Life of Thomas Edison and His Long History of Inventions

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Introduction

Thomas Alva Edison, most famous American inventor, scientist and businessman in the 20th century, may be one of the world’s greatest inventor of all time. He changed our lives from the moment he started innovating, bringing already invented or discovered devices and gadgets into our world today. Thomas held the world record for inventing by himself or with employees, 1,093 innovations, best known for his domestic light bulbs to go in houses and the phonograph. Also, the electrical power system for the light bulbs to work.

Many of his inventions are still used today and have a great effect on all our lives. Some of his inventions were team efforts in his large laboratory, where he had numerous colleagues working for him to assist, evolve, construct and trial his new inventions. He also started many organisations, one of which is General Electric, one of the biggest American federations, that is a multinational union, producing products such as aircraft engines, power generators, oil and gas manufacturing equipment.

Early Life and Education

Thomas Edison was born on February 11th, 1847 to his mother, Nancy Matthews Elliot and father Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. Thomas’ mother was an educated teacher and his father, Samuel, was a political activist, meaning that he wanted to promote or speak out with a desire to make improvements to society. He was raised in Milan, Ohio with his parents and six other siblings, Thomas being the youngest of all six. He had a hard and difficult childhood. He could not speak until he was four kyears old and he suffered through many complications such as multiple ear infections and scarlet fever.

These ear infections left him with hearing problems in both ears, nearly making him deaf as an adult. In 1854, Thomas’ family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where he attended public school. Shortly after 84 days of school (twelve weeks) his mother, Nancy, took him out. The reason behind this, was that Edison was a difficult child, labelled “mentally slow” by teachers, and educating him was hard. As soon as Nancy, Edison’s mother, heard all these comments about him, she pulled him out immediately and taught him at home, making him be home schooled by his mum. At 11, Edison was a very smart boy, learning with ease and reading books on a wide range of subjects. He developed a process for self-education and studying independently.

The Start to Success

One year later after his self-education, he asked permission from his parents to sell newspapers, snacks and fruits at railroad stations. They reluctantly agreed and he sold many goods for people on trains as a “news butcher”. The Grand Trunk Herald, Thomas’ own published copy of newspapers, he sold them on moving trains and at railroad stations. At a young age, he took interest in mechanical things and chemical experiments. Edison had access to conduct small investigations in a laboratory he set up. Although, during one stage one of his chemical experiments had started a fire on the train’s baggage car.

The conductor stormed in and struck him on the side of his head, furthering some of his hearing loss. Thomas blamed his hearing loss on the train incident and from his childhood ear infections, when the conductor smacked him on the side of the head, a stranger, that Edison didn’t know at all, dragged him by the ear onto the train. Soon enough, Thomas was kicked off the train and was forced to sell his Grand Trunk newspapers elsewhere. After Thomas saved a three-year old child from being run over by a heretic, ongoing train, the child’s father repaid him by training Thomas to be a telegraph operator.

Thomas Edison and the Telegraph

At the age of 15, Edison wandered around the country as a “tramp telegrapher”, a person who walks around places to places using an electric system to transmit messages back and forth over long distances. He used an alphabet called Morse Code, he sent and received over the telegraph due to his hearing loss, but he still could listen to the clicks of the telegraph. Morse Code is a series of dots and dashes that must be decoded to be read. He did not invent the telegraph, although it did belong to a man named Samuel Morse, but Edison did improve the electrical device making it become faster and a more efficient method of communication. He had repaired it to make it possible for four signals at the same time on the same wire to be sent all at once. Thomas had learnt enough to be a full telegraph operator. For the next five years, at age 20, he travelled throughout the Midwest as a floating telegrapher. In his spare time, he read a lot of books, studied and experimented with his telegraph skills and became fluent and familiar with electrical science. As a telegraph operator, Thomas became more interested in communications, which would be the focus of many of his inventions.

Discoveries and Inventions

Thomas Edison had built several research labs in a place called Menlo Park, New Jersey. This place was the first institution with the only purpose of inventing, they would do research and science. Others then apply it to possible applications that could be produced and built on a large scale. There were a lot of employees working for Thomas at Menlo Park, though these workers were innovators as well and did a lot of work of his ideas to help them turn into inventions.

Some of the inventions he invented was:

  • In 1877, the phonograph.
  • In 1877, the carbon microphone, (made with David Edward Hughes in England and Emile Berliner in the U.S)
  • In 1879, the incandescent light bulb.
  • In 1885, the electric pen.
  • In 1888 – 1890’s, the kinetoscope and the kinetograph (the motion picture camera).
  • In 1901, the Nickel-iron battery, (improved from original Swedish inventor, Waldemar Jungner).

And so many more.

The Phonograph

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One of his many greatest inventions, Edison’s most favourite, was the phonograph. While working on improvements for the telegraph, he found a way to record sound on tin foil coated cylinders. Thomas discovered that the movement of the paper tape through the machine when spoken at a high level resembled a spoken noise. In 1877, two years before he invented the incandescent light bulb, he created a machine with two needles; one for recording and one for playback. When he tested it and spoke into the mouthpiece, the sound vibration of his voice would be serrated into the cylinder. “Mary had a little lamb” was the first words Thomas said into the machine, he was surprised to see that it played back on the phonograph.

At first, people didn’t believe Edison and his achievements but in a matter of time, they all gave in and called him “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. Sound recording started becoming an American industry back in the days. The phonograph looks like a record player, but its purpose is exactly like one. It was intended for many helpful purposes such as letter writing and dictation, phonographic books for blind people, a family record (family members record their voice), music boxes and toys. Another use was clocks announcing the time also to record telephone communications. Although in 1917, U.S World War I, many soldiers had taken a phonograph in order to listen to music or hear their family’s pre-recorded voices.

The Incandescent Light Bulb

The most famous invention of Thomas Edison still used today in households and buildings, the incandescent light bulb. In fact, some historians believe that there were 20 other innovators before Edison. Whilst he did invent the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb. The research began in 1878, where his experiments involved testing thousands and thousands of different materials for filaments, including platinum. A metal filament is like a piece of metal thread, it glows when an electric current goes through it. The first few filaments he tried worked, but it was very weak, would not be able to power a house for an hour. Although the platinum didn’t work, as it was too low in resistance which would require heavy copper conductors. One year later, in 1879, Edison finally tested a filament that burned for 13.5 hours made from a piece of carbonised thread. Several months later, Thomas and his team discovered that a carbonised bamboo filament could last over 1200 hours which is equivalent to 50 days. Throughout his career, he tried to figure any ways he could possibly improve his signature invention to change the way we live prior to burning oil lamps or using used manufactured natural gas for light.

The Kinetoscope and Kinetograph (The Motion Picture Camera)

The kinetograph, also known as the motion picture camera was the first camera to take motion pictures on a moving strip of film. Thomas ordered a young laboratory assistant named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson to invent a motion picture camera in 1888. He told him it had to be better than the original one, created by two men named Eadweard Muybridge and Etieene-Jules Marey. William Dickson made a perfect replica, in fact he was very proud of it. William’s camera, the kinetograph, initially imprinted 15 metres of celluloid film at the speed of 40 frames per second. Although William was not the only one tackling the problem with recording and reproducing moving images.

Past innovators struggled to figure out a way to produce a working motion picture camera. However, European innovators applied to patent on various cameras, projectors and camera-projectors, this in the end, however, was not successful. Dickson got ordered to design a type of peepshow for individual showings, called the kinetoscope. Edison named this because of the Greek words ‘kineto’ meaning ‘movement’, and ‘scorpos’ meaning ‘to watch’. This was a continuous 14 metre loop, ran on spools between an incandescent lamp and a shutter. In 1894, the kinetoscope became a big deal, selling at $250 to $300 a piece, everyone kept buying them. The kinetograph was battery driven and weighed more than 437kg. This impacted the filming industry as the kinetograph was not portable and all films had to be recorded in one studio.

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla Rivalry (AC vs DC)

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, both giants of the electrical engineering world. Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American scientist who was crazy but brilliant. He was a contributing development to the alternating-current world, which is still used today. In 1884, he went to the United States and briefly worked with Edison then parted ways. Employee of Thomas Edison, until the big feud, that everyone was talking about, began. In the 1880’s, they started arguing about who’s electrical system was going to power the world. Nikola fighting for alternating-current (AC) and Edison for direct-current (DC). In 1884, when Tesla arrived, Edison hired him to work. He soon found out that Tesla was very good and electrical technology and they both worked alongside each other improving Edison’s inventions

In the end, AC won, and Westinghouse agreed on Tesla’s idea on building a powerplant near Niagra Falls to power the whole of New York City. Edison played with the public’s fear of electric shocks, even going as far electrocuting animals in public just to see how dangerous alternating-currents are. Tesla raised enough money to fund his own the Tesla Electric Light Company, where he developed various successful inventions, including AC generators, wires, transformers, lights and a 100 horsepower AC motor. Although Tesla did sell most of his inventions, fortunately earning him a good one million dollars.

Later Life and Death

Edison would often sleep in his lab and spent much of his time with his co-workers. In 1871, Thomas married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell who was an employee at his business. They had three children, Marion, born in February 1873, Thomas in January 1876 and William Leslie who himself became an inventor and was born on October 1878.

Edison nicknamed his first two children with Mary, ‘Dot’ and ‘Dash,’ referring to the telegraphic terms of Morse Code. However, in 1884 Mary had died from a suspected brain tumour at the age of 29, but two years later, in 1886, Thomas had married Mina Miller. Throughout his last two years of his life, he was in an incredibly poor state, he was going through many ailments and he gave up on what he always loved doing, to be with his family and look after himself. Thomas Edison died from complications of diabetes, a disease from too much sugar being in the blood. Many communities, businesses, corporations and associations worldwide, dimmed their lights or shortly turn off their lights to commemorate his death. 84 years of age, on October 18th, 1931, West Orange, New Jersey. The great man who gave the future a life, a researched life, died.

Conclusion

Thomas Edison surely left a legacy behind, many life-changing inventions were made to give us a life right now. In honour of his birthday, February the 11th was made officially National Inventors Day, his first ever invention, the electrical vote recorder at age 21, made his life the life he had till his memorable death. From being a poor student to a man who had invented over 1000 inventions is a really big climb up the ladder. The most important item in Edison’s mind is an education. He never had that in his life, going to school or having any friends, he had to self-educate himself with hand-me down books and stationery. Thomas’ inventions were mostly electrical, but it is still used today in many households and buildings.

His children and wife, Mina Miller, enjoyed him working and visiting the laboratory until his last two years where they all stayed with each other. Thomas and his six older siblings, Samuel, Marion, Carlile, William, Eliza and Harriett, together, had a joyful childhood, many fights and arguing but they all stood up for each other when needed. His hearing loss is still with him till this very day since his birth and worsened on the train with the conductor and stranger. Thomas Edison has given the future many inventions such as the lightbulb, which powers many things. He will always be remembered as an American inventor who was the greatest man in the 20th century.

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