Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Edison (1847 to 1931) was an American businessman and inventor. Many of his devices have had lasting impact on our lives – the phonograph, the lightbulb, and more. The “Wizard of Menlo Park” holds 1093 US patents, as well as patents in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Thomas Edison’s Inventions are still used today.

Edison was born in Ohio, the seventh child of Samuel and Nancy Edison. Despite his later genius, he was an unexceptional student. After three months of education, his mother began homeschooling him. As a youngster, he developed hearing problems that would affect him for the rest of his life.

In 1854, Edison’s family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. At this time, his entrepreneurial talents helped him to sell candy, newspapers, vegetables, and more.

As a teenager, Edison saved a three-year-old child from being hit by a train. The boy’s father, J.U. MacKenzie, was so grateful that he taught at us and how to operate the telegraph.

At the age of 19, Edison moved to Kentucky. He worked for Western Union, taking the night shift so he could continue reading and experimenting. It was the experimentation that cost him his job – in 1867, while working with the battery, sulfuric acid spilled onto the floor, between the floorboards, and onto the desk of his boss.

In 1871, Edison married 16-year-old Mary. They had three children before Mary’s death in 1884. Two years later, Edison remarried. His new bride, 20-year-old Mina, also bore him three children, and they remained together until his death in 1931.

In New Jersey, Edison began inventing in earnest. He developed an automatic repeater, as well as other devices to improve telegraphy. However, it wasn’t until he invented the phonograph in 1877 that he became famous. To an amazed public, this was nothing short of magic. From this, Edison earned the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. The first photograph used tin foil placed around a grooved cylinder. The sound quality was poor, and the tinfoil was fragile, allowing each record to be played only a few times. This model was redesigned in the 1880s by Alexander Graham Bell and others. Using cardboard cylinders coated in wax, they could improve the sound quality.

In Menlo Park, NJ, Edison set up his industrial research lab and began applying the principles of mass production to his scientific experiments. Edison directed his staff, conducted research, and drove them hard to get results. Not only did he invent many new items, he dramatically improved inventions created by others.

Other inventors had attempted to produce electric light, though they had only succeeded in the lab. Edison perfected the lightbulb, adding a carbon filament and ensuring that it was perfect for commercial uses. By mass-producing lightbulbs, he could expensively sell them to people and businesses.

To boost his sales, he developed a system to generate and distribute electricity. In 1880, he founded the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. He switched on the power in September, 1882, and 59 customers in Manhattan enjoyed electricity for the first time ever.

Edison came into conflict with George Westinghouse in a battle that has been known as the “war of currents”. Edison promoted direct current (DC), while Westinghouse was a proponent of alternating current (AC). Unlike DC, AC could be boosted with transformers, sent across thinner, cheaper wires, and then stepped down before distributing into households. By 1887, Edison had 121 power stations that relied on direct current, which required that customers live within a 1 ½ mile radius of the generating station. AC could be sent to customers further away.

During the War of the Currents, both sides tried to prove that their system was better. in an attempt to demonstrate how lethal AC could be, Edison electrocuted a number of animals, including an elephant. These electrocutions were filmed.

In the end, AC won the battle, and is still the most common today.

Edison also designed the first commercial fluoroscope to take x-rays. He replaced the old barium platinocyanide screens with screens of calcium tungstate, providing brighter images that could be read more easily. Edison dropped his studies in this area after injuring himself and his assistant, Clarence Dally. Dally died from his injuries, caused by a lethal dose of radiation. Edison’s fundamental design is still used today.

Thomas Edison’s first light bulb used to demonstrate his invention at Menlo Park. courtesy Wikipedia.