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Thomas Alva Edison

Researcher: Rachel Sahlman


In his lifetime, Thomas Alva Edison profoundly affected the technology of modern society. The American inventor was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison, Jr. and Nancy Elliot Edison. When Edison was 7 years old, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, after his father hired on as a carpenter at the Fort Gratiot military post.

Edison entered school in Port Huron, but his teachers considered him to be a dull student. Because of hearing problems, Edison had difficulty following the lessons and his school attendance became sporadic. Nevertheless, Edison became a voracious reader and at age 10, he set up a laboratory in his basement.

When his mother could not longer stand the smell of his chemistry lab, Edison took a job as a trainboy on the Grand Trunk Railway and established a new lab in an empty freight car. He was 12 at the time. Edison also began printing a weekly newspaper, which he called the Grand Trunk Herald.

While Edison was working for the railroad, something happened that changed the course of his career. Edison saved the life of a station official's child, who had fallen onto the tracks of an oncoming train. For his bravery, the boy's father taught Edison how to use the telegraph.

From 1862 to 1868, Edison worked as a roving telegrapher in the Midwest, the South, Canada, and New England. During this time, he began developing a telegraphic repeating instrument that made it possible to transmit messages automatically. By 1869, Edison's inventions, including the duplex telegraph and message printer, were progressing so well, he left telegraphy and began a career of full-time inventing and entrepreneurship.

Edison moved to New York City and within a year, he was able to open a workshop in Newark, New Jersey. He produced the Edison Universal Stock Printer, the automatic telegraph, the quadruplex, as well as other printing telegraphs, while working out of Newark. During this same period, Edison married Mary Stilwell.

Edison was a poor financial manager and by 1875, he began to experience financial difficulties. To reduce costs, Edison asked his widowed father to help him build a new laboratory and machine shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey. He moved into the new building in March, 1876 along with two associates, Charles Batchelor and John Kruesi. Edison achieved his greatest successes in this laboratory and he was dubbed the "Wizard of Menlo Park."

In 1877, Edison invented the carbon-button transmitter that is still used in telephone speakers and microphones. In December of the same year, he unveiled the tinfoil phonograph. (It was 10 years before the phonograph was available as a commercial product). In the late 1870s, backed by leading financiers including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, Edison established the Edison Electric Light Company. In 1879, he publicly demonstrated his incandescent electric light bulb. In 1882, he supervised the installation of the first commercial, central power system in lower Manhattan. In 1883, one of Edison's engineers William J. Hammer, made a discovery which later led to the electron tube. The discovery was patented the "Edison effect."

In 1884, Edison's wife Mary died, leaving him with three young children. He married Mina Miller in 1886, and began construction on a new laboratory and research facility in West Orange, New Jersey. The new lab employed approximately 60 workers and Edison attempted to personally manage this large staff. The story goes that when a new employee once asked about rules, Edison answered, "There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish something." However, the operation in West Orange lacked the intimacy of Menlo Park, and Edison's time was often consumed by administrative chores.

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During his time in West Orange, Edison produced the commercial phonograph, the Kinetoscope, the Edison storage battery, the electric pen, the mimeograph, and the microtasimeter. In 1913, Edison introduced the first talking moving pictures. In 1915, he was appointed president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board. In all, Edison patented more than 1,000 discoveries. Edison's inventions were often in response to demand for new or improved products. However, others also came about accidentally or serendipitously.

Thomas Alva Edison died in West Orange, New Jersey on October 18,1931. At the time of this death, he was experimenting on rubber from goldenrod. After his death, Edison became a folk hero of legendary status. His inventions had truly and profoundly affected the shaping of modern society.

Bibliographic Citation Format:

Author's last name, first name, middle initial. "Title of biography." SPECTRUM Home & School Magazine. [http://www.incwell.com/Spectrum.html] (date accessed). © K. B. Shaw

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