Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931), the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” was an American inventor. Considered to be a true genius, Edison created the world’s first research laboratory, where his systematic approach to inventing focused on practical results rather than theoretical knowledge. Although best known for his improvements to the light bulb and for creating the phonograph and motion picture camera, much of Edison’s work was related to the generation and distribution of electricity.
Figure 1. Thomas Alva Edison, c. 1904. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection, LC-USZ62-108087.
Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children and had limited formal education, which would later feed the myth that he was “a poor boy, uneducated and entirely self-taught.” In fact, during 1854 Edison attended a private school run by Reverend George Engle and from 1859 to 1860 he attended the Port Huron School. Edison, who would later describe himself as a “delicate” small boy, was mostly homeschooled by his mother, a former high-school teacher, who taught her son “how to read good books quickly and correctly.” Edison devoured books on history, philosophy, and science. He liked to do chemical experiments and even strung up a telegraph wire to a friend’s house so they could send messages to each other.
In 1859, Edison began working as a newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad line, where he earned pocket money to buy materials for his home chemical laboratory. The twelve-year-old Edison rode the train and sold newspapers and magazines, but he also had a great deal of free time. In 1862 he purchased a small printing press, which he set up in the baggage car. From this makeshift office, Edison printed his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald. Edison also conducted chemical experiments until a fire broke out and he was evicted from the train.
Edison learned telegraphy and, despite noticing that he was developing a hearing loss, spent the next several years working as a telegraph operator. In early 1868 he moved to Boston and took a job with Western Union. During his free time there he designed and patented his first invention: an electronic vote recorder, which was met with indifference by lawmakers in Washington.
Despite this initial setback, Edison quit his job at Western Union in January 1869 so that he could become a full-time inventor. He moved to New York City in April 1869, and in February 1870 he signed a contract with Gold and Stock Telegraph Company to do research and development on improvements to telegraph equipment. Edison began working on designs for an improved stock ticker, which he named the Universal Stock Printer.
Edison sold the rights to the stock ticker to the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company for $40,000. Then, he used the money to set up the Newark Telegraph Works in Newark, New Jersey. That same year, an investor put up enough money for Edison to open a second shop, the American Telegraph Works. Between the two companies, Edison employed more than 160 men.
Edison soon outgrew the facility in Newark, and in December 1875 moved his operations to Menlo Park, New Jersey. He had a two-story laboratory built to his specifications, which housed a machine shop on the ground floor and a chemical laboratory on the second floor. Edison opened the laboratory in the spring of 1876 with a staff of five: two experimenters and three machinists. The Menlo Park lab was quickly dubbed “the invention factory” by reporters, and it was one of the first research and development laboratories. Edison’s system was to come up with ideas and assign teams of researchers to work on projects, whom he referred to as “muckers.” By having multiple teams engaged in developing marketable products, it was possible for the lab to be more productive than a lone inventor could ever have been.
To keep Menlo Park running, Edison needed money. His method of raising money was to pursue only the inventions that were both “practical and profitable.” In the summer of 1877, Edison came up with an idea for a machine that would record and play back sound messages. His prototype used a stylus that vibrated from the pressure of sound waves and carved small grooves on a piece of tin foil wrapped around a cylinder. The foil cylinder was later replaced by wax cylinders. The phonograph became a commercial success and put Edison in the public spotlight, earning him the epithet “Wizard of Menlo Park.”
By early 1878, the laboratory staff had increased to 25, and by the 1880s expanded to a maximum of 50 to 60 employees. Edison added a separate machine shop and several other buildings to the Menlo Park site, and even provided a boardinghouse for some of his employees. For a short time, Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) was employed by Edison as an electrical engineer. Both men were dedicated workaholics, but a rift developed between them after Edison supposedly promised Tesla fifty-thousand dollars if he could increase the efficiency of Edison’s electric dynamo. After Tesla succeeded, Edison claimed it had been a joke but counteroffered a raise in pay. Tesla, believing he had been cheated, resigned.
In 1878, Edison began work on developing a longer-burning filament for electric light bulbs. Existing bulbs burned out within just a few hours; Edison realized that in order for the bulbs to be commercially viable they needed to last much longer. He did not invent the light bulb, however—the credit for that goes to English scientist Humphry Davy, who, in the early 1800s, had connected batteries to charcoal sticks and generated an arc of electricity to produce incandescent lighting. On October 14, 1878, Edison filed a patent application for “Improvement in Electric Lights,” but he continued to refine the bulb and submitted another patent application on November 4, 1879.
Eventually, after Edison and his muckers tested thousands of materials for the light bulb filament, including carbonized cardboard and platinum, Edison discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament would last more than a thousand hours before it burned out. Edison made further improvements, such as evacuating the air from the glass bulb and designing the screw base for the light bulb, which is still in use today.
Figure 2. Edison’s patent for the Electric-Lamp. Note the coiled filament inside the bulb. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “Drawing for an Electric Lamp,” National Archives Catalog, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/595450.
Edison began to manufacture and market his bulbs, but delivering electricity to run them was still problematic. But instead of just fabricating pieces of the electric puzzle, it was Edison’s intention to create a whole system, from electrical generation and distribution to the end products for home and business use. In December 1880, Edison founded the Edison Illuminating Company with the purpose of constructing electrical generating stations. In 1881, he purchased a large building in Manhattan and obtained permission from the city to dig up the streets in order to lay nearly fourteen miles of electrical conduits. Edison’s Pearl Street Power Station opened in 1882, and it used coal to power an electrical generator. This central power company delivered direct current (DC) electricity to his customers.
In a DC system, electrical current flows in one direction and is relatively low voltage. But while Edison’s DC distribution system was successful, it had several major drawbacks: the voltage could only be sent over short distances before it dropped too low to be useful, and the voltage could not be changed easily for varying electrical loads, which meant that each electrical device needed its own power lines. A competing power system, one favored by Edison’s ex-employee Tesla, was alternating current (AC), which allowed electricity to be sent over many miles of wire without loss and used a system of transformers to change voltages so that lighting and motors could be operated from the same power lines.
In 1886, William Stanley Jr. (1858–1916) had successfully electrified Great Barrington, Massachusetts, using alternating current. While others, including Tesla and George Westinghouse (1846–1914), believed that an AC distribution system was safe, Edison felt strongly that it was dangerous because of the high voltages it used and its tendency to spark. Indeed, several deaths, including the ghastly public spectacle of the electrocution of lineman John Feeks, had already taken place.
By now Edison had invested a great deal of cash in his own DC system, which served only one square mile of customers, and he was fighting to keep his system financially solvent. He appealed to public emotion about the safety of his DC system, but the differences of opinion between proponents of DC and AC devolved into a bitter rivalry that became known as the “War of the Currents.” It was a losing battle for Edison: in 1891 the Electrical World magazine reported that there were just over 200 Edison DC power stations in use, versus nearly 1,000 operational AC power stations. When the contract for electrifying the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition was awarded to Westinghouse, who used Tesla’s AC system, it cemented the superiority of alternating current for electrical distribution systems.
Nevertheless, Edison’s business continued to grow, and in 1887 he built a larger research facility in West Orange, New Jersey, where he became increasingly involved in management. Construction on the new laboratory began in May and the facility was occupied by the new year. Unlike the informal research facility of Edison’s younger days, this new laboratory employed university-trained scientists and utilized large-scale teamwork in its research methods. Although Edison made no claims for himself about being a “pure scientist,” he nevertheless read professional literature, even as he disdained the career of a pure scientist.
During his time at his West Orange lab, Edison continued to refine his phonograph and, after seeing the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), came to believe that motion could be captured on film. On July 31, 1891, Edison filed a patent for his motion picture camera. Never one to do half measures, Edison built a motion picture studio at the West Orange research park, called the Black Maria, in 1893.
Figure 3. Interior of Thomas. A. Edison Laboratories, Building No. 2, West Orange, New Jersey. Apparatus on the table was used to make a steel master for the mass production of phonograph records. Photo: Jet Lowe, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, HAER NJ,7-ORAW,4-A.
Some of the early films created at the studio were shown in Kinetoscopes, which were wooden boxes that housed rollers and spools for a single film. The first Kinetoscope parlor opened on April 14, 1894, in New York, where viewers could pay to watch the movies. The first commercial motion picture intended for a large audience was projected at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City on April 23, 1896.
During the 1890s, Edison began experimenting with something completely different: he built an iron ore separating plant in Ogden, New Jersey, that crushed rocks and used an electromagnet to separate the iron ore from the rock. After several expensive upgrades to the plant, and the discovery of high-grade iron ore deposits in the Great Lakes area, Edison realized the unprofitability of this venture. But while the iron had never been a moneymaker, his company had sold crushed rock to cement companies. Thus, Edison followed the money trail and in 1899 he organized the Edison Portland Cement Company, which opened in 1901.
Next, Edison turned his attention back to a project that he had been interested in for years: a storage battery. In 1901, he formed the Edison Storage Battery Company and began working on a storage battery for electric cars. An “E” type of alkaline storage battery was produced in 1903, but there were problems with the batteries leaking and they did not recharge properly. In 1909, a new “A” type of nickel-iron alkaline battery was manufactured, and in 1910, two electric cars with Edison batteries climbed Mt. Washington in New Hampshire on a promotional tour.
In 1915, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels (1862–1948) appointed Edison as president of the newly formed Naval Consulting Board. The board comprised civilian experts who would review technology-related suggestions submitted by the public for possible military application. Edison petitioned the government to establish a permanent research laboratory, but resigned from the naval board in January 1921. Eventually the lab was constructed and the Naval Research Laboratory began operations on July 2, 1923.
In 1927, Edison, now 80 years old, joined forces with Henry Ford (1863–1947) and Harvey Firestone (1868–1938) to form the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in Fort Meyers, Florida. The company’s goal was to find a domestic source of rubber so that America would not be dependent on foreign sources in case of another war. More than 17,000 plants were tested before goldenrod was selected as the most viable source for rubber.
Edison married twice and had six children, although his heavy work schedule left little time for family. In 1871, he met Mary Stilwell (1855–1884), who was working at the News Reporting Company, a short-lived business venture of Edison’s. He proposed and they were married on Christmas Day. They had three children: Marion (1873), Thomas (1876), and William (1878). Mary’s health declined and she died in 1884.
In 1885, while on a trip to New Hampshire with a group of friends, Edison met and proposed to Mina Miller (1865–1947). They married on February 24, 1886, and also had three children: Madeleine (1888), Charles (1890), and Theodore (1898).
Edison’s research spanned a wide range of electrical improvements and inventions, including small electrical appliances for home use, such as a coffeemaker and iron. He received 1,093 patents and won awards that included the French Légion d’Honneur in 1881 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1928. He died on October 18, 1931, at his home in Glenmont, New Jersey.
DeGraff, Leonard. Edison and the Rise of Innovation. New York: Sterling Signature, 2013.
Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House, 2004.
Freeberg, Ernest. The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
Morris, Edmund. Edison. New York: Random House, 2019.
Munson, Richard. Tesla: Inventor of the Modern. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.
Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, http://edison.rutgers.edu/.
Stross, Randall. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
. Frank Parker Stockbridge, “Rubber from Weeds, My New Goal,” Popular Science Monthly 3, no. 6 (December 1927): 9–11.
. Thomas Alva Edison, letter to the pupils of the grammar schools of New Jersey, April 30, 1912, http://edison.rutgers.edu/yearofinno/Oct13/TAE%20to%20Pupils%20of%20Grammar%20School%20of%20NJ_1912-4-30.pdf.
. Rutgers, “The Boyhood Years”; Leonard DeGraff, Edison and the Rise of Innovation (New York: Sterling Signature, 2013), xxi.
. Edison, letter to the pupils.
. DeGraff, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, xxii–xxiii; Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Learning to Do Business: Early Entrepreneurship,” last updated October 28, 2016, http://edison.rutgers.edu/educationinventor.htm#5.
. Rutgers, “The Boyhood Years.”
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 3.
. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Edison’s Autobiographical Notes,” https://edison.rutgers.edu/yearofinno/TAEBdocs/V1App1_A.pdf, 643.
. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Newark, N.J., 1870–1875,” last updated October 28, 2016, http://edison.rutgers.edu/educationinventor.htm#5.
. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Building the Lab,” last updated October 28, 2016, http://edison.rutgers.edu/inventionfactory.htm.
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 22.
. “Edison and His Era: ‘Muckers’ and the Invention Process,” Thomas Edison National Historical Park, last updated February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/kidsyouth/edison-and-his-era.htm.
. Thomas Edison National Historical Park, “The Gifted Men Who Worked for Edison,” National Park Service, last updated February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/kidsyouth/the-gifted-men-who-worked-for-edison.htm.
. “Edison and His Era: ‘Muckers’ and the Invention Process.”
. Edmund Morris, Edison (New York: Random House, 2019), 7.
. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Tinfoil Phonograph,” last updated October 28, 2016, http://edison.rutgers.edu/tinfoil.htm.
. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Expanding the Laboratory,” last updated October 28, 2016, http://edison.rutgers.edu/inventionfactory.htm.
. Ernest Freeberg, The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 208.
. Munson, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern, 53–54.
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 48; Freeberg, The Age of Edison, 15–17.
. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Electric Lamp,” last updated October 28, 2016, http://edison.rutgers.edu/lamp.htm.
. Thomas P. Hughes, “The Electrification of America: The System Builders,” Technology and Culture 20, no. 1 (January 1979): 124.
. Jill Jonnes, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (New York: Random House, 2004), 4, 80.
. Freeburg, The Age of Edison, 181.
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 90.
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 75, 78–79.
. Morris, Edison, 7, 46.
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 129–30.
. “A Brief Chronology of Edison’s Life.”
. “Thomas Edison’s Vision,” U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, https://www.nrl.navy.mil/about-nrl/history/edison/.
. “A Brief Chronology of Edison’s Life.”
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 200–03.
. New York Botanical Garden, International Plant Science Center, Mertz Library, “Personal Papers, Thomas Alva Edison (1880–1964),” https://sciweb.nybg.org/science2/libr/finding_guide/edison2.asp.html; Stockbridge, “Rubber from Weeds, My New Goal.”
. Jonnes, Empires of Light, 353.
. DeGraaf, Edison and the Rise of Innovation, 11.
. Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences, Thomas A. Edison Papers, “Later Years,” last updated October 28, 2016, http://edison.rutgers.edu/biogrphy.htm; Jonnes, Empires of Light, 96; “Historical Highlights: Thomas Edison’s Congressional Gold Medal,” History, Art, and Archives, United States House of Representatives, https://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/36558.