Edison, Thomas Alva

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Edison, Thomas Alva,

1847–1931, American inventor, b. Milan, Ohio. A genius in the practical application of scientific principles, Edison was one of the greatest and most productive inventors of his time. He began experimenting when he was a child, building a chemistry laboratory in the family cellar, but his formal schooling was limited to three months in Port Huron, Mich., in 1854. For several years he was a newsboy on the Grand Trunk RR, and it was during this period that he began to suffer from deafness, which was to increase throughout his life. He later worked as a telegraph operator in various cities.

Edison began inventing in his teens. His first inventions were an electric vote recorder (1869); his first profit-making inventions were the transmitter and receiver for the automatic telegraph, the quadruplex system of transmitting four simultaneous messages, and an improved stock-ticker system. In 1877 he invented the carbon telephone transmitter (see microphonemicrophone,
device for converting sound into electrical energy, used in radio broadcasting, recording, and sound amplifying systems. Its basic component is a diaphragm that responds to the pressure or particle velocity of sound waves.
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) for the Western Union Telegraph Company. His phonograph (patented 1878) was notable as the first successful instrument of its kind.

In 1879, Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent lamp (with a carbon filament). For use with it he developed a complete electrical distribution system for light and power, including generators, motors, light sockets with the Edison base, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conductors, and other devices. The crowning achievement of his work in this field was the Pearl St. plant (1881–82) in New York City, the first permanent central electric-light power plant in the world. He also built and operated (1880) an experimental electric railroad, and produced a superior storage battery of iron and nickel with an alkaline electrolyte.

Other significant inventions include the Kinetoscope, or peep-show machine. Edison later demonstrated experimentally the synchronization of motion pictures and sound, and talking pictures were based on this work. During World War I he helped to develop the manufacture in the United States of chemicals previously imported; he also served as head of the U.S. navy consulting board concerned with ship defenses against torpedoes and mines. Edison later worked on the production of rubber from American plants, notably goldenrod.

Edison, who specialized in what he termed "perfecting," making existing things better, cheaper, or both, patented more than a thousand U.S. and foreign inventions, and founded more than a hundred companies, some of which were consolidated form the General Electric Company (GE). His workshops at Menlo Park (1876) and West Orange, N.J. (1887), were forerunners of the modern industrial research laboratory in which teams of workers, rather than a lone inventor, systematically investigate a given subject. An Edison memorial tower and light was erected (1938) in Menlo Park, N.J.; Edison's laboratory and other buildings associated with his career are preserved or replicated in Greenfield VillageGreenfield Village,
reproduction of an early American village, est. 1933 by Henry Ford at Dearborn, Mich., as part of the Edison Institute. A white-spired church, a town hall, an inn, a school, a courthouse, a general store, and other buildings are grouped about a typical New
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See the autobiographical Diary and Sundry Observations, ed. by D. D. Runes (1948, repr. 1968); his papers ed. by R. V. Jenkins et al. (8 vol., 1989–); biographies by R. Silverberg (1967), P. Israel (2000), and E. Morris (2019); W. Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (1981); R. Friedel and P. Israel, Edison's Electric Light: The Art of Invention (2010); J. Guinn, The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip (2019).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Edison, Thomas Alva


Born Feb. 11,1847, in Milan, Ohio; died Oct. 18, 1931, in West Orange, N.J. American inventor in electrical engineering, the owner and founder of major electrical engineering companies.

Edison was a descendant of Dutch immigrants. After receiving a primary education, he began working at the age of 12 as a newsboy and later as a telegraph operator. Having made his home in Newark, N.J., he produced his first invention in 1868 and opened a workshop where his devices were manufactured. Between 1869 and 1876, Edison designed a number of original devices, including the stock ticker. He also worked on multiplex telegraphy and improved the typewriter.

In 1876, Edison moved to Menlo Park, N.J., where he resided until 1887. At Menlo Park, he established a major laboratory with workshops. During this period, he improved A. Bell’s telephone and, in 1877, invented the phonograph. In 1879 he proposed and introduced a commercially practical incandescent lamp. He also invented various electrical devices, such as the screw socket and base for electric lamps, the electric fuse, a rotary switch, and the electric meter. In addition, Edison carried out experiments on the electrification of railroads and developed a magnetic method of ore separation. In 1883 he discovered thermionic emission, which is known as the Edison effect. Edison also designed electric generators that were the most powerful of their day. In 1882 the world’s first DC electric power plant designed to provide power to the public was built in New York City according to his specifications.

In the late 1880’s, Edison established a number of major concerns for the production and sale of electric machines and equipment, lighting equipment, and incandescent lamps. His concerns also operated the electric power plants and telegraph stations that he had built in the USA and Europe.

From 1887 until his death, Edison resided in West Orange, N.J., where he headed his “invention factory.” During this period, he improved the phonograph and the motion-picture camera. He also invented a device that was the prototype of the dictating machine, equipment for recording telephone conversations, a railroad brake, and the nickel-iron battery.


The Diary and Sundry Observations. New York, 1948.


Lapirov-Skoblo, M. Ia. Edison. Moscow, 1960.
Bel’kind, L. D. Tomas Al’va Edison. Moscow, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Edison, Thomas Alva

(1847–1931) inventor of many electrical devices. [Am. Hist.: Jameson, 157]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.