When the members of the United States Congress decided to have a national inventor’s day they picked the best known inventor and declared his birthday as the national inventor’s day. Thomas Edison was their pick. His birthday was on February 11, and that day became the U.S. National Inventor’s Day.
Thomas Edison is often given credit for inventing the light bulb, which is actually incorrect. His Menlo Park Research Laboratory made many improvements to the already invented light bulb and made it commercially viable. He then also developed the first electric utility so people would be able to obtain the electricity required for use of the light bulb. So you could say that Edison invented electric lighting and electric power distribution as we know it today.
Edison can best be described as an entrepreneurial inventor. He was an entrepreneur all of his life. But what he most enjoyed most was developing what appeared to be impractical ideas or inventions into practical and commercial applications.
During his life time he became the holder of 1093 U.S. patents, plus many more in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Most of his patents were not new inventions but alterations or improvements to earlier patents or inventions by others.
As an entrepreneur Edison also employed the team approach. He was also sufficiently successful in financial terms in his early developmental ventures to be able to start a research laboratory in Menlo Park, where he was able to work with assistants on developing his ideas for improvements on existing but frequently dormant designs. Based on the above we can view Edison as a developer of already existing ideas and inventions into useful and commercial applications and products.
Thomas Edison was able to accomplish all of his life’s work without the benefit of a scientific or engineering education. He only had three months of formal education as a child when his teacher gave up on him because his disability of deafness made it difficult to teach him along with his fellow class mates. His mother, a former schoolteacher then home schooled him. She also encouraged him to read, be curious and experiment, a habit which formed the basis of his later life as an inventor and developer.
In his early teens Edison got a job on the passenger trains running between Port Huron, Michigan, his home town, and Detroit, Michigan. His job consisted of selling apples, candy and newspapers. As he grew a little older he decided to edit and print his own newspaper on the train, and sell it with obvious higher profit margins. The father of a three year old child Edison saved from being run over by a runaway train, helped Edison become a trained telegraph operator. As a young man he was fascinated by the telegraph and some of his early inventions are related to electric telegraphy.
Edison began his career as an inventor in New Ark, New Jersey. His first invention was the automatic telegraph repeater, and other improvements in telegraphy. His first patent was for a stock market ticker which allowed for rapid communication of prices in stock and commodity markets. The first invention that made him famous was the phonograph in 1877. Interestingly, improvements by others made the phonograph more widely available to the general public.
What made Edison so highly productive as an inventor was the Menlo Park Laboratory, where he could work with teams of assistants to develop and test ideas. He was able to start the Menlo Park Laboratory when he sold the patent rights to the Quadruplex telegraph to Western Union for the princely sum of $10,000, a fortune in 1874, the year Menlo Park was opened.
In 1878 Edison was able to talk several financiers, including the J.P. Morgan and Vanderbilt families, into forming the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City. He demonstrated the incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879, and the following month he filed a patent for it. Again Edison did not invent the electric light bulb, but he was able to make improvements to the original design so it gave more light, had a longer life and was able to be mass produced for mass applications.
In 1880 Edison patented the first electric distribution system and the first investor-owned electric utility was opened in 1882 as the Pearl Street Station in New York City. That same year 110 volt direct current power was supplied to 59 customers in lower Manhattan. Later on power generation was changed to alternating current which provided a more efficient and flexible way to distribute electric power. This change was fought by Edison but George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Corporation insisted on alternating current power and he won out.
At about the same time, in 1881, Edison and Alexander Graham Bell formed the Oriental Telephone Company. The developments of electric power and telephone communication were major technological developments and milestones and benefited not only the United States but also the rest of the world.
Other areas were Edison and his Menlo Park Laboratory made major contributions were in telegraphy, an area were from the very beginning of his inventor career Edison made many improvements. His early fortune was made by the stock market ticker which was in fact the forerunner of the electronic broadcast system as we know it today.
Other significant contributions consisted of the motion picture camera in 1891, the two-way telegraph in 1892, the motion picture studio in 1893, the movie projector in 1896, the electric battery in 1908, the commercial phonograph using Bakelite records in 1912, and the Motion Picture Patents Company which consisted of nine major film studios in 1908. In the 1920s, when he was in his late seventies, he became an experimental botanist and experimented with rubber plants that could grow in the United States. By crossbreeding he was able to produce a golden rod plant which had 12 percent rubber content in comparison with only 4 percent in earlier varieties of the golden rod plant. His laboratory chemically strengthened this rubber to make it more useful about 10 days before his death.
Next we cover some personal facts of Edison’s life. His Dutch ancestors go back to the early Dutch settlements in New Netherland and eventually moved to New Jersey in the 1730s. During the War of Independence, Edison’s forefather, John Edison was a United Empire Loyalist and was forced with the other loyalists to move to Canada which was then a British colony. The family settled in Nova Scotia but soon thereafter moved to Vienna, Ontario where the Edisons were engaged in farming. One of the later Ontario Edisons was Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. [1804-1896]. He married Nancy M. Elliott [1810-1871] of Chenango County, New York. Samuel was a member of the MacKenzie Rebellion against British rule in Canada during the mid-nineteenth century. The British were not so quick to give up Canada and the rebels were forced to flee. So Samuel Edison fled to the U.S.A. and settled in Milan, Ohio. It was in Milan, Ohio that Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847. Thomas was their seventh child. The family later moved to Port Huron, Michigan where Thomas Edison spent his childhood and later worked on the trains.
Thomas Edison was married to Mary Stillwell in 1871. She was only 16 years old then, eight years younger than Thomas. They had a daughter Marion, born in 1873, and two sons, Thomas, Jr., born in 1876 and William, born in 1878. Edison’s wife, Mary succumbed in 1884, at the young age of 29 years, leaving Thomas Edison to raise the children who then ranged from 6 to 11 years of age. Two years later, in 1886, Edison married Mina Edison, his second wife in West Orange, New Jersey. At the time of the second marriage he purchased a home in West Orange and named it “Glenmont”. Thomas and Mina Edison had three children. A daughter Madeleine was born in 1888, their oldest son Charles was born in 1890, and their youngest son Theodore was born in 1898. The Glenmont property remained in the Edison family until it was taken over by the National Park Service and is currently named the Edison National Historic Site. Thomas and Mina Edison are both buried on the property.
Edison was very proud of his Dutch ancestry. As a descendant of the original settlers in New Netherland prior to 1675 he was entitled to membership in the exclusive Holland Society. He became a member of the Society and was active in it during his life. The Society to this day is still very much alive and active.
During his life time Edison was honored all over the world for his contributions. In 1881 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor for developing power distribution systems. In 1889 Italy made him a Grand Officer of the Crown. The U.S. Congress finally recognized him by giving him the Congressional Gold Medal in 1928. He also received awards from the governments of Great Britain, Japan, Russia and many other countries.
When Edison died the U.S. government considered turning off all electric power for a two minute tribute to him. Power interruptions even in 1931 would be potentially catastrophic, so it was quickly decided that it would not be possible to do so. What it did point out, however, was that the country and the developed world had become dependent on many of Edison’s inventions, and especially on the one that gave the world the electric light. By the time of Edison’s death the world had already become totally dependent on the benefits and comforts provided by electricity.
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