Edison: ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’
By Tom Morrow
Eventually, someone would have thrown an electric light onto the world for the benefit of mankind, but Thomas Alva Edison did it first. He gave us the electric light bulb and much more to help build America.
Known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” (New Jersey), Edison changed the world with the light bulb, motion picture camera, sound recordings, electric car batteries and more than 1,000 other inventions. It is impossible to spend each day not using something he invented or designed. Each time you turn on a light, watch a movie, take a photo, play recorded music, make a telephone call, or slip some batteries into a flashlight, Edison invented or developed it.
Thomas Alva Edison, born Feb. 11, 1847, has been described as the world’s greatest inventor, influencing life around the world. He was one of the first to apply the principles of mass production and often is credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory. Edison and his close friend, Henry Ford revolutionized the mass production of consumer goods.
To power his incandescent light bulb system, Edison developed a method of delivering electricity to homes, businesses, and factories, which led to the development of the modern industrialized world. In 1878, he formed the Edison Electric Light Company with the backing of several financiers, including J.P. Morgan and members of the Vanderbilt family. Edison made the first public demonstration of his electric lighting on Dec. 31, 1879, in Menlo Park, N.J.
But, Edison’s first invention that gained him wide-public notice was the phonograph in 1877. Although he obtained a patent for the phonograph, he did little to develop it until fellow inventor Alexander Graham Bell produced a phonograph-like device that used wax-coated cardboard cylinders.
Edison improved the microphone for telephones (at that time called a “transmitter”) which was put in use in 1890 and, ironically, was used in all telephones along with the Bell receiver up until the 1980s.
It was during this time he said: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.” In 1880, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company’s new steamship, the SS Columbia, was the first commercial application for Edison’s incandescent light bulb.
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 patented a system for electricity distribution.
As Edison expanded his “direct current” (DC) power delivery system, he received stiff competition from companies using former Edison employee Nicoli Tesla’s “alternating current” (AC) systems. From the early 1880s AC arc-lighting systems for streets and large spaces had been an expanding business throughout the U.S. With the development of transformers in Europe and by George Westinghouse’s electric company in the U.S., in 1885-1886, it became possible to transmit AC over longer distances using thinner and cheaper wires, and “stepped down” the voltage at the receiving destination. This method allowed AC to be used in street lighting, small businesses and domestic home customers. This created an even bigger market for Edison’s patented low-voltage DC incandescent lighting. Edison and Tesla became embroiled in what was called “The Current War” to established the ultimate delivery.
In medical development Edison designed and produced the first commercially available fluoroscope, which used X-rays to make radiographs. The fundamental design of Edison’s fluoroscope continues in use today.
Edison also was granted a patent for the motion picture camera, known as a “Kinetograph.” The matching “Kinetoscope” viewer was developed to be used in penny arcades, which was the origin of the movie industry. People could watch short films captured by the kinetograph camera. The kinetograph and kinetoscope were both first publicly exhibited May 20, 1891. Long before there were studios in Hollywood, Edison’s movie studios in New Jersey and New York made close to 1,200 films. The majority of those productions were short films showing movement of everything from acrobats to parades to fire calls, including titles such as Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894), The Kiss (1896), The Great Train Robbery (1903), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1910), and the first Frankenstein film in 1910.
Ironically, despite his many inventions and consumer developments, Edison died near bankruptcy on Oct. 18, 1931, suffering from diabetic complications. He is buried at his New Jersey home. Rights to many of his inventions ended up with J.P. Morgan, who had financed many of Edison’s various business ventures. The world is indebted to Edison for enriching our lives.
SCAG SEZ: A harried husband just told me his money doesn’t stay with him very long during the holiday time of year because his wife keeps saying, “Buy, buy.” – Cecil Scaglione, Mature Life Features.