The Making of Modern America
|The Wizard of Menlo Park||Next|
|Digital History ID 3311|
He was hailed as "The Wizard of Menlo Park." The New York World, in 1901, called him "Our Greatest Living American, The Foremost Creative and Constructive Mind of This Country, Our True National Genius." He was portrayed in the movies by two different Hollywood stars, Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy.
He had 1,093 patents to his name and paved the way for many electricity based technologies years before the physics of electricity was understood. His inventions include the dictating machine, the electric light, the electrified railroad, the fluorescent lamp, the mimeograph machine, the movie camera, the phonograph, Portland cement, and wax paper. But his greatest invention was none of these--it was the development of the modern research laboratory and a research team.
Born in rural Ohio in 1847, Thomas Edison was the archetypal self-made titan who had risen from humble origins to become the most famous inventor in the world. He had little formal schooling and his outlook was quintessentially American: practical, optimistic, and suspicious of intellectuals. By the age of 10, he had a small chemical laboratory in his cellar and was operating a home made telegraph. When he was 12, he hawked newspapers, magazines, and candy on a train from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. He printed a newspaper and conducted experiments in the train's baggage room. When one of his experiments started a fire, he lost his job.
He was partially deaf, and was ridiculed by other students and never completed grade school. When a teacher pronounced his mind "addled," his mother took him out of school and taught him herself. His second wife would tap out conversations in Morse code on his knee. In later years, he said that his lack of hearing saved him from many distractions.
His started out as an itinerant telegraph operator, traveling from town to town; his first invention was a device that repeated Morse code at a slower speed, so he could more easily transcribe the messages. His first invention to make money was a ticker tape to convey stock market prices to brokerage houses. He became a millionaire in his forties.
He often worked 24 hours straight, except for five-minute naps. "Genius," he said, "was one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."
When he announced the phonograph in 1877, a Yale University professor told the New York Sun that "The idea of a talking machine is ridiculous." After he announced that he had made an incandescent lamp, a board of inquiry convened by the British Parliament concluded that his claim was impossible and "unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men."
Contrary to popular belief, he did not invent the light bulb. Rather, he figured out how to make it a durable and inexpensive consumer item. He promised to make bulbs "so cheap that only the wealthy can afford to burn candles." The key was to find a long-lasting filament. He tested over 6,000 different materials.
Far from being a solitary genius, Edison created the first modern research laboratory. Far from being a lone tinkerer, he employed as many as 200 laboratory assistants and machinists at his facilities in Menlo Park and West Orange, N.J. His West Orange factory had 10,000 employees in the mid-1910s. Edison demonstrated that it was possible to produce a steady stream of new inventions and technologies. Early in his career he said that his goal was "a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so."
He was also the first inventor to develop links with major corporations that were willing to finance his inventions. He formed links with Cornelius Vanderbilt, who owned Western Union, the telegraph company, and with J.P. Morgan.
He made some mistakes. He championed direct current (DC), when George Westinghouse pushed for alternating current (AC), which could move efficiency over long distances. He stuck with a battery-powered electric car, while Henry Ford put out a cheaper gas-powered model. He spent millions on pre-fabricated concrete houses.
A prankster, he nicknamed his children Dot and Dash and proposed to his second wife in Morse code.