Thomas Alva Edison: Amazing Wizard of Menlo Park
Born on February 11, 1847 in Ohio, USA, Edison was the youngest of seven children. His father, Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr was an exiled political activist and his mother, Nancy Matthews Elliott, a teacher.
Since a very early age, Edison had a hearing problem. He was labelled a misfit in school as he was inattentive. In 1859, the 12-year-old quit school and began selling newspapers on trains. He was deployed on a railroad as an apprentice telegrapher. Initially, his partial deafness was not a hindrance as messages were inscribed in a series of dots and dashes. But telegraphers were shifting to read messages by ‘clicks’. Edison, however, made enough progress with a duplex telegraph that transmitted two messages simultaneously on one wire and became its full-time inventor.
At 22, Edison moved to New York and partnered with Frank L Pope to produce the Edison Universal Stock Printer. Until 1875, he worked from Newark and was involved in the telegraph industry that was dominated by Western Union Telegraph Company (WUTC). He made improvements to an automatic telegraph system for WUCT’s rivals. In 1876, he moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he built a laboratory and machine shop. Working with key associates Charles Batchelor and John Kruesi, it was there that Edison experienced his finest years, earning him the epithet Wizard of Menlo Park.
Rise to Prominence
In 1877, Edison discovered the phonograph. Based on the principle of telephony, Edison was trying to create something that would transcribe signals into human voices, which could then be delivered as telegraph messages.
Building on the work of French inventor Léon Scott, Edison used a stylus-tipped carbon transmitter to make impressions on paraffined paper. To his surprise, the barely visible indentations created a vague reproduction of sound when the paper was pulled back beneath the stylus.
In 1877, Edison unveiled the phonograph, in which he had replaced the strip of paper with a tinfoil-wrapped cylinder which attained universal acclaim.
The Light Bulb
In 1878, Edison began serious research to develop a safe and inexpensive incandescent lamp. By 1879 his team made some headway using a complex, regulator-controlled vacuum bulb with a platinum filament. His team determined in 1880 that carbonised bamboo fibre could replace the expensive platinum. In 1881, the first commercial incandescent setup was placed at the printing firm of Hinds and Ketcham in New York. In 1882, Edison supervised the installation of the world’s first permanent, commercial central power system in lower Manhattan.
Edison died on October 18, 1931, leaving an enriching scientific legacy behind. He won several awards, including the American Association of Engineering Societies’ John Fritz Medal (1908), and the Congressional Gold Medal (1928). In 1983, the United States Congress designated February 11, Edison’s birthday, as National Inventor’s Day.
1. Edison singly and jointly held a record 1,093 patents with 389 for electric light and power, 195 for the phonograph and 34 for the telephone. He created the world’s first industrial research laboratory.
2. Under the WUTC, Edison devised the quadruplex, which transmitted four messages simultaneously over one wire. Wall Street financier Jay Gould, bought the device from Edison for $100,000.
3. In 1877, Edison developed a carbon transmitter that helped amplify the audibility of telephones. It was used in telephone speakers and microphones for as long as a century.
4. During his incandescent light experiment, Francis Upton helped him with mathematical and theoretical expertise. Edison later said that at that time, “I (he) did not understand Ohm’s law. ”
5. Edison’s tinfoil phonograph replacing the use of paper strip, was initially met with incredulity. A leading French scientist even declared it to be ‘the trick device of a clever ventriloquist.’
Sources: Britannica, How Stuff Works, edison.rutgers.edu