Thomas Alva Edison
1847 - 1931
The man who lit up the world...
An appreciation by Barrie Blake-Coleman
Prolific in invention, subtly enigmatic, undeniably inspired and arguably the first and last of a kind, Thomas Alva Edison acquired mythical status and basked in fame and unreserved public reverence for most of his later life. Yet the Edison legend is contradictory and has been much dissected by historians, mostly resulting in conflicting or diametrically opposite views. Vilified by some as perverse, uncouth and an overrated plagiarist of other people’s ideas, he is acclaimed by others as the definitive blend of originality, creativity, intellectual power and commercial acumen.
Edison accumulated 1,093 US and 1,300 foreign patents in his life (unequivocally many genuinely and solely the result of his own ingenuity) and as an innovator and entrepreneur his life’s achievements remain unsurpassed even today. In his lifetime he originated or controlled over 13 major companies and corporations. He effectively created General Electric Co., RCA, and many others. Consolidated Edison is still listed on the NY stock exchange.
In this short biographical sketch I hope to give a flavour of Edison the man but, more importantly, to give the crucial factors that made Edison an inventive institution. To understand the nature of Edison’s success we should first explore Edison’s formative years which give some explanation to that unique phenomenon later to become known as the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’.
Edison Boasted Dutch and Scottish lineage, the original Dutch connection having appeared as bankers in Manhattan Island in the early 1700’s. John Edison, the second generation American, was staunchly Tory during the War of Independence and like many thousands of other American royalists had to flee his homeland, and a death sentence, when the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. Settling in Digby, Nova Scotia, the Edisons’, as United Empire Emigrants (loyalists), were granted land extending to 1,200 acres in total. With the passing of the years, John Edison (the inventor’s grandfather) was situated at Bayham, Lake Erie. His son, Samuel Ogden Edison, eventually came to manage an hotel at Vienna, Bayfield, but resentful of privilege and oligarchy became an insurgent in the Canadian rebellion of 1837.
Pursued by militia after supporting McKenzie’s unsuccessful attack on Toronto, Samuel Edison made for the US frontier. After a forced march of 182 miles he reached safety in Detroit. Taking his Scots/Canadian wife, Nancy, with him, Samuel Edison settled in Milan, Erie County, Ohio, and made a living any way he could.
Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 – the last of seven children. His mother, educated and dutiful, was haunted by the death of three of her children. So much older were his remaining siblings that Edison was effectively an only child. A blessing he was later to appreciate. Doted on by his older sister, Thomas (Al in later years) received little formal schooling. His schoolteacher mother, terrified of losing him, largely educated him at home and stopped his school attendance for long periods the moment he appeared ill. Home tuition eventually replaced the hated school as Thomas learnt to exploit his mother’s fears.
Yet she instilled in him a strong quest for learning and by the age of 12 he had read Newton’s ‘Principea’, Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall…’, Dr. Ure’s ‘Dictionary of Sciences’, Parker’s ‘Natural and Experimental Philosophy’ and many other advanced scientific and historical works. He was intolerant of mathematics, put off by the abstruse nature of Principea, which was apparently clarified for him by an acquaintance of little learning (“It gave me a distaste for mathematics from which I have never recovered”). However, he developed a life-long habit of self-study. He attempted to read the entire contents of the Detroit Free Library, and in later years retained his proclivity for book collecting. At a later date on finding a fine edition of Faraday’s collected ‘Researches’ he devoured the contents on a single reading.
Early years – the beginnings of invention
Economic decline in the Milan area forced the Edisons’ to move to Port Huron, near Detroit. The Edisons’ fortunes lifted overnight. Samuel’s income and extramural business interests had taken a distinct upturn but Thomas Alva refused to forsake a restless affair with enterprise. Selling vegetables from his home garden, he further supplemented his income with a small newspaper concession on the Grand Trunk Railroad. Newspapers bought in a job-lot sold well enough but it spurred him on to publish his own – The Grand Truck Herald. He sold his newspaper along the same line, securing a boxcar for his presses.
Importantly, it gave him the freedom and time to pursue chemical experiments. Inattentive to a sample of open phosphorous during an experiment, the element caught fire and in his attempt to extinguish it Edison ignited the surrounding woodwork. Quick action by the guard saved the day but Edison’s concession was now forfeit. Also, angered by phosphorous burns on his hands, the guard struck Edison across an ear already weakened by an earlier infection. The burst eardrum left him partially deaf for the rest of his life.
Now 16, and disinclined to pursue either railroad engineering or commerce, Al cast about for another occupation. Telegraphy beckoned, for at this time the Morse Code (actually developed by Morse’s associate, Alfred Vail) no longer relied on a printing unit for reception. Operators had become so used to hearing the Morse dot-dash clicks from early printers that direct transcription became the norm. Indeed, Edison too had experimented with telegraphy and transcription, employing the help of a friend, James Ward. However, if Edison was to become adept at telegraphy, he needed a professional to teach him speed sending and receiving. A family friend, James Mackenzie, a seasoned telegrapher, agreed to take on Edison as an apprentice. Three months elapsed, during which time Edison developed a phenomenal proficiency with the Morse key. Mackenzie late recounted that within six weeks of starting Edison was the fastest transcriber he had ever seen. Taking a local operators job, Edison settled down to a telegrapher’s routine. However, as a result of being tricked out of payment for an urgent Report of Congress for a newspaper, Edison removed himself (and his resentment) to Stratford in Canada, where, as night duty telegrapher he was required to transmit the number six every hour to verify his wakefulness.
So little traffic was carried at night that Edison could safely sleep or follow his nocturnal practices in the local pleasure houses; but to ensure that he could, he rigged a small punched tape repeater which, with a clock driven motor, automatically transmitted the Morse ‘six’ at the required intervals. However, when it was realised that the sender could never be raised after a six was sent, Edison was discovered. Adding to this delinquency, Edison subsequently confused a scheduled train despatch signal which nearly caused a fatal accident. We are told that threatened with imprisonment, Edison made his escape.
Virtually penniless, as now was his family through changing fortune, Edison stayed at Port Huron teaming up with an itinerant inventor, Sam Ropes, who financed a telegraphed repeater similar to that used in Edison’s unlucky venture at Stratford. Though Ropes took the idea to Boston, Edison had accepted the mantle of a ‘tramp operator’ and was already on the move to Memphis via Louisville. At the Memphis telegraph office, Edison fell foul of a manager who found him trying to perfect an experimental repeater and duplex telegraphy system (simultaneous receive/transmit).
Dismissed from his Memphis job Edison’s fortunes changed and he fell into good company and a steady job at Nashville. His new-found solvency revived his thirst for learning and his quest for second-hand books, though his friends had a habit of pawning his hoard of literature between pay-days. Always proud of his telegraphic prowess in Nashville, Edison competed in the company of first-class operators, some faster that Edison at sending Morse. He countered this simply by building an automatic sender which he used to transmit at different speeds.
To date Edison had tinkered at invention, but then, so did many telegraphers at the time. Another move, this time to Boston, changed everything. He had outstayed his welcome at his last watering hole, Cincinnati, and Boston was the best of a decreasing list of options. Western Union were recruiting and Edison thought himself good enough to match the best telegraphers in the country. His try-out left his well-dressed and patronising Boston peers speechless. So fast was his receiving (his stylish copperplate simply got smaller and smaller as the operators send rate increased) that when the competing operator faltered, Edison quickly interrupted the transmission by tapping out “Send with your other foot”!
Working continually on the duplex/repeater idea Edison finally got a friend to introduce him to Frank L. Pope. Only seven years senior to Edison, Pope was highly respected as a telegraph engineer and had just completed a book on the subject soon to become a best-seller. Pope was impressed by Edison’s duplex system; it wasn’t the first attempt at duplex but he was confident it would work. He featured the idea in an article carried in the April 1868 edition of The Telegrapher. In parallel, Edison began work on developing a vote recorder intended to tally votes automatically in the Massachusetts Legislature. It worked, but was rejected by the house secretary because it removed the opportunity for representatives to block secret partisan legislation. Though this was Edison’s first patented invention he never again failed to investigate the commercial and practical potential of his devices. Still experimenting at night, and a Western Union man during the day, Edison persisted in his duplex system. Pope arranged a trial. Disappointed with the results, and at the behest of Pope, Edison left Boston for New York, there to wander in search of new inspiration.
Black Friday, September 1869. A cartel, headed by the financier and market raider Jay Gould, were attempting to corner the price of gold by a lightning purchase of all bullion held within the bounds of New York. Gold was rising in price and every institution was selling. So chaotic were events that some business houses were giving up the attempt to get a realistic price as they were in danger of having to close their doors and take a chance on the price of their remaining gold stocks when matters settled. Adding to the confusion, in an attempt to destroy the cartel, the US Government threw $4,000,000 worth of gold on the market. The price of gold collapsed but not before Gould et al had profited at the expense of many firms that had gone to the wall.
Finding himself on the steps of the Laws Gold Reporting Company in the middle of the crisis, Edison was drawn by the bedlam inside the offices. George Laws, president, had called his superintendent of engineering (Frank Pope, with whom Edison was lodging) to correct immediately a complete failure in the stock indicators supplied by wire from the central office stock quotation printer.
Pope, for all his technical expertise, was at a loss. Hundreds of people were streaming towards the central office to get the latest valuation and turmoil ensued. Panicked by the situation Laws and Pope began a bitter argument. Edison, quietly infiltrating the inner sanctum, knelt and inspected the broken apparatus. Laws, on seeing a stranger inspecting the quotation printer, was about to challenge when Edison said: “I think, Sir, I can show you were the trouble lies”. “Fix it!” demanded Laws.
Engaged at $300 a week, Edison and Pope redesigned the printer system. Unfortunately the Laws debacle had frightened its clients too much and many migrated to the rival Gold & Stock Co. The result was that Edison succeeded in losing his job; Laws sold out to Gold & Stock rather than risk the utter failure Laws Gold Reporting might have been. Although the new consolidation attempted to re-hire Edison he declined and entered into a shaky partnership with Pope.
Seeding a new venture
Working on duplex telegraphy, a new stock reporter and printing telegraph, Edison waited for Pope to generate some interest in the developments. Gold & Stock was under the control of Marshall Lefferts, ex-president of the American Telegraph Company. Convinced of the technical abilities of the partners, Lefferts agreed to absorb the Pope/Edison partnership (and its patents) in exchange for a $20,000 payment to be distributed pro-rata. For the first time, Edison found himself financially solvent – but his complaint that Pope et al were commanding a bigger share of the agreement resulted in Lefferts handing Edison a cashiers cheque for an additional $1,500. Still unsure of himself, Edison went to the bank for payment. When the teller marked the cheque and returned it Edison’s deafness let him down and, unnerved, he stormed back into Lefferts’ office demanding an explanation. Lefferts inspected the cheque. Laughing, he informed Edison that the teller had only been asking Edison to endorse the cheque; Edison’s signature would release the money.
It was clear to Lefferts that Edison was pivotal to the inventive and engineering prospects for Gold & Stock – yielding to his commercial sense of smell he agreed a separate deal with Edison. “How much do you want for your independent patents?” he asked. Unused to hard bargaining Edison first considered $5,000 but aware of both his worth and that he would be knocked down he suddenly asked for $40,000. Lefferts offered $30,000. Edison was dumbstruck and accepted.
Working at the American Telegraph works in New York, Edison now had the standing of a highly creative engineer, and with a stake in the telegraph business, he was building up his finances. Late in 1870 he hired Charles Batchelor, a talented English mathematician, and also took on the Swiss journeyman machinist John Kruesi. This was to be the nucleus of the Edison invention machine. From this point on Edison began his climb.
Signing separate supply and patent agreements with Western Union and the Gold & Stock Co., Edison took on a business partner, William Unger, and opened his own laboratories and production facilities at Ward Street, Newark, New Jersey. An imposing four-storey building, it was large enough for the 300-strong workforce to carry on the manufacture of repeaters and ticker-tape units. The fourth floor was Edison’s think-tank. It was here that he, Batchelor, Kruesi, and a motley assortment of others explored Edison’s fertile ideas. These included duplex and quadruplex telegraphy, the final design for the Gold & Stock printer, automatic telegraphy and rapid decoding of Morse.
Punched tape message ribbons were made and encoded at high speed by a reader. Transmission speeds were higher now with inductive loading of telegraph lines and Edison’s 1,000 words per minute rate was the highest ever seen. It was described in one journal as “simply incredible”. The electro-motograph, a method which electro-chemically reduced friction between a current carrying stylus and a chemically impregnated paper, also followed. It recorded, it vibrated, it was a loud speaking and permanent recorder for Morse signals. In six years Edison was able to dispense with a relay-based system and transmit at very high speed over 1,500 mile transmission wires. To provide a better non-electrolytic microphone for the Bell telephone system, Edison experimented with carbon granules.
The wizard makes magic
He found that the resistance changed as a function of pressure. The resultant ultra-sensitive carbon microphone made telephony utterly practicable. Though plagued with manufacturing problems the eventual design proved a lucrative monopoly for Western Union. By 1876, the 29-year-old Edison had kept the Patent Office busy with a diversity of 45 inventions. He was comparatively wealthy and his patent portfolio was worth about $400,000, as much from infringements as from royalties.
In 1873, Edison married Edith Stillwell, a teenage beauty. She had worked for Edison for some time and was aware of his proclivities. However, Edison – always the workaholic – found domesticity not to his liking. Throwing himself more into the job than before, he continued as he had started. If a problem arose, he locked the lab door and told his people that no one was allowed to leave until the matter was resolved. Sometimes they were incarcerated for days. Food went in but nothing and nobody came out. Edison could sleep anywhere, and did. Sometimes he would roll into a chemical puddle and thus he stayed, stained and unendurably reeking for the duration. Smoking large cigars, chewing tobacco and surviving on apple pie, he would depart from 24-hour vigils looking like something from hell – stained skin, eaten clothing and everything ash covered. But nothing could divert him from the task – he had to make it work.
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Ward Street, Newark, New Jersey
Edison as a young boy
Edison Telegraph Key
Edison Stock Ticker
Edison Microphone Patent
Edison Portrait - A.A. Anderson
© Barrie Blake-Coleman/Inventricity