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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 3)

Then in October 1879, one of Edison's assistants, Charles Batchelor, took a piece of carbonized cotton thread and rolled it into a thin filament. After the filament was placed inside a vacuum-sealed glass bulb, which allowed the thread to gleam without burning, the current was applied and the lamp began to glow with a bright yellow hue. Expecting the filament to fail, Edison and his assistants watched with apprehension as the lamp continued to glow. It was early in the evening, and the watch over the glowing bulb continued throughout the night. The lamp continued to glow for 13 hours, until Edison turned up the juice and the filament burned out. The age of electric power had begun.

The success of the first lamp was just the beginning of a long journey to perfect the lamp and a lighting system. Edison had to develop all the related equipment, from fuses to insulation methods for the cable as well as the meters to measure the usage of electricity by the customer. In addition, a plan had to be devised to demonstrate that the system could be a commercial success.

An important turning point came in April 1881. Edison was granted permission by New York City to build a power station on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. The idea was to light a section of the city that included the financial district--Edison undoubtedly understood the need to impress his financial supporters. The company formed to carry out this project became the forerunner of the Consolidated Edison Co., which still powers New York today.

It was a massive undertaking for the time, requiring the digging up of streets and the laying of more than 80,000 feet of cable. Edison moved his main operation from Menlo Park to a four-story brownstone at 65 Fifth Avenue in New York so that he could supervise most of the work himself. The project was continually plagued by small problems and required his constant attention, since only he and a few of his associates had any idea how to construct the system. It would take a year and a half, into the late summer of 1882, before the system was ready for testing.

The presence of the now famed inventor in New York City constantly attracted the attention of the press. There was a continuous flow of reporters coming in and out of 65 Fifth Avenue seeking news about the inventor or his project. Edison took great pains to entertain the reporters, since he understood the power of the press in helping him to keep investors interested in the development of electric power.

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.

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