Although Thomas Edison has been occasionally derided in the 21st century as being more of a savvy businessman than a true inventor, as well as for his rivalry with Nikola Tesla, there is no doubt that Edison’s work truly changed the world. Here’s a look back from 1964 at the career of this “American folk hero.”
They made our world — Edison
Never was a prophet more honored in his time. Delegations, dignitaries, Boy Scouts, politicians descended on his laboratory to present him with medals, scrolls, titles, encomiums. His birthday was celebrated nationally; his name graced every public-opinion poll on the greatest living men, or the benefactors of mankind. For all the adulation, he impressed Robert Millikan, the discoverer of cosmic rays, as “a much greater man than I expected to find, simple, direct, intelligent and unspoiled.”
Thomas Alva Edison was an American folk hero, adored by every boy who tinkered in the basement, and by all the self-made men who chortled that “the Wizard of Menlo Park” had only three months of formal schooling. He was a new Ben Franklin, the archetype of genius-plus-common-sense, a beloved oracle on whatever topic he chose to discuss. his homely aphorisms delighted the world: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” “Work heals and ennobles.”
He was born February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, and worked as a newsboy and “candy butcher” on a train when he was 12. His career was pure Horatio Alger, even unto the rescue of a child from the path of a speeding train. The father, in gratitude, taught 15-year-old Tom Edison how to be a telegraph operator. He landed in New York at 22, penniless. Within a year, he had $40,000 — for inventing a stock ticker.
We think of him as the inventor of the electric light, but how much more than that he conceived, improved, made — and made possible! Incandescent light liberated mankind from kerosene lamps; the dynamo generated genies that leaped over mountains, rivers, plains, plateaus to build undreamed of technologies; electric motors replaced horses, coal, steam. Electricity ended the night, adding how many hours to every day — for work or talk or laughter; how many years to all our lives — for reading, meetings, self-enrichment?
Even the barest catalogue of his inventions (see next page) still strains belief; the phonograph, the movie camera, the microphone, the mimeograph, the dictating machine, ship-to-shore telegraphy. He was granted 1,093 patents in the US alone and two to three thousand more in foreign countries. He refused to patent the fluoroscope, because he wanted doctors and surgeons to use it freely. His company produced over 1,700 movies, including The Great Train Robbery, the first movie to tell a story, and Parsifal, probably the first opera on film.
Few corporations had research budgets in those days; foundation and government agencies spent little or nothing on research; so Edison dramatized himself to raise money, playing the homespun sage deliberately, cultivating careless dress, clowning for reporters. He scoffed at formal education and professors, thought four or five hours of sleep enough for anyone and often worked 40 to 50 straight hours, napping in his laboratory. He was not interested in anything that was not useful: It was his greatest shortcoming.
His deafness (“I have not heard a bird sing since I was 12”) intensified an astounding capacity for concentration. His second wife said that when absorbed in a problem, Edison lived “in the highest state of exhilaration, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, thinking nothing… except what has a vital bearing on the task.”
He was a ravenous reader, loved Shakespeare and Tom Paine, had over 10,000 volumes in his home, and started on a new problem by collecting everything in print on the subject; assistants scoured the foreign literature. He filled 2,500 notebooks with research records, ideas, hunches. His memory was as prodigious as his energy.
His genius lay in an almost inexhaustible ingenuity; but his success flowed from a tenacious indifference to failure. He seemed incapable of despair: Searching for a domestic source of rubber, he tested 17,000(!) different plants; and after 8,000 unsuccessful trials on a nickel-iron storage battery, he remarked cheerfully, “Well, at least we know 8,000 things that won’t work.”
He had one quality that is uncommon in heroes: the courage to brave the wrath of those who idolized him. “A personal God means absolutely nothing to me,” he once said, and set off a furor. Accused of blasphemy, Edison replied, “I tried to say exactly what I honestly believe to be the truth… I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of… heaven and hell, of future life, or of a personal God… I don’t believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence, I have no doubt.” He dryly noted that “billions of prayers” had never prevented disease or wars, and when a preacher asked whether to put a lightning rod on a church steeple, Edison replied, “By all means, as Providence is apt to be absent-minded.”
He was no intellectual. He had no head for the grand abstractions, the encompassing theories of science. He revered Faraday, confessing, “I am not a scientist; I am an inventor.” But the line between pure and applied science is not always rigid; ingenious devices and newly discovered facts, pedestrian though they may seem, often inspire new theories. Edison’s passion for experiment, his canniness of observation, his imaginative conception of novel combinations, his ability to find fresh ways of solving old problems, to follow intuition and persevere in the search for what was not until then known — these are surely part and parcel of scientific endeavor.
He did, in fact, make two important scientific discoveries: “etheric force,” which became the basis of wireless telegraphy (he registered a patent 11 years before Marconi) and radio; and the “Edison effect,” by which electronics was discovered and harnessed. He found he could “pull” an electrical current out of a vacuum, “discovering an inexhaustible source of free electrons,” and broke the trail for De Forest’s vacuum tube and television. Perhaps the greatest of Edison’s inventions was — organized research itself. His laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ (1876) was the first to put researchers of different skills to work as a team on new problems. He was no “lone tinkerer;” he hired 80 first-rate “earnest men:” chemists, physicists, mathematicians.
His influence was greater than his inventions, for he showed men how revolutionary and beneficient the application of science could be. He made progress more than a dream. He lifted research to a magical place in the popular mind. He converted science into an ally, therefore a friend, for many who feared its impersonality. In a sense, he invented modern invention itself.
The boy from Ohio died in 1931, at 84, leaving cities around the globe diademed by light. How many men so radically altered, and so swiftly enriched, the world into which they were born?
Some of Edison’s famous firsts
1868 Edison’s first invention was the “electrical vote recorder.”
1869 He perfected a stock ticker and improved telegraph instruments.
1871 With Christopher L Sholes, “father” of the typewriter, Edison radically improved the first typing machine.
1872 He perfected a telegraphic tape and an automatic printing telegraph.
1874 He introduced the quadruplex telegraph that carried four messages on one wire.
1875 He discovered “etheric force,” an electrical phenomenon previously unobserved. This epochal discovery became the foundation of wireless telegraphy.
1876 He invented the “electric pen.” The AB Dick Company of Chicago licensed this patent from him, to manufacture the mimeograph machine. He established, at Menlo Park, NJ, the first organized research laboratory — his “invention factory.”
1877 He patented the carbon telephone transmitter, which made commercial telephones practical — and led to the microphone. He invented the phonograph. This, Edison’s most original invention, was the only device, out of the thousands upon he worked, that was successful on its first trial.
1878 He became interested in the problem of lighting by electricity, and incorporated the Edison Electric Light Company.
1879 He invented the first practical incandescent electric light. By carbonizing ordinary sewing thread, he discovered a way to maintain incandescence inside a bulb. He invented entire systems for generating, distributing, regulating and measuring electric current — safely and cheaply. These systems required that Edison contrive innumerable devices then not in existence: switches, sockets, fuses, insulated wire, etc. He made radical improvements in dynamos. He demonstrated an electrical lighting system, December 31, 1879, at Menlo Park. He invented a magnetic ore separator. He demonstrated the first electric railway in the United States. He continued the invention, research and improvement of systems that could use electricity for light, heat and power.
1882 He opened the first commercial power station for electric light and power — in London. He opened the Pearl Street plant in New York, the first commercial central station for electric light in the United States.
1883 He discovered the basic principle of electronics, the “Edison effect,” a phenomenon not previously observed. He found that a wire or plate placed between the “legs” of a filament in a bulb acted as a valve that controlled the flow of current.
1885 He devised a system for communicating between moving trains and railway stations, by wireless induction telegraphy. He patented a wireless telegraphy system, 16 years before Marconi sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic.
1887 He moved his laboratory to West Orange, NJ, establishing the world’s most complete laboratory for organized research. He invented over 80 improvements for the phonograph and dictating machine.
1889 He first projected motion pictures.
1894 He exhibited the first commercial motion picture — at a Kinetoscope parlor, 1155 Broadway, New York City.
1896 He began to experiment with the X ray, discovered by Roentgen. He invented the fluoroscope — and left it in the public domain, so that it could be used in medicine and surgery without royalty fees. He patented the first fluorescent lamp.
1900 He began ten years of research on a nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery.
1902 He extended his researches in self-contained power and improved the copper-oxide primary battery.
1903 His company produced “The Great Train Robbery,” the first movie to tell a story.
1907 He developed the universal electric motor, which could operate on alternating or direct current.
1913 He introduced the Kinetophone, or talking movie, after many experiments.
1914 He patented an electric safety lantern for coal miners. This lamp markedly reduced casualties and fatalities. He developed a way of manufacturing synthetic carbolic acid. He invented the Telescribe, which combined the features of the telephone and the dictating phonograph.
1915 He established plants to manufacture derivatives from coal tar. US industries had been dependent on foreign sources for certain chemicals. Edison’s pioneering research became the foundation of the US coal-tar chemical industry. As head of the Naval Consulting Board, he conducted experiments on over 40 critical devices for the military. Asked by the secretary of the Navy to concentrate on the problem of stopping German U-boats, Edison devised a remarkable series of instruments: a sonic device for locating submarines; a mechanism to turn ships about quickly; a device to create smoke clouds as “cover” for merchant vessels; camouflage by “zigzags” painted on hulls; turbine heads for projectiles; collision mats; antitorpedo nets; improvements in the navigational equipment of warships, and in aiming and firing methods. He established the Naval Research Laboratory, the only American institution for organized weapons research between World War I and II.
1927 He organized the Edison Botanic Research Company (with Henry Ford and the Firestone Company), to find a plant, or develop one, that might contain enough rubber to justify processing on a significant scale. He examined 17,000 plants in four years. By crossbreeding goldenrod, he developed a strain that yielded 12 percent latex.