battery, including electric automobiles.[102] The then available lead acid rechargeable batteries were not very efficient and that market was already tied up by other companies so Edison pursued using alkaline instead of acid. He had his lab work on many types of materials (going through some 10,000 combinations), eventually settling on a nickel-iron combination. Besides his experimenting Edison also probably had access to the 1899 patents for a nickel–iron battery by the Swedish inventor Waldemar Jungner.[103]

Edison obtained a US and European patent for his nickel–iron battery in 1901 and founded the Edison Storage Battery Company and by 1904 it had 450 people working there. The first rechargeable batteries they produced were for electric cars, but there were many defects with customers complaining about the product. When the capital of the company was spent, Edison paid for the company with his private money. Edison did not demonstrate a mature product until 1910: a very efficient and durable nickel-iron-battery with lye as the electrolyte. The nickel–iron battery was never very successful, by the time it was ready electric cars were disappearing and lead acid batteries had become the standard for turning over gas powered car starter motors.[103]


At the start of World War I, the American chemical industry was primitive. Most chemicals were imported from Europe. The outbreak of war in August 1914 resulted in an immediate shortage of imported chemicals. One of particular importance to Edison was phenol, which was used to make phonograph records—presumably as phenolic resins of the Bakelite type.

At the time, phenol came from coal as a by-product of coke oven gases or manufactured gas for gas lighting. Phenol could be nitrated to picric acidand converted to ammonium picrate, a shock resistant high explosive suitable for use in artillery shells. A telling of the phenol story is found in The Aspirin Wars.[104] Most phenol had been imported from Britain, but with war, Parliament blocked exports and diverted most to production of ammonium picrate. Britain also blockaded supplies from Germany.

Edison responded by undertaking production of phenol at his Silver Lake facility using processes developed by his chemists.[105] He built two plants with a capacity of six tons of phenol per day. Production began the first week of September, one month after hostilities began in Europe. He built two plants to produce raw material benzene at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and Bessemer, Alabama, replacing supplies previously from Germany. Edison also manufactured aniline dyes, which previously had been supplied by the German dye trust. Other wartime products include xylenep-phenylenediamineshellac, and pyrax. Wartime shortages made these ventures profitable. In 1915, his production capacity was fully committed by midyear.

Phenol was a critical material because two derivatives were in high growth phases. Bakelite, the original thermosetplastic, had been invented in 1909. Aspirin, too was a phenol derivative. Invented in 1899 had become a block buster drug. Bayer had acquired a plant to manufacture in the US in Rensselaer, New York, but struggled to find phenol to keep their plant running during the war. Edison was able to oblige.

Bayer relied on Chemische Fabrik von Heyden, in Piscataway, New Jersey, to convert phenol to salicylic acid, which they converted to aspirin. (See Great Phenol plot.) It is said that German companies bought up supplies of phenol to block production of ammonium picrate. Edison preferred not to sell phenol for military uses. He sold his surplus to Bayer, who had it converted to salicylic acid by Heyden, some of which was exported.

Final years and death

Final years

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone, respectively. Ft. Myers, Florida, February 11, 1929

Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, later lived a few hundred feet away from Edison at his winter retreat in Fort Myers. Ford once worked as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit and met Edison at a convention of affiliated Edison illuminating companies in Brooklyn, NY in 1896. Edison was impressed with Ford's internal combustion engine automobile and encouraged its developments. They were friends until Edison's death. Edison and Ford undertook annual motor camping trips from 1914 to 1924. Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs also participated.

In 1928, Edison joined the Fort Myers Civitan Club. He believed strongly in the organization, writing that "The Civitan Club is doing things—big things—for the community, state, and nation, and I certainly consider it an honor to be numbered in its ranks."[106] He was an active member in the club until his death, sometimes bringing Henry Ford to the club's meetings.

Edison was active in business right up to the end. Just months before his death, the Lackawanna Railroadinaugurated suburban electric train service from Hoboken to MontclairDover, and Gladstone, New Jersey. Electrical transmission for this service was by means of an overhead catenary system using direct current, which Edison had championed. Despite his frail condition, Edison was at the throttle of the first electric MU (Multiple-Unit) train to depart Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken in September 1930, driving the train the first mile through Hoboken yard on its way to South Orange.[107]

This fleet of cars would serve commuters in northern New Jersey for the next 54 years until their retirement in 1984. A plaque commemorating Edison's inaugural ride can be seen today in the waiting room of Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, which is presently operated by New Jersey Transit.[107]

Edison was said to have been influenced by a popular fad diet in his last few years; "the only liquid he consumed was a pint of milk every three hours".[50] He is reported to have believed this diet would restore his health. However, this tale is doubtful. In 1930, the year before Edison died, Mina said in an interview about him, "Correct eating is one of his greatest hobbies."[108] She also said that during one of his periodic "great scientific adventures", Edison would be up at 7:00, have breakfast at 8:00, and be rarely home for lunch or dinner, implying that he continued to have all three.[98]

Edison became the owner of his Milan, Ohio, birthplace in 1906. On his last visit, in 1923, he was reportedly shocked to find his old home still lit by lamps and candles.[109]


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. Rev. Stephen J. Herben officiated at the funeral;[110] Edison is buried behind the home.[111][112]

Edison's last breath is reportedly contained in a test tube at The Henry Ford museum near Detroit. Ford reportedly convinced Charles Edison to seal a test tube of air in the inventor's room shortly after his death, as a memento.[113] A plaster death mask and casts of Edison's hands were also made.[114] Mina died in 1947.

Marriages and children

On December 25, 1871, at the age of 24, 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:

Mary Edison died at age 29 on August 9, 1884, of unknown causes: possibly from a brain tumor[118] or a morphine overdose. Doctors frequently prescribed morphine to women in those years to treat a variety of causes, and researchers believe that her symptoms could have been from morphine poisoning.[119]

Edison generally preferred spending time in the laboratory to being with his family.[37]

Mina Miller Edison in 1906

On February 24, 1886, at the age of 39, Edison married the 20-year-old Mina Miller (1865–1947) in Akron, Ohio.[120]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:

Mina outlived Thomas Edison, dying on August 24, 1947.[124][125]

Wanting to be an inventor, but not having much of an aptitude for it, Thomas Edison's son, Thomas Alva Edison Jr., became a problem for his father and his father's business. Starting in the 1890s, Thomas Jr. became involved in snake oilproducts and shady and fraudulent enterprises producing products being sold to the public as "The Latest Edison Discovery". The situation became so bad that Thomas Sr. had to take his son to court to stop the practices, finally agreeing to pay Thomas Jr. an allowance of $35 (equivalent to $996 in 2019)[28] per week, in exchange for not using the Edison name; the son began using aliases, such as Burton Willard. Thomas Jr., suffering from alcoholism, depression and ill health, worked at several menial jobs, but by 1931 (towards the end of his life) he would obtain a role in the Edison company, thanks to the intervention of his brother.[126][127]


External video
video icon Booknotes interview with Neil Baldwin on Edison: Inventing the Century, March 19, 1995C-SPAN
video icon Booknotes interview with Jill Jonnes on Empires of Light, October 26, 2003C-SPAN



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