Thomas Alva Edison is one of the greatest American inventors who held countless patents, majority of them related to electricity and power. While two of his most famous inventions are the incandescent lamp and the phonograph, arguably the most significant invention of Edison is considered to be large-scale organized research.
Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in the small village of Milan, Ohio, the youngest of seven children. His father was a versatile person and a man-of-all-work, while his mother was a teacher. Edison was mostly homeschooled by his mother. Edison became a salesman of fruit, paper and other goods on the Grand Trunk Railroad at the tender age of 12. With the help of his tiny handpress in a trash car, he wrote and published the Grand Trunk Herald in 1862, which was sent to 400 railroad employees. The same year Edison worked as a telegraph operator, trained by the father of a child whose life he had saved. Edison was a tramp telegrapher, as he was exempted from military service due to his deafness. In 1868, he was then recruited by Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston.
Perhaps the first invention of Edison was a telegraph repeater in 1864 which worked automatically, while his earliest patent was for an electric vote recorder. He acquired a partnership in a New York electrical company in 1869, where he honed the stock ticker and by 1871 had designed the universal stock printer. The New York Stock Exchange bought nearly 5,000 of Edison’s universal tickers between 1871 and 1874. With the money he received, Edison paid for his own factory in Newark, N.J., where he hired technicians to help him with more inventions. His dream was to create an “invention factory.” Almost 80 “earnest men,” including physicists, mathematicians and chemists, were among his collaborators. “Invention to order” made him good money at his laboratory.
From 1870 to 1875 Edison devised many telegraphic advances including receivers, transmitters, the duplex, tape and automatic printers. He also collaborated in 1871 with Christopher Sholes, known as “father of the typewriter,” to ameliorate the typing machine. Edison claimed to have made twelve typewriters at Newark in 1870. As a result, the Remington Company purchased his interests.
Edison’s carbon telegraph transmitter for Western Union was a useful breakthrough for the development of the commercial Bell telephone. The money he got from Western Union for the transmitter was spent establishing a factory at Menlo Park, N.J. He used scientific talent to register over 300 patents in just 6 years. His electric pen (1877) used as a perforating device, developed stencils to produce copies.
Other Inventions and Contributions:
Probably his most impressive invention, the phonograph, for the mechanical recording and reproduction of sound, was patented in 1877. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established in early 1878, to exploit the new machine. Edison received $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and 20% of the profits; by 1890 he held over 80 phonograph patents.
To explore incandescence, Edison and his fellows, among them J. P. Morgan, developed the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. Years later, the company became the General Electric Company. Edison invented the first practical incandescent lamp in 1879. With months of hard work researching metal filaments, Edison and his staff analyzed 6,000 organic fibers around the world and determined that the Japanese bamboo was ideal for mass production. Large scale production of these cheap lamps turned out to be profitable. He later patented the first fluorescent lamp in 1896.
In 1882 Edison made an amazing scientific discovery termed the Edison Effect. He discovered that in a vacuum, electrons flowed from a heated element (such as an incandescent filament) to a cooler metal plate. The electrons flow only one way, from the hot element to the cool plate, like a diode. This effect is now called “thermionic emission.”
A method to transmit telegraphic “aerial” signals over short distances was patented by Edison in 1885. The “wireless” patent was later sold to Guglielmo Marconi.
Edison established the huge West Orange, N.J., factory in 1887 and supervised it until 1931. This was probably the world’s most cutting-edge research laboratory, and a forerunner to modern research and development laboratories, with experts systematically investigating and researching for the solution to problems.
The Edison battery, developed in 1910, used an alkaline electrolyte, and proved to be a superb storage device. He enhanced the copper oxide battery, strikingly similar to modern dry cells, in 1902.
He operated his first commercial electric power station in London in 1882, and America’s first electric station opened in New York City later that same year using a DC supply system.
The kinetograph, his motion picture camera, photographed action on 50-foot strips of film, and produced sixteen images per foot. Edison built a small movie production studio in 1893 called the “Black Maria,” which made the first Edison movies. The kinetoscope projector of 1893 displayed the films. The earliest commercial movie theater, a peepshow, was established in New York in 1884. After developing and modifying the projector of Thomas Armat in 1895, Edison commercialized it as the “Vitascope”.
The Edison Company created over 1,700 movies. Edison set the benchmark for talking pictures in 1904 by synchronizing movies with the phonograph. His cinemaphone adjusted the film speed to the phonograph speed. The kinetophone projected talking pictures in 1913. The phonograph, behind the screen, was synchronized by pulleys and ropes with the projector. Edison brought forth many “talkies.”
The universal motor, which utilized alternating or direct current, was devised in 1907. The electric safety lantern, patented in 1914, significantly reduced casualties among miners. The same year Edison devised the telescribe, which unified characteristics of the telephone and dictating phonograph.
Services for the Government:
Edison presided on the U.S. Navy Consulting Board throughout World War I and developed 45 inventions towards the war effort. These inventions included substitutes for antecedently imported chemicals (such as carbolic acid), a ship-telephone system, an underwater searchlight and defensive instruments against U-boats. Later on, Edison launched the Naval Research Laboratory, the eminent American institution for organized research involving weapons.
This multi-genius died on Oct. 18, 1931, aged 84 in West Orange, N.J. The laboratory buildings and equipment affiliated with Edison were upheld in Greenfield Village, Detroit, Michigan by Henry Ford, a friend and admirer.