Thomas Edison Bio Essay

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Thomas Edison Bio

Thomas Alva Edison - born February 11, 1847, Milan, Ohio, U.S. d. Oct. 18, 1931, West
Orange, N.J. American inventor who, singly or jointly, held a world record 1,093 patents.
In addition, he created the world's first industrial research laboratory.

Edison was the quintessential American inventor in the era of Yankee ingenuity.

He began his career in 1863, in the adolescence of the telegraph industry, when virtually
the only source of electricity was primitive batteries putting out a low-voltage current.

Before he died, in 1931, he had played a critical role in introducing the modern age of
electricity. From his laboratories and workshops emanated the phonograph, the
carbon-button transmitter for the telephone speaker and microphone, the incandescent lamp,
a revolutionary generator of unprecedented efficiency, the first commercial electric light
and power system, an experimental electric railroad, and key elements of motion-picture
apparatus, as well as a host of other inventions.

Edison was the seventh and last child--the fourth surviving--of Samuel Edison, Jr., and
Nancy Elliot Edison. At an early age he developed hearing problems, which have been
variously attributed but were most likely due to a familial tendency to mastoiditis.
Whatever the cause, Edison's deafness strongly influenced his behaviour and career,
providing the motivation for many of his inventions.

Early years

In 1854 Samuel Edison became the lighthouse keeper and carpenter on the Fort Gratiot
military post near Port Huron, Mich., where the family lived in a substantial home. Alva,
as the inventor was known until his second marriage, entered school there and attended
sporadically for five years. He was imaginative and inquisitive, but because much
instruction was by rote and he had difficulty hearing, he was bored and was labeled a

To compensate, he became an avid and omnivorous reader. Edison's lack of formal schooling
was not unusual. At the time of the Civil War the average American had attended school a
total of 434 days--little more than two years' schooling by today's standards.

In 1859 Edison quit school and began working as a trainboy on the railroad between Detroit
and Port Huron. Four years earlier, the Michigan Central had initiated the commercial
application of the telegraph by using it to control the movement of its trains, and the
Civil War brought a vast expansion of transportation and communication. Edison took
advantage of the opportunity to learn telegraphy and in 1863 became an apprentice

Messages received on the initial Morse telegraph were inscribed as a series of dots and
dashes on a strip of paper that was decoded and read, so Edison's partial deafness was no
handicap. Receivers were increasingly being equipped with a sounding key, however,
enabling telegraphers to "read" messages by the clicks.

The transformation of telegraphy to an auditory art left Edison more and more
disadvantaged during his six-year career as an itinerant telegrapher in the Midwest, the
South, Canada, and New England. Amply supplied with ingenuity and insight, he devoted much
of his energy toward improving the inchoate equipment and inventing devices to facilitate
some of the tasks that his physical limitations made difficult.

By January 1869 he had made enough progress with a duplex telegraph (a device capable of
transmitting two messages simultaneously on one wire) and a printer, which converted
electrical signals to letters, that he abandoned telegraphy for full-time invention and

Edison moved to New York City, where he initially went into partnership with Frank L.
Pope, a noted electrical expert, to produce the Edison Universal Stock Printer and other
printing telegraphs. Between 1870 and 1875 he worked out of Newark, N.J., and was involved
in a variety of partnerships and complex transactions in the fiercely competitive and
convoluted telegraph industry, which was dominated by the Western Union Telegraph Company.
As an independent entrepreneur he was available to the highest bidder and played both
sides against the middle. During this period he worked on improving an automatic telegraph
system for Western Union's rivals.

The automatic telegraph, which recorded messages by means of a chemical reaction
engendered by the electrical transmissions, proved of limited commercial success, but the
work advanced Edison's knowledge of chemistry and laid the basis for his development of
the electric pen and mimeograph, both important devices in the early office machine
industry, and indirectly led to the discovery of the phonograph.

Under the aegis of Western Union he devised the quadruplex, capable of transmitting four
messages simultaneously over one wire, but railroad baron and Wall Street financier Jay
Gould, Western Union's bitter rival, snatched the quadruplex from the telegraph company's
grasp in December 1874 by paying Edison more than $100,000 in cash, bonds, and stock, one
of the larger payments for any invention up to that time. Years of litigation followed.

Menlo Park

Although Edison was a sharp bargainer, he was a poor financial manager, often spending and
giving away money more rapidly than he earned it.

In 1871 he married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell, who was as improvident in household matters
as he was in business, and before the end of 1875 they were in financial difficulties.

To reduce his costs and the temptation to spend money, Edison brought his now-widowed
father from Port Huron to build a 2 1/2-story laboratory and machine shop in the rural
environs of Menlo Park, N.J.--12 miles south of Newark--where he moved in March 1876.

Accompanying him were two key associates, Charles Batchelor and John Kruesi. Batchelor,
born in Manchester in 1845, was a master mechanic and draftsman who complemented Edison
perfectly and served as his "ears" on such projects as the phonograph and telephone. He
was also responsible for fashioning the drawings that Kruesi, a Swiss-born machinist,
translated into models.

Edison experienced his finest hours at Menlo Park. While experimenting on an underwater
cable for the automatic telegraph, he found that the electrical resistance and
conductivity of carbon (then called plumbago) varied according to the pressure it was
under. This was a major theoretical discovery, which enabled Edison to devise a "pressure
relay" using carbon rather than the usual magnets to vary and balance electric currents.

In February 1877 Edison began experiments designed to produce a pressure relay that would
amplify and improve the audibility of the telephone, a device that Edison and others had
studied but which Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent, in 1876.

By the end of 1877 Edison had developed the carbon-button transmitter that is still used
in telephone speakers and microphones.

The phonograph

Edison invented many items, including the carbon transmitter, in response to specific
demands for new products or improvements. But he also had the gift of serendipity: when
some unexpected phenomenon was observed, he did not hesitate to halt work in progress and
turn off course in a new direction.

This was how, in 1877, he achieved his most original discovery, the phonograph.

Because the telephone was considered a variation of acoustic telegraphy, Edison during the
summer of 1877 was attempting to devise for it, as he had for the automatic telegraph, a
machine that would transcribe signals as they were received, in this instance in the form
of the human voice, so that they could then be delivered as telegraph messages. (The
telephone was not yet conceived as a general, person-to-person means of communication.)

Some earlier researchers, notably the French inventor LZon Scott, had theorized that each
sound, if it could be graphically recorded, would produce a distinct shape resembling
shorthand, or phonography ("sound writing"), as it was then known. Edison hoped to reify
this concept by employing a stylus-tipped carbon transmitter to make impressions on a
strip of paraffined paper.

To his astonishment, the scarcely visible indentations generated a vague reproduction of
sound when the paper was pulled back beneath the stylus.

Edison unveiled the tinfoil phonograph, which replaced the strip of paper with a cylinder
wrapped in tinfoil, in December 1877. It was greeted with incredulity. Indeed, a leading
French scientist declared it to be the trick device of a clever ventriloquist.

The public's amazement was quickly followed by universal acclaim. Edison was projected
into worldwide prominence and was dubbed the Wizard of Menlo Park, although a decade
passed before the phonograph was transformed from a laboratory curiosity into a commercial

The electric light

Another offshoot of the carbon experiments reached fruition sooner. Samuel Langley, Henry
Draper, and other American scientists needed a highly sensitive instrument that could be
used to measure minute temperature changes in heat emitted from the Sun's corona during a
solar eclipse along the Rocky Mountains on July 29, 1878. To satisfy those needs Edison
devised a "microtasimeter" employing a carbon button.

This was a time when great advances were being made in electric arc lighting, and during
the expedition, which Edison accompanied, the men discussed the practicality of
"subdividing" the intense arc lights so that electricity could be used for lighting in the
same fashion as with small, individual gas "burners." The basic problem seemed to be to
keep the burner, or bulb, from being consumed by preventing it from overheating. Edison
thought he would be able to solve this by fashioning a microtasimeter-like device to
control the current.

He boldly announced that he would invent a safe, mild, and inexpensive electric light that would replace the gaslight.

The incandescent electric light had been the despair of inventors for 50 years, but
Edison's past achievements commanded respect for his boastful prophecy. Thus, a syndicate
of leading financiers, including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, established the Edison
Electric Light Company and advanced him $30,000 for research and development.

Edison proposed to connect his lights in a parallel circuit by subdividing the current, so
that, unlike arc lights, which were connected in a series circuit, the failure of one
light bulb would not cause a whole circuit to fail. Some eminent scientists predicted that
such a circuit could never be feasible, but their findings were based on systems of lamps
with low resistance--the only successful type of electric light at the time.

Edison, however, determined that a bulb with high resistance would serve his purpose, and
he began searching for a suitable one.

He had the assistance of 26-year-old Francis Upton, a graduate of Princeton University
with an M.A. in science. Upton, who joined the laboratory force in December 1878, provided
the mathematical and theoretical expertise that Edison himself lacked. (Edison later
revealed, "At the time I experimented on the incandescent lamp I did not understand Ohm's
law." On another occasion he said, "I do not depend on figures at all. I try an experiment
and reason out the result, somehow, by methods which I could not explain.")

By the summer of 1879 Edison and Upton had made enough progress on a generator--which, by
reverse action, could be employed as a motor--that Edison, beset by failed incandescent
lamp experiments, considered offering a system of electric distribution for power, not

By October Edison and his staff had achieved encouraging results with a complex,
regulator-controlled vacuum bulb with a platinum filament, but the cost of the platinum
would have made the incandescent light impractical. While experimenting with an insulator
for the platinum wire, they discovered that, in the greatly improved vacuum they were now
obtaining through advances made in the vacuum pump, carbon could be maintained for some
time without elaborate regulatory apparatus.

Advancing on the work of Joseph Wilson Swan, an English physicist, Edison found that a
carbon filament provided a good light with the concomitant high resistance required for
subdivision. Steady progress ensued from the first breakthrough in mid-October until the
initial demonstration for the backers of the Edison Electric Light Company on December 3.

It was, nevertheless, not until the summer of 1880 that Edison determined that carbonized
bamboo fibre made a satisfactory material for the filament, although the world's first
operative lighting system had been installed on the steamship Columbia in April.

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