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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

(continued from page 1)

Then the eventful day arrived. At 3 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 4, 1882, Edison gave the order to his chief engineer to throw the switch. Lights began to glow along the streets of lower Manhattan; Edison himself turned the switch at the offices of J. P. Morgan & Co. at the corner of Broad and Wall streets, where 106 lamps had been installed. Edison remarked to a reporter standing nearby, "I have accomplished all that I promised." Still, with this success, the business of supplying electric power grew slowly. At first, the demand came from the installation of isolated power stations for manufacturing facilities.

Edison was spending almost all of his time in New York City when, on one summer day in 1884, he was summoned to return to Menlo Park. His wife, Mary, was ill. Mary had contracted typhoid fever, and had taken a turn for the worse. On the morning of Aug. 9, 1884, Edison awakened his daughter, Marion. "I found him shaking with grief," she recalled, "weeping and sobbing so he could hardly tell me that Mother had died in the night." Edison was devastated by the loss of Mary, who was not yet 30 years old. He rarely returned to Menlo Park after her death, and the facilities slowly fell into disrepair. Several of his associates believed it was the memory of Mary that kept him from returning to his beloved laboratory.

He moved his three children to the Fifth Avenue brownstone and buried himself in his work of developing his lighting system. In time, the Wall Street barons began to pour money into the budding industry, and one of Edison's original companies eventually became a part of General Electric.

Shortly after Mary's death, Edison met a young woman, Mina Miller. After a courtship of a year or so, he married the young woman of half his age. He had just turned 39 and his success with the electric light had made him a millionaire and cemented his worldwide fame. They were married in her hometown of Akron, Ohio, on Feb. 24, 1886. After the wedding, they left for a three-week vacation at Edison's home in Fort Myers, Florida, where he simply vanished with Mina, obviously enchanted by her, not communicating at all with his concerned associates in New York.

Returning home, Edison began to design a new laboratory. The site was West Orange, New Jersey, where he constructed several laboratory buildings, with a main building housing, among other things, a large library and office three stories high, filled with 10,000 volumes. Here he intended to invent to his heart's content in the best facilities that money could buy.

With his role in the development of the electric light business diminished by the controlling Wall Street investors, he turned to improving his phonograph, which he had shelved nearly 10 years before. He could see a future for the machine as a business recording device for dictation. Instead of tin foil, he developed cylinders of wax into which the needle could trace the sound grooves. After using the cylinder, another machine would shave a thin layer of wax, leaving a clean surface for reuse.

As a dictation device the phonograph became a success, and he constructed a complex of manufacturing buildings at West Orange to produce the machine. Use of the phonograph as a home entertainment piece also began to grow, leading Edison to enter the music recording business. He established recording studios in New York and West Orange, where master recordings were made of the great entertainers of the day. Wax cylinder (and later celluloid) copies were then mass-produced in West Orange and sold to the public. The operation produced millions of cylinder and disc records along with the production of phonographs over the years.

It was also at the West Orange laboratory, in 1889, that Edison invented the motion picture camera. His early motion picture cameras needed sunlight to record images on film, so in 1893, Edison built the first motion picture studio, in West Orange. The building, affectionately called the "The Black Maria" by the staff, was a wooden structure covered with black tar paper, with a steep roof that was hinged for opening. The entire building was mounted on a turntable set on a circular railroad track. During filming, the studio was rotated to stay in the sunlight, which was directed onto the stage through the open roof.

The movie industry began with the filming of the trivial: an organ grinder and his monkey; a sneeze by one of Edison's assistants, Fred Ott; dancing girls; and scenes of everyday life around West Orange. Each film lasted about 90 seconds and was viewed through a peep-hole box called a "Kinetoscope."

Edison's Wall Street backers would not finance the development of the Kinetoscope because they considered it vaudevillian. In time, however, speculators stepped forward and offered to license Edison's invention to open Kinetoscope parlors around New York City. The installed machines were coin operated and attracted long lines of patrons. Films of boxing matches were a favorite, and when a full-length match was shown in six successive machines, the police had to be called to control the crowds of customers.

For most of the next decade, films were limited to the Kinetoscope until a projector was devised. By this time, the idea of telling a story on film began to take hold, and in 1903, Edison's studio produced a silent movie known as The Great Train Robbery. The comparative epic, a Western that came complete with a posse chase and a shoot-out, was filmed in New Jersey's Watchung Mountains. The movie's success unleashed the potential of storytelling through movies, and within a few years, movie theaters began to pop up around the country. Edison, however, had failed to take his invention seriously. He did not file for patents on the motion picture camera in Europe, and competitors took advantage of his mistake by producing movies of their own. Inadvertently, he had let control of the movie industry and the fortune it would produce slip through his fingers.

Edison lived the rest of his life in West Orange, where he and Mina raised three children--Madeleine, Charles and Theodore. In 1914, the great manufacturing facilities he had established there caught fire and burned for 24 hours. The laboratories were spared, and he reinstalled the manufacturing complex interiors using reinforced cement. His laboratories and one of the factories still stand today.

Edison died in 1931 at the age of 84. While some may suggest that he was a fool for not becoming a titan of industry, such as Carnegie or Rockefeller, this is an observation that does not attempt to understand the man. Edison had little interest in being an industrialist. Instead, he was driven by what was the first desire of his heart: inventing.

A deaf man who recorded sound and a school dropout who unraveled the mysteries of electricity, Thomas Alva Edison was considered a genius. Shortly before his death, a reporter asked him what it was that made a person a genius. Edison hesitated for a moment and then replied with his now-famous maxim: "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." 

Thomas F. Gillen is an investment manager who is working on a novel about Thomas Edison.


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