Thomas Edison

Prolific Inventor, Change Agent

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
Thomas Edison

About the Innovator

Thomas Edison was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio, and grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. There are many stories about what Edison was like as a child. They all show that from an early age, he was curious about the world around him and always tried to teach himself through reading and experiments. As a boy, he worked as a gatekeeper at his father's observatory for tourists, and worked on a railway selling newspapers and candy to passengers. When Edison was 22, in 1869, he patented his first invention and advertised that he "would hereafter devote his full time to bringing out his inventions."

With 1,093 patents to his name, Thomas Edison remains the most prolific inventor in American history. It wasn't just the huge number of patents that propelled him to greatness, though. Rather, it was the fact that so many of his breakthroughs had such profound impacts on our everyday lives.

His best-known invention was the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb. But much of what afforded Edison's light bulb its success was his brilliance in creating equally viable electrical systems - the widespread systems on which electricity is distributed throughout our communities.

Like his good friend Henry Ford, Edison had an uncanny knack for recognizing a consumer need, then creating a product to satisfy that need. It was a gift that revealed itself in his youth. As a young boy, he traveled back and forth on trains between Detroit and his home in Port Huron, 60 miles away. He sold fresh vegetables when he arrived in Detroit, then returned to Port Huron with copies of the very latest editions of Detroit newspapers. Before long, he hired other young people to help expand his burgeoning empire.

Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory

His Menlo Park Laboratory was a state-of-the-art research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. (The complex is now located at The Henry Ford, inside Greenfield Village.) Often called an "invention factory," the Menlo Park laboratory was an audacious undertaking. Bookkeepers and secretaries kept track of the money needed to run the business. Edison's goal was to create at least one small invention every week and a large, society-changing one every six months. Remarkably, he met that goal with room to spare.

Widely regarded as the first true R&D facility, it housed as many as 60 researchers exploring various projects that Edison had in development at any given time. These talented workers assisted him all hours of the day and night—they had the skills to make Edison's ideas and sketches into real devices of wood, wire, glass, and metal. Edison's workers came from all over the world. The group included: Charles Batchelor, Edison's chief mechanical assistant from England; Ludwig Boehm, a German glassblower; John Kruesi, a Swiss clockmaker; Francis Upton, a mathematician, as well as carpenters, machinists, and general laboratory helpers. Other colleagues included:

  • Samuel Mott was a draftsman who made official drawings to be sent to the United States Patent Office in Washington, D.C., or to patent offices in foreign countries. Patents, or exclusive rights to make the inventions created at Menlo Park, were an important part of Edison's activities. They proved that the inventions were Edison's and no one else's.
  • Grosvenor Lowery was Edison's lawyer. His job was to raise money for Edison's laboratory so that he had the equipment he needed to continue his experiments. Lowery often promoted Edison's ideas before they had become real.

On December 31, 1879, Edison demonstrated his most famous invention: the first practical incandescent electric lamp. He was not, however, the first inventor to experiment with electric light. When Edison began testing possibilities for incandescent lamps, the arc light was already becoming popular for lighting streets, department stores, and other large areas.

Incandescent lamps make light by using electricity to heat a thin strip of material (called filament) so hot that it glows. Many inventors tried to perfect incandescent lamps to "sub-divide" electric light or make it smaller and weaker. These 1878 lamps are examples of less successful versions of the incandescent lamp patented by other inventors before Edison completed his practical lamp in 1879. One of the most important features of Edison's lamp and electrical system was the simple, modern socket familiar to us today.

Edison tried to find a material that would become incandescent and not melt when heated by electricity. For a long time he tried platinum, but finally he made his filaments by carbonizing a kind of cardboard called Bristol board. In earlier lamps, too much oxygen caused the filaments to burn. Edison acquired the best vacuum pumps so he could empty his bulbs of as much air as possible. Because of this, his carbon filaments did not burn.

Edison's men used vacuum pumps to evacuate electric lamps. Edison also developed an entire system to make electricity and distribute it to many places at the same time. Edison's system included dynamos, switches, electric meters, fuses, distribution lines, and regulators.

Edison spent the next few years working on an electrical system that would be successful commercially. This meant he had to be certain that he could make a central power station and that his electricity would be cheap enough for people to afford.

Soon he demonstrated that his system could become a commercial success. Harper's Weekly published this drawing of men laying tubes for electrical wires to Edison's system in June 1882. That year the Pearl Street generating station began to supply electricity to streets and buildings in a small area of New York City.

Why He Innovated

Supremely confident and unfailingly optimistic, Edison was consumed by a need to find solutions. And not just any solutions. They had to be practical, level-headed solutions that had some likelihood of being accepted by consumers. If not, Edison wasn't interested.

It was a point of view he developed early in his career. Edison's very first patent was for a vote recording machine. It was a clever device that would radically reduce the time it took to tabulate votes. More important, it was accurate and promised to eliminate the possibility of vote fraud.

But as Edison soon learned, 19th century politicians weren't enthusiastic about a machine that would ensure honest ballot-counting. As a result, there was absolutely no market for his brilliant invention.

"So, he learned a very early lesson from that," says Marc Greuther, Chief Curator at The Henry Ford, "which is there's no point inventing something that people really don't want."

Edison was an eminently practical technologist, though he was guided more by instinct than book-learned knowledge. As a result, he mastered the art of selling himself as much as he did any one product. He understood that, to the mass audience he was determined to serve, the Edison name was one that evoked a sense of ingenuity and progress.