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19th Century: Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

5 minute read
Paul Gray

In 1926 the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “The greatest invention of the 19th century was the invention of the method of invention.” That method, Whitehead added, “has broken up the foundations of the old civilization.” Thomas Alva Edison never thought of himself as a revolutionary; he was a hardworking, thoroughly practical man, a problem solver who cared little about ideas for their own sake. But he was also the most prodigious inventor of his era, indeed of all time, and he was recognized as the spirit of a new age by his contemporaries. They observed the amazing new products streaming out of his New Jersey laboratory and, sensing magic, named Edison the Wizard of Menlo Park.

There was a sort of magic about Edison, although it had nothing to do with illusions or misdirections. An assistant once described the Wizard at work, “displaying cunning in the way he neutralizes or intensifies electromagnets, applying strong or weak currents, and commands either negative or positive directional currents to do his bidding.” But behind his arcane dexterity lay Edison’s exhaustive research and his tenacious unwillingness to quit tinkering until a technical challenge had been met. “Genius,” he famously remarked, “is about 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration.” Or again, as he said in his autobiography, “There is no substitute for hard work.”

Edison’s tireless work habits took shape during his childhood in Port Huron, Mich. His formal education, according to most accounts, lasted only three months; he quit school after a teacher pronounced him “addled.” His mother, herself a former teacher, educated him for a while at home, but the boy’s growing fascination with chemistry soon led him into a rigorous course of independent study. To pay for the materials needed for his experiments, Edison at age 12 got a job as a candy and newspaper salesman on the Grand Trunk Railway. By the time he was 16, he had learned telegraphy and began working as an operator at various points in the Middle West; in 1868 he joined the Boston office of Western Union. It was here that he read Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity and decided to work full-time as an inventor.

His first patent, for an electric vote recorder, taught him a lesson that would guide the rest of his career. There was no demand, at the time, for electric vote recorders, and his device earned him nothing. Edison vowed never again to invent something unless he could be sure it was commercially marketable.

Fortunately for him, America during the post-Civil War boom of the 1870s was famished for faster and more reliable ways of doing business. An improvement Edison made in the stock ticker eventually earned him $40,000, a considerable sum at the time. He used this windfall to set up and staff a shop in Newark, N.J., to manufacture these tickers. But other companies began besieging Edison for technical advice, and in 1876 he moved his operation to Menlo Park and created the world’s first industrial-research facility, a humming workplace dedicated to improving or creating new products for pay. Some think that Menlo Park itself, which showed the industrialized world a new method of making progress, was Edison’s most influential invention.

Other candidates for this honor soon abounded. Edison was working on a problem in telegraphy in 1877 when he noticed that a stylus drawn rapidly across the embossed symbols of the Morse code produced what he later described as “a light, musical, rhythmical sound, resembling human talk heard indistinctly.” If it was possible, he reasoned, to “hear” dots and dashes, might not the human voice be reproduced in a similar manner? After much trial and error, Edison gathered a small group of witnesses and recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into a strange-looking contraption. The spectators were amazed to hear the machine play back Edison’s high-pitched voice. The phonograph was born.

Edison is commonly called the inventor of the light bulb. In truth, he and his co-workers accomplished far more than that. In 1879 they created an incandescent lamp with a carbonized filament that would burn for 40 hours, but a working laboratory model was only the first step. How could they make this device illuminate the world? For this they would need a host of devices, including generators, motors, junction boxes, safety fuses and underground conductors, many of which did not exist. Amazingly, only three years later Edison opened the first commercial electric station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan; it served roughly 85 customers with 400 lamps and pioneered the inexorable process of turning night into day.

Either alone or as the supervisor of his research teams, Edison amassed more than 1,000 patents, including one for the movie camera. That invention alone would have ensured his lasting renown, but it was only one of the many contributions Edison made to the now ubiquitous technological environment. He created the look and sound of contemporary life. He cared not at all about the fame and wealth he earned as long as he was allowed to get on with his work. He never lost the relentless desire to learn and to make things that had animated him as a boy. He remained the most childlike of titans. Once, he was signing a guest book and came to the INTERESTED IN column. Edison wrote, “Everything.”

–By Paul Gray

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