Life of Thomas Alva Edison
One of the most famous and prolific inventors of all time, Thomas Alva Edison exerted a tremendous influence on modern life, contributing inventions such as the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. Aside from being an inventor, Edison also managed to become a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public. A myriad of business liaisons, partnerships, and corporations filled Edison’s life, and legal battles over various patents and corporations were continuous. The following is only a brief sketch of an enormously active and complex life full of projects often occurring simultaneously. Several excellent biographies are readily available in local libraries to those who wish to learn more about the particulars of his life and many business ventures.
Thomas A. Edison, 1878. Photo courtesy of U. S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site.
Edison’s Early Years
Thomas A. Edison’s forebears lived in New Jersey until their loyalty to the British crown during the American Revolution drove them to Nova Scotia, Canada. From there, later generations relocated to Ontario and fought the Americans in the War of 1812. Edison’s mother, Nancy Elliott, was originally from New York until her family moved to Vienna, Canada, where she met Sam Edison, Jr., whom she later married. When Sam became involved in an unsuccessful insurrection in Ontario in the 1830s, he was forced to flee to the United States and in 1839 they made their home in Milan, Ohio.
Thomas Alva Edison was born to Sam and Nancy on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. Known as “Al” in his youth, Edison was the youngest of seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Edison tended to be in poor health when young.
To seek a better fortune, Sam Edison moved the family to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854, where he worked in the lumber business.
Edison was a poor student. When a schoolmaster called Edison “addled,” his furious mother took him out of the school and proceeded to teach him at home. Edison said many years later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had some one to live for, some one I must not disappoint.” At an early age, he showed a fascination for mechanical things and for chemical experiments.
In 1859, Edison took a job selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad to Detroit. In the baggage car, he set up a laboratory for his chemistry experiments and a printing press, where he started the Grand Trunk Herald, the first newspaper published on a train. An accidental fire forced him to stop his experiments on board.
Around the age of twelve, Edison lost almost all his hearing. There are several theories as to what caused his hearing loss. Some attribute it to the aftereffects of scarlet fever which he had as a child. Others blame it on a conductor boxing his ears after Edison caused a fire in the baggage car, an incident which Edison claimed never happened. Edison himself blamed it on an incident in which he was grabbed by his ears and lifted to a train. He did not let his disability discourage him, however, and often treated it as an asset, since it made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments and research. Undoubtedly, though, his deafness made him more solitary and shy in dealings with others.
In 1862, Edison rescued a three-year-old from a track where a boxcar was about to roll into him. The grateful father, J.U. MacKenzie, taught Edison railroad telegraphy as a reward. That winter, he took a job as a telegraph operator in Port Huron. In the meantime, he continued his scientific experiments on the side. Between 1863 and 1867, Edison migrated from city to city in the United States taking available telegraph jobs.
In 1868 Edison moved to Boston where he worked in the Western Union office and worked even more on his inventions. In January 1869 Edison resigned his job, intending to devote himself fulltime to inventing things. His first invention to receive a patent was the electric vote recorder, in June 1869. Daunted by politicians’ reluctance to use the machine, he decided that in the future he would not waste time inventing things that no one wanted.
Edison moved to New York City in the middle of 1869. A friend, Franklin L. Pope, allowed Edison to sleep in a room at Samuel Laws’ Gold Indicator Company where he was employed. When Edison managed to fix a broken machine there, he was hired to manage and improve the printer machines.
During the next period of his life, Edison became involved in multiple projects and partnerships dealing with the telegraph. In October 1869, Edison formed with Franklin L. Pope and James Ashley the organization Pope, Edison and Co. They advertised themselves as electrical engineers and constructors of electrical devices. Edison received several patents for improvements to the telegraph. The partnership merged with the Gold and Stock Telegraph Co. in 1870. Edison also established the Newark Telegraph Works in Newark, NJ, with William Unger to manufacture stock printers. He formed the American Telegraph Works to work on developing an automatic telegraph later in the year. In 1874 he began to work on a multiplex telegraphic system for Western Union, ultimately developing a quadruplex telegraph, which could send two messages simultaneously in both directions. When Edison sold his patent rights to the quadruplex to the rival Atlantic & Pacific Telegraph Co., a series of court battles followed in which Western Union won. Besides other telegraph inventions, he also developed an electric pen in 1875.
His personal life during this period also brought much change. Edison’s mother died in 1871, and later that year, he married a former employee, Mary Stilwell, on Christmas Day. While Edison clearly loved his wife, their relationship was fraught with difficulties, primarily his preoccupation with work and her constant illnesses. Edison would often sleep in the lab and spent much of his time with his male colleagues. Nevertheless, their first child, Marion, was born in February 1873, followed by a son, Thomas, Jr., born on January 1876. Edison nicknamed the two “Dot” and “Dash,” referring to telegraphic terms. A third child, William Leslie was born in October 1878.
Edison opened a new laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ, in 1876. This site later become known as an “invention factory,” since they worked on several different inventions at any given time there. Edison would conduct numerous experiments to find answers to problems. He said, “I never quit until I get what I’m after. Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.” Edison liked to work long hours and expected much from his employees.
“Interior of Edison’s Machine Shop where his experiments are conducted.” The Daily Graphic (New York), April 10, 1878.
In 1877, Edison worked on a telephone transmitter that greatly improved on Alexander Graham Bell’s work with the telephone. His transmitter made it possible for voices to be transmitted at higer volume and with greater clarity over standard telephone lines.
Edison’s experiments with the telephone and the telegraph led to his invention of the phonograph in 1877. It occurred to him that sound could be recorded as indentations on a rapidly-moving piece of paper. He eventually formulated a machine with a tinfoil-coated cylinder and a diaphragm and needle. When Edison spoke the words “Mary had a little lamb” into the mouthpiece, to his amazement the machine played the phrase back to him. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established early in 1878 to market the machine, but the initial novelty value of the phonograph wore off, and Edison turned his attention elsewhere.
Edison focused on the electric light system in 1878, setting aside the phonograph for almost a decade. With the backing of financiers, The Edison Electric Light Co. was formed on November 15 to carry out experiments with electric lights and to control any patents resulting from them. In return for handing over his patents to the company, Edison received a large share of stock. Work continued into 1879, as the lab attempted not only to devise an incandescent bulb, but an entire electrical lighting system that could be supported in a city. A filament of carbonized thread proved to be the key to a long-lasting light bulb. Lamps were put in the laboratory, and many journeyed out to Menlo Park to see the new discovery. A special public exhibition at the lab was given for a multitude of amazed visitors on New Year’s Eve.
Edison set up an electric light factory in East Newark in 1881, and then the following year moved his family and himself to New York and set up a laboratory there.
In order to prove its viability, the first commercial electric light system was installed on Pearl Street in the financial district of Lower Manhattan in 1882, bordering City Hall and two newspapers. Initially, only four hundred lamps were lit; a year later, there were 513 customers using 10,300 lamps. Edison formed several companies to manufacture and operate the apparatus needed for the electrical lighting system: the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, the Edison Machine Works, the Edison Electric Tube Company, and the Edison Lamp Works. This lighting system was also taken abroad to the Paris Lighting Exposition in 1881, the Crystal Palace in London in 1882, the coronation of the czar in Moscow, and led to the establishment of companies in several European countries.
The success of Edison’s lighting system could not deter his competitors from developing their own, different methods. One result was a battle between the proponents of DC current, led by Edison, and AC current, led by George Westinghouse. Both sides attacked the limitations of each system. Edison, in particular, pointed to the use of AC current for electrocution as proof of its danger. DC current could not travel over as long a system as AC, but the AC generators were not as efficient as the ones for DC. By 1889, the invention of a device that combined an AC induction motor with a DC dynamo offered the best performance of all, and AC current became dominant. The Edison General Electric Co. merged with Thomson-Houston in 1892 to become General Electric Co., effectively removing Edison further from the electrical field of business.
An Improved Phonograph
Edison’s wife, Mary, died on August 9, 1884, possibly from a brain tumor. Edison remarried to Mina Miller on February 24, 1886, and, with his wife, moved into a large mansion named Glenmont in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison’s children from his first marriage were distanced from their father’s new life, as Edison and Mina had their own family: Madeleine, born on 1888; Charles on 1890; and Theodore on 1898. Unlike Mary, who was sickly and often remained at home, and was also deferential to her husband’s wishes, Mina was an active woman, devoting much time to community groups, social functions, and charities, as well as trying to improve her husband’s often careless personal habits.
In 1887, Edison had built a new, larger laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. The facility included a machine shop, phonograph and photograph departments, a library, and ancillary buildings for metallurgy, chemistry, woodworking, and galvanometer testings.
While Edison had neglected further work on the phonograph, others had moved forward to improve it. In particular, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter developed an improved machine that used a wax cylinder and a floating stylus, which they called a graphophone. They sent representatives to Edison to discuss a possible partnership on the machine, but Edison refused to collaborate with them, feeling that the phonograph was his invention alone. With this competition, Edison was stirred into action and resumed his work on the phonograph in 1887. Edison eventually adopted methods similar to Bell and Tainter’s in his own phonograph.
The phonograph was initially marketed as a business dictation machine. Entrepreneur Jesse H. Lippincott acquired control of most of the phonograph companies, including Edison’s, and set up the North American Phonograph Co. in 1888. The business did not prove profitable, and when Lippincott fell ill, Edison took over the management. In 1894, the North American Phonograph Co. went into bankruptcy, a move which allowed Edison to buy back the rights to his invention. In 1896, Edison started the National Phonograph Co. with the intent of making phonographs for home amusement. Over the years, Edison made improvements to the phonograph and to the cylinders which were played on them, the early ones being made of wax. Edison introduced an unbreakable cylinder record, named the Blue Amberol, at roughly the same time he entered the disc phonograph market in 1912. The introduction of an Edison disc was in reaction to the overwhelming popularity of discs on the market in contrast to cylinders. Touted as being superior to the competition’s records, the Edison discs were designed to be played only on Edison phonographs, and were cut laterally as opposed to vertically. The success of the Edison phonograph business, though, was always hampered by the company’s reputation of choosing lower-quality recording acts. In the 1920s, competition from radio caused business to sour, and the Edison disc business ceased production in 1929.
Other Ventures: Ore-milling and Cement
Another Edison interest was an ore-milling process that would extract various metals from ore. In 1881, he formed the Edison Ore-Milling Co., but the venture proved fruitless as there was no market for it. In 1887, he returned to the project, thinking that his process could help the mostly depleted Eastern mines compete with the Western ones. In 1889, the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Concentrating Works was formed, and Edison became absorbed by its operations and began to spend much time away from home at the mines in Ogdensburg, New Jersey. Although he invested much money and time into this project, it proved unsuccessful when the market went down and additional sources of ore in the Midwest were found.
Edison also became involved in promoting the use of cement and formed the Edison Portland Cement Co. in 1899. He tried to promote widespread use of cement for the construction of low-cost homes and envisioned alternative uses for concrete in the manufacture of phonographs, furniture, refrigerators, and pianos. Unfortunately, Edison was ahead of his time with these ideas, as widespread use of concrete proved economically unfeasible at that time.
In 1888, Edison met Eadweard Muybridge at West Orange and viewed Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope. This machine used a circular disc with still photographs of the successive phases of movement around the circumference to recreate the illusion of movement. Edison declined to work with Muybridge on the device and decided to work on his own motion picture camera at his laboratory. As Edison put it in a caveat written the same year, “I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.”
The task of inventing the machine fell to Edison’s associate William K. L. Dickson. Dickson initially experimented with a cylinder-based device for recording images, before turning to a celluloid strip. In October of 1889, Dickson greeted Edison’s return from Paris with a new device that projected pictures and contained sound. After more work, patent applications were made in 1891 for a motion picture camera, called a Kinetograph, and a Kinetoscope, a motion picture peephole viewer.
Kinetoscope parlors opened in New York and soon spread to other major cities during 1894. In 1893, a motion picture studio, later dubbed the Black Maria (the slang name for a police paddy wagon which the studio resembled), was opened at the West Orange complex. Short films were produced using variety acts of the day. Edison was reluctant to develop a motion picture projector, feeling that more profit was to be made with the peephole viewers.
When Dickson aided competitors on developing another peephole motion picture device and the eidoloscope projection system, later to develop into the Mutoscope, he was fired. Dickson went on to form the American Mutoscope Co. along with Harry Marvin, Herman Casler, and Elias Koopman. Edison subsequently adopted a projector developed by Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins and re-named it the Vitascope and marketed it under his name. The Vitascope premiered on April 23, 1896, to great acclaim.
Competition from other motion picture companies soon created heated legal battles between them and Edison over patents. Edison sued many companies for infringement. In 1909, the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Co. brought a degree of cooperation to the various companies who were given licenses in 1909, but in 1915, the courts found the company to be an unfair monopoly.
In 1913, Edison experimented with synchronizing sound to film. A Kinetophone was developed by his laboratory which synchronized sound on a phonograph cylinder to the picture on a screen. Although this initially brought interest, the system was far from perfect and disappeared by 1915. By 1918, Edison ended his involvement in the motion picture field.
Edison’s Later Years
In 1911, Edison’s companies were re-organized into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. As the organization became more diversified and structured, Edison became less involved in the day-to-day operations, although he still had some decision-making authority. The goals of the organization became more to maintain market viability than to produce new inventions frequently.
A fire broke out at the West Orange laboratory in 1914, destroying 13 buildings. Although the loss was great, Edison spearheaded the rebuilding of the lot.
Detail of Thomas A. Edison’s 70th birthday, in Edison Amberola Monthly, March 1917, p. 9. In picture: Mr. R. A. Bachman, Mr. Henry Ford, Mrs. Edison, Mr. Charles Edison, and Mr. C. H. Wilson.
When Europe became involved in World War I, Edison advised preparedness, and felt that technology would be the future of war. He was named head of the Naval Consulting Board in 1915, an attempt by the government to bring science into its defense program. Although mainly an advisory board, it was instrumental in the formation of a laboratory for the Navy which opened in 1923, although several of Edison’s suggestions on the matter were disregarded. During the war, Edison spent much of his time doing naval research, in particular working on submarine detection, but he felt that the navy was not receptive to many of his inventions and suggestions.
In the 1920s, Edison’s health became worse, and he began to spend more time at home with his wife. His relationship with his children was distant, although Charles was president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. While Edison continued to experiment at home, he could not perform some experiments that he wanted to at his West Orange laboratory because the board would not approve them. One project that held his fascination during this period was the search for an alternative to rubber.
Henry Ford, an admirer and friend of Edison’s, reconstructed Edison’s invention factory as a museum at Greenfield Village, Michigan, which opened during the 50th anniversary of Edison’s electric light in 1929. The main celebration for Light’s Golden Jubilee, co-hosted by Ford and General Electric, took place in Dearborn along with a huge celebratory dinner in Edison’s honor attended by notables such as President Hoover, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., George Eastman, Marie Curie, and Orville Wright. Edison’s health, however, had declined to the point that he could not stay for the entire ceremony.
For his last two years, a series of ailments caused his health to decline even more until he lapsed into a coma on October 14, 1931. He died on October 18, 1931, at his estate, Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey.
- Sources for this essay include:
- Conot, Robert. Thomas A. Edison: A Streak of Luck. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1979.
- Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1959.
- Melosi, Martin V. Thomas A. Edison and the Modernization of America. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown Higher Education, 1990.