The Life of Thomas Edison

"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."
Thomas Edison

Edison was an inventor known for his influence, his intelligence and, most importantly, his perseverance. During his lifetime more than a thousand American patents were granted on work of his own or of teams under his supervision. Three of his inventionsthe phonograph, a practical incandescent light and electric system, and a moving picture camerahelped found giant industries that were to change the life and leisure of the world. In other areas Edison managed to affect over twenty industries including the military, medical fields (with his fluoroscope), the stock market and mining. Following is a short biography and a timeline of his greatest accomplishments.

Inspiring Childhood. Thomas Edison, the youngest of seven children, was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, to Samuel and Nancy Edison. Home schooled and an avid reader, Edison began his scientific experiments at the age of ten when he built a laboratory in the basement of his house stocked with chemicals he either bought or found in the town dump. Edison's early experimentation was almost stopped when his mother became tired of bad odors and fumes filling the house.

The Tramp Telegrapher. Edison left the laboratory behind for a career as a "candy butcher" on the Grand Trunk Railway in 1859, selling candy, dried fruit, snacks and newspapers. Three years later he made history when he began to publish his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald, aboard the train. The first newspaper to be published aboard a moving train, the Weekly Herald, was printed on a secondhand printing press Edison set up in the baggage car of the train. In 1863, he began his first career as a "tramp telegrapher," going from place to place including Ontario, Cincinatti and Nashville, offering his skills as a telegrapher. He finally settled in Boston, working the New York wire for Western Union.

Learning to be Practical. It was in Boston that Edison began experimenting in a more professional way than ever before, first studying Michael Farady's writings on electricity. His first patent in 1868, was a vote recorder which sped up, through electrical messages, the counting of votes for assemblies and meetings. Finding no buyer for his first invention, he formed a policy to never attempt to invent anything unless he was sure there was a commercial demand for it. His next invention demonstrated his commitment to this ideal, a stock ticker that would bring brokers Wall Street quotations more quickly.

Pure Science Experiments. With two notable exceptions, Edison rarely dabbled in anything other than the practical application of principles and scientific theories. In 1875, while working on a theory of electromagnets and telegraphy, Edison discovered a type of energy between electromagnetism and heat and light. Named "etheric force," this discovery revealed the existence of the electromagnetic wave and prompted the invention of the radio in the 1890's. The second time was with his discovery of the "Edison Effect," the basis for the whole field of electronics. Edison discovered that a valve could be created for an electronic current by inserting a metal plate within the filament of an electric light bulb.

The Menlo Park Laboratory. Edison's laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey became the first of its kind, the original organized technical research laboratory, with its research "team." Inventions that came out of this new research include the mimeograph machine, the phonograph, the light bulb, and many others.

First of the Great Inventions The phonograph, the light bulb and the motion picture camera have long been considered Edison's greatest inventions. The phonograph, the first of these inventions, was developed after Edison began work on improving Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. Edison believed that the phonograph (which has changed very little from its original design) was his greatest invention. Interestingly enough, the phonograph is the only invention for which Edison can claim sole ownership.

Early Movie Business. Other inventors were experimenting with the motion-picture camera when, in 1891, Edison came up with the practical movie camera, or the Kinetograph ("moving writing"), and a projector, the Kinetoscope ("moving view"), to show his movies. The first movie studio built in 1893, was his Black Maria at West Orange, New Jersey. Edison, who had been working unsuccessfully on "talkies" by combining the phonograph and the camera, left the motion picture business when the industry started to turn away from the educational purpose he saw for it and towards entertainment. Edison was quoted as saying " A good many people seemed to wonder why I did so [quit the movie business] ­ maybe they still wonder. But the answer is simple enough. I was an inventor ­ an experimenter. I wasn't a theatrical producer. And I had no ambitions to become one." Incidentally, movie audiences would not hear the human voice on film until 1927 with Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer.

The Light Bulb. Edison is quoted as saying it would take a matter of a few weeks to invent the bulb. In reality, it would take him almost two years of failed attempts, new discoveries and prototypes before he would find success. It is said he tried over 6,000 different carbonized plant fibers, looking for a carbon filament for his light bulb. By concentrating and inventing a whole lighting system rather than just a single light bulb, Edison succeeded where others had failed. Edison chose to look at the big picture and created a lighting system including wiring, plugs, connectors, etc., to operate more than one light bulb at once. Fighting other inventors in courts from England to America, Edison struggled for years to claim his rightful title of inventor of the light bulb, possibly his most popular invention.

Military Inventions of the War Years! During World War I, Edison became the head of the Naval Consulting Board, and for three years he worked on inventions to help the U. S. Navy. Working on antisubmarine tactics, Edison worked to combat the Germans in the Atlantic wars. His inventions included devices that could detect torpedoes as soon as they were fired, a loud-speaking telephone so that a conversation could be carried on in the middle of a battle, and a glare eliminator to make it possible for ships to see periscopes with the bright sunlight shining on the water.

Medical Breakthroughs In 1896, Edison invented the practical fluoroscope, a machine which included a screen made out of tungstate of calcium on which you view X-rays. Edison refused to take a patent out on his fluoroscope because he wanted to see it in use, helping people, immediately. The fluoroscope enabled surgeons to perform the first x-ray operation in the United States.

The Perseverant Inventor One of Edison's most famous qualities was his perseverance. While working on the nickel/iron storage battery, he performed 10,296 experiments. Throughout his inventing career, Edison followed almost every unsuccessful venture with a successful idea. He stuck to his creed of working on only useful and wanted inventions and changed the world with his drive for success. When Edison died October 18, at his home in West Orange, New Jersey, he left behind a legacy of breakthroughs in technology and science.