Edison, Thomas

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Edison, Thomas (Alva)

(1847–1931) inventor; born in Milan, Ohio. Raised in Ohio and Michigan, he was taken out of school at age seven after only three months in the classroom—his constant questioning led some teachers to consider him retarded—and was educated by his mother. He showed an early curiosity for explanations of how everything worked and was especially interested in chemistry. At age 12 he went to work selling newspapers and snacks on the railroad; he also printed his own little paper on the train and experimented with chemicals in the baggage car until he caused a fire. Limited to selling papers at railroad stations, he learned how to operate a telegraph and during the Civil War worked as a telegraph operator. Working for Western Union in Boston in 1868, he tried to sell his first invention, an electric vote-recording machine, but legislatures did not want it; he is said to have decided at that point to work only on inventing things people would buy. In New York City in 1869, as a supervisor in a stock-ticker firm, he made improvements on the stock-ticker. With the profits from the sale of an electrical-engineering firm that held his patents, he opened his own laboratory in Newark, N.J., where he made important improvements in telegraphy and on the typewriter, and invented the carbon transmitter that made Alexander Graham Bell's telephone practical. In 1876 he moved his laboratory to Menlo Park, N.J., where he invented the first phonograph (1877) and the prototype of the commercially practical incandescent electric light bulb (1879). These and other inventions led to his being internationally known as "the wizard of Menlo Park"—although in 1887 he moved to a larger laboratory in West Orange, N.J. By the late 1880s he was contributing to the development of motion pictures, and by 1912 he was experimenting with talking pictures. His many inventions include a storage battery, a dictaphone, and a mimeograph. Meanwhile, he had become interested in the development of a system for widespread distribution of electric power from central generating stations. In 1892 his Edison General Electric Co. merged with another firm to become General Electric Co., of which he was a major stockholder. During World War I he conducted research for the U.S. military on such devices as submarine periscope and torpedo mechanisms. The holder of over 1,000 patents, he lived out his final years in a round of awards and honors. Henry Ford would move his original Menlo Park laboratory to the Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Mich. In 1962 his laboratory and home in West Orange, N.J., would be designated a National Historic Site. Although he was personally acquainted with many important men of his era, he never had much time for family or friends due to his dedication to his work. Only later would some point out that had he known a bit more about scientific theory and mathematics he might not have endorsed the definition of genius attributed to him: "one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." In fact, he made only one true scientific discovery (1883), "the Edison effect," for which he could see no commercial applications but which anticipated the vacuum tube that would become the basis of the radio. But using his own methods, he had spent his life inventing many of the devices that shaped the modern world.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.