Profiles in Greatness: Thomas Edison

Legacy of Light
August 2, 2009

When he was 21, Thomas Alva Edison patented the first of 1,093 inventions in the United States. He brought the world sustained electric light, recorded music, motion pictures and the first modern research laboratory. But in addition to his brilliance in the lab, Edison was an entrepreneur, a man who understood the most important personal-development principles for success.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Edison was born on Feb. 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. When he was 7, his family moved to Port Huron, Mich. He attended school up until the age of 12, but wasn’t considered the best student, so he took a job selling newspapers and candy on a train that ran daily back and forth to Detroit. The trip included a six-hour layover in Detroit midday, where Edison later said he read “the entire public library.”

He persisted in self-education, and when his mother asked him to stop his experiments at home after a small fire, Edison was given space in an empty baggage car to set up his chemical laboratory. He tinkered with telegraph instruments and quickly learned the basics of the growing communications trade. By 16, he had become proficient at telegraph operations and took a job at a nearby office.

“Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

After his first job, he traveled around the country for five years working various telegraph jobs until he settled in Boston in 1868. He continued experimentation and received his first patent on an electric vote recorder. The invention wasn’t commercially viable, though, and the hours he had invested in the machine yielded no profit.

Edison realized that if he was going to put in hours developing an invention, it must be one the public wanted. “I find out what the world needs,” he later said. “Then, I go ahead and invent it.”

In 1869, Edison moved to New York City and soon after, he revealed his updated stock ticker, a machine that received current stock prices and displayed them at multiple locations. Edison was paid $40,000 for this and other inventions, including improvements to the telegraphic equipment.

Edison used the money to purchase an empty factory building in Newark, N.J., where in 1871 he established his first small workshop and a manufacturing facility to produce his stock ticker and telegraphic equipment. Over the next five years, he worked on new inventions and met and married Mary Stillwell. The couple later had three children.

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

In 1876, Edison moved his workshop and factory to 34 acres in Menlo Park, N.J. The new industrial research facility included electrical and chemical laboratories, a machine shop and commercial manufacturing facilities. The lab, which Edison called “The Invention Factory,” was the first modern laboratory of its kind, combining research, development and production in one facility.

While he was certainly an ingenious scientist, Edison had a grander entrepreneurial vision than other solo inventors of his time. His manufacturing and business endeavors led to enormous success and were the driving forces behind much of his scientific decision-making.

However, Edison did fail on occasion. In developing electricity for public use, he promoted direct-current (DC) power systems over the alternating-current (AC) systems favored by his rival, inventor George Westinghouse. Edison aggressively marketed DC power to the public, warning them of AC power’s potential for harming residents. However, in the end, Westinghouse’s AC power won out and is still used in power stations today.

Despite this disappointment, Edison continued to look toward the future. Rather than allow one failure to derail his business or scientific plans, he pursued new inventions. He never slowed down; while headquartered in Menlo Park, Edison applied for nearly 400 patents.

“I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Edison’s next great invention was the tinfoil phonograph, the first machine to record and reproduce sound. The phonograph became wildly popular, and Edison reached a new level of fame and was soon nicknamed “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” Visitors from all over the world came to the lab to see the phonograph in action. Edison was even invited to the White House in 1878 to demonstrate the invention to President Hayes.

Edison was also tackling his greatest challenge yet: the incandescent electric light. Other scientists had limited success with electric light but hadn’t created a source that could be distributed to the public. Edison went through countless versions of the bulb before coming up with a workable combination. But he looked at these trials as lessons rather than failures: “They taught me something that I didn’t know. They taught me what direction to move in.”

Edison also created a lighting system that made electric light safe and economical for home use. By 1880, his staff was developing electrical lighting components for distribution, and Edison laid down the first underground system to power lampposts in Menlo Park.

When Edison lit up one square mile on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan from a central generator station, he began the Electric Age. And his life drastically changed. The public became fascinated by The Wizard of Menlo Park, and his laboratory attracted a constant stream of investors and businessmen hoping to work with him.

By 1887, there were 121 Edison central power stations in the United States, each supplied by Edison’s factories. He sold shares of the business to banker J.P. Morgan and christened the Edison General Electric Company.

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.”

In 1884, Edison’s wife Mary died of typhoid fever. Two years later, he married Mina Miller, and they eventually had three children.

Edison purchased a home in West Orange, N.J., and in 1887 he moved out of the Menlo Park lab to a much larger one in West Orange. The new facilities included a main laboratory with stock rooms, machine shops, a power plant, experimental rooms and a library. Four smaller buildings held labs for physics, chemistry and metallurgy. Edison was able to work on multiple projects at the same time, while producing them at his own on-site factories. By World War I, the complex covered more than 20 acres and employed 10,000 people.

His later experiments included the first motion picture camera. Edison produced films and screened them at his facilities beginning in 1891. And in 1899, Edison started a 10-year project to develop the alkaline battery. Although it was the invention that took the longest for Edison to perfect, it was also his most profitable.

“If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.”

The last experiment Edison oversaw was the search for an alternate source of rubber for his close friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. He succeeded after experimenting with thousands of different plants and finally discovering the goldenrod weed’s ability to produce sufficient quantities of rubber.

Edison, a man of profound and lasting vision, passed away at his West Orange home in October 1931. He had received a special Medal of Honor in 1928 from the U.S. Congress, and on the day of his funeral, a grieving nation dimmed its lights in honor of the great inventor and industrial pioneer.

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