Thomas Alva Edison one of the greatest inventors ever. He was photographed next to a lightbulb so often that people came to believe he invented it. But he didn’t. Several inventors had demonstrated various versions of incandescent lights before he patented the first commercially successful lightbulb. He never crafted something out of nothing. His genius lay in his ability to craft something better. To perfect what was already available. His critics say his only real invention was taking credit for the inventions of others.
Was he America’s greatest inventor, or…was Edison a thief?
His life changed when he was 15 years old. One day, when he saw a station official’s young son playing by the tracks in the path of an oncoming train, he rescued two-year-old Jimmie Mackenzie before a train crushed him. The boy’s father was deeply grateful and taught Edison how to operate Morse code on a telegraph machine. This was not easy to do; operators had to quickly send out signals in dots and dashes, which were converted into letters that made up words and phrases.
He began working full-time as a telegraph operator in Michigan, where he grew up, and later traveled around America, working at different offices for years. He was able to do this even though he was moderately deaf. He then decided to devote himself to a life as an inventor. Well, he mainly improved upon what was already invented. In 1874, he developed an advanced version of a telegraph machine that could send and receive four telegraph messages simultaneously on a single wire – two in each direction.
His quadruplex telegraph machine enabled his former employer Western Union to save money because the company could now send more messages without having to build new lines. Western Union purchased the rights to the invention for $10,000, around $260,000 in value today. Edison used the money to build his great laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. He began by perfecting the telephone there.
By 1876, Alexander Graham Bell had found a way to transmit human voices over wires. The telephone was revolutionary. Western Union commissioned him to improve upon Bell’s invention, to make it practical, and so Edison worked on a telephone transmitter. While working to perfect the phone, he also tried to record the human voice. The phonograph put Edison on the map – giving him the nickname the “Wizard of Menlo Park”. He began to expand his factory…and his appetite for other inventions.
His big breakthrough came when he created a successful incandescent lightbulb. As I mentioned earlier, others had already been making light bulbs. British inventor Joseph Swan obtained the first patent for a light bulb in Britain two years before Edison patented the lightbulb.
Electric lamp Sawyer and Man Meanwhile, in America, William Sawyer and Albon Man received a U.S. patent for the incandescent lamp in 1878.
What did Edison do?
He improved the bulb. Previous ones had only been able to work for merely a few minutes at a time. By October 1879, Edison had an “aha” moment. His bulb with a carbonized filament burned continuously for 14.5 hours. But that still wasn’t good enough for him. He and his assistant tested thousands of plant materials and finally came up with a filament made from bamboo that could last up to 1,200 hours. In 1880, Edison received a historic patent for an improvement to electric lamps.
It’s been debated whether Edison’s patent infringed on Sawyer and Man’s previous patent. Eventually, Edison’s American lighting company merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company – which made incandescent bulbs under the Sawyer-Man patent. Together, they formed General Electric. On New Year’s Eve, 1879, Edison lit up New York’s Christie Street, marking the dawn of the electric age.
This was at a time when the world still relied on candlesticks. He then began to mass produce and sell them. But he didn’t stop with just improving the bulb. Edison then began working on building a system to carry electricity so people could use his light bulbs. In 1882, he set up a large generator plant on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan and lit the street with electricity. He became rich and famous. And…ruthless. Like when he tried to discredit a rival form of electricity.
Edison’s generating system uses direct current, which has its flaws. DC travels through a power line in one direction at a constant voltage but can only go up to a mile or so before losing power, so a generating plant was required every few blocks. He hired a young engineer to improve upon his DC generators. But Nikola Tesla came up with a better solution: alternating current. AC periodically changes direction and can also vary its voltage.
It has a long-range and never runs out of power. Yet when Tesla tried to convince Edison of the advantages of AC, his boss wasn’t having any of it. Edison didn’t want to lose the royalties he earned from his DC patents. Tesla’s AC system caught the attention of American industrialist George Westinghouse who bought up Tesla’s patents.
AC generators were spreading fast across the country – faster than Edison’s DC system. So to discredit his rivals’ AC system, Edison devised an ugly strategy. He gave boys who lived around his New Jersey lab 25 cents for every stray dog they brought him and organized public electrocutions of these dogs with AC.
Edison took every opportunity to question the safety of Tesla’s AC system, declaring: “Westinghouse will murder a customer within six months after he installs a system of any size,” the adage goes. Edison publicly opposed the death penalty, but privately funded the first AC-powered electric chair. The state of New York had commissioned his former assistant Harold Brown to build the chair.
Brown pushed to have it powered by AC using a Westinghouse generator that he surreptitiously secured through another company. But his schemes didn’t work; AC would go on to power the world, much to Edison’s dismay.
Yet, Edison was more famous than Tesla and certainly a lot wealthier. Tesla died very poor – I’ve done a series of videos on what led to Tesla’s tragic demise which I’ll link to in my description. Edison patented a whopping 1,093 inventions in his lifetime! He managed thousands of skilled scientists, machinists, and designers who researched, developed, and manufactured new technologies.
Where did Edison’s real genius lie?
As Graham Moore writes in his novel The Last Days of Night about the feud between Edison and Westinghouse and Tesla: “His genius was not in inventing; rather, it was in inventing a system of the invention. Dozens of researchers and engineers and developmental tinkerers labored beneath Edison in a carefully constructed hierarchical organization that he founded and oversaw.”
In order words, Thomas Edison was not a genius inventor or a thief but a savvy businessman who had a knack for managing people. It was his shrewdness as a manager that allowed him to turn laboratory discoveries into technological marvels in the marketplace even if many of the original ideas came from someone else. Regardless of how you feel about Thomas Edison, his contributions have undoubtedly improved our lives.
To conclude, Whether you’re a fan of him or Nikola Tesla – what they both had in common was a firm grasp of math and science.