Thomas Edison: The Man Who Lit Up the World
Bittersweet childhood and early years…
Little “Al” Edison did not learn to talk until he was almost four, but when he finally started talking he was continuously asking questions about how everything that he encountered worked. It was not surprising, that when Edison went to school, his restlessness and curiosity quickly tired his teacher, who considered the boy to be “addled”.
After three months of official schooling Edison’s mother decided it was enough and started homeschooling Tom by herself.
Edison liked to read and soon quickly surpassed his contemporaries in intellect and erudition. His adulthood years, were bittersweet, though.
By the age of 12 Tom started his first job, selling newspapers, snacks, candy and vegetables on the local railroad.
When he was 14 he developed hearing problems, ultimately, becoming totally deaf in his left ear, and approximately 80% deaf in his right ear. This made it impossible for him to acquire knowledge in a typical educational setting, forever depriving him of possibility of going to college.
Strange turn of events…
One day while Edison was on a train, he saw a 3-year-old boy wander onto the tracks in front of an oncoming boxcar. Without thinking, he grabbed the boy and they both tumbled away from the oncoming wheels. The boy’s father turned out to be station agent.
To repay Edison for his courage, he took the youngster under his “wing” and taught him how to use the telegraph (something that at that time was considered to be state-of-the-art technology).
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.
Return back home
In 1868, at the age of 21 Edison returned home only to find out that his beloved mother was beginning to show signs of insanity, that his father had just quit his job and that the local bank was about to foreclose on the family homestead.
Deeply in debt and about to be fired by Western Union for “not concentrating on his primary responsibilities and doing too much moonlighting,” Edison borrowed $35 from his fellow telegrapher Benjamin Bredding and purchased a ticket to try his luck in New York.
Another one of those life-changing events
New York greeted Edison with gloomy weather and ever-busy people. During his third week in “the big apple” Tom was “on the verge of starving to death.”
His bad luck changed in just one day, when walking down the street he saw the manager of a local brokerage firm in total panic, because the critically important stock-ticker in his office had just broken down. Edison offered to fix it and 10 minutes later the device began to run properly.
Ecstatic, office manager immediately offered Edison a job as an electrician for a salary of $300.00 per month (twice the regular rate). This seemed like a fortune to a boy, who for the past three weeks had been sleeping in basements and begging for food.
The “Wizard of Menlo Park”!
During this time Edison continued to work on his ideas, developing his first successful inventions: the duplex telegraph and an improved version of stock ticker, that he called the “Universal Stock Printer”. For these and some related inventions Edison was paid $40,000.
He immediately paid back the $35 he had borrowed from his friend, sent some money home to help his family out and used the rest of the money to set up his first small laboratory in Newark, New Jersey.
The same year, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell, whom he had met two months earlier while she was an employee in one of his shops.
Here Edison achieved his greatest successes, inventing the carbon-button transmitter (that is still used in telephone speakers and microphones) and the tinfoil phonograph for which Edison became known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”
Who invented the first electric light bulb?
Contrary to what many believe, Edison was not the first inventor of the light bulb. Several designs and prototypes had already been developed by earlier inventors. But all of these early bulbs had different flaws, ranging from an extremely short life to the high electric current drawn, making them expensive to produce and difficult to apply on a large scale. What Edison did was to perfect the already existing models of light bulbs, inventing the first commercially practical incandescent light.
In 1879, he first 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 as the “Edison effect.”
Edison officially became a folk hero and a role model of the rags-to-riches American dream. He was courted by publicity, admired by his fellow scientists and teased by his friends for his ability to catnap anywhere. By the time he was in his middle 30’s, Edison was said to be the best-known American in the world!
Life tragedy and Later accomplishments
In 1884, Edison’s wife Mary unexpectedly died, leaving him with three young children. Two years later, at the age of 39 he married 20-year-old Mina Miller (the daughter of the inventor Lewis Miller), 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.
During his time in West Orange, Edison produced the commercial phonograph, the Kinetoscope, the Edison storage battery, the mimeograph, the electric pen, and the microtasimeter.
In all, Edison patented over 1,000 discoveries both in the U.S. and Europe, founded 14 companies, including General Electric and became an icon of the self-made man.
During the last years of his life Edison slowed down a little and started to dedicate more time to his family. Thomas Alva Edison died in West Orange, New Jersey on October 18,1931, but he will always be remembered as a man who, more than any other, laid the basis for the technological and social revolution of the modern electric world.