How does one write a thousand word essay about someone who has more than a thousand patents for his inventions?
Edison invented the light bulb! Except – twenty others invented the electric light bulb at the same time. Edison also built and sold electric cars and even trains. We never hear of these! Why? Because they failed! Petrol cars and diesel trains were far more efficient and economic. Think about this – Edison’s failures were more fantastic than most inventors’ successes.
Young Edison learnt, not from school, but from practical experience. (Sometimes too practical: he once tried to hatch eggs by sitting on them). Edison’s fascination with electricy started as an apprentice with telegraphy. Insatiably curious, a relentless tinkerer, he taught himself how telegraphy and electricity worked. For nearly fifteen years he made several inventions that improved telegraphy.
Some experiments cost him dearly – he once spilt battery acid which destroyed his manager’s desk and carpet; he was fired. His early life was full of adventures; once carrying a load of books at midnight, a policeman fired bullets, mistaking Edison for a burglar! “You’re lucky I’m a bad shot,” the policeman commisserrated.
Edison traveled the southern US, after America’s Civil War, and almost sailed to Brazil, abandoning America. Would a Brazilian Edison have been an equally famous inventor? Eventually, he ended up working in Boston. He bought Faraday’s books on electricity. “Faraday was a Master Experimenter,” Edison said in admiration. “His explanations were simple. He used no mathematics. I must have tried every experiment in those books.”
His first major success was a “Universal ticker”, which he hoped to sell to General Lefferts, president of Gold & Stock Telegraph Co, New York. Edison expected to sell for $5000. When Lefferts offered $40,000 he nearly fainted!
At the age of 30, in 1877 he invented the phonograph, based on a recording device he had designed for the telegraph. A machine that could record sound and replay it seemed simply magical and he earned the moniker Wizard of Menlo Park. He invented a carbon microphone. Alexander Bell invented the telephone, but used Edison’s microphone design!
Then, he set up a laboratory for research, primarily to make a cheap and long lasting electric lightbulb. He hired scientists and engineers and organized them to work collaboratively, primarily for electric light. But some of them also worked on telephones, phonographs, mining devices etc. His laboratory was equipped with a tremendous variety of resources mechanical, electrical, chemical and organic. Some historians consider the Research Laboratory his greatest invention! Today there is no major university or company in the world, without a research lab!
Remember, giants of science like Alessandro Volta, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Thomas Henry, Samuel Morse etc had invented many electrical devices before Edison. Ohm, Ampere, Maxwell and others had researched or explained its science. Telegraphy, electro-magnets for lifting heavy loads, arc lights were popular industrial applications.
Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun and Joseph Swan of England also developed incandescent lights. What did Edison do that these men didn’t?
Edison’s rigor, method and scale, set him apart. He set himself a target of making a long lasting electric bulb. Edison not only set up his lab with resources and people, he scattered notebooks for everyone. An enormous amount of information was discovered and shared among the researchers. His group experimented with hundreds of shapes for the bulb, improved methds to vacuum them. He hunted worldwide for nearly forty thousand materials including jute from India and silk and bamboo from China, for his filament. Edison personally designed both the screw base and the socket that most manufacturers used for a century!
While other inventors focused on low resistance, Edison focused on high resistance. Edison alone understood that these lights must operate in parallel circuits than in series circuits. His lab designed switches, fuses and meters. While others were trying to invent a better light bulb, Edison planned and designed a complete electrical system. He bought and tested dynamos designed by Zenobe-Theophile Gramme and Siemens, then improved their performance. He bought steam engines from England to operate these dynamos. He designed an electric power generating station and a distribution system, which was both electrically efficient and used far less metal. Edison thought not just like an inventor, who wanted to make something new, but as businessman, who wanted to lower costs for both his company and customers. His electrical system had to be cheaper, safer and more convenient than the gas lights and oil lamps of the day.
He also had a flair for promotion and marketing. When he finally made a long burning lightbulb, he invited journalists to Menlo Park, on December 31, 1979 and dazzled them with twenty five thousand lightbulbs! The Wizard who had made a machine produce human sound, had now turned night into day.
But things did not always go well. There were patent battles fought in courts for a decade over the lightbulb. His Edison Electric went into partnership with Swan in the UK and with Thompson-Houston company in the US. The latter company became General Electric, the largest company in the world for most of the twentieth century.
The Serbian genius Nikola Tesla, who joined Edison’s company in France, later joined Edison in the USA. Tesla tried to persuade Edison to abandon Direct Current for Alternating Current, but Edison underestimated and misunderstood AC for nearly a decade, treating Tesla badly. Tesla joined Westinghouse and implemented AC there. Their animosity became so fierce that neither would accept a Nobel prize if the other was awarded. Westinghouse’s economic success later convinced Edison of AC’s virtues.
Edison never rested on his success. He spent the rest of his life a workaholic, running factories and labs, twelve hours a day. Later, Edison formed a great friendship with Henry Ford, though Ford’s petrol car triumphed over Edison’s electric car.
In 1983, the US Government declared February 11, Edison’s birthday, as Inventor’s day. Happy Birthday, Thomas!
- Edison gallery – Museum of American History, Washington DC, USA
- Edison – His Life and Inventions by FL Dyer and TC Martin
- Creating the 21st century by Vaclav Smil
- Thomas Edison - Wikipedia