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Thomas Alva Edison
`The Wizard of Menlo Park'
Dr Subodh Mahanti



Proof, Proof! That is what I always have been after; that is what my mind requires before it can accept a theory, as fact.


Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and lookes like work.


Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest innovative minds of all time, achieved his greatest success while working at his laboratory and machine shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey and for this reason he was dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park”. Even in his life time Edison had become a folk hero of legendry status

Alva Edison, Life Magazine’s Number One Man of the Millennium is credited with holding 1093 US patents, a record number for one person that still holds. Perhaps Edison is the only person to have patent granted every year for sixty-five consecutive years (1868-1933). Today it is not possible to imagine life without Edison’s inventions. He is certainly one of the greatest inventors in history. Among his many inventions included incandescent electric light bulb, phonograph, the motion picture projector, the automatic multiplex telegraph, the carbon telephone transmitter and the alkaline storage battery. When Edison was born there was no electric light but by the time he died, entire cities were lit by electricity. Much of the credit for this goes to Edison. Besides electric light he created and contributed to movies, telephones, records and CDs. All his inventions are sill in use in some form or other. Throughout his life he tried to invent products that everyone could use. His inventions deeply affected the shaping of modern society. Some people go to the extent of saying that Edison single-handedly invented the 20th century. He was the most prolific inventor the world has ever seen. He was tireless at experimentation but always practical and commercial in his goals. Since his childhood he had an insatiable appetite for knowledge and the skill of intense concentration. Edison believed in team work. He could motivate people and encourage creativity. For Edison a person’s formal educational qualifications did not matter. What mattered was talent. He chose people he thought were more knowledgeable on a subject than he. He had the uncanny ability to take ideas and put them into practical results. He was never stopped by failure, rather he saw every failure as a success. We are told that he failed 10,000 times in his storage battery experiments. But then Edison said: “Why, I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Edison was often able to see possibilities others missed. This was because he never stopped learning. He was always looking for solutions to problems. He simply loved the challenge of inventing. For Edison science was a fun.

Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Millan, Ohio, USA, youngest of seven children born to Samuel and Nancy Elliott Edison. When Edison was seven his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan after his father hired a as a carpenter at the Fort Gratiot military post. Edison lived there till the age of sixteen. Edison had a very little formal education as a child. He attended school only for three months, the only formal schooling he ever had. He was taught reading, writing and arithmetic by his mother, who was a school teacher. Edison’s mother encouraged his curious son to learn things for himself. When Edison was nine years old his mother gave him an elementary science book which explained how to do some chemistry experiments at home. Edison not only did all the experiments described in the book but also developed an interest in chemistry. He spent all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacy and he also collected bottles, wires and other items for experiments and he built some kind of a science laboratory in the basement of the family’s home when he was 10. In his later life Edison said that his mother was greatly responsible for his success. He taught himself by reading constantly and trying experiments. He never attended any technical school or university. From his parents he developed a test for good literature and history. Before he was 12 he had read works by Charles Dickens (1812-70) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Edward Gibbon’s (1737-94) –Fall of the Roman Empire and Decline–and more.

Throughout his life he believed in self-improvement. He also strongly believed in hard work, sometimes working 20 hours a day. ”
It is interesting to note that Edison had been expelled from school as retarded perhaps because of his deafness. No one is really sure how Edison lost most of his hearing. However, one story goes that Edison had began to lose his hearing after having scarlet fever as a young child. It has also been reported that he lost his hearing after being pulled by the ear from certain death from in front of a speeding train. Whatever may be the reason his deafness increased as he grew older until finally he was totally deaf in left ear and had only ten percent hearing in his right ear. Edison once said: “I have not heard a bird sing since I was 12 years old”. He did not repent for his deafness. Rather it seems that he saw advantage to being deaf. He was of the opinion that it helped him to concentrate on his work. He once said “Deaf people should take to reading. It beats the babble of ordinary” conversation”.

Edison started working at an early age at 13 he took a job as a newsboy selling candy and newspapers on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit. Edison was involved printing, publishing and selling his own newspaper on a moving train when he was just 15 years old. This newspaper included local news and advertisement for his father’s store. While selling newspaper along the railroad, something happened that changed his life. One day on noticing three-year-old Jimmie Makenzie, the son of the stationmaster, wandering onto the train tracks he moved the child to a place away from danger. The boy’s father J.U Mackenzie was so grateful that he taught Edison how to use a telegraph. Edison during 1862-68 worked as a telegraph operator throughout the Central Western States of USA as well as Canada.

Throughout this period he constantly studied and experimented to improve the telegraphic equipment. ”In 1968 Edison arrived in Boston and where he changed his profession from telegrapher to inventor. He got a job as an expert night telegraph operator. Though he had night duty but he hardly slept during the day. He kept himself busy in experimenting with electrical currents. He worked hard to improve a telegraph machine that would send many messages at the same time over the same wire. He borrowed money from a friend and quit his job to spend all his time in inventing.

Edison moved to New York city in 1869. He had no job or ” money. A friend let him sleep in a basement office below Wall Street. While Edison was living in this basement he was called in to carry out an emergency repair on a new telegraphic gold-price indicator in the Gold Exchange. He repaired it so well that he was taken as a supervisor to build a better one. Later he remodelled the equipment and subsequently he was commissioned to improve other equipment and his skill became legendary.

Edison’s first patented invention was the Electrical Vote Recorder, a device intended to be used by Elected bodies such as the US Congress to speed the election process. This he patented in 1868. Edison could not find a buyer for his first invention. The US Congress did not show any interest in purchasing this as it counted vote too quickly. It is said that Edison vowed not to invent anything unless there was a ‘commercial demand’ for it or in other words he would only invent things that he was certain to have a market. The first invention that Edison was able to sell was the Edison Universal Stock Printer. This alongwith other related inventions was sold to General Lefferts, the Chief of the Gold and Stock Telegraph company. There is an interesting episode associated with it. Edison felt that his invention was worth US $ 5,000 and he was ready to sell at US$ 3,000 but to his utter surprise Lefferts said, “How would $40,000 strike you?” In later years Edison reported that he almost fainted but somehow he managed to stammer that the offer seemed to be fair enough. The proceeds from this sale enabled Edison to setup his first small laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, a city in northeast of New Jersey, on Newark Bay in 1871. During the next ”five years Edison worked at Newark. During this period he invented and manufactured devices that greatly improved the speed and efficiency of the telegraph . In 1876 Edison sold his Newark manufacturing concern and moved to the small village of Menlo Park, 40 km South West of New York City. Here he established the world’s first research and development laboratory outside the university system. It had all the equipment necessary to work on any invention and an impressive library. It became a model for later modern facilities such as Bell Laboratories. It is from here that Edison changed the world for ever and it is sometimes considered to be the greatest invention made by Edison.

The first great invention made by Edison at Menlo Park was the Tin Foil Phonograph — a machine that could record and reproduce sound. His original instrument used a cylinder coated with tin foil. The phonograph patented in 1878 is sometimes considered to be the most original invention made by Edison. The machine was assembled by Johan Kruesi and Charles Batchelor based on the sketch prepared by Edison. When the machine was made Edison took a tin foil and wrapped it around the cylinder in the middle and casually said, ”This machine is going to talk” and he recited “Mary had a little lamb” into the strange device. Low and behold! To everyone’s amazement (even Edison’s) Edison’s machine repeated the words exactly. In its original version you needed to shout a short message into the piece on one side of the cylinder while you turned the handle. Inside this piece was a needle. Your voice would make the needle shake or vibrate and the sound vibrations would go through the needle and make a line or groove into the ” tin foil. A needle on the other side would reproduce what you had recorded. The tin foil could not be used for more than a few plays. Later phonographs played records. Early records were in the shape of a cylinder with the music on the outside. Later records were shaped like discs or large CDs. The phonograph created a sensation and brought Edison international fame. He traveled widely with his tin foil phonograph. He was also invited to the White House to demonstrate it to President Rutherford Hays in April 1878. The tin foil phonograph was sold to the public from 1878-80 at prices ranging from US$10 to US$200.

After the phonograph Edison undertook his greatest challenge the development of a practical incandescent electric light. It may be noted that the idea of electric lighting was not new. In fact before Edison undertook this problem a number of people had worked on it and even developed forms of electric lighting. Inventors before Edison who tried to light the world using electricity worked with two kinds of electric light—arc and incandescent lighting. In electric arc lamp the light is produced by an arc made when current flows through ionised gas between two electrodes. An icandescent lamp is an electric lamp that produces light when a filament is heated white-hot in a vacuum by passing an electric current through the filament. Charles Brush started his arc lighting business in 1877 two years before Edison’s breakthroughs with incandescent lighting. But nothing had been developed which could be used in home. The light bulbs developed before Edison burnt out after a few minutes. In his effort to produce electric light Edison studied the entire history of ” lighting. He filled 200 notebooks with over 40,000 pages on gas illumination alone. Edison started searching for a suitable ‘filament’ or wire that would be stable and give good light when electricity flowed through it. To achieve this he sent his people to the jungles of the Amazon and forests of Japan. He tested over 6,000 vegetable growths (baywood, boxwood, cedar, hickory flax, bamboo etc.) as filament material. In 1879 after spending US$40,000 and performing more than 1,200 experiments Edison succeeded. And so there is no wonder that Edison one day would say: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Edison developed an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonised sewing thread which burnt for long enough to be of practical value. Edison not only developed a practical incandescent lamp but he also developed an electric lighting system with all the necessary components like dynamos to make the electric power, wires and fuses, electric meters switches to turn the lights on and off and soon to make the incandescent light practical, safe and commercially viable. The first public demonstration of the Edison’s incandescent lighting system was in December 1879, when the Menlo Park laboratory complex was electrically lighted. Once this was accomplished Edison tried to create the electric industry. In 1880, Edison started the World’s first electric power company in a warehouse at Wall Street, New York. The power station located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan started functioning on September 6, 1882 and provided light to the first offices JP Morgan and the –New York Times–that had been linked by underground wire. He thus invented the electric power system.

Edison worked in Menlo Park for over 10 years. He could persuade some of the richest people of New York like John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) and the Vanderbilts to become his business partners. Together they formed the Edison General Electric Light company in 1989. When Edison General Electric merged with its leading competitor Thomson-Houston in 1892, Edison was dropped from the name, and the company became simply General Electric.

In 1887 Edison built a bigger invention laboratory or ‘invention factory’ in West Orange, New Jersey, where he worked until his death in 1931. It had fourteen buildings and six of which were devoted to the “business of inventing” . It had space for machine shops, glass-blowing operations, electrical power generation and other facilities. It was such a huge laboratory that it not only allowed Edison to work an any sort of project but also allowed him to work as many as ten or twenty projects at once. The entire laboratory and factory complex covered more than 20 acres and employed more than 10,000 people at its peak during first World War (1914-1918). It was at West Orange that Edison improved the phonograph using wax records, the alkaline storage battery, the electric pen, the copy machine, the dictating machine and developed the motion picture camera and silent and sound movies.

At times one invention may give an idea for another. From phonograph Edison moved to motion picture. In October 1888 Edison ” wrote: “I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear.....” Edison and his coworkers, built the strip kinetograph, which was a very early movie camera. The ‘strip’ was a piece of long, flexible film that had been invented for regular camera which could be wrapped around a wheel or a spool. The strip kinetograph took pictures so fast that they seemed to move. Edison and his coworkers built a Kinetoscope, a machine to watch these movies. The first kinetoscope parlour or movie theater, opened on April 14, 1894 in New York City. Edison also built a stage for filming these movies.

If should be noted here that Edison was one of the inventors of motion pictures. Many other inventors helped find pieces of the puzzle. But Edison put the pieces of the puzzle together. ‘Motion’ picture do not really move but they only seem to move. In fact a modern movie camera take still pictures like a regular camera does but it takes 24 of these pictures or frames per second. When one sees these pictures at a very fast rate they look like moving. Edison also connected a motion picture camera to a phonograph so that he could put sound with motion picture. In 1913 Edison introduced the first talking moving pictures.

Whatever Edison invented was written down in excellent detail in 3,500 notebooks. Edison’s notebooks included laboratory records, early drafts of patent applications, letters, photos of models and so on. A person can see the entire process of invention — the emergences of the finished product from idea through experiments.”

Edison applied for his first patent—‘the Electric Vote Recorder’, on October 28, 1868 at the age of 21 and his last patent ‘Holder for Article to be Electroplated’ was filed in 1931 the year he died at the age of 84. The last patent was granted after two years of Edison’s death. In 1882 Edison completed 106 successful patent applications. A patent protects any invention that is not common knowledge. An inventor is awarded a patent for his invention only if it is novel or unique. It means inventions should not be described in printed publication before the patent is awarded. Otherwise the inventor might lose the patent application. It may be noted here that one invention may require several patents. Sometimes an invention may have many smaller parts and in such case each part has to be invented and patented separately. Further every time an invention is improved, the inventor must apply for another patent. There are three important steps in obtaining a patent.

* Date of execution when the paperwork applying for a patent is completed and signed by the inventor.

* Date of application–—the date the Patent office received the patent application –Date of issue–— when the Patent Office officially awards the inventor a patent for a new invention. ”Most of Edison’s patents were utility patents. A utility patent can cover an invention — product or process—that is electrical, mechanical or chemical in nature. He had also a dozen of design patents. ”Edison both made and lost millions of dollars during his life. Henry Ford (1863-1947), the automobile industrialist said: “Mr. Edison was comfortably well off. He always had what he needed. He was not a money maker ... his own portion was mere nothing compared with the wealth he created for the world”.

Thomas Alva Edison died on October 18, 1931 at the age of 84. He was experimenting till he died. In tribute to this great inventor electric lights in the USA were dimmed for one minute on 21 October 1931.

In 1956 the US President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) made the research laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, a national monument. In 1962 Edison’s home, Glenmont (which had 29 rooms) and his West Orange Laboratory Complex were renamed the Edison National Historic Site.

At the end it should be emphasised that Edison was basically a problem solver and he had scant respect for ideas for thier own sake. To quote –Time–magazine (December 31, 1999). ‘His inventions not only reshaped modernity but also promised a future bounded only by creativity’.

For Further Reading

1. Edison : Inventing the Century by Neil Baldwin. New York: Hyperion, 1994

2. Edison : A Life of Invention by Paul Israel. New York : John Wiley & Sons. 1998.

3. Edison : A Biography by Mathew Josephson. New York : John Wiley & Sons. 1992 (Reprint)

4. Edison and the Business of Innovation by Andrew Millard. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

5. The Story of Thomas Alva Edison by Margaret Cousins. New York : Random House 1965.

6. Edison at Work : The Thomas A. Edison Laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey by David W. Hutchings. New York : Hastings House, 1969.

7. Thomas Alva Edison : Young Inventor by Louis Sabin. Mahwah, N. J : Troll Associates , 1983.

8. Thomas A. Edison : A Streak of Luck by Robert E. Conot New York : Da Capo 1986 (Reprint)

9. Edison Experiments You Can Do by Majorie van der Water. Southfield, MI: Thomas Alva Edison Foundation, 1960.

10. Edison’s Electric Light : Biography of an Invention by Robert Friedel & Paul Israel, New Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press 1986.

1. Thomas Alva Edison
2. Edison with two of the electric bulbs which in 1880 produced the ‘Edison effect’ – the outflow of electrons into vacuum from a heated conductor. (Also known as thermionic emission)
3. Edison’s mill dynamo which powered a textile mill in Paisley, Scotland, from 1866 to 1913
4. Stock ticker – the first invention sold by Edison
5. Edison’s first phonograph patented in 1877
6. Vote Recorder – the first invention patented by Edison