Thomas Alva Edison

By: Melissa Ritter


Edison's Life


A.   The Early Life


              Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847 to Nancy and Samuel Edison.   His family was part Dutch and part British. In 1854 Edison's family settled in Port Huran, Michigan, where Edison attended school for three months.   This was his only public education, although his mother continued his education.   She taught him reading, writing, and arithmetic.   Thomas's mother read to him from well-known English writers, like Edward Gibbon, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens.  


              When Thomas was twelve he earned a job selling newspapers and apples on the Detroit and Port Huron branch of the Grand Trunk Railroad.

Somewhere around this time, Edison's hearing started to decline.   Some think that it was due to a childhood attack of scarlet fever.   Edison was once said that he sometimes considered his partial deafness almost an asset, particularly when he wanted to concentrate on an experiment.   But in one of his entries in his diary some years later, he wrote, I haven't heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old.”


              When Edison was fifteen years old, while still working on the railroad he bought a small secondhand printing press and 300 lbs. of type.   He installed the press in a baggage car and soon began producing his own newspaper called the Weekly Herald, which he printed, edited, and sold on the Grand Trunk Railroad.


B. The Family life


         Thomas Edison married his first wife, Mary Stilwell, in the year of 1871.   She was only 16 years old and was working in one of his companies.   They married on Christmas Day of the year.   They had a daughter, Marion, and two sons, Thomas Jr. and William.   Mary died in 1884.


              After his first wife's death in 1884, Thomas fell in love with Mina Miller, the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer.   They married and had a daughter, Madeleine and two sons, Charles and Theodore.


              Edison spent little if no time with his family.   He focused much on his work and people reportedly seen him wearing dirty shirts and shabby working clothes.   Many of his workers spoke of Thomas's true qualities like his good sense of humor, honesty, and genuine affection for his family.



C. Edison's Attitude towards work


     Edison reportedly worked on his experiments with high intensity.   He lived in his laboratory, sometimes getting only 4 hours of sleep per day and eating meals brought to him by his wife.   His assistants knew not to disturb him and that his work was very important to him.  


        Before starting an experiment, Edison read and looked up all the literature on the topic to avoid repeating experiments that others had already conducted.   The best illustration of Edison's working methods is his own famous statement: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”



D. Awards


           During Edison's lifetime, he received numerous awards and honors from all parts of the world.   In 1881 he was honored with the French Legion of Honor for developing electric power distribution systems.   Italy made him a Grand Officer of the Crown and he received honors from the governments of Chile, Britain, Japan, Russia, and many others.   One of his most famous admirers was American businessman Henry Ford who spent several million dollars to construct a museum of industry in Dearborn, Michigan.   The museum was largely a collection of Thomas's inventions.   In 1929 the museum held a celebration, called Light's Golden Jubilee, to mark the 50 th anniversary of the invention of the electric light.


E. Edison's death


              Thomas Alva Edison died in his home in Glenmont, on October 18, 1931.   He was 84, and to this day he is buried behind his home, but was originally buried in Rosedale Cemetery in West Orange.   In honor and tribute to him the United States government was considering turning off all electric current in the country for minute or two.   It became apparent the operation of the great electrical distribution systems couldn't be interrupted even for a moment without taking a chance of a horrible effect.   Thomas Edison was one of America's greatest inventors of all time.


              Edison is known to have invented almost 1000 inventions over his lifetime.   The period from 1879 to 1900, when Edison produced and perfected most of his devices, has got the name called the “Age of Edison.”




              The early inventions brought Edison no financial returns.   The first invention to bring him money was an improvement on the stock ticker.   Edison received $40,000, which today would be worth $530,000.   For the next five years Thomas spent up to 18 hours a day in his shop in Newark, New Jersey, inventing and creating different electrical devices.   One important object he designed during this time was called the quadruplex, which was a highly efficient telegraph that could send four messages at a time over a telegraph wire, instead of one.


              Around 1876, Edison made a laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey (the first laboratory dedicate4d to industrial research in the world).   Within ten years millions of people throughout the world knew Edison as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”


              Edison's first major invention was Menlo Park was an improvement on the telephone.   The telephone was created by Alexander Graham Bell, but could not operate over distances of more than 2 to 3 miles.   Thomas improved the telephone after 1000's of experiments.   He improved it as much that is could carry speech clearly over almost unlimited distances.   This was such a major invention that it connected New York City to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a distance of about 107 miles.


              Edison's most original invention would be the phonograph. He had discovered a small, thin membrane in the mouthpiece of the phone's diaphragm, which vibrated in tune with the voice.   He thought that if these vibrations could somehow be recorded, so that the diaphragm could be made to vibrate in exactly the same manner at any future time, then speech, music, and other sounds could be preserved and reproduced.   In a later experiment, he applied one end of the needle to the diaphragm and other end to a strip of wax paper.   He then pulled the paper along underneath the needle while repeatedly shouted, “Hello!”   The needle then created grooves in the paper.   When the paper was again pulled along underneath the needle, the needle followed the grooves it had formed earlier and pushed against the diaphragm, making the diaphragm reproduce Edison's sounds.   This first experiment marked the beginning of the phonograph.


              Thomas Edison also set out to develop an incandescent lamp, which would produce light by heating a wire until it glowed brightly.  


              Edison developed detail plans for an entire distribution system for electric power.   He realized that widespread use of electric light bulbs would require an efficient system of delivering electricity to businesses and homes.


              In 1893 Thomas built the first motion picture studio. It had a hinged roof that could be raised to admit sunlight.   The whole building was mounted on a pivot and could swing around to follow the sun.   He could produce many one- minute films.  


Interesting facts                                         


•  Did Edison use Morse code to propose to his second wife?

                  In fact, yes he did.   He taught Mina Miller Morse code so they could have secret conversations when their family was around.   It was more of a type of sign language, tapping it on each others hand.


•  Did Edison have a Tattoo?

                  Yes, Edison had a tattoo, but nothing to what today's tattoos look like.   Thomas had 5 dots tattooed on his left forearm, like 5 dots on the face of a dice.


•  What was Edison worth when he died?

                  When Thomas died in 1931, his estate was worth about $12 million, but most of that wasn't cash.   Most of it was buildings and equipment in his laboratories and factories.


•  Did they save Edison's last breathe in a bottle when he died?

                  No, not really.   There were a couple of empty bottles lying near the bed of Edison when he died.   He son Charles had them sealed and gave them to close friends like Henry Ford and Edison's doctor.   They can be seen on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.


•  Was Edison a genius?

                  Well, Life Magazine claimed he was. In 1997 they named Edison the Man of the Millennium.   He was named over important people such as Columbus, Galileo, and DaVinci.


•  Did the clock in Edison's office stop the moment he died?

                  Most likely not.   It is more of a myth.   There was a song written long before Edison died called, “The Grandfather Clock” that could be the source to this myth.



























Edison at 14Drawing of electric light