Thomas Alva Edison and the invention factory

A summary of the life and times of Thomas Alva Edison, the man, his inventions, and his invention factory.

It has been said that Thomas Edison is more responsible than anyone else for creating the modern world as we know it today. With inventions such as the phonograph, the electric light bulb, and 1093 patents to his name this is possible quite true. But surprisingly for such a great genius he was slow to learn as a child, not even talking until he was four years old. During his life it was said he was a "fiend for work" and although he had a rather course nature he met many of the leading figures of his day.

Edison - early years

Thomas Alva Edison was born on 11th February 1847 to middle class parents, Samuel and Nancy Edison in the busy port of Milan Ohio, one of the largest wheat shipping ports of the world. He was the youngest of seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood.

When the young Edison was seven years old his parents moved to Port Huron in Michigan where his father took employment in the lumber business.

In his early years, Thomas Edison's health was poor, and this may have affected his studies at school. His schoolmaster claimed that Edison was retarded and as a result his mother taught him herself. This was the making of him. He later said his mother was "so true and sure of me", and as a result he had someone to work for and not disappoint. Even at an early age he showed a keen interest in experimenting with chemicals and with mechanics.

First jobs

In 1859 Thomas Alva Edison took up his first job selling newspapers on board the new railroad from Port Huron to Detroit. In the baggage car where he spent his stopover time, he set up a small laboratory for his chemistry experiments. He later described this as the happiest time of his life.

Around this time Edison lost most of his hearing. The reason for this is not very clear and although it enabled him to concentrate better, it also made him a more solitary and distant person.

Thomas Edison managed to train as a telegraph operator, and between 1863 and 1868 he became what was termed a tramp telegrapher. He filled in many casual posts around the Midwestern and Southern cities, some even behind the lines in the Civil War. Again he spent much of his spare time reading scientific journals and carrying out experiments. He even read works by scientists such as Faraday.

In the autumn of 1868, Edison gave up his job to become a freelance inventor. His first patent was for an electrical vote recorder, but unfortunately nobody wanted it. This provided a hard lesson he never forgot.

Fortunately his fortunes changed when he was called in to repair a telegraphic indicator in the Gold Exchange on Wall Street. He did this so well that he was given a job as its supervisor. In this capacity he remodelled the machine and made several developments to other Morse telegraph units. For this he was awarded the princely sum of $40 000.

He was given a retainer by Western Union to work for them, fixing machines and improving them. His hard work and mechanical genius became legendary throughout the organisation. In 1874 one of his inventions was a quadruplex telegraph system that enabled two messages to be sent in each direction at any one time.

Edison's personal life

This period brought many changes to Edison's personal circumstances as well as to his employment and business life. In 1871 his mother died. This was a source of much sadness for him as he had become very close to her during his childhood.

Later that same year Thomas Edison married. The marriage took place on Christmas day to a gentle lady named Mary Stillwell. The marriage was not always easy because of his long working hours and his rather withdrawn nature. Also Mary was often sickly and usually remained at home. Nevertheless the couple had three children, Marion, Thomas Jr. and William. He nicknamed Marion and Thomas "Dot" and "Dash" after the two Morse code symbols. Unfortunately his wife died in 1884, possibly from a brain tumour.

Edison and Menlo Park

It was in 1876 that Thomas Edison opened his Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey that was later termed the "invention factory". This time was one in which Edison's productivity was at its greatest. He said that he would create a minor invention every ten days and "big trick" every six months." In fact he had over 40 projects under way at any one time and he was applying for around 400 patents every year. Indeed it was said that he made a "business of invention." To achieve this he had a team of specialists underneath him. Organising this was no mean feat especially for a man only in his 20s.

Apart from his other work Edison devoted a significant amount of time to his investigations on telephones, inventing the carbon granule microphone. This produced a much higher output than the previous microphones and enabled signals to be heard over greater distances.

Using his telephone experience, Edison wondered whether the vibrations could be placed onto a medium and later played back. In 1877, he devised a machine that recorded the vibrations onto a tin-foil coated cylinder using a diaphragm and needle. He found that the machine indeed recorded the sounds onto the cylinder and they could later be played back. Whilst he made some efforts to exploit the idea he did not take them very far and the idea was set aside.

Lights on for Edison

Electric lighting was the latest sensation of the time. From around 1878 this area of invention dominated his work. Not only did he focus on the development of viable incandescent lamps, but also upon devising a complete system that could be installed for industrial and domestic use. One of the first hurdles to overcome was the development of a satisfactory bulb. Existing bulbs proved to be very unreliable having only a short filament life. The glass bulbs also became blackened after some use. It was in trying to reduce this blackening that Edison introduced a second filament into the evacuated bulb and discovered that electricity would only flow in one direction between the two electrodes. Uncharacteristically Thomas Edison could not devise a use for the new discovery he called the Edison effect. This was left to Ambrose Fleming who some years later invented his "oscillation valve" to rectify and detect radio signals.

Nevertheless Edison's work was phenomenally successful. In 1882 he switched on the first lighting system covering the Pearl Street financial district in Lower Manhattan. Initially there were only four hundred lights in the system but only a year later there were over 500 customers using over ten thousand lamps. Lighting systems were required world-wide. A system was installed in the Crystal Palace in London in 1882, and another was required for the coronation of the Czar of Russia that year. This level or worldwide demand meant that Edison set up several European companies to manufacture his systems.

However not all went Edison's way. Edison had focussed on using a direct current system. This had a number of disadvantages, primarily in its distribution, although DC generators were more efficient than AC ones, and at the time no practicable AC motor existed meaning that AC could not be used in a number of applications.

However Nikola Tesla who had spent some time working for Edison had devised the AC induction motor. After leaving Edison's employment, he sold his ideas for AC systems to Westinghouse and a battle for supremacy ensued. Westinghouse lead the AC camp, detailing the many advantages and efficiency improvements of AC. Edison strongly supported his own large investment in DC by raising fears about the safety of AC. This was a particularly compelling argument because AC was used for electrocutions with the electric chair.

Eventually the AC camp came out on top and this resulted in a number of mergers in the industry. The Edison General Electric Company merged with Thomas-Houston in 1892 to become the General Electric Company, and this meant that Edison was effectively removed from further electrical work.


During this time, Edison remarried, this time to a lady named Mina Miller. Although of more genteel upbringing, she had a firm character and set about making the tobacco chewing inventor more presentable. The marriage took place on 24th February 1886, and shortly after the wedding the couple moved to a large mansion named Glenmont in West Orange New Jersey. The couple had three children, Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore. Mina was an active lady who spent much of her time with community groups and looking after her husband.

The Edison phonograph

For many years Thomas Edison has focussed upon his electrical work to the neglect of other areas including his idea for a phonograph. During this time others had taken his idea and improved it and with more time for other idea he started work on his phonograph again in 1887. Initially it had been thought that the machine could be used as a dictation machine, but this had not been successful. Edison thought that it could be used for home entertainment. He made improvements to the cylinder experimenting with the material, changing them initially from soft wax to a much harder black wax and finally to a celluloid material known as blue amberol. He also investigated ways of making multiple cylinders of a given recording because they were originally recorded one at a time, making them very expensive.

Later life

In 1887, Edison moved his research laboratories from Menlo Park to West Orange New Jersey. Here he built the Edison Laboratory which was much larger than his previous one. Even though he laboratory itself was large, the surrounding factories producing his inventions such as the phonographs and their discs, motion picture cameras and more employed around 5000 people.

Although many of Thomas Edison's ideas were very successful, others were not so. He developed a process to mill and extract minerals from ore. This idea proved to be very costly drawing drew significantly on his funds. Its failure was part of the reason that he had to give up control of the Edison Electric Company when it merged with Thomas-Houston. In fact when he decided to write off the losses from this venture it was found to amount to about $4 000 000. Very philosophically he said: "It's all gone, but we had a hell of a good time spending it!"

In another venture in 1899 Edison became involved in the production of cement. He formed the Edison Portland Cement Company and used it to promote the use of cement in low cost homes as well as for furniture, in refrigerators, and a number of other items including phonographs. Unfortunately Edison's ideas were a little too avant-garde for the time and they did not catch on.

Beyond this Edison's later life was just as busy as his earlier years, but resulted in fewer major discoveries. Nevertheless patents still continued to be granted for the work that was undertaken. These included a number for motion picture systems, although he did not invent the motion picture system itself. However he did produce the first co-ordinated sound and picture projectors.

The light dims

During the 1920s, Edison continued to work on his inventions but his health started to deteriorate. As a result he spent more time at home with his wife, although still continuing his experiments there. During 1929, the 50th anniversary of Edison's electric light, a Golden Jubilee dinner was held in honour of Thomas Alva Edison. It was attended by many notable people including Henry Ford who hosted it, President Hoover, John D Rockerfeller Jr, George Eastman, Marie Curie, and Orville Wright. However even by this time Edison's health was such that he was unable to stay for the entire evening.

Edison's health continued to decline and he lapsed into a coma on 14th October 1931. It is reported that shortly before his death on 18th October he came out of his coma and whispered to his wife at his side: "It is very beautiful over there ....."

Edison's death was literally the end of an era. Never before had the world seen so many inventions made by one man. As a mark of respect many electricity companies and organisations dimmed their lights or turned off their generators on the evening he was laid to rest.

More Famous Scientists in Electronics and Radio:
Volta     Ampere     Armstrong     Appleton     Babbage     Bardeen     Brattain     Edison     Faraday     R A Fessenden     Fleming     Heaviside     Hertz     Ohm     Oersted     Gauss     Hedy Lamarr     Lodge     Marconi     Maxwell     Morse     H J Round     Shockley     Tesla    
    Return to History menu . . .