by Gerald Boerner
“Shucks, we haven’t failed.”
— Thomas Edison
“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”
— Thomas Edison
“Genius is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent perspiration…”
— Thomas Edison
“We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
— Thomas Edison
“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”
— Sir Joshua Reynolds
“Shucks, we haven’t failed. Now we know a thousand things that won’t work, so we’re that much closer to finding what will.”
— Thomas Edison
“[an electric lamp using] ‘a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires.’ ”
— Edison’s Patent Application
“I know this world is ruled by infinite intelligence. Everything that surrounds us- everything that exists – proves that there are infinite laws behind it. There can be no denying this fact. It is mathematical in its precision.”
— Thomas Edison
“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”
— Thomas Edison
“Be courageous. I have seen many depressions in business. Always America has emerged from these stronger and more prosperous. Be brave as your fathers before you. Have faith! Go forward!”
— Thomas Edison
Thomas Alva Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park
Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor, scientist and businessman who developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (now Edison, New Jersey) by a newspaper reporter, he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large teamwork to the process of invention, and therefore is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.
Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history, holding 1,093 U.S. patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. He is credited with numerous inventions that contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. His advanced work in these fields was an outgrowth of his early career as a telegraph operator. Edison originated the concept and implementation of electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses, and factories – a crucial development in the modern industrialized world. His first power station was on Manhattan Island, New York.
Beginning his career
Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention which first gained him fame was the phonograph in 1877. This accomplishment was so unexpected by the public at large as to appear almost magical. Edison became known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” New Jersey, where he lived. His first phonograph recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder and had poor sound quality. The tinfoil recordings could only be replayed a few times. In the 1880s, a redesigned model using wax-coated cardboard cylinders was produced by Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Tainter. This was one reason that Thomas Edison continued work on his own “Perfected Phonograph.”
Menlo Park (1876–1881)
Edison’s major innovation was the first industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was built with the funds from the sale of Edison’s quadruplex telegraph. After his demonstration of the telegraph, Edison was not sure that his original plan to sell it for $4,000 to $5,000 was right, so he asked Western Union to make a bid. He was surprised to hear them offer $10,000, which he gratefully accepted. The quadruplex telegraph was Edison’s first big financial success, and Menlo Park became the first institution set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement. Edison was legally attributed with most of the inventions produced there, though many employees carried out research and development work under his direction. His staff was generally told to carry out his directions in conducting research, and he drove them hard to produce results. The large research group included engineers and other workers.
William J. Hammer, a consulting electrical engineer, began his duties as a laboratory assistant to Edison in December 1879. He assisted in experiments on the telephone, phonograph, electric railway, iron ore separator, electric lighting, and other developing inventions. However, Hammer worked primarily on the incandescent electric lamp and was put in charge of tests and records on that device. In 1880, he was appointed chief engineer of the Edison Lamp Works. In his first year, the plant under General Manager Francis Robbins Upton turned out 50,000 lamps. According to Edison, Hammer was “a pioneer of incandescent electric lighting”.
Nearly all of Edison’s patents were utility patents, which were protected for a 17-year period and included inventions or processes that are electrical, mechanical, or chemical in nature. About a dozen were design patents, which protect an ornamental design for up to a 14-year period. Like most patents, the inventions he described were improvements over prior art. The phonograph patent, on the other hand, was unprecedented as the first device to record and reproduce sounds.
Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb, but instead invented the first commercially practical incandescent light. Several designs had already been developed by earlier inventors including the patent he purchased from Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans, Moses G. Farmer, Joseph Swan, James Bowman Lindsay, William E. Sawyer, Humphry Davy, and Heinrich Göbel. Some of these early bulbs had such flaws as an extremely short life, high expense to produce, and high electric current drawn, making them difficult to apply on a large scale commercially. In 1878, Edison applied the term filament to the element of glowing wire carrying the current, although the English inventor Joseph Swan had used the term prior to this. Edison took the features of these earlier designs and set his workers to the task of creating longer-lasting bulbs.
By 1879, he had produced a new concept: a high resistance lamp in a very high vacuum, which would burn for hundreds of hours. While the earlier inventors had produced electric lighting in laboratory conditions, dating back to a demonstration of a glowing wire by Alessandro Volta in 1800, Edison concentrated on commercial application, and was able to sell the concept to homes and businesses by mass-producing relatively long-lasting light bulbs and creating a complete system for the generation and distribution of electricity.
In just over a decade Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory had expanded to occupy two city blocks. Edison said he wanted the lab to have “a stock of almost every conceivable material”. A newspaper article printed in 1887 reveals the seriousness of his claim, stating the lab contained “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 …silk 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 the list goes on.
Over his desk, Edison displayed a placard with Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous quote: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” This slogan was reputedly posted at several other locations throughout the facility.
With Menlo Park, Edison had created the first industrial laboratory concerned with creating knowledge and then controlling its application.
After many experiments with platinum and other metal filaments, Edison returned to a carbon filament. The first successful test was on October 22, 1879; it lasted 40 hours. Edison continued to improve this design and by November 4, 1879, filed for U.S. patent 223,898 (granted on January 27, 1880) for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires”. Although the patent described several ways of creating the carbon filament including “cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways”, it was not until several months after the patent was granted that Edison and his team discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that could last over 1,200 hours. The idea of using this particular raw material originated from Edison’s recalling his examination of a few threads from a bamboo fishing pole while relaxing on the shore of Battle Lake in the present-day state of Wyoming, where he and other members of a scientific team had traveled so that they could clearly observe a total eclipse of the sun on July 29, 1878 from the Continental Divide.
Edison allegedly bought light bulb U.S. patent 181,613 of Henry Woodward that was issued August 29, 1876 and obtained an exclusive license to Woodward’s Canadian patent. These patents covered a carbon rod in a nitrogen filled glass cylinder, and differed substantially from the first commercially practical bulb invented by Edison.
In 1878, Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City with several financiers, including J. P. Morgan and the members of the Vanderbilt family. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park. It was during this time that he said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
George Westinghouse’s company bought Philip Diehl’s competing induction lamp patent rights (1882) for $25,000, forcing the holders of the Edison patent to charge a more reasonable rate for the use of the Edison patent rights and lowering the price of the electric lamp.
On October 8, 1883, the U.S. patent office ruled that Edison’s patent was based on the work of William Sawyer and was therefore invalid. Litigation continued for nearly six years, until October 6, 1889, when a judge ruled that Edison’s electric light improvement claim for “a filament of carbon of high resistance” was valid. To avoid a possible court battle with Joseph Swan, whose British patent had been awarded a year before Edison’s, he and Swan formed a joint company called Ediswan to manufacture and market the invention in Britain.
Mahen Theatre in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic, was the first public building in the world to use Edison’s electric lamps, with the installation supervised by Edison’s assistant in the invention of the lamp, Francis Jehl.
The final years
Edison was active in business right up to the end. Just months before his death in 1931, the Lackawanna Railroad implemented electric trains in suburban service from Hoboken to Gladstone, Montclair and Dover in New Jersey. Transmission was by means of an overhead catenary system, with the entire project under Edison’s guidance. To the surprise of many, he was at the throttle of the very first MU (Multiple-Unit) train to depart Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, driving the train all the way to Dover. As another tribute to his lasting legacy, the same fleet of cars Edison deployed on the Lackawanna in 1931 served commuters until their retirement in 1984, when some of them were purchased by the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum in Lenox, MA. A special plaque commemorating the joint achievement of both the railway and Edison, can be seen today in the waiting room of Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, presently operated by New Jersey Transit.
Edison was said to have been influenced by a popular fad diet in his last few years; “the only liquid he consumed was a pint of milk every three hours”. He is reported to have believed this diet would restore his health. However, this tale is doubtful. In 1930, the year before Edison died, Mina said in an interview about him that “Correct eating is one of his greatest hobbies.” She also said that during one of his periodic “great scientific adventures”, Edison would be up at 7:00, have breakfast at 8:00, and be rarely home for lunch or dinner, implying that he continued to have all three.
Edison became the owner of his Milan, Ohio, birthplace in 1906. On his last visit, in 1923, he was shocked to find his old home still lit by lamps and candles.
Other Events on this Day
- In 1797…
The Navy frigate USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” is launched in Boston.
- In 18673…
In Kansas, leaders of the Southern Plains Indians sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty, in which they give up their hunting grounds and agree to move to reservations in Oklahoma.
- In 1879…
Thomas Edison invents the first practical electric incandescent lamp.
- In 1916…
The first ROTC units are established at the University of Arkansas; University of Maine; St John’s College, Annapolis; Texas A&M; College of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota; and the Citadel, Charleston, South Carolina.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Thomas Edison that can be found at…