Thomas Edison – A Brief Biography (1847-1931)

Thomas Edison Biography
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Thomas Edison was an American inventor and businessman, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most prolific inventors of all time.

Edison was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of organized science and teamwork to the process of invention, which enabled him to develop devices in various fields such as sound recording, mass communication, motion pictures, and, most importantly, electric power generation.

The inventions of Edison, especially the first commercially viable electric light bulb, have greatly revolutionized and influenced the modern world we live in today.

Early Life

Thomas Edison was born on 11th February 1847 in Milan, Ohio, to Samuel Ogden Edison Jr. and Nancy Mathews Elliott. He was the seventh and last child.

Edison attended school only for a few months and was later taught to read and write by his mother, who was a schoolteacher. His mother also taught him basic arithmetic. From an early age, he was a very curious child. He tried to learn things on his own by reading and even spent hours conducting little experiments at home.

In 1854, when Edison was 7 years old, the family moved to Port Huron in Michigan. It was here that Edison grew up.

Hearing Loss

At the age of 12, Thomas Edison began having hearing problems. The cause of his hearing loss was said to be due to a serious bout of scarlet fever during his childhood and recurring untreated middle-ear infection.

Edison soon became completely deaf in one ear and was barely able to hear anything from the other. But he would later remark that his loss of hearing allowed him to avoid unnecessary distractions and concentrate on his work.

First Job, and Working as a Telegraph Operator

When he was 13 years old, Thomas Edison began selling newspapers, candies, and vegetables on the trains running from Port Huron to Detroit. The money he earned from this went into purchasing equipment for chemical and electrical experiments.

But soon another opportunity came knocking at his door after he saved a 3-year-old boy from being struck by a runaway train. The boy’s father, who was the station agent of Mount Clements, was so grateful that he began training the young Edison as a telegraph operator.

Soon Edison began working as a telegraph operator, although subsequent events would prove that he was certainly not meant for a career in it. While working at Stratford Junction in Ontario on the Grand Trunk Railway, on his first job assignment outside of Port Huron, he was responsible for causing a near collision due to a mistake on his part.

It is said that Edison even conducted chemical experiments on the train until he finally left the job.

Back to Selling Newspapers

After he left his job as a telegraph operator, Thomas Edison went back to selling newspapers, but this time on a slightly larger scale.

He managed to obtain exclusive rights to sell newspapers on the road along with four of his assistants. This was the first of his many entrepreneurial endeavors, where he, at last, discovered his skills and talents as a businessman. These very skills would help him to achieve what he eventually went on to achieve.

Moving to Kentucky and Getting Fired

In 1866, Thomas Edison, aged 19, moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he began working the Associated Press bureau news wire.

In order to get time to read and experiment, Edison requested the night shift and got it. Unfortunately, experimenting cost him his job a year later. One night, while he was working with a lead-acid battery, he accidentally spilled sulfuric acid onto the floor. The acid went between the floorboards and onto his boss’ desk below. The next day he was fired.

Edison’s First Patent

On 1st June 1869, Thomas Edison, aged 22, was granted his first-ever patent for the electric vote recorder. But the machine had little demand and Edison abandoned it and moved to New York to work at the Gold Indicator Company for Samuel Spahr Laws.

While working at the company, Edison lived with inventor Franklin Leonard Pope, who was also a telegrapher, at Pope’s house. Pope soon became Edison’s mentor.

In October 1869, Edison and Pope established their own company and worked as inventors and electrical engineers.

Establishing the Industrial Research Laboratory

In 1876, Thomas Edison, aged 29, established an industrial research lab at Menlo Park in Middlesex County, New Jersey, with the money he received from the sale of his quadruplex telegraph, an electrical telegraph which allowed four separate signals to be transmitted and received on a single wire at the same time.

Edison sold his quadruplex telegraph to Western Union for $10,000 (approx. $228,700 today). It was his first big financial success.

The industrial lab at Menlo Park was a first of its kind, set up with the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation and improvement. Edison was assisted by employees to carry out research and development under his direction and supervision. Most of the inventions produced in the lab were legally credited to Edison.

Nearly all the patents granted to Edison were utility patents that were protected for 17 years. These patents included processes and inventions that were mechanical, chemical, or electrical in nature. The inventions were usually improvements over the prior art, except the phonograph patent, which was unprecedented in describing the first device to record and reproduce sounds.

Inventing the Phonograph

In 1877, a year after establishing the Menlo Park lab, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph which attracted much attention and fame toward him.

The invention of such a device that could record and reproduce sounds was so unexpected and magical that people began referring to Edison as The Wizard of Menlo Park. The invention made him a celebrity.

The first phonograph was recorded on tinfoil around a grooved cylinder and in spite of its limited sound quality and the fact that the recordings could be played only a few times, the invention became extremely popular.

Scientist Joseph Henry, who was then the president of the National Academy of Sciences, described Edison as the most ingenious inventor in America or in any other country. Edison was even invited to Washington D.C to demonstrate the phonograph before the National Academy of Sciences, Senators, Congressmen, and President Rutherford B. Hayes.

After obtaining a patent for the phonograph, Edison did not do much to develop it further. A few years later, in the 1880s, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Tainter, and Chichester Bell produced a phonograph-like device that used wax-coated cardboard cylinders.

Developing Carbon Microphone

Around 1876, Thomas Edison was one of several inventors and scientists working on the problem of creating a usable microphone for telephones by having it modulate an electric current passed through it, in contrast to the microphones developed by Graham Bell and German scientist and inventor Johan Phillip Reis, which worked by generating a weak current.

By 1877, Edison had developed and used a carbon microphone to create an improved telephone for Western Union. And in 1886, he found a way to improve a Bell Telephone microphone that used loose-contact ground carbon, when he discovered that it worked far better if the carbon was roasted.

This discovery of his was put to use in 1890 and was used in all telephones along with the Bell receiver until the 1980s.

The Incandescent Light Bulb

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison did not exactly invent the light bulb. In 1840, British scientist Warren de la Rue developed one of the world’s first electric light bulbs using a coiled platinum filament. However, the high cost of platinum made the bulb impractical for commercial use.

In 1878, Edison began working on a system of electrical illumination that he hoped would compete with gas and oil-based lighting. He looked to create a long-lasting incandescent lamp that could be used indoors. But Edison was not the first inventor to devise such a lamp either. It had been devised by quite a few inventors such as Alessandro Volta in 1800, Mathew Evans, Henry Woodward, James Bowman Lindsay, Joseph Swan, Humphrey Davy, Heinrich Gobel, and a few more.

But all of these incandescent lamps were commercially impractical. They required a high electric current to operate, thereby making them difficult to apply on a large scale, and they all had an extremely short life.

To solve these very problems, Edison tried to use a filament made of cardboard, carbonized with compressed lampblack. But the result was disappointing. It burnt out too quickly, making it unsuitable to provide lasting light.

Edison Electric Light Company

In 1880, Thomas Edison was granted a patent for an electric lamp using a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected to platina contact wires. But he continued to experiment with palmetto and grasses and canes until finally settling on bamboo as the best filament after he and his team discovered that a carbonized bamboo filament could last for over 1,200 hours.

In 1878, Edison established the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City with financial backing from the likes of the Vanderbilt family, J.P. Morgan, and Spencer Trask. In late 1879, he held the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb at Menlo Park, during which he famously said, ‘We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.’

Edison’s light bulb became the first commercially viable electric light bulb.

In May 1880, Edison undertook the first commercial application of his light bulb aboard the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company’s new steamship, the Columbia, upon its president Henry Villard’s insistence.

Edison’s incandescent light bulb soon became popular in Europe as well. In 1882, the Mahen Theatre in Brno, Czech Republic, became the first public building in the world to use Edison’s electric lamps. The same year, the light bulbs were installed at the weaving hall of Finlayson’s textile factory in Tampere, Finland.

Edison Illuminating Company

In 1880, Thomas Edison established the Edison Illuminating Company and began developing an electric utility to compete with the existing gas light utilities.

In the early 1880s, Edison patented a system for electricity distribution and then established the first investor-owned electric utility on Pearl Street Station in New York City, which would go on to provide 110 volts of direct current to 59 customers in lower Manhattan.

The same year, he switched on the first steam-generating power station at Holborn Viaduct in London, which provided electricity to street lamps and private dwellings within a short distance of the station.

Researching Rubber

After the death of his first wife, Mary, in 1884, Thomas Edison left Menlo Park and moved to West Orange, New Jersey, with his second wife, Mina.

The following year, he bought a 13-acre property in Fort Myers, Florida, and built a house there to serve as his winter retreat. It was at Fort Myers that Edison first began trying to find a domestic source of natural rubber.

Edison was bothered by America’s dependency on foreign supplies of rubber and was hell-bent on finding a native supply. Further to this task, he set up a research laboratory in Fort Myers after Edison, Harvey Firestone, and Henry Ford raised $75,000 to form the Edison Botanical Research Corporation.

Edison did all the research and planting, frequently sending results and sample rubber residues to his lab in West Orange. After testing and experimenting with around 17,000 plant samples, he finally found an adequate source in Leavenworth’s Goldenrod, which usually grew up to 3-4 feet tall with a 5% latex yield.

However, through cross-breeding, Edison managed to produce plants that were almost twice the size and produced twice the latex yield.

Other Major Inventions

Thomas Edison is credited to have invented the Tasimeter, a highly sensitive device used to measure infrared radiation. He made the device because he wished to measure the heat from the solar corona during the total solar eclipse in 1878. But since he could not find any practical mass-market application for it, he did not bother to patent it.

In the year 1891, Edison publicly demonstrated two of his devices, the Kinetograph, and the Kinetoscope, both of which were early motion-picture exhibition devices. The kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peep-hole viewer window at the top of the device. But it was not a movie projector.

In 1896, Thomas Armat’s Vitascope, which was manufactured by Edison’s factory and marketed in his name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City.

Edison is also credited with designing and producing the first commercially available Fluoroscope, a machine that uses X-rays to obtain real-time moving images of the interior of an object. He discovered that calcium tungstate fluoroscopy screens produced brighter images than the barium platinocyanide screens originally used.

But the project proved to be quite risky and Edison abandoned it after almost losing his own eyesight and causing serious injury to his assistant, Clarence Dally. Dally died an early death due to excessive exposure to radiation and its complications.

The fundamental design of Edison’s fluoroscope is still in use to this day.


On 18th October 1931, Thomas Edison, aged 84, died in his home in West Orange and was buried behind his home.

The cause of his death was revealed to be complications due to diabetes.


Thomas Edison is now widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential inventors and pioneers in history. His inventions in the field of motion pictures, mass communication, sound recording, and electric power generation have revolutionized the world we live in.

No other inventor in recent times has had as much impact on the modern industrialized world as Edison has. He was a prolific inventor who held 1,093 US patents in his name as well as several patents in other countries.

Edison was widely honored and celebrated during his lifetime and was the recipient of numerous awards and accolades from across the world. Many places, towns, universities, colleges, hotels, bridges, and even lakes have been named after him. And if that was not enough, several awards have also been named after him, such as the Edison Medal (for meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering, or the electric arts), and the Edison Award (a Dutch music prize awarded for outstanding achievements in the music industry). Other than this, there have been museums named after him and statues erected in his honor.

What many fail to realize is that Edison was not just a great inventor and scientist but also a great entrepreneur who founded multiple companies in various fields for researching, experimenting, and manufacturing. Without a doubt, he was a shrewd businessman, who would never have been able to achieve what he ended up achieving without his acute business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit.

Perhaps his most famous company which operates even today is Edison General Electric, which later merged with Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric. Edison even had companies in other countries, especially in Europe.

But at the end of the day, in spite of all his pioneering inventions in various fields, we shall all remember him most fondly for his role in making the electric light bulb commercially affordable and available on a large scale.