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Who Was Thomas Edison? - Biography, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park who was the driving force behind many of today's most useful tools including phones, television, and even X-rays.

An Introduction to Edison

When you think of a genius, you probably either picture a comic book character like Lex Luthor or Doctor Octopus who is out to conquer the world or you imagine some socially maladjusted kid with taped glasses and a pocket protector.

But Thomas Alva Edison was a genius, possibly the greatest mechanical genius ever, and he was not some gawky nerd. Nor was he interested in conquest. He once said that he was proud that he had never invented a weapon of war. Edison was an intelligent businessman who started fourteen different companies and was not only wealthy but well liked by his fellow Americans. Maybe the best comparison for him is the Green Arrow.

Thomas Edison at Menlo Park
Edison

Thomas Alva Edison was the last of seven children. He was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847. As a young student, Edison's mind would often wander, and his teacher Reverend Engle would accuse him of being addled, a nineteenth-century way of saying he was stupid. His mother didn't agree, so she took him out of school and taught him herself. Edison would later say that it was her confidence in him that drove him to success because he didn't want to let her down. Again, that kind of support sounds more like the early life of a comic book hero than a villain or a nerd.

Edison's family moved to Port Huron in 1854, and that's when he started earning money by selling candy and newspapers on a train and vegetables in town. A simple life as a vendor wasn't enough, though, and he would often run experiments in qualitative analysis and chemistry during his free moments.

Edison's Introduction to the Telegraph

Again, showing that he was more like a hero than a a comic book villain or some awkward nerd, one day Edison saved a little boy named Jimmie MacKenzie from a runaway train. The boy's grateful father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie, trained Edison as a telegraph operator out of gratitude. Edison quickly learned everything there was to know about the telegraph and Morse code as he worked, and by 1866, he got a job with the Associated Press. He worked nights because he could be alone and get back to his experiments.

In 1867, the sulfuric acid from one of Edison's experiments ate through the floor and into his boss's office. He was fired immediately, but within two years, his experimenting paid off when he patented his first invention, the electric vote recorder. The vote recorder was a faster and more efficient way of counting peoples' 'yes' or 'no' votes. Taking the money from his invention, he went into business designing other inventions.

One of the first inventions, an electric stock ticker
Edison invention

Marriages and Building his Inventing Empire

With the promise of a future in inventions, Edison married Mary Stillwell in 1871. He had three children by her before she died at the age of 29 in 1884.

But Edison was more focused on creating. At first, all Edison really did was find new ways of adapting telegraph technology to other uses. The vote counter and an improved telegraph were just two ideas. His idea of the quadruplex telegraph, a telegraph that could send and receive four messages at one time, sold to Western Union for $10,000 in 1874. It was enough money to hire a staff and buy a piece of real estate called Menlo Park. He turned the area into a research center for the design and creation of inventions.

Then in 1877, Edison came up with the idea for the phonograph. It was a crude model that had poor sound and didn't last long, but it was so unexpected that it caught the U.S.'s imagination. After a tour of the White House, he was declared the 'Wizard of Menlo Park'.

Back home, Edison directed experiments and research - attaching his name to everything that came from Menlo Park. During his lifetime, nearly 1,100 patents were made in his name. His work on the lightbulb is the most famous, but he also helped improve the phone, motion pictures, railways, and radiography, among many other things.

In 1884, he married Mina Miller. He had another three children by her. But it was his inventions that were at the center of his life.

The Carbon Light Bulb
Light Bulb

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