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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 2)

The growth of the telegraph industry, meanwhile, was exploding. Edison had already developed several labor saving machines that were widely used, and Wall Street giants such as Jay Gould, a major competitor of Western Union, kept a close eye on Edison's experiments. To control Edison's patents on new telegraph equipment meant the difference between making and losing millions of dollars. Consequently, stock manipulators of the day were always hungry for news about his new inventions, and he had to be vigilant of competitors seeking to steal his latest ideas.

For the most part he was under contract to Western Union, but he also would sell his inventions to others if Western Union did not meet his terms. Just such an incident occurred over the rights to what was his greatest improvement to the telegraph. The invention earned millions of dollars for the telegraph industry during the next 25 years while a legal dispute was fought between Western Union and Jay Gould over who owned the rights to his work. Edison himself ultimately received very little compensation for the invention, and the dispute left him with a bad taste for dealing with the unscrupulous barons of Wall Street. Gould, for example, he found "had a peculiar eye" with "a stain of insanity somewhere in him." All of these men were only interested in money, Edison concluded, which meant nothing to him. Money was only necessary to continue his experiments, not to collect.

The invention was known as the quadruplex. With this device, Edison enabled the sending of four messages simultaneously over the same telegraph line. He instantly quadrupled the capacity of the industry without the need to construct additional, and costly, telegraph lines. But because of the dispute that followed, Edison decided to end his contractual arrangements with Western Union and to sell his manufacturing facilities.

Believing he could entice the money men to support him by buying his inventive skills, he embarked on a bold venture. With his family and a small group of his loyal assistants, he moved to a new laboratory he had built in the New Jersey countryside, about 25 miles southwest of New York City along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to Philadelphia. He was 29 years old when he moved to Menlo Park, to establish a laboratory "for the sole purpose of inventing." People thought he was crazy. But this cigar-smoking idealist never paid much attention to what the experts thought.

Initially, he worked on improvements to the telephone, which Alexander Graham Bell had just patented. These experiments on transmitters led him to his idea for the phonograph, which stunned the world and turned him into a legend. But he was struggling to keep his new laboratory in business and needed a big invention. He got his chance when some of his business associates encouraged him to review recent achievements by others on developing electric lighting. If he agreed to undertake the project, his associates assured him that the necessary investment capital would be raised.

As was his habit, Edison began an extensive review of the existing research on the electric light. Arc lights, which were being used at the time, produced illumination by causing a spark of electricity to jump a small gap between two carbon rods. The resulting light was bright and smoky, making it practical only for use outdoors. What was needed was a method of producing a light with the intensity of several candles, by passing electric current through an element that would become incandescent. It was a feat several others had tried without success.

Edison, however, recognized that the problem could be solved by applying the principles he had developed for the telegraph, particularly the quadruplex. He intended to subdivide the electric current so that he could light a string of incandescent lamps in a series. His solution was novel and controversial, leading most scientists of the day to reject it as impossible.

Most artificial lighting in the mid-1870s was provided by gas fixtures supplied by the gas companies. These companies were controlled by many of the same Wall Street money men who owned the telegraph companies. By now, Edison had learned how to entice these barons with the idea of greater riches by convincing them that he could produce a successful lamp. The barons were skeptical, but they knew the reputation of the 31-year-old inventor in the field of electricity and were afraid to bet against him. As a result, several of the biggest barons, such as J. P. Morgan and associates of William H. Vanderbilt, anted up a total of $300,000 to capitalize the Edison Electric Light Co. in the fall of 1878, financing his experiments in return for a share in any patents. Thus the age of venture capital began, since this was probably the first time in history that seed money was provided for an invention still on the drawing board.

For the next year, Edison worked to make his promise a reality. He became a master promoter during that time, organizing cigar-smoke-filled theatrical demonstrations of his experiments followed by lavish dinners to keep the interest of his investors in the project and encourage fresh infusions of capital. Rumors frequently circulated around Wall Street that he was close to success, and Edison helped to encourage them by feeding stories to the hungry press that continually haunted his Menlo Park lab. The shares of gas companies would rise or fall in the London and New York markets on word of Edison's progress.

But progress was slow during that year, as experiment after experiment failed to produce a successful lamp. Discouragement ran high among his assistants as the delicate task of fitting a small filament inside a glass bulb resulted in failure after failure; the filament would glow briefly only to burn up from the heat of the electric current. His financial supporters began to lose confidence, and the value of the Edison Electric Light shares began to decline. Edison, however, was irrepressible.

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