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Thomas Edison (The Great Inventer)

Updated on October 22, 2011

The versatile American inventor, who singly or jointly held a world record of 1093 patents and also created the world's first industrial research laboratory, was born on February 11, 1847 in the town of Millan, Ohio.

Edison was the seventh and last child (fourth surviving) of Samuel Edison Jr and Nancy Elliot Edison. At an early age he developed hearing problems. Edison set up a laboratory in his father's basement when he was only 10 years old. He had only three months of formal education, and his schoolmaster considered him to be retarded! When he was 12, he started selling candies and newspapers in a train.

When he was 15, he started to work as a roving telegrapher. He worked there for 6 years. He then became a night operator for the Western Union Telegrapher Company in 1868. At age of 21, Edison created his first invention, an electric vote recorder. It did not sell, and thereafter he concentrated on those inventions, which would be readily marketable and would earn him some money. Soon, he invented an improved stock ticker system, which he sold for $40,000, a tremendous sum in those days. A series of other inventions followed, and Edison was both rich and famous.

In 1869, he decided to give up his job in order to pursue invention and entrepreneurship. He moved to New York City and was successful in establishing a workshop in Newark, New Jersey. There he produced the Edison Universal Stock Printer and other printing telegraph.

In 1876, he gave up his telegraph factory and set up a research laboratory in nearby Menlo Park. Several highly talented associates helped Edison to achieve great success. This research laboratory was one of the major factors to Edison's astonishing productivity. He employed a group of capable assistants to help him. A modern, well equipped research laboratory, where many persons work together as a team was one of his important and unique inventions.

Story of the bulb

Today's light bulb is a thin glass bulb filled with an inert mixture of nitrogen and argon gas. It contains a filament made of fine tungsten wire. When electricity is passed through the wire, it glows white hot, producing light and keeps our nights bright.

While experimenting with the carbon microphone in the 1870s, Edison got the idea of using a thin carbon filament as a light source in an incandescent electric lamp. He put the idea into practice in 1879. His first major success came on October 19 when, using carbonized sewing cotton mounted on an electrode in a vacuum (one millionth of an atmosphere), he obtained a source that remained aglow for 45 hours without overheating - a major problem with all other materials used. He and his assistants tried 6,000 other organic materials before finding a bamboo fibre that gave a bulb life of 1,000 hours.

Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb did not meet with universal approval. When a British Parliamentary Committee was set up in the late 1870s to investigate its potential value, the report described it as ‘Good enough for our trans-Atlantic friends... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men'. The idea however changed since then!

Probably his most original invention was the phonograph, which he patented in 1877. More important to the world, however, was his development of a practical incandescent bulb in 1879.

In 1882, his company started producing electricity for homes in New York City, and thereafter the home use of electricity spread rapidly throughout the world. By setting up the first electric distribution company, Edison laid the groundwork for the development of an enormous industry. After all electricity is utilized in every town on the globe.

Edison made enormous developments in motion picture, cameras and projectors. He made important improvements in the telegraph, the typewriter and the telephone (where his carbon transmitter markedly improved audibility). His other inventions include a dictating machine, storage battery, a mimeograph machine and the megaphone.

In 1882, Edison accidentally discovered the ‘Edison's effect'. He discovered that in a near vacuum, an electric current could be made to flow between two wires that did not touch each other. This phenomenon led to the development of vacuum tube and to the foundation of the electronic industry.

He once said, ‘My personal desire would be to prohibit entirely the use of alternating currents. They are unnecessary as they are dangerous. I can therefore see no justification for the introduction of a system which has no element of permanency and every element of danger to life and property.' He was in favour of Direct current (DC) but later on it was proved that Alternating Current (AC) was a better choice.

There is no dispute concerning Edison's talent. Everyone agrees that he was the greatest inventive genius who ever lived. It is worth remembering that he did not invent just one device, but more than one thousand!

Edison was married twice (his first wife died young) and had three children by each marriage. He died in West Orange, New Jersey on October 18, 1931.


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