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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Architects of America- Part 6

Edison: The Wizard of Menlo Park

The last of our six industrial giants who helped build America was inventor Thomas Alva Edison. He gave us the electric light, the motion picture camera, sound recordings, electric car batteries and so much more, Despite Henry Ford’s leadership in the auto industry, today, Edison’s many inventions touch every American more than anyone else. Each time you turn on a light, watch a movie, take a photo, play recorded music, slip some batteries into a flashlight and make a telephone call, they’re all because of Edison inventions and/or developments.

By Tom Morrow

Thomas Alva Edison, born Feb. 11, 1847, has been described as America’s greatest inventor. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park” is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.

Edison was a prolific inventor, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. To power his lights, Edison developed a system of electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses, and factories – a crucial development in the modern industrialized world. His first power station was on Pearl Street in New York’s Manhattan Island.

Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, N.J,, with the automatic repeater and his other improved telegraphic devices, but the invention that first gained him wider notice was the phonograph in 1877.

Nearly all of Edison’s patents were for utilities, which were protected for a 17-year period and included inventions or processes that are electrical, mechanical, or chemical in nature. In just over a decade, Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory had expanded to occupy two city blocks.

In 1876, Edison began work to improve the microphone for telephones by developing a carbon microphone, which consists of two metal plates separated by granules of carbon that would change resistance with the pressure of sound waves. This type was put in use in 1890 and was used in all telephones along with the Bell receiver until the 1980s.

In 1878, Edison began working on a system of electrical illumination, something he hoped could compete with gas and oil-based lighting. The first successful test was on Oct. 22, 1879; the lamp’s filament lasted 13.5 hours. Edison continued to improve this design and on Nov. 4, 1879, filed for U.S. patent for an electric lamp using “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires.” This was the first commercially practical incandescent light.

In 1878, Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City with several financiers, including J. P. Morgan and the members of the Vanderbilt family. He said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” The Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company’s new steamship, the Columbia, was the first commercial application for Edison’s incandescent light bulb in 1880.

After devising a commercially viable electric light bulb on Oct. 21, 1879, Edison developed an electric “utility” to compete with the existing gas light utilities. On Dec. 17, 1880, he founded the Edison Illuminating Company, and during the 1880s, he patented a system for electricity distribution.

As Edison expanded his direct current (DC) power delivery system, he received stiff competition from companies installing Nicola Tesla’s alternating current (AC) systems. From the early 1880s AC arc lighting systems for streets and large spaces had been an expanding business in the U.S. With the development of transformers in Europe and by Westinghouse Electric in the US in 1885-1886, it became possible to transmit AC long distances over thinner and cheaper wires, and “step down” the voltage at the destination for distribution to users.

Edison is credited with designing and producing the first commercially available fluoroscope, a machine that uses X-rays to take radiographs. The fundamental design of Edison’s fluoroscope is still in use today.

Edison also was granted a patent for the motion picture camera or “Kinetograph.” In 1891, Thomas Edison built a Kinetoscope or peep-hole viewer. This device was installed in penny arcades, where people could watch short, simple films. The kinetograph and kinetoscope were both first publicly exhibited May 20, 1891.

Edison’s film studio made close to 1,200 films. The majority of the productions were short films showing everything from acrobats to parades to fire calls including titles such as The Kiss (1896), The Great Train Robbery (1903), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1910).

The Edison Storage Battery Company was founded in 1901. With this company Edison exploited his invention of the “accumulator.” Not until 1910 Edison showed a mature product: A Nickel-Iron-Battery with Lye as liquid.

Edison died of complications of diabetes on Oct. 18, 1931, at his home in Llewellyn Park, N.J. Edison is buried behind the home.

Of all the innovators, Edison’s inventions continues to have the greatest impact around the world touching every aspect of our lives..


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