Inventors in History: Thomas Edison

Move aside Valentine, February is the month of Edison.

Today the 11th is National Inventors’ Day, celebrated on the anniversary of the birth of one of America’s most prolific inventors (4th to be exact). To commemorate this holiday, let us revisit America’s gilded years and recount the story of a young telegraph operator who would become the most significant innovator of the 20th century.

Thomas Alva Edison was born in 1847, the youngest of 7 children, in Milan, OH. His father, Sam, was a political refugee from Canada, who fled execution after a failed rebellion. Mrs. Edison, a former schoolmistress, took it upon herself to educate young Thomas after formal schooling proved incapable of holding his attention. Throughout his childhood, Edison developed a knack for experimentation and entrepreneurship, maintaining a small chemistry lab in a boxcar and establishing a profitable side business selling newspapers.

Edison’s first official job was as a telegraph operator. In those days, this occupation was associated as much with chewing tobacco and gambling as it was for relaying messages in Morse code. Nevertheless, Edison took this opportunity to express his inventive inclinations and make a few bucks in the process. He noticed that the standard Morse telegraph often transmitted too quickly for operators to accurately interpret the code. Thus, Edison built a machine that would indent the various dots and dashes of a message into a paper tape, which could then be fed through a second machine at a much more manageable rate. Edison leveraged these new telegraph tape printers into a stock-and-gold quotation service for banks, and soon found himself the golden boy of Wall Street.

Edison's Stock Ticker

As luck would have it, the telegraph market was rapidly evolving and new technologies were in high demand. The near-monopolistic Western Union, under the powerful Vanderbilt family, was eager to invest in novel inventions such as Edison’s. His newest baby was a device that could temporally align Western Union’s central office to the outlying stock ticker stations scattered across the country. Edison’s asking price was $5,000. Western Union paid out $30,000.

With this large infusion of cash, Edison purchased a telegraph factory in Newark and immersed himself in research and experimentation. He also forged the three most important relationships of his career by partnering with Charles Batchelor, a textile machinist; John Kruesi, a clockmaker; and Edward Johnson, a railroad engineer. Batchelor could put Edison’s ideas onto paper, Kruesi could build them, and Johnson could legitimize them through patents.

The turning point of this period in Edison’s career was his invention of the quadruplex, wherein two messages could be sent in one direction down a wire, and two in the other. The tireless inventor spent 100 days and nights sequestered in Western Union’s secret laboratories, under the watchful gaze of President William Orton. Ultimately, the device became a cornerstone of the industry, worth nearly $20 million by some estimates. Edison on the other hand, left with a comparatively small commission and a general distaste for corporate politics.

Edison's Lab in Menlo Park (Author: Andrew Balet)

Edison used the funds from his quadruplex (approximately $202,000 today) to establish a novel and extremely ambitious research lab in Menlo Park, NJ. Among his proposed projects were an artificial flying bird and an artificially perfumed rose. He emptied the facility of all of its clocks to show that the place was not a slave of time, and peppered the rooms with Joshua Reynolds’ quotation: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” Here, Edison was intent to develop new inventions from concept to product with minimal involvement from outside business. It was here that Edison attracted great attention with his debut of the phonograph in 1877, earning him the moniker, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. It was also here that Edison gained much public scrutiny when he announced his aim to send light, power, and heat to every household through a wire.

This latest project was quickly decried by Edison’s peers as scientifically stupid and economically hopeless. Nobody, after 50 years of experimentation, could sustain an incandescent light for more than a few ephemeral moments. Edison and his team quickly proved them wrong in spectacular fashion. Through experimentation, Edison was able to derive the relationship between current, resistance, and voltage (Ohm’s Law) that enabled him to achieve a cost-effective incandescence. The two main challenges to creating a practical light bulb were to 1) find a filament with a high resistance that would not oxidize easily (causing it to melt or blow out) and 2) maintain a vacuum in the bulb. After a great many trials and tribulations, Edison settled on a carbon filament (rolled to 15/1000 of an inch to maximize resistance). As for the second problem, he enlisted the help of an 18-year-old German glassblower who achieved an internal pressure of 1/100 atm in the bulb. On October 22, 1879, Edison recorded 13.5 hours of sustained incandescence from his first generation of light bulbs. Less than a month later, he had achieved 45 hours.

US Patent for the Electric-Lamp (Jan. 27,1880)

 As it turns out, inventing the impossible was the easy part. Ever the businessman, Edison quickly moved to capitalize on his new creations by incorporating the Edison Electric Light Company (which counted JP Morgan and the Vanderbilt family among its financial supporters) and established a commercial presence in New York, Paris, and London. From 1880 to 1881, Edison set up a coherent network of companies (including Con Edison and General Electric) that would form the foundation of the entire electrical industry. He dispatched Batchelor and Johnson to Europe to drum up support overseas, and went to work constructing a central power station in New York City. Just to give you an idea of the magnitude of Edison’s achievement, here are a few of items on his task list:

  • Design and manufacture dynamos that can efficiently convert steam into electricity
  • Connect a 14-mile network of underground wiring
  • Insulate the wiring and install safety measures for environmental hazards
  • Design motors for elevators, printing presses, lathes, fans, and any other electrical appliances
  • Invent and manufacture switches, sockets, fuses, lamp holders, etc.

By 1883, Edison’s lights were brightening the world, with 153 power plants in cities such as Berlin, Bologna, Bordeaux, Manchester, Munich, Paris, and Rome.

Edison with one of his dynamos

Nevertheless, Edison was not without competition. First and foremost, was the rise of alternating current (AC) (under George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla) as a cheaper and more efficient alternative to direct current (DC). AC was transmittable across long distances, with the main drawback being that it operated at a high and potentially lethal voltage. So began the infamous War of Currents, in which Edison ardently targeted AC current as too dangerous for commercial use. He went so far as to electrocute stray dogs and even a Coney Island elephant with AC current, while filming the results with his newly invented motion picture camera (the “kinetograph”). Regardless, competition was Edison’s greatest motivating force to innovate. When corporate interests seized Edison’s company to consolidate the industry under the umbrella of the modern-day General Electric, Edison quietly withdrew from the industry he almost single-handedly built.

 Despite his monumental achievements as an inventor and businessman, Edison the man could be cold and arrogant. Referring to his first wife in a journal, he writes, “Mrs. Mary Edison, my wife dearly beloved cannot invent worth a damn!” This perceived deficiency led to Edison largely forsaking the home life. As for Mary, she developed a dangerous paranoia that resulted in her sleeping with a .38 Smith & Wesson under her pillow. Furthermore, Edison is often credited with the invention of the electric chair as a means of lawful execution.

It is impossible to deny the indelible effect Edison had on the landscape of the 20th century. His creations were the seeds for some of the largest global industries today: electricity, communications, motion pictures, and musical entertainment. Edison’s unique combination of creative curiosity and business acumen enabled him to not only invent on a staggering scale, but implement his vision on the world stage. His story and his impact on how people live today are truly unprecedented in history.


Thomas Edison had an encyclopedic memory and expected job applicants to have a similar knowledge. The test he administered to every job seeker had 150 questions; each test was tailored for a specific position. Some of the things college graduates were expected to know:

1.      What city in the United States is noted for its laundry-machine making?

2.     Who was Leonidas?

3.     Who invented logarithms?

4.     Where is Magdalena Bay?

5.     What is the first line in the Aeneid?

6.     What is the weight of air in a room 10 by 20 by 30 feet?

7.     Where is Korea?

8.    Who composed Il Trovatore?

9.     What voltage is used on streetcars?


10.   Which countries supply the most mahogany?

11.  Who was the Roman emperor when Jesus Christ was born?


12. How many cubic yards of concrete in a wall 12 by 20 by 2 feet?

13. Who assassinated President Lincoln?


14.   Name 20 different carpentry joints.

15.   What are the ingredients of a Martini cocktail?

Edison did not demand perfect scores, merely 90 percent, which had been likened to having an IQ of 180. Out of 718 college men Edison tested for jobs, only 10 percent got a “fair” or passing grade. Edison said, “Only two per cent of the people think, as I gather from my questionnaire.” Magazines, which loved running stories on Edison’s employment test, gave Edison pop quizzes with similar questions on a variety of subjects. He averaged 95 percent.

ANSWERS: 1. Newton, Iowa 2. Spartan general who died at Thermopylae 3. John Napier 4. Baja California 5. Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris 6. Air at 0.075 pounds per cubic foot x 6,000= 450 pounds 7. Asian peninsula between China and Japan 8. Giuseppe Verdi 9. 600 volts, at the time 10. Brazil, Bolivia 11. Augustus 12. 17.78 cubic yards 13. John Wilkes Booth 14. Bride, butt, biscuit, box, corner halving, dado, dovetail, dovetail halving, dowell, finger, housing, lap, half lap, mitred butt, mitred, mortice and tenon, scarf, spline, rabbet, tongue and groove 15. Gin and dry vermouth

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