Thomas Edison could probably be properly called Mr. Electricity because of the many inventions and millions of dollars that he used and invested with electricity. From the invention of the light bulb, to the invention of the phonograph Thomas Edison made electricity a reality for the masses. And one of his greatest influences was from his Father a very positive man. A long with the great influence he had upon Americans and the world. He sparked the movement of todays computer ran world. Thomas Edison was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison, Jr. and Nancy Elliot Edison. His parents had no special mechanical background. His mother was a former schoolteacher; his father was a jack-of-all-trades – from running a grocery store to real estate. When Thomas was seven years old, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. He was a very curious child who asked a lot of questions. Edison began school in Port Huron, Michigan when he was seven. His teacher, the Reverend G. B. Engle considered Thomas to be a dull student.(Allen pg. 22) Thomas especially did not like math.
And he asked too many questions. The story goes that the teacher whipped students who asked questions. After three months of school, the teacher called Thomas, “addled”. Thomas was pissed. The next day, Nancy Edison brought Thomas back to school to talk with Reverend Engle. The teacher told his mother that Thomas couldn’t learn. Nancy also became angry at the teacher’s strict ways. She took Thomas out of school and decided to home-school him.(Allen pg. 34) It appears he briefly attended two more schools. However, his school attendance was not very good. So nearly all his childhood learning took place at home. Edison’s parents loved to read. They read to him works of good literature and history. They had many books that young Tom eagerly devoured. Before he was 12, he had read works by Dickens and Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon’s Fall of the Roman Empire and Decline, and more.
Nancy Edison encouraged her curious son to learn things for himself. His parents were dedicated to teaching their children. They did not force him to learn about things he didn’t enjoy. So he learned about things that interested him the most. When Thomas was nine Nancy Edison gave him an elementary science book. It explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Edison did every experiment in the book. Then Nancy gave him more books on science. He soon loved chemistry and spent all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacy. He collected bottles, wires, and other items for experiments. Abbott Pg. 2 At age 10, Thomas built his first science laboratory in the basement of the family’s home. His father disapproved of all the time Thomas spent in the basement. Sometimes Sam offered a penny to Thomas if he would go back to reading books. But Thomas often used his pennies to buy more chemicals for experiments. He labeled all his bottles “Poison”.(Denmark pg. 25) Edison had many ear problems throughout his childhood. When he was 15, a train accident injured his ears more. When he tried to jump on a moving train, a conductor grabbed the boy’s ears to help pull him up.
Thomas said he felt something snap inside his head. He soon began to lose much of his hearing. (Swanson pg. 34) Thomas never became deaf, but from then on he was hard of hearing. His deafness could have been cured by an operation. But Thomas refused the operation. He said being deaf helped him concentrate. When Edison was 21, he got a job in Boston as an expert night telegraph operator. Even though he worked nights, he slept little during the day. He was too busy experimenting with electrical currents. Edison worked 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 soon quit his job. Now he could spend all his time inventing. The first invention that he tried to sell was an electric vote recorder. It made voting faster and more accurate. But no one wanted to buy it. Today it is used in many states to record votes of legislators. (Allen pg. 45)
He moved to New York City in the summer of 1869. He had no money. A friend let him sleep in a basement office below Wall Street. Edison spent a lot of time studying the stock market ticker. That was the machine that gave information about stock market prices. It was a spin-off of the Morse telegraph device. Once, Edison fixed a broken stock ticker so well that that the owners hired him to build a better one. Within a year he made the Edison Universal Stock Printer. Edison sold the rights for the stock ticker. He thought he might get paid around $4,000 for it. He got $40,000! With all this money, Edison started a business in Newark, New Jersey. He built stock tickers and high-speed printing telegraphs. At this shop he improved on the typewriter. Until Edison improved it, you could write faster than you could type. Edison was a poor financial manager. In his late 20’s, he began to have money problems. After six years at his workshop in Newark, New Jersey, Edison asked his father to help build a new “invention factory”. Edison built his new science laboratory at the village of Menlo Park, NJ.
Now he and his two business partners could devote their full attention to inventing. Edison promised that he would build a small invention every ten days and a big invention every six months! He also said he would “take orders” for inventions. Abbott Pg. 3 They moved into the new building in March 1876. His first invention was an improvement on the telephone. Before Edison’s improvement, people had to shout when they used the telephone. The new lab had around 60 workers. It didn’t matter to Edison what a person’s background was. If he thought someone had talent, that was enough. Edison achieved his greatest successes in this laboratory. Soon he had 40 different projects going at the same time. He applied for as many as 400 patents a year. (Denmark pg. 54) His ideas and inventions ranged from the practical to the crazy. Edison worked at Menlo Park for over 10 years. Edison became a business partner with some of New York’s richest people, J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts. Together they formed the Edison Electric Light Company.
They made this company before electric light bulbs had been invented. Today this company is called General Electric. The phonograph was Edison’s favorite invention. He invented the “talking machine” by accident while working on telegraphs and telephones. But the phonograph didn’t go on sale to the public for another 10 years. It was a tinfoil phonograph. Edison called it a “talking machine” and a “sound writing” machine. (Allen pg. 54) This was no improvement of existing technology. It was not something he planned to invent. This was something brand new and Edison’s most original invention. And it happened by accident. He was working on ways to record telegraph messages automatically. The first words he recorded were “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. He was 30 years old. He worked on and off for more than twenty years to perfect the record player. Scientists had been working to invent electric light for many years. Back then people used candles and gaslights to light their homes. But gaslights were smelly and smoky.
After two years in his new laboratory, Edison boasted he would invent a safe, mild, and inexpensive electric light. Edison searched for the proper “filament” or wire, which would give good light when electricity flowed through it. He sent people to the jungles of the Amazon and forests of Japan in his search for a perfect filament material. He tested over 6,000 vegetable growths (baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo) as filament material. In 1879, after spending $40,000, and performing 1,200 experiments, he succeeded. He made a light bulb using carbonized filaments from cotton thread. Carbonized thread is ordinary cotton sewing thread that has been burned to an ash. The light bulb burned for two days. The electric light took the greatest amount of time and required the most complicated experiments of all his experiments. Abbott Pg. 4 One of Edison’s engineers, William J. Hammer, made a discovery, which later led to the electron tube. The electron tube led to the electric signal, which led to electronics. Electronics is a branch of science that is related to electricity.
Without electronics we might not have radio, TV, CDs, computers, x-ray machines or space travel. The discovery of electrons was patented as the “Edison effect” which is the basis of electronics. In 1887 Edison built a bigger invention factory in West Orange, New Jersey. This Edison Laboratory was 10 times larger than his first lab in Menlo Park. It is now a national monument. This Laboratory Unit had fourteen buildings. Six of these buildings were devoted to the “business of inventing.” The main building alone was the size of three football fields. (Denmark pg. 75) It had space for machine shops, glass-blowing operations, electrical testing rooms, chemical stockrooms, electrical power generation, and other functions. At the Edison Laboratory they made new products and improved old products. Over 5,000 people worked there. Edison attempted to personally manage this large staff.
The story goes that when a new employee once asked about lab rules, Edison said, “there ain’t no rules around here! We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.” Every day Edison toured this huge facility to see what was going on. But he spent most of his time doing paperwork instead of experiments. He did his paperwork in the library. The research library was an office and trophy room. Edison received many, many awards throughout his life. In the center of his office, Edison sat at a desk with three dozen pigeonholes, surrounded by over 10,000 books. At West Orange, Edison improved the phonograph using wax records. Now he could build phonographs to sell to the public. Out of the West Orange laboratories came the motion picture camera and silent and sound movies. His factory improved the alkaline storage battery, the electric pen, the copy machine, and the dictating machine. Other inventions and improvements included a cement mixer, the microphone, and a magnetic process to separate iron ore. Edison invented the concept of film reels for motion-picture cameras.
He also connected a motion picture camera to a phonograph. Now he could put sound with motion pictures! In 1913, Edison introduced the first talking moving pictures. Before photocopying machines were invented, Edison invented an electric “pen” which was really a puncturing device that rapidly punched holes in a sheet of waxed paper. A historian suggested this “pen” looked like a sewing machine. There were silly moments in the lab also. Sometimes they tried mixing chemicals that seemed foolish – coffee, eggs, sugaring, and milking. (Allen pg. 45) His Abbott Pg. 5 lab held everything for experimenting – whalebone, tortoise shell, elephant hide, and even the hair of a person, a native Amazonian. It is rumored that one of Edison’s friends said the lab storeroom even had the eyeballs of a US senator. (Denmark pg. 54) Most of these lab substances had no practical use, but a few did. Edison used rain-forest nuts to make phonograph needles.
Japanese bamboo was used to make filament (wire) for his light bulb. The hair of the Amazon was used for a wig for the first talking doll. In the doll’s chest was hidden a tiny phonograph speaker. In 1915, Edison was appointed president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board. He believed that electricity would make weapons more powerful. He claimed to have made an explosive that would explode if yelled at. He invented an electric torpedo. Edison urged Congress to establish the Naval Research Laboratory in 1920. (Allen pg. 58) This was the first military research laboratory. For more than forty years, the laboratory created by Thomas Alva Edison in West Orange, NJ, had enormous impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. Edison’s last patented invention was a way to make manmade rubber. The lab continued to invent things even after Edison died in 1931. So to create a rough summary of Thomas Alva Edisons life would be simple. He was raised in a positive environment with lots of encouragement from his father. And he made it possible for electronics to become an everyday part of our lives.