Born on February 11, 1847, Thomas Alva Edison’s early life did not hint at how much technical change his genius for invention would bring to the world. Born to middle class parents in the prosperous canal town of Milan, OH, he did, however, possess an insatiable curiosity. Said to have a head too large for a seven-year-old, his elementary school teacher viewed the hyper-inquisitive youngster as having an “addled” brain. Angered by this, his mother pulled him from public school after only three years and taught him at home.
Young Edison also suffered from considerable hearing problems due to scarlet fever; later in life, he would lose about 80% of his hearing. Even though he was offered the chance of an operation that would restore some of his hearing, Edison turned it down saying the added noise would make it hard for him to work.
Following the family’s move to Port Huron, OH, the 14-year-old Edison persuaded him parents to let him begin selling newspapers and snacks on the local railroad and soon began producing his own little newspaper, The Weekly Herald, on the train. When he saved a stationmaster’s child from being run over by a boxcar, Edison was given the chance to learn how to become a telegraph operator. It was an opportunity which would eventually help him build the first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, NJ and produce over 1,000 inventions that would change the world.
For the remainder of his teen years, Thomas Edison worked as a railroad telegraph operator. He favored the night shifts since they allowed him the luxury of being able to read and experiment. At age 21, he struck out for better work on the East Coast, eventually landing a job in Boston with Western Union. His scientific curiosity deepened, and when he started attending lectures at Boston Tech (later to change its name to M.I.T.), he then met fellow electrical experimenters. Chief among his new acquaintances were Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the modern telephone, and Benjamin Bredding, inventor of the duplex telegraph (which modulated and phased electric pulses to send telegraph signals in two directions at the same time).
Having already patented the electric vote-recording machine, Edison’s distraction with his own projects eventually got him fired from Western Union. After landing a high-paying job in New York City, Edison was able to continue inventing. Improving upon Bredding’s designs of the duplex telegraph, Thomas Edison developed the quadruplex telegraph. This basic form of multiplexing would eventually give rise to the teletype, telephone networks, and computer networking. With this development, he was able to sell the rights to Western Union in 1874 for $10,000, using the profits to set up the world’s first industrial research lab in Menlo Park, NJ.
Edison was also trying to develop his own carbon microphone for Bell’s telephone. While experimenting with a system using an embossing point pressed against paraffin paper to produce electric impulses, he noticed that sound vibrations were causing the point to leave indentations. These indentations, he realized, could easily be used to imprint —or record— the human voice. Edison tinkered with the design, ultimately developing a tin-foil wrapped cylinder that would be turned in the player/recorder by a hand crank. This device became known as the phonograph, and the first recording was Edison reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. (Edison’s 1927 re-enactment)
It was then that Thomas Edison became an overnight sensation, dubbed by the newspapers as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” But he and his staff were not content to loiter on their laurels. Even though the incandescent electric lamp had been in existence for decades, a practical and affordable version did not exist. This was due to the problem of obtaining a high enough vacuum inside the bulb and using a substance that would glow brightly under electric current yet have a long lifespan. The result used a carbonized bamboo filament that lasted over 1200 hours.
The first public demonstration of his electric light bulb occurred on Dec 31, 1879 when Edison lit up a street of Menlo Park. Having formed the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City a year earlier, Edison declared “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” Even though patent lawsuits would take years to settle, the affordable electric light bulb spelled the end of the gaslight age.
One of the biggest inventions by Edison and his Menlo Park staff was the first power grid. In 1880, he formed the Edison Illuminating Company to supply 59 customers with DC electricity in lower Manhattan Even though there would be a vicious public relations battle between him and Nikola Tesla over the use of AC power versus DC (and AC would win), Edison’s utility was the first of its kind. It became the model for generating, distributing, and and billing for electricity for homes and businesses. In 1936, the company bought out Consolidated Gas and changed its name to ConEd.
Thomas Edison himself died in October, 1931, but not before he developed 1,093 different patents (including the motion picture camera) during his lifetime. While some were inventions or co-inventions (including the motion picture camera), many were improvements on already existing technology that put it into the hands and homes of average people.
Happy Birthday, Tom!