As the manager of the world's first industrial research unit, Edison inspired his co-workers through example. His tremendous work ethic and undying enthusiasm were the foundation of his success.
Described as having matchless courage, imagination and determination, Edison's life is a stirring example of the American Dream come true.
Born in 1847, Thomas Alva Edison was the youngest son of a shingle manufacturer father and a schoolteacher mother.
Right from childhood, Edison was full of curiosity - "How does a hen hatch chickens?"; "What makes birds fly?"; "Why does water put out a fire?" When his mother or books couldn't answer his questions, he resorted to experiment. When he learnt that hens hatched eggs by sitting on them, he collected some goose and hen eggs in a basket and sat on it. And when he discovered that balloons fly because they have air, he persuaded a friend to take Siedlitz powder, a carbonated laxative. Edison reasoned that with a stomach full of gas, the boy would float! But instead, the boy became ill.
Even at school his frequent questions frustrated his teacher. The irritated teacher labelled the young Edison as 'retarded,' thus annoying his mother. Consequently, after only three months of formal schooling, he was withdrawn from school.
Thereafter Edison was taught at home by his mother. He was a fast learner and when he was 9, his mother gave him a chemistry textbook by Richard G. Parker, a well-known teacher of the mid 1800's. True to character, Edison verified every experiment by repeating them himself. He has amassed over 100 bottles of chemicals and set up a chemistry lab in the basement of the family home. He labelled each bottle as 'poison' so that other family members would not tamper with them.
From the age of 12, to finance his experiments, he worked on the Grand Trunk Railway selling newspapers, sandwiches, peanuts and candy. He served regularly on the Port Huron to Detroit route. And in the baggage car of the train he set up a chemistry lab and printing press. In his spare time he experimented and printed the Weekly Herald - the first newspaper published on a moving train.
At the age of 16, he got a job as a telegrapher, sending hourly messages to Toronto. It was at this time that he made his first invention. He made a gadget that would send the signals hourly, even if he was asleep!
Then in 1868, he made an electric vote-recording machine which he unsuccessfully tried to persuade Congress to buy. It was then that Edison resolved, "I will never again invent anything nobody wants."
In 1869, he was asked to repair a stock ticker - a telegraph device used to report gold prices from the Gold Indicator Company to their brokers' offices. He did so and then went on to make further improvements to the machine. The company bought the patents for the modified machine for $40,000.
He used the money to set up a scientific village at Menlo Park. Here, he employed chemists, machinists, mathematicians, in fact anyone he thought would be able to help him solve tricky problems. He installed the latest equipment and his facilities had few rivals, even at leading universities. Thus, he married science to industry and developed the 'team research' concept - one which was imitated 20 years later by the giant corporations of Europe and America. This idea was probably Edison's greatest invention.
With these facilities at his disposal, Edison promised a minor invention every ten days and a 'big trick' every six months. He offered to 'make inventions to order' and so was described as the man 'who made a business of invention.'
In fact, Edison patented a record 1093 inventions in his lifetime. Many of his patents were for significant improvements to the inventions of others. For example, until he corrected the letter alignment and ink distribution of the typewriter, writing by hand was faster than typing. Edison also designed the carbon transmitter for use in the telephone. Before this, people had to shout into the telephone. Thus, his invention made the telephone more practical. Edison's own inventions include motion pictures, the microphone, mimeograph, nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery and many others.
The Phonograph & Electric Light Bulb
Undoubtedly one of his most original inventions, Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. The idea came to him while trying to find a way to record telegraph messages automatically.
Then in 1879 came his most famous invention - the electric light bulb. This was not as original an invention as the phonograph, since gas had already been used for lighting. But Edison searched for two years to find a filament - a wire - that gave good light when electricity flowed through it. During his search he sent agents to the jungles of the Amazon and to the forests of Japan. Finally, after thousands of experiments for a suitable light bulb filament, Edison succeeded by using a carbonised thread sealed in a vacuum, so that it would glow without being consumed. Then, his staff worked out the principles of the modern generating and distribution system to make electrical lights practical for every home.
In 1882, he opened the first electricity generating station at Pearl Street in New York.
Edison established many companies to promote and market his many products. The Edison Electric Company, which made the electric lamp and central station equipment, eventually, through a series of mergers, became the General Electric Company.
In 1887, Edison moved to a larger premises and a more modern laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.
No Fear of Failure
Edison frequently met with failures and setbacks. Once, his entire fortune was tied up in machinery for a magnetic separation process for low-grade iron ore. But this process became obsolete and uneconomical due to the opening of rich high-grade mines.
One cold night in December 1914, at a time when experiments on the nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery had put a severe financial strain on Edison, and only profits from films and record production were supporting the laboratory, the entire plant caught fire. Spontaneous combustion had occurred in the film room and within minutes everything was consumed by the fire. Fire fighters from eight towns arrived but struggled to control the fire.
Even during this time of immense personal tragedy, Edison, now aged 67, revealed his ever-optimistic outlook. He told his children, "Where's Mom. Go, get her! Tell her to get her friends! They'll never see a fire like this again!"
At 5.30 the following morning, with the fire still raging, he gathered his employees and declared, "We're rebuilding." He told one man to lease all the machine shops in the area. Another was told to get a wrecking crane from the local railway company. Then, almost as an afterthought he asked, "Oh, by the way. Anybody know where we can get some money?"
He explained, "You can always make capital out of disaster. We've just cleared out a bunch of old rubbish. We'll build bigger and better on the ruins." Then, he rolled up his coat for a pillow and curled up on a table to catch some sleep.
Personality and Beliefs
Edison was married twice, his first wife died young. Both wives complained that he spent most of his time in the lab and spent little time for his family.
While he was working for Western Union, America's leading electrical enterprise at the time, Edison became famous for his ability to cure 'bugs'. He frequently worked all night at the company's headquarters and was described by the company's operating chief as a 'genius' and a 'fiend for work' who had 'unfailing self-confidence.'
Edison worked up to 18 hours a day. His ability to live off four hours of sleep a day - and the occasional catnap - was widely know. Edison used to say, "Sleep is like a drug. Take too much at a time and it makes you dopey. You lose time, vitality and also opportunities."
He strongly believed that 'accomplishing something provides the only real satisfaction in life.'
And when he was described as 'The Wizard of Menlo Park,' he commented, "Wizard? It's plain hard work that does it." In fact, it was Edison who said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."
Deaf since early childhood, Edison was frequently questioned as to why he did not invent a hearing aid. To this, he would philosophically reply, "How much have you heard in the last 24 hours that you couldn't do without?" He would then add, "A man who has to shout can never tell a lie."
Although not religious, Edison believed in a Supreme Intelligence. He would tell friends that although he was renowned throughout the world for his inventions, he was unable to create even the simplest of life forms.
During his lifetime, Edison received many honours and awards. But his favourite was the gold medal presented to him in 1928 by Congress, for 'development and application of inventions that have revolutionised civilisation in the last century.'
Edison's zeal for work was such that he never retired. Even at the age of 80, he began a search for a native source of rubber, testing and classifying over 17,000 plants.
Sadly, at the age of 84, Edison fell ill and died. But the light of his inventions and the example of his dedicated life lives on to inspire all who endeavour to achieve.