Demise of Edison, great inventor of lightbulb

Thomas Alva Edison demonstrating his tinfoil phonograph, photograph by Mathew Brady, 1878.

Thomas Alva Edison demonstrating his tinfoil phonograph, photograph by Mathew Brady, 1878.

U.S. inventor Thomas Alva Edison (born Feb.11, 1847) had very little formal schooling. He set up a laboratory in his father’s basement at age 10; at 12 he was earning money selling newspapers and candy on trains. He worked as a telegrapher (1862-68) before deciding to pursue invention and entrepreneurship. Throughout much of his career, he was strongly motivated by efforts to overcome his handicap of partial deafness. For Western Union he developed a machine capable of sending four telegraph messages down one wire, only to sell the invention to Western Union’s rival, Jay Gould , for more than $100,000. He created the world’s first industrial-research laboratory, in Menlo Park, N.J. There he invented the carbon-button transmitter (1877), still used in telephone speakers and microphones today; the phonograph (1877); and the incandescent lightbulb (1879). To develop the lightbulb, he was advanced $30,000 by such financiers as J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts. In 1882 he supervised the installation of the world’s first permanent commercial central power system, in lower Manhattan. After the death of his first wife (1884), he built a new laboratory in West Orange, N.J. Its first major endeavour was the commercialization of the phonograph, which Alexander Graham Bell had improved on since Edison’s initial invention. At the new laboratory Edison and his team also developed an early movie camera and an instrument for viewing moving pictures; they also developed the alkaline storage battery. Although his later projects were not as successful as his earlier ones, Edison continued to work even in his 80s. Singly or jointly, he held a world-record 1,093 patents, nearly 400 of them for electric light and power. He always invented for necessity, with the object of devising something new that he could manufacture. More than any other, he laid the basis for the technological revolution of the modern electric world.