Thomas Edison (1847–1931)

Even in the comic books, the lightbulb has always been the classic image of invention and Eureka! moments. And it is the definitive image of the American who radically improved the lives of his countrymen and the world by inventing it. Thomas Edison probably changed 20th-century America more dramatically than anyone with his introduction of an affordable, long-lasting electric lightbulb in 1879.

Henry Ford would call him the greatest American. The world knew him as the Wizard of Menlo Park, the New Jersey town where he built his first laboratory. In his lifetime, Edison invented dozens of devices including an electrical vote recorder, a telegraph that could transmit and receive four signals at a time, the stock ticker, the phonograph, recorded music, a kinetoscope (to view short films), the storage battery, and motion pictures, among other things. The number of patents Edison held (eventually 1,093 in all) show the range of his invention: 389 patents for electric light and power, 195 patents for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, 141 for storage batteries, and 34 for the telephone. He held more utility patents than anyone else in the 20th century (but has already been surpassed in the 21st by two others, an Australian and a Japanese inventor in computer technology). What was stunning about Edison’s power of invention was that he had so little education or background in science. Yet he solved problems and made discoveries that more experienced scientists could not. As Edison himself said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

It was the development of a lightbulb that could maintain its incandescence that was Edison’s most far-reaching contribution, along with his invention of systems for making electricity and light available to factories and homes, using power stations. Edison built on the work of earlier scientists and inventors who had tried to develop the perfect lightbulb, yet none of them could solve basic problems with filaments that melted and short illumination time that he would solve.

Moving his laboratory to West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887, where it can still be visited, Edison set aside one of the lab’s several “experimental rooms” to test materials as filaments for his lightbulb, filling deep drawers and shelves with every kind of plant fiber and animal skin, fur, and feathers and varieties of metal wire. His first successful filament was carbonized cotton sewing thread. The key to Edison’s power of invention was that he would try everything, even, as it turned out, strips of bamboo that he peeled off the fishing pole he had used on a fishing trip to Wyoming. The bamboo, carbonized, was the best filament he found. It could last 1,200 hours.

Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century with over 300 patents for his electronic inventions, including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and motion picture technology.

Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century with over 300 patents for his electronic inventions, including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and motion picture technology. (Library of Congress.)

Lightbulbs eventually used tungsten as a filament; the metal is strong and holds its strength at high temperatures. Today, the compact fluorescent lightbulb is increasingly replacing the incandescent version; it uses only one-fifth of the energy of an ordinary lightbulb and has a much longer life. In his experiments with the lightbulb, Edison also discovered an unknown phenomenon that would become a fundamental principle in electronics. A separate wire placed in between the legs of the filament in a lightbulb would act as a valve to control the flow of current. This became known as the “Edison Effect” and led to the development of electronic tubes for radio and television. It was the one scientific contribution Edison was given credit for, though he made other discoveries in the process of his inventions.

Even before he perfected the lightbulb, Edison had already established the first central power station in the United States on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan to distribute electricity to businesses and factories. He formed the Edison Electric Light Company with the support of financier J. P. Morgan and others, and by 1887, he had 121 power stations delivering direct current (DC) electricity. His Edison Electric Light Company became Edison General and, eventually, General Electric, the forerunner of today’s corporation.

Edison resisted the use of the more efficient alternating current (AC), even conducting a campaign using an electric chair to show that AC current was more lethal. But eventually, AC replaced DC, which is still used on some subways. Edison installed his first commercial lighting system on a ship, the SS Columbia, and illuminated his Menlo Park laboratory where he also began manufacturing incandescent bulbs at his own Edison Lamp Works.

One of the secrets of Edison’s success was that he made sure to patent everything he invented. During a particularly productive time in his career between 1880 and 1887, for example, he took out more than 300 patents, most of them for electric lighting. It was also fortuitous that his first job was in a telegraph office because it taught him about electricity. He was only 16 when he was offered the job after he saved the life of the telegraph station agent’s son. The telegraph had been developed in the United States in 1836 by Samuel F. B. Morse, who built on European designs and, with his assistant Alfred Vail, came up with Morse code to use for communicating by telegraph. Working in the Mount Clemens, Michigan office, and then for five years as a telegraph operator in several states, Edison was inspired by telegraph technology and would eventually use an electromechanical switch in his electric light similar to the one the telegraph used.

At the age of 21, Edison patented his first invention in 1868, the electrical vote recorder, and the next year, he invented the stock ticker, which he sold for $40,000 to the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company and which enabled him to open his own factory to make stock tickers and telegraph instruments in Newark, New Jersey. It was an auspicious beginning, and Edison was to profit from his many other inventions. His invention of the quadruplex telegraph, which could receive and send four messages at a time, was so innovative that Western Union bought it from him for $10,000.

It was Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, however, that gave him national recognition as the “Inventor of the Age.” People were astonished at this talking machine, which could record telephone messages. Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, chastised himself for not thinking of it himself. After all, it was quite a simple device, one that Edison came up with by thinking of the telephone as a kind of telegraph. He was already developing an embossing recorder-repeater for Western Union, which could record and play back the dots and dashes of Morse code, and this seemed to be the next step.

He drew a picture of it in his notebook, showing a cylinder covered in tinfoil with an attached embossing point, all mounted on a long shaft with a hand crank. He labeled it a “phonograph.” Trying out the prototype his machinist put together, Edison was delighted that it worked the very first time. He recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on it and applied for a patent. Hearing of his invention, New York City newspapers scrambled to send their reporters to his laboratory to interview him. Edison was good at talking to the press and promoting his inventions, and he now became famous for his phonograph. But the development of a commercially successful phonograph would prove more difficult and take almost a decade. Eventually, however, Edison took out more than 80 patents on the phonograph and invented variations on it like the dictating machine.

He kept a cot in his laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, not only for naps but because he discovered he could think better lying down. He was dreaming up motion picture technology, it turned out, and had already thought up the kinetoscope, a viewer with a peephole for looking at photographs in succession. Edison was fascinated with the stop-action photography of Eadweard Muybridge who had shown in a famous series of photos taken at the race track that galloping horses have all four legs off the ground. Muybridge visited Edison at his West Orange lab to discuss the possibility of combining the phonograph with photographs. In other words, he was interested in producing talking motion pictures and so was Edison. By 1888, Edison had sketched a motion picture device in his notebook. He constructed a motion picture studio, “the Black Maria,” next to his laboratory. He and his assistant, William Dickson, made film strips on celluloid film, which had just been patented by George Eastman, and in 1889, he produced a film with sound synchronized from a phonograph. By 1891, Edison was applying for a patent on the motion picture camera he had invented. With its continuous, sprocketed film, it was the invention that made motion pictures possible.

The phonograph and motion picture technology were Edison’s biggest enterprises going into the 20th century, but he was still busy inventing new devices. Fascinated with the X-ray, which had just been discovered in 1895 by Professor W. K. Roentgen, Edison and an assistant invented the fluoroscope, which could take X-ray pictures. While Edison’s design is the basis of today’s fluoroscope, it is the only invention he did not patent, deliberately leaving it in the public domain for medical and surgical use. He did patent his development of the electric fluorescent light, however.

Meanwhile, he became deeply involved in developing a storage battery and by 1903 had begun manufacturing batteries in his new factory, the Edison Storage Battery Company. But the batteries leaked and had a short battery life. It took another seven years to work out these problems, and Edison’s hope that his batteries would be used to power an electric car fizzled as gasoline-powered cars, including Henry Ford’s Model T, took over. Nonetheless, Edison’s batteries would supply power for railroad signals and lighting, ships, mines, and other industries and eventually became a solid foundation of his business.

As he aged, Edison stepped back slightly from invention but continued to be involved in running and expanding his various businesses. He was awarded many honors and medals for his achievements, including the Legion of Honor from France, and election to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The U.S. Congress named his birthday, February 11, as National Inventors’ Day. The town of Edison in New Jersey was named after him, as were three bridges, several colleges, and numerous high schools. In 2011, a Chinese pearl farmer named a new pearl the Edison.

Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, the youngest of seven children born to Samuel Ogden Edison, a mill owner, and his wife, Nancy Matthews Elliott Edison. His mother homeschooled him as it became clear that Thomas was inattentive at school (one teacher reportedly called him “addled”). He also had a hearing problem, attributed to a bout of scarlet fever. When the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, Thomas found jobs selling newspapers and vegetables and eventually was hired as a telegraph operator when he saved a little three-year-old boy from being hit by a train. The child was the son of the station master who, in repayment, taught Edison how to operate the telegraph. He began to earn his living as a telegrapher, requesting the night shift so he could spend his days reading and experimenting.

Edison built his own complete set of telegraph instruments in his spare time. Meanwhile, he had moved on to work at telegraph offices in Canada and Kentucky and came up with his first patented invention, the electrical vote recorder, in 1868. When his stock ticker in 1869 was bought for $40,000 by a telegraph company, Edison set up shop in Newark, New Jersey, to manufacture more of them. He got married, to Mary Stilwell, on Christmas Day, 1871. They had three children, but his wife died of a brain tumor in 1884. Two years later, Edison married Mina Miller. They had three more children and went to live in the large Llewellyn Park home, “Glenmont,” which Edison had purchased near his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, as a wedding present. He also bought property in Fort Myers, Florida, where the family spent many winters, and where Edison’s friend Henry Ford also had a winter home. The West Orange home and the laboratory are now maintained by the National Park Service as the Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

Thomas Edison lived to be 84 years old. He died on October 18, 1931, at his home, Glenmont, where he is buried. Just a few months before, to celebrate his role in bringing electric trains to the suburbs, Edison had been at the controls of the first Lackawanna Railroad train out of Hoboken, New Jersey. He drove it all the way to Dover, the last stop.

—Mary Cross


Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

Israel, Paul. Edison: A Life of Invention. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.

Stross, Randall E. The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. New York: Broadway Books, 2008.