(Feb. 11, 1847 – Oct. 18, 1931)
At an early age, Thomas Alva Edison showed a fascination for mechanical things and chemical experiments. In 1859, he took a job selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad to Detroit. In the baggage car, he set up a laboratory for his chemistry experiments and a printing press, although an accidental fire forced him to stop his experiments on board.
Around the age of 12, Edison lost almost all his hearing, possibly because of scarlet fever or, as he believed, as the result of an incident in which he was grabbed by the ears and lifted onto a moving train. His disability did not discourage him, and he often treated it as an asset that allowed him to concentrate on his experiments and research.
In his 84 years, Edison acquired 1,093 patents—a record for his time. His laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., was often called the “invention factory.” It was there that he invented the phonograph, motivated in part by the machine’s ability to play material useful to blind individuals, much like today’s “talking books.”
With his invention of the light bulb in 1879 came his endeavor to engineer an entire electrical lighting system that could be supported in a city. The first commercial electric light system was installed on Pearl Street in the financial district of Lower Manhattan in 1882.
After moving to a larger laboratory in West Orange, N.J—one equipped with a machine shop, phonograph and photograph departments, a library and ancillary buildings for metallurgy, chemistry, woodworking and galvanometer testings—Edison began work on his own motion picture camera. Though it was actually invented by his associate William K. L. Dickson, Edison took sole credit for both the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera, and the Kinetoscope, a motion picture peephole viewer. When Dickson aided competitors who were developing another peephole motion picture device, Edison fired him. Edison subsequently adopted another projector design, renamed it the Vitascope and marketed it under his name. The Vitascope premiered on April 23, 1896, to great acclaim.
During the 1920s, Edison spent much of his time at home, where he continued to experiment. On Oct. 14, 1931, he lapsed into a coma, and he died four days later at his estate, Glenmont, in West Orange, N.J. During his lifetime, Edison managed to become not only a renowned inventor but also a prominent manufacturer and businessman through the merchandising of his inventions.
Related Library Resources
- Collection: Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies
- Teacher Resource: Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies
- Thomas A. Edison, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait
- Henry Ford and Thomas A. Edison
- Upper floor, Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory
- Local Legacies: Edison Pageant of Light in Fort Myers, Florida