Business Leaders: Thomas Edison

American inventor Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847. As one of the most influential inventors in the world, Edison's creations have become the basis for much of the technology that exists in modern society. His passion for creating helped to spread the use of electricity and lighting at a time when electrical lighting was a rarity. From his youth to the time of his death in 1931, Edison had obtained 1,093 patents for his inventions. Of those, his contributions to electricity made up roughly 356 of these patents.

His Early Years

Thomas was the youngest child born to his middle class parents, Samuel and Nancy Edison. Although his parents had seven children, three of them had passed away before Thomas' birth. Edison himself was a sickly child growing up, even fighting a case of Scarlet Fever. He had three living siblings, two brothers and a sister.

In 1854, Samuel Edison moved his family to Port Huron, Michigan, where he got a job as a lumber worker. While attending school in Port Huron, Edison's teacher found his extremely curious nature and active behavior unacceptable. The teacher claimed that Edison was “addled” or simple-minded. This comment led Thomas' mother to remove him from school. Believing that her son was highly intelligent, Nancy Edison began home schooling him instead.

This departure from school eventually led 12 year old Edison to work at the Grand Trunk Railroad to Denver in 1859, where he sold newspapers and eventually began printing his own newspaper from the baggage car that also doubled as his laboratory. It was during this time that Edison lost most of his hearing. There are a number of different stories about the actual cause of his hearing loss. Some believe that it occurred after being hit in the ear by a conductor following an accidental fire in the baggage car. Others believe it stemmed from his battle with scarlet fever. Despite the loss of his hearing, Thomas learned how to use the railroad telegraph. This new skill found him working telegraph jobs around the country from 1863 to 1869. By 1869 his love of invention led him to quit his most recent job so that he could devote time to his innovations.

His Inventions

Edison started Pope, Edison and Co. in October of 1869. That year he had his first patented invention, which was an electric voting machine. Unfortunately, his invention was not well received by politicians at the time. One year later he merged his company with Gold and Stock Telegraph Co. and started another company to manufacture stock printers, called the Newark Telegraph Works. During this time he made and patented many improvements to telegraphs and even created an electric pen in 1875. The electric pen had declining success until 1880 when others produced electric pens that did not require a battery as Edison's invention did.

In 1877, as the result of experimentation with the telephone and telegraph, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. This led to the establishment of the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878. The creation of the device also earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Edison eventually set aside his work on the phonograph in favor of other inventions for nearly 10 years. His interest in the device returned in 1887 after others made improvements to the machine. This led Edison to make his own improvements to the device.

Thomas Edison's most famous inventions revolved around electricity. He is known as the creator of the incandescent light bulb and bringing electric light to the streets and homes. In 1879, after experimenting with numerous types of lighting elements called filaments at his Menlo Park lab, he developed a lamp that used a carbon conducting element which received an electric current to produce light inside of a globe-shaped glass container. The resulting light bulb proved to be stable, lasting over 13 hours. A few months after he received a patent for this invention, he found other materials that would allow a bulb to last for hundreds of hours. While he did not invent the world's first light bulb, he did invent the incandescent type; this technology was the first to make incandescent light bulbs useful in homes. Eventually, it also led to his invention of the electric chandelier. He also invented a new type of generator which, while later proven to be inefficient, was shown at the Paris Electrical Exposition of 1881 and hailed at the time as a technological wonder. Edison then created the world's first electric power station for public use in London, England in 1882. In the same year, he established a power station on Manhattan's Pearl Street to generate electricity for New York street lights and homes. Only five years later there were more than a hundred stations in America alone, which Edison owned and operated.

In 1888, Edison began working on a motion picture device that would “do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.” In 1891, he applied for patents for the kinetograph and the kinetoscope. The kinetograph was the first motion picture camera and the kinetoscope was a small box like device that allowed a single person to view movies when looking through it. The kinetoscope eventually evolved into the kinetoscope projector, which allowed many people to view movies at one time. Later, he developed a kinetophone to synchronize sound with film, but had little success. By 1918, the growing film industry no longer held interest for Edison and he removed himself from the motion picture industry.

Later Years

Edison significantly slowed his creation of inventions and in 1911, he reorganized his many company's under a single organization called Thomas A. Edison, Inc. When the United States faced the threat of World War I, Edison became the head of the Naval Consulting Board in 1915. During this time, he performed research for the navy, much of which involved submarine detection. Throughout the 1920s, Edison's health began to decline. Despite his illness, he began working on an alternative rubber source. He was continuing this research when he went into a coma on October 14, 1931. Four days later, Edison passed away. On October 21 of that year, President Hoover asked that all electric lights around the United States dim for one minute in honor of Edison and him many achievements and advancements in electricity.

Check out these Resources on Thomas Edison to learn more:

  • Edison Biography: The National Park Service biography on Thomas Edison. This is a one page overview of his life and accomplishments

  • The Life of Thomas A. Edison: A breakdown of the stages of Thomas Edison. The article can be read in it's entirety or the reader can click to view specific sections.

  • Edison's Story: A section by section breakdown of Edison's life and accomplishments.