Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor who is considered by many as America’s greatest inventor. Edison is the 10th most prolific inventor, holding 2,332 patents worldwide with 1,093 of them being in the United States. His most popular inventions include the telegraph, the universal stock ticker, the phonograph, the kinetograph, and perhaps the most famous, his improvement on the light bulb.
Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847. After battling scarlet fever at a young age, the young inventor suffered from hearing loss as a child and was nearly deaf as an adult. An energetic child, Edison’s mother pulled him from public school and began homeschooling him once he was deemed too difficult to teach by his instructor. At the tender age of 12, Edison began publishing and later selling his own small newspaper which he named the Grand Trunk Herald. His entrepreneurial abilities were showing early on and by age 15, Edison officially became a telegraph operator.
Years passed and Edison took his talents to Boston securing a job with the Western Union Company. At the time, Boston was an epicenter for science and culture and Edison seemed to be influenced by that. It was there that he patented his first invention, the electrographic vote recorder. The device was deemed a failure and led Edison to further his studies in the field of telegraphy.
At 22, Edison moved to New York City developed the Universal Stock Printer. The printer was an improved stock ticker that simultaneously displayed several stock tickers’ transactions at any given time. The payment for this invention allowed Edison to quit his job and devote himself to inventing full-time. He sent up his first laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey. By 30, Edison had begun to expand and opened an independent industrial research facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey, about 25 miles away.
Although often credited with inventing the light bulb, Edison actually purchased the original Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans electric light bulb patent which was granted in 1874. In 1879, the light bulb was improved and the electric lamp was patented and a year later the Edison Illuminating Company was born. The company made history as the first investor-owned electric utility company. Eventually, the name would be changed to General Electric, which is still in business today.
Over the next 30 years, Edison continued to patent new inventions and improvements to existing inventions. He slowly transitioned from the role of the inventor to business manager. He opened multiple facilities and employed inventors like Nikola Teslaand Charles Bradley. Tesla and Bradley left Edison’s company and soon became integral players in the War of Currents.
The “War of Currents” referred to the battle over proving which type of electric distribution system was better for consumers. Edison, championing the direct current system, tried to convince the masses of the dangers of alternating current electrical power by electrocuting animals in public demonstrations. The most infamous of these shows was the 1903 electrocution of a popular circus elephant in Coney Island, New York. Westinghouse, supporting an alternating current system, responded with even more marketing and improvements to his system eventually winning in the 1920s when AC systems became the primary electrical distributor.
In 1931, Thomas Edison died from complications that arose with him having diabetes. He was 84 years old. For the tribute, many companies and households dimmed or turned off their lights for a few minutes to acknowledge his passing.