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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.
By Thomas F. Gillen | From 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."

By the time he was 12, he had a job on the Grand Trunk Railway selling newspapers to passengers as the train traveled between Port Huron and Detroit. Enterprising in nature, he began to get news stories from the telegraph offices at each station stop along the train route and started to publish his own newspaper in the baggage car of the train. The paper was known as The Weekly Herald, and he used the proceeds to purchase books on chemistry and chemicals for his experiments.

When he was 15, he began to experience his deafness. It commenced, according to Edison, when he was late for the train one morning and jumped from the station platform to get on the moving train. He caught the last step but was unable to pull himself up. A trainman came to the rescue and pulled him aboard by his ears. Edison claimed late in his life that he felt at the time something snap inside his head. "The deafness started then," he recalled, "and has progressed ever since. I haven't heard a bird sing," he added sadly, "since I was a young boy." The exact cause of his deafness was never determined. But more than likely, it was the result of a childhood disease, such as scarlet fever.

Rather than let deafness deter him, Edison realized that it afforded him the silence he needed to concentrate while others around him were busy talking. This enabled him to read his beloved books at any time. While unable to hear normal conversation without great effort, he could hear clearly the clicking of the telegraph, which he had become interested in learning. His opportunity came one day when he rescued the young son of a stationmaster from a runaway boxcar. As a reward, the stationmaster offered to teach Al how to operate the telegraph. He was a natural at the device and soon became proficient in its use.

It didn't take long for him to master the telegraph, and he began to take small jobs as an operator. Not long afterwards, the Civil War broke out, creating a huge demand for telegraphers. Soon he was traveling throughout the eastern United States as one of the many itinerant operators who were lured from city to city by the promise of higher pay. His fellow operators were a wild bunch, who made money fast and spent it just as quickly on women, booze and cigars. He made some lasting friendships during those years, although he never gained an affinity for alcohol, and his deafness made him shy around women. But he did develop a fondness for cigars and gained a reputation as a hustler and an expert telegrapher among his peers. While the others spent their free time gambling and drinking, he was studying the telegraphic equipment and the principles of electricity. Before long, he had ideas of his own on how to improve the telegraph.

By the end of the Civil War, the telegraph business was booming. Telegraph lines crisscrossed the country as the demand grew; they connected the East and West coasts eight years before the railroads. Edison spent most of his money on batteries and equipment to conduct his experiments, while living in rat-infested boarding houses, existing on coffee, apple turnovers and cigars.

He arrived in New York City in the spring of 1869. Broke and without a job, he looked up an old friend from his telegraph days who worked for a telegraph company on Wall Street known as the Gold & Stock Co. The company provided gold quotes from the trading taking place on the New York Stock Exchange floor to subscribers around the city. While he was visiting his friend, the central transmitting device broke down, causing pandemonium among the management of the company. In the confusion, Edison stepped in and fixed the machine. He was hired on the spot.

Using his extensive knowledge of electricity, he made improvements to the gold indicator and found that the telegraph companies were hungry for technological improvements. Edison saw his opportunity and developed his own indicator, which was quickly recognized as being superior to those already in use. His device regulated the indicators, which often could get out of sync and begin to print wild figures. The directors of Western Union saw a demonstration that Edison gave of his machine and authorized its purchase.

Inexperienced in negotiating with the barons of Wall Street, Edison had no idea what price to ask for his patent rights. He finally determined to seek $5,000 for the rights but lost his nerve to ask for such a fabulous sum. Frustrated, he suggested they make him an offer. Later, he recalled how he came "as near to fainting as I ever got" when they suggested compensation in the amount of $40,000!

With his newfound wealth and orders from Western Union to manufacture 1,200 stock tickers based on his design, Edison set up several manufacturing companies in Newark, New Jersey. In a letter to his parents, he happily described himself as "a bloated Eastern manufacturer." It was at this time that he began to assemble a group of trusted assistants, many of whom would share in his work for decades to come. He also fell in love and married Mary Stilwell, a young girl of 16 who was employed at one of his companies, on Christmas Day in 1871. The couple had three children: Marion, Thomas Jr. and William Leslie.

Edison's contributions to the development of stock tickers didn't go unnoticed. Western Union and other telegraph companies now pursued him constantly to test or to make improvements to the equipment. Consumed by his work, he often left his new wife alone as he worked at the laboratory, poring over a new invention. He was capable of long hours of experimentation, during which he'd often chew on a cigar, let it go out and then light it again. At one point he remarked he was smoking so many cigars that "holding a heavy cigar constantly in my mouth has deformed my upper lip; it has a sort of Havana curl."

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.

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.

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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