By Henry Frost
Biography magazine, 1999
The world was dubious. A Yale professor said that the idea of a “phonograph” was ridiculous. A scientist in Europe dismissed the machine as some sort of trick involving a ventriloquist. Women fainted when the device was demonstrated in Washington, D.C.; perhaps members of the audience peered behind the curtain, trying to spot that ventriloquist.
People in 1877 were still getting accustomed to technological miracles. Folks needed a few months to accept the talking machine, but eventually it proved itself, and the inventor became an American hero.
What new work of genius, people asked, would be wrought by this Edison fellow? The answer: He would bring forth an incandescent lightbulb and an elegant system to make the bulb shine. He would create the electrical grid, foundation of the modern world.
Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, the seventh and youngest child (fourth surviving) of Sam and Nancy Edison. His father was a businessman and speculator who, despite failing at a couple of ventures, bubbled with optimism – an attribute he passed on to his children. Nancy was a pious soul who read often with her brood and instilled in them a love of books.
Formal schooling was not a priority for young Tom. He attended classes for only a few years, and sporadically at that. Scholars have not pinpointed the exact reason for this, but one factor may have been the educational system of the day, which focused on rote memorization. Tom insisted, with enormous willpower and/or stubbornness, that the best way for him to learn was by coming to his own conclusions, feeling his way into things at his own pace. His great love was hiking alone to railroad yards, foundries, and lumber mills, observing the action for hours, making sketches, and going home to his workshop to build a model railway, a set of toy cannons, a water mill. He found deep satisfaction in using his hands to create, and his parents indulged him.
The household encouraged the boy’s nonconformity in another way. Sam Edison suggested that his son read the works of Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary and Enlightenment philosopher who counseled that science should replace the set-in-stone authority of religion. “The clarity of Paine’s prose,” writes historian Douglas L. Wilson, “and the incisive lucidity of his rationalism made his writings popular with thoughtful readers of (the mid-19th century), particularly those inclined toward freethinking….(Paine was popular among) nonconformists….” Years later, Edison said of Paine, “Never have we had a sounder intelligence in this republic.”
At some point in Edison’s autodidactic quest he encountered the work of Michael Faraday, the Englishman who wrote that the mysterious force called electricity would someday power machinery. Faraday’s “Experimental Researches in Electricity,” published in three volumes (1839, 1844, and 1855), is a core enabling book of the modern world.
Michael Faraday and Thomas Paine, plus parental support, formed the archway through which Thomas Edison passed to a lifetime of creativity.
In 1862, the 15-year-old Edison was living in Port Huron, Michigan, riding the local railroad to deliver newspapers to small towns. Hearing reports of a major Civil War encounter in Tennessee – the Battle of Shiloh – he persuaded his circulation manager to give him 1,000 copies of that day’s edition rather than the usual 100, and convinced a telegrapher to send a bulletin about the battle to each town on the rail line. Then he doubled his price per copy from 5 cents to 10. Crowds met him everywhere and he reaped a modest and satisfying bonanza.
What had made this triumph possible? Edison’s entrepreneurial zeal, of course. The railroad, certainly. And the telegraph. Tom encountered an interesting fact: With this little electrical machine, people could send information from city to city virtually instantly, with large and positive effects on the pocketbook. (See here for a profile of telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse.)
Just a few years earlier, information had traveled at the speed of horse, ship, or beacon. Now it traveled at the speed of light. “I realized,” Edison said later, in his blunt, non-fancy style, “that the telegraph was a great invention.” He apparently needed to encounter the technology first-hand before he fully grasped its power – as ever, he needed to ponder stuff in his own good time.
He resolved to learn telegraphy. He became expert at it and landed a job as a traveling telegraph operator, earning a good living in one of the more desirable occupations for a young man in those years.
In 1867, the 20-year-old Edison started inventing new telegraphy equipment. His peers called him “the Loony”; they couldn’t understand why a man would spend his evenings alone in his room, immersed in machinery, when the world offered so many other things for immersion. Edison was indifferent to what others thought of him – he was a freethinker, a student of Thomas Paine, and a genius. His confidence in his powers grew each time he created a new device. At some point, probably when he was in his 20s, he realized that he, Tom Edison, could bring to fruition the forecasts of Michael Faraday about the power of electricity.
In 1874 Edison invented a device that could transmit four telegraph messages at once over a single wire. Jay Gould, the financier and railroad baron, paid him $30,000 in cash and stock for the rights to the invention; with the windfall, Edison built a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, stocking it with every tool he required to begin answering one of history’s great questions: What can electricity do?
Working with a small group of assistants, he quickly discovered that electricity could power a machine that would talk. This, people said, was flat-out magic, and sure enough, newspaper stories began appearing about the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” The press decided that Edison was a useful symbol for the accelerating technological age, a man who combined the best of two worlds, living at the cutting edge of innovation, and at the same time offering knee-slappin’ jokes and a charming lack of pretense.
After inventing the phonograph in 1877, Edison cast about for what to do next. He didn’t seek to commercialize his new sound machine; he put the device on the back burner in anticipation of the day when the marketplace would support it with cheap recordings. In September, 1878, he began investigating how to create a practical system for incandescent electrical lighting.
This was a grail for 19th-century inventors. For many years people had been trying to develop safe, bright, inexpensive, incandescent lighting, a system that would overcome the limitations of tallow candles, wax candles, kerosene, natural gas, whale oil, and arc lights. At least 20 types of incandescent lighting had been devised, each with major problems. Among the dilemmas: How do you illuminate solid material without causing it to burn out every few hours? And how do you parcel out electrical current – “subdivide” it – so that the failure of one light in a circuit doesn’t cause the whole system to fail?
Some experts claimed these problems couldn’t be solved. An official committee of the British government stated that commercial subdivision was impossible.
Edison and his staff wished to decide for themselves what was impossible.
They attacked the task with zest. The atmosphere in the laboratory was “joyous,” one worker later recalled. Edison’s team in 1878 consisted of half-a-dozen young machinists, mechanics, draftsmen, and assistants (their ranks eventually swelled to 60). As historian Paul Israel notes, the happy collaboration of Menlo Park was vital to Edison’s early successes, and helped spawn the modern research lab.
Edison and his men exemplifed an American characteristic summarized in 1997 by British historian Paul Johnson (in fact, Edison helped create the ethic): “….Americans are, above all, a problem-solving people. They do not believe that anything in this world is beyond human capacity to soar to and dominate. They will not give up.” Historian Henry Steele Commager said a similar thing in 1949: Americans of the 19th century “were, almost by instinct, tinkerers, and experience had taught them that they could change anything.”
Edison pretty much lived in his lab when he got absorbed in a task, much to the despair of his young wife, Mary Stilwell Edison, whom he wed in 1871, who felt neglected and unhappy.
Edison was apparently unconcerned about her feelings; he certainly didn’t change his habits. “What he desired most of all,” writes historian Robert Conot, “was not to be bothered with anything except his interest of the moment.”
He worked 70 to 80 hours a week on the lighting system. He would sit at one of his lab tables, chew tobacco, and make a sketch of a new component. He would ponder the drawing, pass it around among his associates, and wander off to leaf through a technical manual. He might pause and read a passage or two from his Shakespeare, who, he said, fed creativity because he “seemed to see the inside of everything.”
He would browse among his supplies: magnets, generators, batteries, condensers, pumps, steel coil, fragments of wire. He would play with his raw materials and tools with the grace of an artist and the passionate focus of a child. He would expectorate a sluice of tobacco onto the wooden floor, and he would think. Every room of his laboratory included a sign bearing a quotation from Sir Joshua Reynolds: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”
Some of Edison’s best thinking came during sleep. He was a dedicated power napper, stretching out on a divan for 20 minutes. He may have unearthed ideas from his dreams. (Some authorities think he suffered from narcolepsy.)
He’d wake up, wolf down a few bites of pie, and light a cigar. (Where would he have been without tobacco?) He would re-examine his sketch, pull out a pencil, and add a squiggle or two. He and his team might then build a prototype, experimenting with it for days, weeks, months – whatever it took.
When Edison fixed his sights on a goal he refused to let go. “Genius,” he famously wrote, “is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He was always optimistic, always sure that if he worked hard enough, he would bring new and valuable things into the world, and his name would be hailed from sea to shining sea.
The key to electric light, he gradually realized, was to devise a comprehensive system for it: bulb, bulb socket, generator, junction box, fuse, main, conductor, etc. He is most famous, of course, for his development of an efficient lightbullb, and indeed this was a major breakthrough, but as historian Thomas Hughes points out, the bulb itself was no more significant than several other components. Edison himself wrote, “It was not only necessary that the lamps should give light and the dynamos generate current, (but) all parts of the system must be constructed with reference to all other parts.”
Today, the systems approach is part-and-parcel of technological creativity, but the tactic was not common in the 1800s. For example, the English inventor Joseph Swan, who applied for a patent for his lightbulb shortly before Edison, created just the bulb – just that one piece of the puzzle. Swan saw immediately that Edison’s method was better. (Edison found useful ideas in Swan’s work.)
On December 27, 1879, at a meeting of his investors, Edison unveiled his light bulb. Next, he began building the most complex part of his system: a power plant.
This system, this pioneering commercial electric grid, this network for delivering electricty from suppliers to consumers – from the Pearl Street power plant on one end to glowing light on the other – was the most important technical innovation since Gutenberg, and is a seminal event in the creation of the modern world. Electricity became not just an occult fad feeding a handful of devices but a safe and affordable product powering society. Inventors jumped on the bandwagon, creating new machines to take advantage of the flow of juice. First came electric heaters and fans, then washing machines, refrigerators, the assembly line, manufacturing tools, medical equipment, radio, TV, air conditioning, stereos, and computers.
“Much of what we call modernity is fundamentally electrical in nature or at least dependent in a fundamental way on the electrical grid,” writes historian Philip F. Schewe. In 1999 the National Academy of Engineering named the electrical grid the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. (The grid was launched in 1882, as noted, but its development and spread occurred in the 20th century. Numbers 2 through 10, according to the academy: the automobile, the airplane, water supply and distribution, electronics, radio and TV, agricultural mechanization, computers, the telephone, and air conditioning and refrigeration.)
In January, 1882, as Edison raced to finish the Pearl Street project before the money ran out, his wife Mary suffered a physical and emotional breakdown. “She seems very nervous and despondent,” her doctor wrote to Edison.
Mary had been prone to health problems for years; she ate and drank too much, partly in response to her husband’s neglect, and possibly too because she, like most women of the day, didn’t develop interests outside the home. For a respectable middle class lady of the Victorian Era to get a job, or even to put on a pair of comfortable shoes and hike briskly around the block – why, the very idea! Edison offered only minimal support to Mary as she lay abed in gray gloom; he apparently regarded her as a malingerer.
Mary eventually recovered some of her emotional equilibrium, but her overall health declined, and she died at age 29 in 1884 from “congestion of the brain” – probably a tumor (which may have contributed to her earlier symptoms). Edison wept with grief. He was soon back at work.
Mary Stilwell Edison is a tragic and forgotten figure in the Edison saga: sad, half-sloshed, swept aside like so much detritus on the lab floor.
Thomas Edison was now a widower with three children under 12: Marion, Tom Jr., and Will. He quickly remarried, in 1886, to Mina Miller, age 20, who bore three children in coming years: Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore. Edison bought a 23-room mansion in Orange, New Jersey (now West Orange) and built a lab nearby.
Mina Edison also suffered from the effects of Tom’s workaholism, experiencing bouts of depression hauntingly like Mary’s, but she was made of sterner stuff than the first Mrs. Edison, and kept her grip. Edison exhibited little skill at fatherhood. When he wasn’t ignoring his two eldest boys (which was most of the time) he either treated them like pets or belittled them for lack of focus and gumption, things he possessed in such abundance. Tom Jr. became angry and unhappy and turned to alcohol like his mother.
Edison was confident that the second half of his life would be as gloriously productive as the first. One day in the 1890s he jotted down a list of items he wanted to create in the next few decades: a hearing aid that really worked (his own hearing was impaired), an improved cotton picker, artificial silk, electricity directly from coal, and dozens more ideas.
Things didn’t work out. He couldn’t regain the heady momentum of the 1870s and ’80s.
He wasted a full decade trying to invent a new way of processing iron ore. According to an associate, this project “intoxicated” him – his admirable self-confidence warped into arrogance; his legendary persistence became obstinacy. He was absolutely sure he could make the enterprise work, and he was absolutely wrong.
No one could tell him when he was wrong. His wife regarded him as a god, and some of his best lab partners had departed, partly because he didn’t pay them enough, and also because he failed to grant them the freedom and resources to develop their own interests. Teamwork had been key to Edison’s early successes but he seems to have forgotten this.
Edison spent too much time away from his lab, attending to administrative work and legal fights, tasks for which he was not well suited. Meanwhile his technical instincts deteriorated. He sneered at alternating current (AC), which he didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand, deciding, too quickly, that it was inferior to his beloved direct current (DC). In 1903 he filmed the electrocution of an elephant named Topsy with AC to show the “danger” of the technology. (Topsy had killed three men including an abusive trainer.)
In 1875 Edison chanced upon the fact of radio waves, but in the 1880s, when he had some time, he failed to pursue research in this realm, thus missing a really big boat.
Edison’s inventions formed the basis for the General Electric Company, but the firm’s managers kept the great man at arm’s length, skeptical of his business acumen. He should have cut his ties to GE, formed his own new company, hired a capable staff, and re-read “King Lear.” The result might have been additional decades of first-rate creativity, but it was not to be. (On the other hand, he invented the alkaline battery in the latter years of his career, and also made pioneering contributions to motion pictures and to the burgeoning phonograph industry.)
Thomas Edison stands today as modern history’s most prolific inventor and one of the most creative individuals in the annals of business. He was awarded a record 1,093 U.S. patents singly or jointly (about one patent every 10 days over his career) including 389 patents in the field of electric power and light. He was the centerpiece of an extraordinary era. “The generation of the 1850s,” writes historian Norman Stone, referring to people who grew up or came of age in that decade, “….experienced the greatest ‘quantum leap’ in all history, starting out with horses and carts and ending, around 1900, with telephones, aircraft, motor-cars….” And the electrical grid.
The last months of Edison’s life were a testament to his dedication – he worked hard virtually to the end, despite ill health. “Don’t stop experimenting,” he declared for the newspapers. “It’s good for long life!” He died in West Orange on October 18, 1931, age 84. Three days later, on October 21, beginning at 10 p.m. East Coast time, Americans dimmed their electric lights and shut off their radios for one minute in an elegant tribute to his memory. The Statue of Liberty’s torch went dark; a beautiful, serene darkness fell upon the land. Then millions of people flipped switches to “on,” and the juice flowed again, just like magic. ●
1. In company with Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” (1687), Diderot’s “Encyclopedia” (1751-72), Adam Smith’s “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (1776), William Wilberforce’s “On the Abolition of the Slave Trade” (1789), Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), and Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859).
2. Edison was the first to reproduce sound but not the first to record it. History’s first sound recording occurred in 1860 in France, on a phonautograph, a machine that captured sound waves visually, enabling study of their patterns. The result, a phonautogram, was first made audible in 2008. The French inventor of the technology, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (1817-1879), “went to his grave,” says the New York Times (3/27/2008), “convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison….In a self-published memoir in 1878, he railed against Edison for ‘appropriating’ his methods….” In fact, notes the Times, “There is no evidence that Edison drew on knowledge of Scott’s work to create his phonograph, and (Edison) retains the distinction of being the first to reproduce sound. ‘Edison is not diminished whatsoever by this discovery (of Scott’s work),’ (said David Giovannoni, an American audio historian).” Patrick Feaster, a sound recording historian at Indiana University, who had a hand in the Scott discovery, comments, “Scott is the father of recorded sound; Edison is the father of reproduced sound.” More information is available at firstsounds.org. (The claims of Scott are not dissimilar from those of aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, who figuratively shook his fist, with limited justification, at the Wright Brothers in the early 1900s.)
3. This deep-seated theme of American life spins out in interesting ways. Historian Robert Kagan wrote in 2002: “Europeans like to say that Americans are obsessed with fixing problems, but it is generally true that those with a greater capacity to fix problems are more likely to try to fix them than those who have no such capability. Americans can imagine successfully invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, and therefore more than 70 percent of Americans apparently favor such action. Europeans, not surprisingly, find the prospect both unimaginable and frightening.”