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The Man Who Lit Up the World

Thomas Alva Edison is best known for inventing the electric light, but in his smoke-filled laboratories he created a host of other technological marvels.
Thomas F. Gillen
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

On a chilly December afternoon in 1877, a group of men working in a small laboratory located in the isolated countryside of Menlo Park, New Jersey, gathered around a table where a young man, barely 30 years old, sat with a curious machine on the table in front of him. Never before having seen any machine like it, they asked what the device was for. "This machine," the young man replied, eyeing the crowd around him as he took a puff from his thick black cigar, "will talk."

The onlookers were aghast at the confident man's claim. They began to mumble among themselves of the impossibility. But they knew this man, and he already had many amazing inventions to his credit, although he was also the consummate practical joker. Undaunted, the young man challenged the crowd of doubters to a wager in the currency they always used: cigars.

With supreme confidence, the young inventor, a man named Thomas Alva Edison, wrapped a piece of tin foil around a drum with a crank handle attached and mounted so the drum could be rotated. He then moved into position in front of the drum a diaphragm with a small needle attached to it. Rotating the drum by hand, Edison spoke the words to the nursery rhyme, "Mary had a little lamb." As he spoke, the diaphragm vibrated, causing the attached needle to trace a slight indentation into the tin foil on the drum. When he was done speaking, he rotated the drum from the beginning and let the needle retrace the groove on the tin foil's surface, which made the diaphragm vibrate. To the shock of everyone assembled, including Edison, the machine repeated the words he had just recorded.

Years later Edison would say he was "always troubled by an invention that worked on the first try." But without realizing it, he had, with a simple machine, forever changed the world. Moreover, the feat of recording sound had been accomplished by a man who was almost totally deaf.

While the invention was a success, and Edison collected several cigars from the onlookers--they were his laboratory assistants--as his reward that day, the phonograph remained just a novelty for almost 10 years. Shortly after its invention, Edison gave numerous demonstrations of the machine before hundreds of people, including then President Rutherford B. Hayes. The machine was thought to be magical, even mystical, as observers reacted with amazement at hearing their voices and other sounds mimicked by the device. Edison was called a genius, and gained instant worldwide fame from the invention, with the newspapers dubbing him "The Wizard of Menlo Park." Yet, despite the stir created by the invention, his financial supporters at the time could imagine no conceivable use for the new machine.

Today we view technological change as a fact of everyday life. But in the last half of the nineteenth century, technology, and particularly the practical application of electricity, was at its dawning. The telegraph was the key, since it demonstrated the commercial possibilities of electricity. By the time Edison became a teenager, the telegraph was not yet in wide use, and the industry was struggling to grow. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the importance of the telegraph became apparent. Afterwards, the industry was hungry for new technological improvements, which gave Edison the opportunity to cultivate his inventive skills.

So important did Edison's inventions become in revolutionizing the telegraph that word of a new improvement by him could send the share prices tumbling of the telegraph companies that did not have the rights to use his new patents. The Wall Street money men competed aggressively to control the inventor and his patent rights because of the wealth they could create. By the time his inventive career was done, Edison would have nearly 1,100 patents to his name, of which the major ones included the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the storage battery and, his greatest triumph, the electric light.

He had three great passions in life: inventing, jokes and cigars. When convinced of a good inventive idea, he would stop at nothing to find the answer. His method of experimenting was to try hundreds of solutions, letting the results dictate the direction of the research. A voracious reader, he would begin his research by reviewing any previous work conducted by others on a particular invention. He believed it was important to understand why other attempts at an invention had failed, and he was not afraid of failing himself. Once when an assistant remarked at the number of failed attempts to invent the storage battery, Edison told the assistant not to be concerned, "because they now knew a thousand things that wouldn't work." Furthermore, he had a tremendous capacity for detail and was renowned among his assistants for being able to recall specifics about past experiments with great accuracy. If he had one weakness in his mental capacity, it was in mathematics, a subject for which he admitted having no acumen.

Edison's interest in inventing was so intense that in his late 20s, flush with cash from his telegraphic inventions, he organized and built the laboratory in Menlo Park for the sole purpose of working on inventions to sell. His confidence in his abilities as an inventor was boundless, although many scientists of the day viewed his "invention factory" idea to be insane and doomed to failure. Instead, Edison's laboratory became the forerunner of research and development facilities maintained by corporations today.

Thomas Alva Edison, or Al as he was called as a child, was born on Feb. 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. While Al was a young boy, his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where he was to grow up. An inquisitive child, he had, according to some romantic legends, a penchant for mischief, which frequently got him into trouble. No doubt some of the stories of his impishness are true and may have led to his being thrown out of school after only a few months. Fortunately for Edison, his mother was a former teacher, and she undertook his education, instilling in him a lifelong love of reading and learning. Years later he would remark, "My mother was the making of me."

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