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Thomas Alva Edison Biography

Inventor of Phonograph And Light Bulb

Posted on September 23, 2009 by , with 14670 views

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor (February 11th, 1847 - October 18th, 1931) who invented the phonograph, motion picture camera, and most famously a practical, durable light bulb. Given the title of The Wizard if Menlo Park, by one newspaper, he was among the first of inventors who included, and made use of a large team in the invention process. Edison has also been commonly recognized as the creator of the first industrial research laboratory.

Edison is among an elite group of inventors, and has 1,093 US patents credited to his name, not to mention additional patents in the UK, France and Germany. Edison started out as a telegraph operator and this is the field in which he first set out to improve. He is attributed with many telecommunications patents, and it was he who came up with the concept of electric power to homes, with his first power station built on Manhattan Island, New York.

Young Edison

Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, and grew up in Michigan. He was the last of seven children to his father, Samuel "The Iron Shovel" Edison, Jr., and mother, Nancy Matthews Elliott. Edison claimed to be of Dutch heritage. After only three months of schooling, Edison returned home and was taught by his mother, where it is believed most of his knowledge was derived from R.G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union. During his childhood, he suffered from scarlet fever which affected his hearing, gradually leading to partial deafness. A young Edison sold newspapers and candy on trains, and also sold vegetables. Despite being small jobs, this inspired a series of entrepreneurial ventures as he realized he had a natural talent at being a businessman. These talents would soon prove successful, leading to fourteen companies, including General Electric which is still in continuation today.


Edison became a telegraph operator after being offered the job by the grateful father of a young man, Jimmy MacKenzie, whose life he saved, preventing him being hit by a runaway train.

In 1866, Edison relocated to Kentucky where he worked with the Associated Press. Requesting the night shift so he could continue to experiment and read in relative peace and quiet turned out to be his undoing, as one experiment went wrong, resulting in sulfuric acid dripping through the floor and onto his boss's desk. Edison was immediately fired. His first invention patent was the Electric Vote Recorder, which was filed on June 1st, 1869.

Personal Life

Edison married Mary Stilwell, who was employed at one of his shops, on Christmas day, 1871. They had three children; Marion, Thomas and William. Mary died in 1884, and it is highly suggested that she suffered from a brain tumor.

Aged 39, Edison married Mina Miller, on February 24th, 1886 and later had three children; Madeleine, Charles and Theodore. Mina died on August 24th, 1947, 16 years after Edison's death.

Early Career

Thomas Edison first began experimenting with telegraphic devices, which soon brought about the invention of the phonograph in 1877. The invention, to many, seemed magical, as nothing like it had ever been thought of before. The first phonograph used a piece of tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder, which resulted in rather poor sound quality, and could only be replayed a limited number of times. Alexander Graham Bell later improved the phonograph using wax-coated cylinders, which inspired Edison to continue to further improve and perfect his own phonograph.

Menlo Park

Funded by the successful sale of the $10,000 Quadruplex Telegraph, Edison built his own research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The Menlo Park laboratory was the very first building to be set up with the sole intention of focusing on technological advancement. Edison was primarily connected with every successful invention made at this laboratory, though he did have a large number of employees who helped carry out experiments and general development.

William J. Hammer began working for Edison in 1879, and is best known for his work on the incandescent light bulb. Edison described Hammer as "a pioneer of incandescent electric lighting". See more on the Invention of the light bulb

The majority of Edison's inventions were protected by 17-year patents. The common misconception is that Edison invented the first electric light bulb, but this is inaccurate. He in fact developed the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb. He set himself and his workers the challenge of producing a commercially viable, longer lasting light bulb, resulting in a high-resistance lamp inside an extremely high vacuum, capable of burning for hundreds of hours. This allowed him to sell his light bulb to the public on a mass scale, and earn a fantastic amount of money as a result.

The laboratory expanded to span across two entire city blocks, in little over a decade. Edison aimed to stock almost every conceivable material, and a newspaper article detailing the extent of this claim illustrates how successful he was in his aim. The laboratory reportedly had "eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark's teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell ...cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock's tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores ..." and much more.

In 1877 and 1878, Edison invented the carbon microphone, which was utilized in all telephones, in tandem with the Bell receiver. In 1892, it was confirmed that Edison was the official inventor of the carbon microphone despite legal disputes from inventor, Emile Berliner.

On December 17th, 1880, Edison started the Edison Illuminating Company, which was the first investor-owned electric utility. The first overhead wiring electricity design using incandescent light was instated in Roselle, New Jersey, in 1883.


Thomas Edison is also credited with the first commercially viable fluoroscope, a device which makes use of X-Rays to take radiographs. Edison, however, abandoned further development of this machine, after coming close to losing his eyesight, and also witnessing his assistant, Clarence Dally, dying as a direct result of dangerous exposure to radiation. Edison declared his fear of X-Rays in 1903, "Don't talk to me about X-rays, I am afraid of them."

Later Life

Only a few months before his death in 1931, Edison was in charge of implementing electric trains in suburban service, again in New Jersey. In 1923, when Edison returned to his old home, he was astonished to realize that the neighborhood was still lit by traditional lamps and candles. Thomas Edison passed away at his home in New Jersey, on October 18th, 1931 following problems with diabetes. He is buried behind this home. Allegedly, Edison's final breath is concealed inside a test tube which can be found at the Henry Ford museum.

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