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Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was a prolific and influential inventor in the late 19th and early 20th century whose inventions include the phonograph, motion picture camera, and the lightbulb, along with a means to harness DC electric power.

Early Life
Thomas Alva Edison was born February 11, 1847 in the port town of Milan, Ohio, which was one of the largest wheat-shipping centers in the world. The youngest of seven children, Thomas was home schooled by his mother, Nancy Edison, who taught her son the "Three R's" and the Bible. His father encouraged him to read the great classics, and gave him a 10-cent reward for each one he finished. Thomas was deeply interested in world history and English literature — he had a special fondness for Shakespeare — and enjoyed reading and reciting poetry.

His parents taught him how to use the resources of the local library, and gradually, Thomas preferred learning through independent self instruction. At an early age, he he became attracted to mechanics and chemical experiments. When young Thomas became interested in science, his parents scraped together money to hire a tutor. Thomas began to experiment with chemicals in the basement of his home.

When Edison was 14, he contracted scarlet fever. The effect of the fever, as well as a blow to the head by an angry train conductor, caused Edison to become completely deaf in his left ear, and 80-percent deaf in the other. He learned Morse code and the use of the Telegraph, and began a job as a "brass pounder" (telegraph operator). At age 16, Edison produced his first invention, called an "automatic repeater." The device transmitted telegraph signals between unmanned stations, allowing almost anyone to easily and precisely translate code at his own speed and convenience.

Inventions: Telegraph & Phonograph
In 1868 Edison moved east and began to work for the Western Union Company in Boston as a telegrapher. He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and continued to "moonlight" on his own projects. Within six months, he had applied for and received his first patent for an electric vote-recording machine, which was intended to speed the voting process. He tried to market it to members of the Massachusets Legislature, who were completely uninterested. Edison decided that he would concentrate on making all his future inventions things the public would want.

Edison moved to New York where he was given a job at a brokerage firm to make repairs to their equipment. He continued to "moonlight" with the telegraph, as well as the quadruplex transmitter and the stock-ticker. At age 29, Edison began work on the carbon transmitter, which made Alexander Graham Bell's new telephone audible for practical use.

Shortly thereafter, Edison moved his laboratory to Menlo Park, New Jersey. In 1877 he invented the first phonograph. The cylindrical device was the first machine that could record and reproduce sound. It created a sensation and brought Edison international fame. He toured the country with his invention, and was even invited to the White House to demonstrate it to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Lights, Camera, Action!
Thomas Edison's greatest challenge — and what he is credited with in the history books — was the development of a practical incandescent electric light bulb. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't invent the light bulb, but improved upon a 50-year-old idea. Numerous people had worked on forms of electric lighting without success. In 1879 he managed to produce a reliable, long-lasting light bulb. Most importantly, all of Edison's achievements were in Direct Current or simply "DC."

Edison had hired Nikola Tesla to design a Direct Current electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the light efficient, safe, and economical. However, DC was (and is) impractical for long-range distribution. The first public display of Thomas Edison's lighting system, designed by Tesla, was in December 1879, when his laboratory complex was electrically illuminated for the first time. The success of his electric light bulb brought Thomas Edison to new social and economical prominence.

However, as electric light spread around the world, it was on Tesla’s patented Alternating Current (AC) electrical distribution system controlled by Westinghouse Electric. Edison’s various electric companies continued to grow until 1889, when they were all brought together to form Edison General Electric, which was controlled by J.P. Morgan. By 1892 the Edison General Electric Company had become the General Electric Corporation.

The Panic of 1907 further illustrates the personal struggle between Edison and Tesla, and the abuse of power by J.P. Morgan.

Thomas Edison is most famous as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, but what many people don't realize is that he also invented the motion picture camera. He desired a device that would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear" — record and reproduce objects in motion. He dubbed it the kinetoscope.

One of Edison's first motion pictures -- the first ever copyrighted -- featured one of his employees pretending to sneeze. A good film for motion pictures was not available until 1893, at which time he built a motion picture studio in New Jersey. The studio had a roof that could be opened to let in light, and the entire building was constructed so that it could be moved to stay in line with the sun. The first motion pictures shown in a "movie theater" in America were presented to audiences on April 23, 1896, in New York City.

In 1915, as the United States inched closer to involvement in World War I, Edison was asked to head the Naval Consulting Board, which was an attempt to organize the talents of America's leading inventors and scientists for the benefit of the armed forces.

Although the Board did not make any remarkable contributions to the overall Allied victory, it did serve as a precedent for future cooperation among scientists, inventors, and the U.S. military. During the war, Edison spent several months in a navy vessel on the Long Island Sound, experimenting with techniques for detecting and identifying submarines.

The Last Experiments
The last experimental work of Edison's life was done at the request of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. They asked Edison to find a substitute source of rubber for use in automobile tires. The natural rubber used for tires up to that time came from the rubber tree, which does not grow in the United States. It was becoming increasingly expensive.

Edison tested thousands of different plants to find a suitable alternative, eventually finding a type of Goldenrod weed that could produce enough rubber to be practicable. Edison was still working on this at the time of his death.

Edison obtained his last patent (his 1093rd) at age 83. He died October 18, 1931 in New Jersey. Countless individuals, communities, and businesses throughout the world recognized that his death marked the end of an era in the progress of civilization.

Homes and businesses alike throughout the world dimmed their lights or briefly turned off their electric power in his honor on the evening of the day he was laid to rest at his estate in Glenmont, New Jersey.

See also The Wright Brothers.