Thomas Edison

Historical Figure Project: Suchir Angana

Overview of Edison's Life

Early Life

  • Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio.
  • He was born during the Industrial Revolution and was influenced by the changing ideas.
  • He was curious, mischievous, and unique. He rejected traditional learning, so the teachers at his school believed he was "addled" and incapable of learning.
  • Nancy Edison, his mother, refused to believe this and began teaching Edison herself. She helped him learn in his own way and developed his mind. He also began to do science experiments and read advanced books.
  • His family was poor, so after the family moved to Port Huron, Edison had to sell candy and newspaper on the railroad when he was 12. He had a chemistry lab on the train where he did his experiments.
  • As a child, Edison had scarlet fever, and when he was 12, Edison was running to catch a train and the conductor lifted him onto the train by his ears, which caused something to snap in his head and caused more infections, leading to partial deafness at age 13. Although he was disabled, Edison enjoyed being able to focus on what he was doing and tuning out others.
  • Developed a love for telegraphy while working on the railroad and he used the telegraph to spread word about the Battle of Shiloh, earning him a lot of money at the time.
  • He saved the stationmaster's son from being run over by a train, so Mackenzie trained him as a telegraph operator. After his training, he became a telegraph operator for 4 years and traveled the country, moving between large cities and learning more and more about science.
  • Interesting Story: Desperate for money to fund his projects, Edison decided to become a telegrapher in Brazil and went with two other people. Edison backed out and later, his friends died of yellow fever in Brazil.

Life Influences

Type of Upbringing: Edison was born during the Industrial Revolution, so this shaped his way of thinking. The two towns that he grew up in, Milan and Port Huron, were local centers of commerce and industry. Port Huron had a railroad running through it, which led to Edison's love of mechanics and telegraphy. His mother raised him and helped him embrace his creativity and love for the physical science, which caused him to take do scientific experiments. The Edison family was quite poor, so Thomas Edison had to get a job early and learn how to be an entrepreneur and scientist while remaining practical and doing his job as a candy butcher.

Influential People:

  • The most influential person in Edison's life was his mom. When the headmasters at his school called him "addled" and believed he couldn't learn because he didn't respond to traditional techniques, Nancy Edison was the only one who believed in him. She taught him the 3 R's and taught him to love learning and reading higher level books. She developed his mind and introduced him to physical science. When asked about his mom, he said that she was the making of him because she understood him when nobody else did.
  • The scientist that influenced Edison the most was Michael Faraday, an English scientist who worked in the fields of electrochemistry and electromagnetism (a field that he pioneered). Unlike other theoretical/experimental scientists, like Isaac Newton, Faraday was only an experimental scientist who only knew the basics of algebra. After reading Newton's Principles, Edison developed a strong distaste for math and instead, he gravitated towards the more practical Faraday. For the rest of his life, Edison would leave calculations up to his assistants.
  • One of the assistants that Edison relied heavily on was Francis Upton. Upton was a formally educated physicist and mathematician. Edison was full of ideas but he relied on Upton to do incredibly high level calculations. Upton would be instrumental in the making of the light bulb, the constant voltage dynamo, and Edison's power distribution system.
Motivation: Unlike many other people, Thomas Edison was not motivated by money. Although he dealt in practical inventions, his main focus was to create products that could benefit society. He wanted to make his mark on the world, create amazing things, and be recognized as one of the greatest inventors of all time.

The making of edison

  • Gets a job as a telegraph operator at Western Union in Boston. Boston was a center of science, so Edison began gaining investors for his inventions.
  • First Recorded Patent: June 1, 1869, telegraphic vote-recording machine that the state legislature refused to use. From then on, Edison only wanted to make things that were in demand.
  • After being scammed out of his next patent, an improved stock ticker machine, Edison decides to move to New York/Newark and continue innovating the telegraph in his own shop, mainly focused on automatic telegraphy and multiplex telegraphy (sending and receiving messages simultaneously).
  • In about 5 years, Edison had gained attention for his advanced inventions in telegraphy but after several bad business dealings, he decided to leave the telegraph industry and focus on inventive research instead.
  • In 1871, he met and married Mary Stillwell and had three children, but he was always focused on work and was barely at home.
  • Menlo Park: In May of 1876, Edison brings all of his equipment and his faithful crew from Newark to Menlo Park, New Jersey. The Menlo Park establishment was the first industrial research and development lab in the world and changed the inventing process. He combined both technical men as well as formally trained science men. Edison directed his assistants and hopped from project to project. This type of lab would be the cornerstone of industrial research and was later emulated by Bell Labs and General Electric.
  • While Bell was working on the telephone, Edison made a carbon microphone and induction coil that when paired with Bell's telephone, made a viable product. Western Union bought Edison's improvements and later gave it up to Bell after a court battle. Edison would not venture into the telephone industry after this.

The phonograph, lights, and kinetoscope

  • At Menlo Park, Edison was free to think and work. One day, when he was trying to play back recorded telegraph and telephone messages, Edison figured out how to record the human voice on paper and then transmit it back.
  • On December 15, 1877, he filed the patent for the phonograph, a machine that could record and play back the human voice.
  • This brought fame to Edison and Menlo Park, as people began calling him the "Wizard of Menlo Park"
  • The phonograph would eventually start the sound recording industry, but Edison believed it wasn't worth the work at the time, and instead, he focused on the light bulb. However, later on, he would come back and improve the phonograph, making it a profitable part of his business.
  • From 1878-1879, Edison worked to create the first commercially viable incandescent electric light (Details in Additional Requirements)
  • After creating the light bulb, Edison devoted himself to creating an electrical distributing power system to power his lights. After about 2 years, Edison made his first power station at Pearl Street and from there, his business grew slowly but surely but brought on competitors.
  • These competitors, such as Westinghouse and Thomson-Houston, forced Edison and his associates to have to endure years of court cases.
  • Westinghouse and Thomson-Houston began to take over the power industry using alternating currents, which were incredibly effective but dangerous if not regulated. Edison refused to abandon direct currents and began the War of the Currents. Stubbornly, Edison defended direct currents and defamed alternate currents, but in the end, alternate currents won out.
  • On April 24, 1889, J.P Morgan directed a merge of all of Edison's manufacturing and patent companies into Edison General Electric. However, Morgan kept consolidating power and over time, Edison had no control. In order to fight Westinghouse's alternating currents, J.P Morgan and the Vanderbilts merged Edison General Electric with Thomson-Houston and formed General Electric in 1892, a huge company that controlled 3/4 of the electric business now. Edison lost control of the company and left the business.
  • As Edison's business grew, he had trouble in his family. Mary died in 1884 from typhoid fever and, now a millionaire industrialist, Edison found a new wife in Mina Miller in 1885. They moved to a huge mansion in West Orange, New Jersey, where he built a laboratory ten times the size of Menlo Park, with cutting-edge equipment. However, the new lab never matched the achievements of Menlo Park.
  • At the West Orange Lab, Edison worked on developing the phonograph but in 1887, he and W.K.L. Dickson worked on a motion picture camera. Edison created the kinetoscope, which was a peep-show box where individuals viewed short films. This developed slowly, but by 1893, Edison left the electric industry and focused on the movie industry.
  • Although he was against the idea of projected motion pictures, when he saw the work that others were doing in the field, he reconsidered and began to dominate the industry. In doing so, Edison launched the multi-billion dollar movie and entertainment industry.
  • For the rest of his life, Edison was constantly inventing new things, such as a battery for electric cars. In his later years, Edison befriended Henry Ford, who would recreate the Menlo Park lab and many of Edison's greatest inventions in the "Edison Institute" in Greenfield Village, Ford's museum of inventions.
  • On October 18, 1931, Edison passed away from diabetes at the age of 84.

Compare/Contrast: Edison Today

  • If Edison were alive today, he would be as successful if not more. Although Edison was partially successful due to the Industrial Revolution environment, I believe that his skill set would transfer well to today's society. Without a doubt, he would not reach as many patents as he had before, but he would be running a company like Google that could surpass that patent count. With the electrical engineering skills and vision that he had, combined with today's advanced technology, Edison would do amazing things in the world of technology. However, he would be viewed as a Steve Jobs type character: visionary but flawed. Like Jobs, Edison was incredibly ambitious, and though this led to his success, he also treated people poorly and went to extremes to achieve his goals, often using controversial business practices. Today, Edison would be a polarizing icon, criticized for his shortcomings but praised for his vision and drive. Regardless, Edison would change the world today just as he did in the early 20th century.
  • If I possessed Edison's skills, I would create a technology company on the scale of Apple and Google. Now, cellphones are in high consumer demand and because Edison always focused on practical products that had a big market, I would focus on innovating the smartphone and creating a global business. In addition, I would use the profits from this main branch to get involved in various projects that intrigue me, such as making an affordable computer with the processing capabilities of a near super computer, as well as devloping an affordable but luxurious electric car line that is both environmentally and consumer friendly. These projects would be where I directly use my electrical engineering skills and work with small teams to develop revolutionary products.
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Additional Requirements: First Practical Light Bulb

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  • Inspiration: Edison had previously worked on the incandescent light bulb but dropped the project to work on the phonograph. However, in 1878, Professor George Barker urged Edison to investigate the possibilities of electric lighting. He examined the arc lights, which were large electric lights used for street lamps and building lighting, of Wallace and Farmer, and realized that the subdivision of high intensity light was possible.
  • Obstacles: The main obstacle that Edison faced was the sheer difficulty of the project. Most inventors were focused on developing the arc light, but by exploring the incandescent light, Edison was in uncharted waters. The electrical field was not as advanced as Edison, so he had to work from scratch. The electric laws were mostly theoretical, so the work done at Menlo Park was instrumental in modifying the laws.
  • Materials Used: The carbon and platinum wiring was not difficult for Edison. Edison created an improved glass vacuum bulb that came within one one-hundred-thousandth of an atmosphere expelled from the globe. Edison also created his own dynamo (generator) that could direct a constant voltage current in a multiple circuit. The main problem was finding a burner material that could last at a high temperature. Initially, Edison used platinum but this proved to not last long enough, so Edison and his assistants tested almost 1,600 burner materials. They eventually settled on copper and tested hundreds of threadlike carbon filaments of varying lengths. Finally, on October 21, 1879, he used carbonized cotton that lasted for 13 1/2 hours. They found out that any carbonized material did well, and managed to make a light bulb with carbonized cardboard that lasted 40 hours. In the coming year, they would test more than 6,000 materials and finally settled on carbonized bamboo.
  • Time: Edison began working on the light bulb in the fall of 1878 and believed that it would only take him and his team 3-4 months, but it actually took 14 months. He and his team, towards the end of the project, worked around the clock and Edison only slept 3-4 hours a day with various naps throughout the day.
  • Finance: Edison had gained a reputation as the "Wizard of Menlo Park" with his phonograph. Previously, inventors made an invention and sold it to investors. However, a group of investors, backed by the Vanderbilts, J.P Morgan, Western Union leaders, and other influential capitalists, formed the Edison Electric Light Company with Edison(right as he began working) and invested a combined $50,000 in Edison's future light system. After 13 months, Edison had spent about $42,000 ($850,000 today) on developing the light alone.
  • Moral Decisions: Edison had to give up time with his family in order to work on the light bulb. His children believed he was impersonal and though he loved his wife, he barely saw her. He also worked his workers and himself around the clock, which could be seen as a bad thing, but his assistants were always willing to stay and help Edison.
  • Impact of his Contribution: Thomas Edison is known as the inventor of the light bulb but this actually isn't true. The electric light had already existed before but Edison created the first one that was practical and affordable for home lighting. In doing so, Edison ushered in the Electric Age, created lighting for the masses, and started the multi-billion dollar electric power industry. Many people believe that Edison just stole the idea of the light bulb and did little to no work but this just isn't true. I defend the impact of his contribution because, even though he used previous concepts, he ultimately took a different path that nobody in the electric field had explored and struggled for over a year to create the light bulb. From the light bulb, Edison would go on to create the first power system and this would lead to the electric power industry that changed the world.

Historiography: "The Electrifying Edison" Historical Summation

In “The Electrifying Edison”, Bryan Walsh praises Thomas Edison for his contributions to the scientific community and uses Edison’s impact to show how America is losing its scientific prevalence. He does this by introducing the disparities in American STEM fields, using historical evidence of Edison’s accomplishments as well as several statistics. Walsh begins the article by introducing a class at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, who are meeting with professional scientists and learning hands-on. By beginning with this, Walsh shows how science should be. He goes on to detail the scientific dominance of America over the years, mainly in the 20th century thanks in large part to Edison. It is evident from Walsh’s tone that he admires Edison’s work. Edison had 1,093 patents and created devices that launched the electrical power, music recording, and motion picture industries. Not only did he invent, he also introduced the Menlo Park Way, which employed numerous assistants skilled in various fields, and was one of the first inventors to market products using huge capital investments. Edison’s innovative approach to research and development as well as his extensive business practices would help America lead the way in technology and science. However, Walsh uses daunting statistics, such as only 33% of American bachelor degrees being in science or engineering, to show how far American science has fallen. These statistics show that, without a doubt, America is not the scientific titan that it once was. Edison thrived during the Industrial Revolution and through self-learning, he molded himself into a prolific inventor and entrepreneur. However, America is not supporting innovation in fields such as energy, which is leading to other countries taking control. Walsh clearly shows that the U.S needs to invest in education and the research necessary to allow the next generation of scientists to flourish by highlighting the lack of emphasis on innovation in America today and praising Edison's impact on American science.


Source Below:

Political Cartoon- "The Wizard Leads the Way"

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This political cartoon mainly uses symbolism to show the impact that Thomas Edison had on America. To the left is a top hat with a beard, symbolizing Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam symbolizes America, so the top hat represents America during the late 1890s and early 1900s. He is crying and saying that it is too dark to see because many of America's inventors were unwilling to explore the incandescent electric lamp subdivision. Thomas Edison is known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park" for the revolutionary invention method that he created in Menlo Park and the amazing inventions he made, such as the phonograph. Because of this nickname, I depicted Edison as a wizard hat holding up light bulbs and saying that he will show Uncle Sam the way. This represents how Edison lit up America and brought affordable lighting to the public, creating the electric power industry.

Interesting Facts About Edison

  1. His nicknames for his first two children, Marion and Thomas Jr., were "Dot" and "Dash", which shows his love for the telegraph and Morse Code.
  2. Edison had the idea of concrete houses and believed they would revolutionize American life by being affordable and safe. In addition, he created concrete furniture such as bedroom sets and cabinets. Needless to say, this idea never took off.
  3. In order to show that alternate currents were dangerous, Edison lent his technical expertise and helped Harold P. Brown publicly electrocute stray cats, dogs, and horses. A circus elephant named Topsy had killed 3 people and the owners wanted it put down. Edison electrocuted it with 6000 volts of AC and it died within seconds. His bitter rivalry with Tesla/Westinghouse even went as far as to influence Edison to send three AC Westinghouse generators to those in charge of the execution of a criminal in order to demonstrate the dangers of AC. William Kemmler was a convicted murder and was sentenced to death by the electric chair. Despite the negative publicity that he generated, Edison and his associates ultimately lost the War of the Currents.
  4. Edison had a tattoo of five dots on his left forearm and nobody knows what the dots actually mean.

Edison's Kinetoscope Films

Defining Quote

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This quote truly defines Thomas Edison. Ever since he was born, Edison had to deal with many hardships, ranging from his deafness to his thousands of failed trials. A weaker man would have been crushed by these failures but Edison used them as motivation to work harder and improve. Each time that he create a lightbulb design that did not work or tested an unsuccesful carbon filament, Edison realized that he was getting closer to his final goal by finding ways that won't work. With this resolve, Edison worked tirelessly and finally created the first practical electric light. Without his determination, Edison would not have been the prolific inventor and entrepreneur that he is remembered as today.

Book Trailer

Edison | A Biography
The main point that Matthew Josephson was trying to establish in his biography on Edison is that Edison is human. Many people think that Edison worked alone and his only method was trying until something worked. Josephson shows how Edison collaborated with many assistants in his inventions and how there was an intellectual base to his experiments, even if it did not stem from Edison himself. Others laud him as a titan of science and industry, a man who changed the way that we think of the world. Though this is true, Josephson presents the "real" Edison, a human being who did amazing things but was also flawed. Edison was incredibly stubborn, as seen in the War of the Currents, ambitious, and often exploited his workers. As one of the only true representations of Edison, Matthew Josephson's Edison: A Biography is an engaging and revealing literary masterpiece.

American Experience

If Edison was asked about his American Experience, I believe that he would have said it was a positive one, though, like most people, his life was not always easy. Edison was eager "to impose himself, to make his mark in the world" (Josephson, 67). Though he tried to make practical inventions and took part in many business ventures, Edison was never really focused on making money. When he died, he left behind 12 million dollars in property but this is not what Edison would want to be remembered by. During this time period, there were many brilliant inventors, such as Nikola Tesla, but Edison was more successful than all of them because he expanded the idea of inventing to include research, development, and commercialization. As a result, Edison was considered a celebrity at the time and he loved being in the spotlight. Overall, Edison's American Experience was that he did what he loved and used failure as motivation to achieve his goal of becoming the greatest inventor of all time and changing the world.

Works Cited