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Thursday, 4 December 2014

Thomas Edison


Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847 and grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.

He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. (1804–1896, born in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, Canada) and Nancy Matthews Elliott (1810–1871, born in Chenango County, New York).

His father Samuel, a shingle maker, was involved in a plot to overthrow the Canadian government but he managed to flee back to the USA. (Thomas was named after the barge captain Alva Bradley who helped smuggle his family to Milan, Ohio) .Samuel later became a successful grain feed dealer.

His mother Nancy was a school teacher.

Thomas left Port Huron, Ohio School after three months as they thought he was too stupid to teach. His teachers thought him stupid as he queried every answer given to him. So bad were Thomas' reports that his school teacher mother took him out of school and taught him herself from the age of 7 to 12.

At the age of 9 Thomas read Parker's Natural and Experimental Philosophy which covered everything from steam engines to balloons and illustrated many experiments. As a result he set up a laboratory in the corner of his house. Every penny went to the corner drug store for chemicals.

Edison as a boy

By the time he was a teenager, Edison had read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy amongst others.

At the age of 15 he brought a set of the writings of Michael Faraday.

Edison began his entrepreneurial career as a youth selling snacks and candy on the railroad. Within two years he was employing other boys

After Edison snatched three-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from the path of an oncoming train and was given a telegraph lesson by the boy's grateful father. Thomas became one of the best telegraphers in the USA.

In April 1862 during his newsboy times Edison read about the civil war Battle of Shiloh. He brought 1,000 copies of the Detroit Free Press with accounts of this bloody battle. Edison arranged for news of this battle to be telegraphed up line to waiting passengers at the stations, hawked up the price and raked in the cash.

Edison was a famously fast telegraph operator. Some of his earliest inventions related to electrical telegraphy, including a stock ticker.

Around 1862, Edison started printing and published a weekly newspaper The Grand Trunk Herald. It was the first newspaper typeset and printed on a moving train.

Edison set up a laboratory in the baggage car where he kept his newspapers One day he was making an experiment in his baggage car lab when a stick of phosphorus accidentally set the car on fire. The conductor threw out young Edison and his equipment thus ending his railroading days.

Edison also worked as a pig slaughterer and started a business selling vegetables. He could reputedly guess a man's weight correctly by simply looking at him.

Edison started working at the age of 22 for a ticker tape service company for stockbrokers. When the system broke down and panic set in Edison fixed the broken spring and normal service was resumed. The grateful management made Edison foreman on the spot. He used the money to set himself up as a consulting engineer.


Medium height, 5' 10" (1.78 m), Edison had a very large head, tobacco stained teeth and acid strained hands. He had the complexion of one who didn't see much of the light of day. Edison was nicknamed "The Old Man" by his employees.

Edison had five dots, like the ones you see on dice, tattooed on his left forearm.

Edison wore plain attire preferring to wear the same old dirty suit for years on end.

He never wore an overcoat, preferring to wear a second set of underclothes as it restricted his movement.


Edison suffered from deafness and he taught his fiancee, Mary Sitwell, morse code. He proposed by tapping out the message in her hand. She answered in the same way. After their marriage they often spoke to each other in morse code.

He married Mary Stilwell (1855-1884) in 1871. They were happy despite the workaholic Thomas spending little time with his wife.

They had three children—Marion Estelle, Thomas Jr., and William Leslie. Thomas nicknamed Marion "Dot" and Thomas junior "Dash" after telegraphs.

Mary died at the age of 29 of typhoid fever. Thomas was grief stricken and dealt with it by losing himself in work.

Thomas Edison met the beautiful Mina Miller, 18 years his junior, at the home of a mutual friend, the inventor Ezra Gilliland. The inventor taught her Morse code so that they could converse in secret, even while the family watched. This is how Edison proposed marriage and how she responded "yes."

Mina Miller Edison in 1906

The two married on February 24, 1886. She bore him three more children, Madeline, Charles and Theodore. Charles later became the governor of New Jersey.

Both his wives suffered from severe depression. Edison's eldest son, Thomas junior became an alcoholic and a hypochondriac who committed suicide.


Edison believed in a good hearty breakfast to work upon but didn't eat much else.

Most of the time his wife and children dined alone as Edison only ate when hungry. "A pound of food a day is all I need when I am working," he said.

Edison found formal dinners extremely tedious. On one occasion the company was so dull that the inventor made up his mind to escape to his lab at the earliest opportunity. Unfortunately his host accosted him as he hovered near the door. "It certainly is a delight to see you Mr Edison" he said "What are you working on now?" "My exit " replied The Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison smoked 20 cigars a day - Havanas were his favorite.

He had the life long habit of chewing tobacco.

Edison reportedly drank "wine coca" (a medicinal tonic made from coca leaves, the same type of coca that cocaine is extracted from) during marathon research sessions that ran into the night.

Edison was fond of music, he used to be a keen singer but ruined his voice through trying "to get an intelligible sound through my telephone."

When they attended a play, his wife kept her hand on her hard of husband's knee and morse coded the words.

Though not blind, Edison liked to read by braille. He had a library of 30,000 volumes mainly scientific works. He read a great deal mainly skimming through books.

Edison had a collection of 5,000 birds.

In 1925 Harvey Firestore gave a bunyan tree to Edison for his rubber experiments. It is now the largest bunyan tree in the continental United States.


Edison accidentally invented the phonograph in 1877 while trying to record telegraph signals (see below). He patented the device on February 19, 1878.

The first phonograph consisted of a diaphragm attached to a stylus. A foil-covered cylinder was turned by hand.

The entire contents of the first gramophone record was Edison saying five words "Mary had a little lamb." Edison recorded the disc on December 6, 1877.

His company was considerably late to become involved in the recorded music business. While he did invent the phonograph, his intention was to market it as a business dictation machine. The concept of recorded music never crossed his mind.

In 1926 Edison introduced discs that had 450 grooves to the inch and could provide 20 minutes per side.

Edison's initial attempt to produce an illusion of movement by means of an apparatus called the "optical phonograph" resulted in failure. So in January 1889 Edison switched to plan B and assigned William Dickson, an assistant at his lab at West Orange, New Jersey to work on the development of what was to become the kinescope, a film viewing machine designed for use in amusement arcades. Dickson had earlier trained as a photographer and had more understanding of optics and when he substituted the rectangular sheets of celluloid for 50-foot lengths of the material he knew he had the answer.

Dickson received little thanks for his work and left West Orange in 1895 following a dispute with Edison. His former employer refused to concede that anyone but himself was responsible for bringing the invention to fruition.

Edison failed to recognize the potential of his movie camera and projector and hung on so firmly to his patent that the movie medium was in thrall to him for many years.

Edison was responsible for the first film studio in a frame building  Dubbed "The Black Mariah" (because it resembled a police wagon of the same name) it was built on a lot next to Edison's lab and office. The building, essentially a large wooden shed covered with tar paper, was small enough that it was mounted on circular tracks so it could be turned to accommodate sunlight through an opening in the roof.  His first films consisted of his employees acting out charades for the camera.

Edison made several experimental short films, some lasting only several seconds, mostly to test his equipment. One film, which features a man sneezing, runs for one and one-half seconds.

One of his first films was called Fun in a Chinese Laundry.

Edison was responsible for the first film of a sporting event, a six round boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing on June 14, 1894.  Before this he had persuaded the world boxing champion James Corbett to act a boxing fight for his camera.

He produced the first story in a dramatic setting, The Great Train Robbery, in 1903 which cost $100 and earned $20,000. .


His "invention factory" employed 50 researchers.  In one 14 year period Edison obtained one new invention every five days. He filed a total of 1069 patents before his death.

In 1889 "The Wizard of Menlo Park"  claimed to be working a regular 20 hour day the remaining 4 hours he devoted to sleep.

Whilst living in Memphis, Tennessee in 1866-67 Edison developed a device to electrocute cockroaches.

His first invention was a voting machine for recording votes in congress in 1868 years before it was accepted by American politicians. Each congressman was given a yes or no button.

Thomas Edison received a patent on August 8, 1878 for his mimeograph, a low-cost duplicating machine that works by forcing ink through a stencil onto paper. The patent for "Autographic Printing" covered the electric pen, used for making the stencil, and the flatbed duplicating press. Edison obtained a further patent two years later for his "Method of Preparing Autographic Stencils for Printing."

Advertisement from 1889 for the Edison Mimeograph

The word mimeograph was first used by Albert Blake Dick, when he licensed Edison's patents in 1887.

British chemist Joseph Swan had already invented the lamp but Edison wanted to produce a long lasting one. The American inventor worked thousands of hours on the electric light bulb experimenting with 1,200 different varieties of bamboo before finding the ideal one for the filament on October 21, 1879. He tested it the next day and it lasted 13.5 hours. This would be the invention of the first commercially practical incandescent light.

"Edison Lightbulb Museum of Letters and Manuscripts" by Tieum512 - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park.

He used over 6,000 substances until he found a carbonised bamboo fibre that remained lit for over 1,000 hours in a vacuum.

A British parliamentary committee said of Edison's bulb, "It is good enough for our transatlantic friends but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific man."

Edison was a technologist rather than a scientist, adding little to original scientific knowledge. However, the development of the bulb also introduced the "Edison Effect", a metal heated until red hot emits an electron cloud. Its profound implications for modern electronics were not understood until a number of years later.

Edison bought electricity to the masses by digging up roads and installing cables. He designed the first hydroelectric plant, the steam-driven Pearl Street Plant, which put electric light in the streets and houses in one square of New York on September 4, 1882..

When Edison declared an interest in supplying electricity to subscribers, the gas suppliers, in fear for their domestic lighting business took him to court. They argued that electricity was too dangerous to be supplied to households. The courts’ ruling was that a maximum 100-volt was safe to supply.

Edison tried around 20,000 experiments in his search for a substitute for the storage battery, before he developed the first alkaline storage battery in 1914.  He reacted with the comment "Why I have gotten a lot of results. I know 20,000 things that won't work."

Edison hoped his new storage battery would make electric cars as competitive as gasoline models.

After World War 1 Edison tried to invent a machine which would amplify any weak vibrations from dead people. A sort of electronic Ouija board. It never worked.

Thomas Edison owned 1,093 patents in the US, and 2,332 patents worldwide. This record was not bypassed until 2003.

The phonograph was Edison favorite accomplishment of all his inventions.


Edison sold his first teleprinter in 1869 to the Western Union for $40,000. It was used for communicating stock exchange prices across the country and he used the proceeds to open up an industrial research laboratory. Edison had only expected about $5,000 for it and was generally surprised to be offered $40,000.

Edison was known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park". Such was his reputation that when he announced in 1878 he was working on electric lighting the price of illuminating gas stocks plunged.

When he learnt that one of his company's batteries was defective, Edison offered to refund all buyers from his own pocket. The resulting refunds cost him over $1 million.

Edison promoted his inventions with parties to which scientists and journalists were invited.

The last years of Edison's life were plagued by financial failures, including plans to make houses out of poured formed concrete (it never caught on with the public) and making rubber from goldenrod (it decomposed too quickly).


The man who bought electricity to the masses and designed the first hydroelectric plant, received little spiritual light and was a freethinking deist.  He once claimed “So far as the religion of the day is concerned, it’s a damned fake… Religion is all bunk.

Edison's motto which was posted throughout his labs was "There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the real labour of thinking."

Edison considered ethics had no place in business. His workers worked long hours in unsafe conditions for low pay.

In his later years, Edison often committed social faux pas by making racist and anti-Semitic comments before the press.


Edison was sickly as a child, and began to lose his hearing after a bout of scarlet fever. By the age of 12 he was deaf in one ear.

Another contribution to Edison's deafness happened when trying to climb into a freight car with both arms full of newspapers, he was suddenly lifted by the ears into the car by the conductor. Edison felt something snap into his head and his deafness began.

As he grew older Edison developed an iron constitution helped by a stout heart which kept him in good health, often working all night.

Edison was able to exist on very little sleep. He would take a catnap of 30 minutes to an hour after a particularly strenuous period of work. He kept cots in his office and lab.


In 1876 Edison moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey and opened the first large scientific workshop in the world.

Edison purchased a 23-roomed home known as Glenmont (see below) in 1886 as a wedding gift for Mina in West Orange, New Jersey.

In 1887 Edison moved his laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, to West Orange, New Jersey, where he constructed a large laboratory for experimentation and research.

His summer residence in West Orange, New Jersey had many labour saving devices including a very hard to move turnstile-the reason why it was so heavy was as Edison explained, "Everyone who pushes the turnstile around pumps 8 gallons of water onto the tank of my roof. "

In the early 1900's, Thomas Edison bought a house in Fort Myers, Florida (Seminole Lodge) as a winter retreat. Henry Ford, the automobile magnate lived across the street at his winter retreat (The Mangoes). At first it was the only house in Fort Myers not lit by electric light. Edison said: "There is only one Fort Myers and 90 million people will find it out."

In 1914 Edison's West Orange New Jersey factory burnt to the ground.

His West Orange lab and his 23 room home, Glenmount were designated natural historic sites in the 1950s


Edison tried to introduce an electric car which he marketed in 1909 but Henry Ford's internal combustion engine proved far more popular .

Edison himself never drove any vehicle (horse buggy or motor car.)

Edison didn't often take holidays, but every 7 or 8 years he would take off to his winter house at Fort Myers, Florida.


Edison kept working right up to the time of his death at the age of 84.

Edison attributed his longevity to a diet that included drinking two glasses of milk at each meal.

When Edison lay dying at his home in New Jersey, newspaper reporters were anxiously awaiting a sign from his wife of his death. She signalled her husband's passing by turning a light ON, not off, in his bedroom.

The Wizard of Menlo Park died in his sleep on October 18, 1931 at his West Orange home at 3.24 am.

Henry Ford asked Edison's son, Charles to collect an exhaled breath from the lungs of Ford's dying hero and friend. It was collected in a test tube and Ford kept it along with Edison's hat and shoes.

Sources Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats,  Penguin Book of Interviews,  Faber Book of Anecdotes, Daily Mail, Encarta Encyclopedia, IMDB

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