Thomas Edison life and biography

Thomas Edison picture, image, poster

Thomas Edison biography

Date of birth : 1847-02-11
Date of death : 1931-10-18
Birthplace : Milan, Ohio, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2011-09-30
Credited as : inventor, the motion picture camera, phonograph

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Arguably the most successful inventor in human history, Thomas Edison held 1,093 U.S. patents, and hundreds more in other nations. His most famous work includes the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the alkaline storage battery, and a forerunner of the motion picture projector.

His father, Samuel Edison, Jr., was involved in the Mackenzie Rebellion against the government of Ottawa in 1837, after which the family was exiled to America. As a boy, Edison suffered from dyslexia and had problems with his hearing which grew worse over time, leaving him almost completely deaf by adulthood. He attended public schools for only about three months before a teacher told Edison's mother that the boy was "addled." She responded by withdrawing him from school to educate him herself. By the age of ten he had constructed a chemistry laboratory in the basement of his family's home, and at about the age of eleven, fearing that she had taught him all she could, his mother signed him up for a local library card. He began reading every book on the shelves, soon pointing out what he perceived as problems with Isaac Newton's Principia.

With his education deemed complete he began working for the railroad as a newsboy and candy seller at 12, and four years later he became an apprentice telegraph operator. Over the next several years he made slight but clever improvements to telegraph technology without filing any patents. His first "official" invention was a vote recording machine, patented in 1869. After a brief entrepreneurial partnership with New York electrician Frank Pope, designing a stock ticker and a duplex telegraph (capable of transmitting multiple messages concurrently), he worked as a freelance inventor and consultant for several years, mostly in the telegraph industry. He was a wealthy man after 1874, when millionaire Jay Gould paid the then-staggering sum of $100,000 for rights to Edison's quadruplex (a machine capable of sending up to four telegraphs concurrently).

He opened his famed laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876. The following year he invented the carbon-button transmitter (carbon microphone, which became a key component for generations of telephones) and showed the prototype for the phonograph, originally called the speaking and singing machine. With financial backing from J. Pierpont Morgan and the Vanderbilt family he launched the Edison Electric Light Company (now General Electric) in 1878, and the Edison Illuminating Company (now Consolidated Edison) in 1880. The following year he demonstrated the first practical incandescent light bulb, which provided illumination for 40 hours. In 1882, Edison's firm constructed the first commercial power system, serving lower Manhattan. In 1885 he personally supervised the electrical design and wiring of the Lyceum Theatre in New York, the first stage on Broadway lit entirely by electricity. In 1901 he invented the alkaline storage battery.

Edison's employee, William K. L. Dickson, invented the kinetograph (an early device for making motion pictures) in 1891, and Edison invented the kinetoscope (a movie viewing system) in the same year, with a patent describing motion picture film with a width of 35 millimeters, which remains the industry standard. The landmark short The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, a one-minute recreation of the monarch's beheading, was made at Edison Labs in 1895, and a former employee of Edison's, Edwin Stanton Porter, directed the first action movie, The Great Train Robbery, in 1903. Edison's other noteworthy employees included streetcar pioneer Frank J. Sprague and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla.

Edison's direct-current (DC) system of electricity was challenged by Tesla and George Westinghouse's alternating-current (AC) system, and for several years these men and their companies were fierce competitors. Edison assigned his then-employee Arthur E. Kennelly to develop an electric chair using the rival AC system, hoping to help establish the perils of AC in the public's mind. Edison's public relations team tried to convince newspapers to call their electric chair the "Westinghouse chair", and refer to executions as being "Westinghoused". In a staged and filmed event in 1903 Edison's camera crew further demonstrated AC's danger by electrocuting an elephant.

Like his friend Henry Ford, Edison was virulently anti-Semitic and blamed Jews for all of the world's major problems. Remembering his time as a telegraph operator, his first daughter was nicknamed "Dot" and his eldest son was called "Dash." Another of his sons, Charles Edison, was Governor of New Jersey from 1941-44. In adulthood "Dash", aka Thomas Edison, Jr., sold his name to endorse patent medicines, becoming such an embarrassment to his father that the elder Edison asked his son to stop using the family name, and for a time the younger Edison lived as Thomas Willard.

Edison's role in life began to change from inventor and industrialist to cultural icon, a symbol of American ingenuity, and a real life Horatio Alger story. In 1928, in recognition of a lifetime of achievement, the United States Congress voted Edison a special Medal of Honor. In 1929 the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of the incandescent light. The celebration culminated at a banquet honoring Edison given by Henry Ford at Greenfield Village, Ford's new American history museum, which included a complete restoration of the Menlo Park Laboratory. Attendees included President Herbert Hoover and many of the leading American scientists and inventors.

The last experimental work of Edison's life was done at the request of Edison's good friends Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. They asked Edison to find an alternative source of rubber for use in automobile tires. The natural rubber used for tires up to that time came from the rubber tree, which does not grow in the United States. Crude rubber had to be imported and was becoming increasingly expensive. With his customary energy and thoroughness, Edison tested thousands of different plants to find a suitable substitute, eventually finding a type of Goldenrod weed that could produce enough rubber to be feasible. Edison was still working on this at the time of his death.

A Great Man Dies:

During the last two years of his life Edison was in increasingly poor health. Edison spent more time away from the laboratory, working instead at Glenmont. Trips to the family vacation home in Fort Myers, Florida became longer. Edison was past eighty and suffering from a number of ailments. In August 1931 Edison collapsed at Glenmont. Essentially house bound from that point, Edison steadily declined until at 3:21 am on October 18, 1931 the great man died.

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