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Thomas Alva Edison
1847 - 1931


In his lifetime, Thomas Alva Edison profoundly affected the technology of modern society. The American inventor was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was the seventh and last child of Samuel Edison, Jr. and Nancy Elliot Edison. When Edison was 7 years old, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, after his father hired on as a carpenter at the Fort Gratiot military post.

Edison entered school in Port Huron, but his teachers considered him to be a dull student. Because of hearing problems, Edison had difficulty following the lessons and his school attendance became sporadic. Nevertheless, Edison became a voracious reader and at age 10, he set up a laboratory in his basement.

When his mother could not longer stand the smell of his chemistry lab, Edison took a job as a trainboy on the Grand Trunk Railway and established a new lab in an empty freight car. He was 12 at the time. Edison also began printing a weekly newspaper, which he called the Grand Trunk Herald.

While Edison was working for the railroad, something happened that changed the course of his career. Edison saved the life of a station official's child, who had fallen onto the tracks of an oncoming train. For his bravery, the boy's father taught Edison how to use the telegraph.

From 1862 to 1868, Edison worked as a roving telegrapher in the Midwest, the South, Canada, and New England. During this time, he began developing a telegraphic repeating instrument that made it possible to transmit messages automatically. By 1869, Edison's inventions, including the duplex telegraph and message printer, were progressing so well, he left telegraphy and began a career of full-time inventing and entrepreneurship.

Edison moved to New York City and within a year, he was able to open a workshop in Newark, New Jersey. He produced the Edison Universal Stock Printer, the automatic telegraph, the quadruplex, as well as other printing telegraphs, while working out of Newark. During this same period, Edison married Mary Stilwell.

Edison was a poor financial manager and by 1875, he began to experience financial difficulties. To reduce costs, Edison asked his widowed father to help him build a new laboratory and machine shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey. He moved into the new building in March, 1876 along with two associates, Charles Batchelor and John Kruesi. Edison achieved his greatest successes in this laboratory and he was dubbed the "Wizard of Menlo Park."

In 1877, Edison invented the carbon-button transmitter that is still used in telephone speakers and microphones. In December of the same year, he unveiled the tinfoil phonograph. (It was 10 years before the phonograph was available as a commercial product). In the late 1870s, backed by leading financiers including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, Edison established the Edison Electric Light Company. In 1879, he publicly demonstrated his incandescent electric light bulb. In 1882, he supervised the installation of the first commercial, central power system in lower Manhattan. In 1883, one of Edison's engineers William J. Hammer, made a discovery which later led to the electron tube. The discovery was patented the "Edison effect."

In 1884, Edison's wife Mary died, leaving him with three young children. He married Mina Miller in 1886, and began construction on a new laboratory and research facility in West Orange, New Jersey. The new lab employed approximately 60 workers and Edison attempted to personally manage this large staff. The story goes that when a new employee once asked about rules, Edison answered, "There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish something." However, the operation in West Orange lacked the intimacy of Menlo Park, and Edison's time was often consumed by administrative chores.

During his time in West Orange, Edison produced the commercial phonograph, the Kinetoscope, the Edison storage battery, the electric pen, the mimeograph, and the microtasimeter. In 1913, Edison introduced the first talking moving pictures. In 1915, he was appointed president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board. In all, Edison patented more than 1,000 discoveries. Edison's inventions were often in response to demand for new or improved products. However, others also came about accidentally or serendipitously.

Thomas Alva Edison died in West Orange, New Jersey on October 18,1931. At the time of this death, he was experimenting on rubber from goldenrod. After his death, Edison became a folk hero of legendary status. His inventions had truly and profoundly affected the shaping of modern society.


The American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) held hundreds of patents, most for electrical devices and electric light and power. Although the phonograph and incandescent lamp are best known, perhaps his greatest invention was organized research.

Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on Feb. 11, 1847; his father was a jack-of-all-trades, his mother a former teacher. Edison spent 3 months in school, then was taught by his mother. At the age of 12 he sold fruit, candy, and papers on the Grand Trunk Railroad. In 1862, using his small handpress in a baggage car, he wrote and printed the Grand Trunk Herald, which was circulated to 400 railroad employees. That year he became a telegraph operator, taught by the father of a child whose life Edison had saved. Exempt from military service because of deafness, he was a tramp telegrapher until he joined Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston in 1868.

Early Inventions

Probably Edison's first invention was an automatic telegraph repeater (1864). His first patent was for an electric vote recorder. In 1869, as a partner in a New York electrical firm, he perfected the stock ticker and sold it. This money, in addition to that from his share of the partnership, provided funds for his own factory in Newark, N.J. Edison hired technicians to collaborate on inventions; he wanted an "invention factory." As many as 80 "earnest men," including chemists, physicists, and mathematicians, were on his staff. "Invention to order" became very profitable.

From 1870 to 1875 Edison invented many telegraphic improvements: transmitters; receivers; the duplex, quadruplex, and sextuplex systems; and automatic printers and tape. He worked with Christopher Sholes, "father of the typewriter," in 1871 to improve the typing machine. Edison claimed he made 12 typewriters at Newark about 1870. The Remington Company bought his interests.

In 1876 Edison's carbon telegraph transmitter for Western Union marked a real advance toward making the Bell telephone practical. (Later, Émile Berliner's transmitter was granted patent priority by the courts.) With the money Edison received from Western Union for his transmitter, he established a factory in Menlo Park, N.J. Again he pooled scientific talent, and within 6 years he had more than 300 patents. The electric pen (1877) produced stencils to make copies. (The A. B. Dick Company licensed Edison's patent and manufactured the mimeograph machine.)

The Phonograph

Edison's most original and lucrative invention, the phonograph, was patented in 1877. From a manually operated instrument making impressions on metal foil and replaying sounds, it became a motor-driven machine playing cylindrical wax records by 1887. By 1890 he had more than 80 patents on it. The Victor Company developed from his patents. (Alexander Graham Bell impressed sound tracks on cylindrical shellac records; Berliner invented disk records. Edison's later dictating machine, the Ediphone, used disks.)

Incandescent Lamp

To research incandescence, Edison and others, including J. P. Morgan, organized the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. (Later it became the General Electric Company.) Edison made the first practical incandescent lamp in 1879, and it was patented the following year. After months of testing metal filaments, Edison and his staff examined 6,000 organic fibers from around the world and decided that Japanese bamboo was best. Mass production soon made the lamps, although low-priced, profitable.

First Central Electric-Light Power Plant

Prior to Edison's central power station, each user of electricity needed a dynamo (generator), which was inconvenient and expensive. Edison opened the first commercial electric station in London in 1882; in September the Pearl Street Station in New York City marked the beginning of America's electrical age. Within 4 months the station was lighting more than 5,000 lamps for 230 customers, and the demand for lamps exceeded supply. By 1890 it supplied current to 20,000 lamps, mainly in office buildings, and to motors, fans, printing presses, and heating appliances. Many towns and cities installed central stations.

Increased use of electricity led to Edison-base sockets, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conduits, meters, and the three-wire system. Jumbo dynamos, with drum-wound armatures, could maintain 110 volts with 90 percent efficiency. The three-wire system, first installed in Sunbury, Pa., in 1883, superseded the parallel circuit, used 110 volts, and necessitated high-resistance lamp filaments (metal alloys were later used).

In 1883 Edison made a significant discovery in pure science, the Edison effect - electrons flowed from incandescent filaments. With a metal-plate insert, the lamp could serve as a valve, admitting only negative electricity. Although "etheric force" had been recognized in 1875 and the Edison effect was patented in 1883, the phenomenon was little known outside the Edison laboratory. (At this time existence of electrons was not generally accepted.) This "force" underlies radio broadcasting, long-distance telephony, sound pictures, television, electric eyes, x-rays, high-frequency surgery, and electronic musical instruments. In 1885 Edison patented a method to transmit telegraphic "aerial" signals, which worked over short distances, and later sold this "wireless" patent to Guglielmo Marconi.

Creating the Modern Research Laboratory

The vast West Orange, N.J., factory, which Edison directed from 1887 to 1931, was the world's most complete research laboratory, an antecedent of modern research and development laboratories, with teams of workers systematically investigating problems. Various inventions included a method to make plate glass, a magnetic ore separator, compressing dies, composition brick, a cement process, an all-concrete house, an electric locomotive (patented 1893), a fluoroscope, a nickel-iron battery, and motion pictures. Edison refused to patent the fluoroscope, so that doctors could use it freely; but he patented the first fluorescent lamp in 1896.

The Edison battery, finally perfected in 1910, was a superior storage battery with an alkaline electrolyte. After 8000 trials Edison remarked, "Well, at least we know 8000 things that don't work." In 1902 he improved the copper oxide battery, which resembled modern dry cells.

Edison's motion picture camera, the kinetograph, could photograph action on 50-foot strips of film, 16 images per foot. A young assistant, in order to make the first Edison movies, in 1893 built a small laboratory called the "Black Maria," - a shed, painted black inside and out, that revolved on a base to follow the sun and kept the actors illuminated. The kinetoscope projector of 1893 showed the films. The first commercial movie theater, a peepshow, opened in New York in 1884. A coin put into a slot activated the kinetoscope inside the box. Acquiring and improving the projector of Thomas Armat in 1895, Edison marketed it as the Vitascope.

Movie Production

The Edison Company produced over 1,700 movies. Synchronizing movies with the phonograph in 1904, Edison laid the basis for talking pictures. In 1908 his cinemaphone appeared, adjusting film speed to phonograph speed. In 1913 his kinetophone projected talking pictures: the phonograph, behind the screen, was synchronized by ropes and pulleys with the projector. Edison produced several "talkies."

Meanwhile, among other inventions, the universal motor, which used alternating or direct current, appeared in 1907; and the electric safety lantern, patented in 1914, greatly reduced casualties among miners. That year Edison invented the telescribe, which combined features of the telephone and dictating phonograph.

Work for the Government

During World War I Edison headed the U.S. Navy Consulting Board and contributed 45 inventions, including substitutes for previously imported chemicals (especially carbolic acid, or phenol), defensive instruments against U-boats, a ship-telephone system, an underwater searchlight, smoke screen machines, antitorpedo nets, turbine projectile heads, collision mats, navigating equipment, and methods of aiming and firing naval guns. After the war he established the Naval Research Laboratory, the only American institution for organized weapons research until World War II.

Synthetic Rubber

With Henry Ford and the Firestone Company, Edison organized the Edison Botanic Research Company in 1927 to discover or develop a domestic source of rubber. Some 17,000 different botanical specimens were examined over 4 years - an indication of Edison's tenaciousness. By crossbreeding goldenrod, he developed a strain yielding 12 percent latex, and in 1930 he received his last patent, for this process.

The Man Himself

To raise money, Edison dramatized himself by careless dress, clowning for reporters, and playing the role of homespun sage with aphorisms like "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration" and "Discovery is not invention." He scoffed at formal education, thought 4 hours' sleep a night enough, and often worked 40 or 50 hours straight. As a world symbol of Yankee ingenuity, he looked and acted the part. George Bernard Shaw, briefly an Edison employee in 1879, put an Edisontype hero into his novel The Irrational Knot: free-souled, sensitive, cheerful, and profane.

Edison had more than 10,000 books at home and masses of printed materials at the laboratory. When launching a new project, he wished to avoid others' mistakes and to know everything about a subject. Some 25,000 notebooks contained his research records, ideas, hunches, and mistakes. Supposedly, his great shortcoming was lack of interest in anything not utilitarian; yet he loved to read Shakespeare and Thomas Paine.

Edison died in West Orange, N.J., on Oct. 18, 1931. The laboratory buildings and equipment associated with his career are preserved in Greenfield Village, Detroit, Mich., thanks to Henry Ford's interest and friendship.


Thomas A. Edison was not a musical artist. Edison was also partly deaf, owing to an accident suffered in childhood when he attempted to hop aboard a train. But Edison deserves inclusion as part of the All Music Guide, as he invented the very medium we primarily use to transmit music -- sound recording.

In the summer of 1877, Edison was looking into ways to develop a device that would compete with the telephone just patented by his arch rival, Alexander Graham Bell. Working with ticker tape, a vibrating stylus, and the membrane from Bell's phone, Edison was looking for an alternate way to communicate over telegraph lines. Whatever he was attempting at this point didn't work out, but he later recalled that he was distracted by the musical sounds that the indented tape made as it passed through a spring, resembling the sound of speech. Edison also noted that the indentations made in the ticker tape by the wagging stylus left a trace of vibration that followed a recognizable pattern.

How Edison got from that to the phonograph is unclear. Conventional wisdom asserts that by August 13, 1877 Edison submitted a sketch of the first phonograph to machinist John Kreusi, who completed building the first model in about a month's time. The hasty Edison sketch often reproduced as the "first phonograph design" is probably not the one that Edison really used; that was likely mislaid, and a later sketch was drawn up quickly in order to protect Edison's patents.

Edison unveiled the phonograph to reporters from Scientific American in the spring of 1878, and thereafter coordinated a tour in cities across the country, where either Edison himself or his employees led demonstrations of the phonograph's capabilities in local lecture halls. Edison would later claim that for the first words spoken into the phonograph he utilized "a little piece of practical poetry: Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow." Audience members at these assemblies shouted obscenities into the phonograph, hoping to "trick" it, but it merely played back all the obscenities, recitations, cornet solos, and anything else that was thrown into its little mouthpiece. The American public was astounded!

The first phonograph, which was merely a hand-cranked, grooved cylinder mandrel covered with a thin sheet of tinfoil, was surprisingly versatile despite its simplicity -- it could be played backwards, and was capable of primitive overdubs. However it had one major drawback; the recordings it made weren't permanent. Once the tinfoil wore out, generally after about five plays, or the tinfoil sheet was removed from the mandrel, the recording made was effectively destroyed. Edison had hoped to market the phonograph as an office dictation device, but for it to be truly practical for that purpose Edison's cylinder would have to be able to play the recording many more times. After the novelty of the phonograph wore off in early 1879, Edison found no backers for further development. So he went back to the drawing board in hopes of finding a "better idea," and later in the year, invented the incandescent light.

Exploiting this new invention kept Edison quite busy for a longtime, and a period of some five years passed where there were no new developments in regard to the phonograph. But in 1884, Alexander Graham Bell's nephew, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter began to work in secret on an improved phonograph, which used wax cylinders in place of the tinfoil. The cylinders could be removed from the phonograph without being damaged and held their recordings intact for a hundred plays or more. Bell and Tainter apprised Edison of their discoveries and offered to pool their patents with his to expedite exploitation of the new phonograph. But an angry Edison would hear nothing of it, and early in 1888 he and his top engineers conducted several sleepless days and nights of investigation into improving Edison's "favorite invention." A battery was added to power the motor and other improvements were made. Beginning in the summer of 1888, Edison sent his men to Europe on a quest to collect testimonial recordings of the most distinguished figures from abroad. Handel's music was recorded at the Crystal Palace in London, as were the voices of Queen Victoria and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. The piano playing of composer Johannes Brahms was recorded in Berlin. Edison also collected testimonials from men in the State Department in Washington, D.C., who were using the phonograph on an experimental basis to transcribe Senate hearings on a scandal involving the New York Port Authority.

All of these achievements helped greatly to enhance the prestige of the lowly phonograph, but the business side of the operation still moved at a snail's pace. Jesse Lippincott, a wealthy financier known to Edison, secured Bell and Tainter's patents in 1888, and afterward a stubborn Edison finally relented to go in with Lippincott. In the spring of 1889, The North American Phonograph Company was established, and the American recording industry was finally born, nearly twelve years after the device had first appeared in Edison's lab!

In 1890, you couldn't just go out to one of Edison's North American branch offices and buy a phonograph, unless you were a corporate executive seeking one for use in dictation. Very early phonographs intended for public entertainment were coin operated and initially set up in dancehalls and drinking establishments as an amusement. Damage to equipment and frequent service calls proved costly, and as a result Cincinnati-based Edison jobber James Andem devised the idea of installing the machines in an arcade that would be manned by a full-time staff. The first such arcade opened in Cleveland in September 1890, and proved quite profitable. Most other regional Edison offices followed suit in short order.

Although Edison didn't know it, the elements that led to his fall from dominance in the recording industry were already underway from the very start of his involvement in it. In 1889 or 1890, inventor Emile Berliner began to develop a flat-disc type record. Ironically his first recorded selection would be "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," demonstrating that Berliner's taste in "practical poetry" was similar to Edison's own! Berliner's flat disc record was five inches in diameter (the same size as today's compact disc), played for just under two minutes, and made its modest bow in the Washington, D.C., area in 1895.

At this time Edison began to experience trouble from breakaway regional divisions, most potently from the Maryland-Delaware-Washington, D.C., subsidiary, which declared itself independent and renamed itself The Columbia Phonograph Company in 1896. Edison sued Columbia, but somehow the company managed to survive. This set up a domino effect within North American that caused it to collapse by 1898. The arcade business was falling off anyway, and Edison was forced to shift his focus to marketing phonographs for home use. He could not do so cheaply, and Edison refused to compromise in terms of both the quality of his phonographs and their cost. So it was easy to undercut his business, and infringers were legion. One by one Edison took them to court, and he usually won.

But try as he might, Edison could not win an infringement suit against manufacturers of flat disc records. Berliner's invention was received with indifference in America upon its first launch, as it was little more than a toy and put out such poor sound. But in Europe, where there was practically no phonograph industry and, most significantly, Edison himself had no interests, the flat disc format was a runaway success. Flat disc records didn't sound as good as cylinders, but they were easier to store and the machines that played them were much cheaper than Edison's. By 1901, both Victor and Columbia were establishing the flat disc business in the United States, and over time, the sound of the records would improve.

Edison finally began to market a cheap Edison portable player, the "Little Gem" around 1909. He also introduced a cylinder that played for four minutes, longer than the average flat disc record of the time.

Finally, in 1912, Edison introduced "Diamond Discs," his own answer to the flat disc phenomenon. These records were "vertical cut," meaning that the grooves wagged toward and away from you, like on a cylinder, rather than from right to left, as in standard "lateral cut" recordings. The records were also injection molded, rather than "pressed" like other records. The grooves were molded into a thin Bakelite surface that was spread over a thick blank made from a mixture of china clay and wood flour. This use of Bakelite may have been the very first time plastics were utilized in American industry, and certainly it was the first time plastic was used in the production of records. Before, Edison had depended on his employees to make the selection as what to record and by whom. But now Edison himself personally listened to and approved all of his Diamond Discs. It was a pet project, to say the least. As in the case of his cylinder boxes, all Edison Diamond Discs bore his likeness and signature.

Edison really tried to reach out to the public through the Diamond Discs, to the point of giving away copies of ten of his favorite records with every machine sold. However, the public wasn't crazy about the fact that you couldn't play Edison records on other types of phonographs. While the sound on Diamond Discs was noticeably superior to that of the lateral records made by Victor and Columbia, it was also much quieter, and once the record got a little worn and the needle started playing that china clay and wood flour blank, they didn't sound that good! Alas, Edison records were heavy enough to kill a small animal if dropped on one, and their thickness made them difficult to store, just like cylinders. Diamond Discs didn't bear paper labels until about 1920, and the label information was simply etched into the black surface of the record, making it difficult to distinguish one Diamond Disc from another.

Ultimately it was Edison's micro-management of the recorded repertoire on Diamond Discs that ultimately sealed their fate. He insisted on hiring artists based on their talent and clear enunciation of lyrics, rather than their reputation with the public. With a few very significant exceptions, such as in the case of Edison records made by Sophie Tucker, Serge Rachmaninov, and Polk Miller's Old South Quartette, relatively few of the performers who recorded for Edison were known other than from the records they made. His own musical tastes were those of a man born before the civil war, and these were most decidedly out of step with a record buying public with a growing interest in ragtime, and later jazz, which Edison himself couldn't stand. Likewise he didn't care much for many of the "name" artists he recorded, referring to Rachmaninov as a "pounder."

The Edison Recording firm continued to struggle, producing Diamond Discs, cylinders, and machines, through practically the whole of the 1920s. Edison did eventually relinquish his control of what the company recorded on Diamond Disc, and the Edison Company from about 1920 forward recorded a fair amount of good jazz by artists, such as the California Ramblers and bandleader Dave Kaplan. Edison also issued the first bona fide commercial country record in 1924 when his in house tenor of longstanding Vernon Dalhart recorded "The Wreck of the Old 97." However, the Edison Company was now well behind its competition technologically. In the mid-'20s, Edison experimented with a 33 rpm long-playing format on Diamond Discs that was a complete and utter disaster. Edison didn't start issuing electrically recorded items until 1926, and finally began to issue lateral cut records in 1927, when the company was on its last legs. The Thomas A. Edison record company closed its doors on March 29, 1929 and not a moment too soon. The following day the stock market crashed, and with it the fortunes of his healthiest competitors were wiped out. Edison died less than two years later, though his signature continued to appear on Ediphone dictation records supplied for office use well into the 1970s. The dictation division of Edison had been sold off, but the new owner was permitted to keep the trademark.

For someone who enjoyed such a long association with recordings, and had such a decisive impact on the industry, relatively few records exist of Edison himself. A cylinder of a "Letter," made in fall of 1888, lay unnoticed in the Edison National Historic Site until discovered by researcher Jerry Fabris in the 1990s; it is the earliest known record of Edison speaking. Another discovery is an undated cylinder known as "Thomas A. Edison Tells a Joke." Edison did make one commercially issued recording, "Lest We Not Forget," a speech on the First World War released by his own company in 1919. He is heard briefly on "Christmas Greetings From the Gang at Orange," a promotional Christmas record made as a giveaway by the Edison Company in 1920. The most famous sound byte of Edison, of him reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb," comes not from a record, but from the audio track of an experimental sound film newsreel made during the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the invention of the phonograph.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008