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Thomas Edison

.. rgan and the Vanderbilts. Together they formed the Edison Electric Light Company. They made this company before electric light bulbs had been invented. Today this company is called General Electric.

The phonograph was Edison’s favorite invention. He invented the “talking machine” by accident while working on telegraphs and telephones. But the phonograph didn’t go on sale to the public for another 10 years. It was a tinfoil phonograph. “Edison called it a “talking machine” and a “sound writing” machine.” (Allen pg.

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54) This was no improvement of existing technology. It was not something he planned to invent. This was something brand new and Edison’s most original invention. And it happened by accident. He was working on ways to record telegraph messages automatically.

The first words he recorded were “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. He was 30 years old. He worked on and off for more than twenty years to perfect the record player. Scientists had been working to invent electric light for many years. Back then people used candles and gaslights to light their homes. But gaslights were smelly and smoky.

After two years in his new laboratory, Edison boasted he would invent a safe, mild, and inexpensive electric light. Edison searched for the proper “filament” or wire, which would give good light when electricity flowed through it. He sent people to the jungles of the Amazon and forests of Japan in his search for a perfect filament material. He tested over 6,000 vegetable growths (baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo) as filament material. In 1879, after spending $40,000, and performing 1,200 experiments, he succeeded.

He made a light bulb using carbonized filaments from cotton thread. Carbonized thread is ordinary cotton sewing thread that has been burned to an ash. The light bulb burned for two days. The electric light took the greatest amount of time and required the most complicated experiments of all his experiments. Abbott Pg.

4 One of Edison’s engineers, William J. Hammer, made a discovery, which later led to the electron tube. The electron tube led to the electric signal, which led to electronics. Electronics is a branch of science that is related to electricity. Without electronics we might not have radio, TV, CDs, computers, x-ray machines or space travel.

The discovery of electrons was patented as the “Edison effect” which is the basis of electronics. In 1887 Edison built a bigger invention factory in West Orange, New Jersey. This Edison Laboratory was 10 times larger than his first lab in Menlo Park. It is now a national monument. This Laboratory Unit had fourteen buildings.

Six of these buildings were devoted to the “business of inventing.” “The main building alone was the size of three football fields.” (Denmark pg. 75) It had space for machine shops, glass-blowing operations, electrical testing rooms, chemical stockrooms, electrical power generation, and other functions. At the Edison Laboratory they made new products and improved old products. Over 5,000 people worked there. Edison attempted to personally manage this large staff.

The story goes that when a new employee once asked about lab rules, Edison said, “there ain’t no rules around here! We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.” Every day Edison toured this huge facility to see what was going on. But he spent most of his time doing paperwork instead of experiments. He did his paperwork in the library. The research library was an office and trophy room. Edison received many, many awards throughout his life. In the center of his office, Edison sat at a desk with three dozen pigeonholes, surrounded by over 10,000 books.

At West Orange, Edison improved the phonograph using wax records. Now he could build phonographs to sell to the public. Out of the West Orange laboratories came the motion picture camera and silent and sound movies. His factory improved the alkaline storage battery, the electric pen, the copy machine, and the dictating machine. Other inventions and improvements included a cement mixer, the microphone, and a magnetic process to separate iron ore.

Edison invented the concept of film reels for motion-picture cameras. He also connected a motion picture camera to a phonograph. Now he could put sound with motion pictures! In 1913, Edison introduced the first talking moving pictures. Before photocopying machines were invented, Edison invented an electric “pen” which was really a puncturing device that rapidly punched holes in a sheet of waxed paper. A historian suggested this “pen” looked like a sewing machine. There were silly moments in the lab also.

“Sometimes they tried mixing chemicals that seemed foolish – coffee, eggs, sugaring, and milking.” (Allen pg. 45) His Abbott Pg. 5 lab held everything for experimenting – whalebone, tortoise shell, elephant hide, and even the hair of a person, a native Amazonian. “It is rumored that one of Edison’s friends said the lab storeroom even had the eyeballs of a US senator.” (Denmark pg. 54) Most of these lab substances had no practical use, but a few did. Edison used rain-forest nuts to make phonograph needles.

Japanese bamboo was used to make filament (wire) for his light bulb. The hair of the Amazon was used for a wig for the first talking doll. In the doll’s chest was hidden a tiny phonograph speaker. In 1915, Edison was appointed president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board.

He believed that electricity would make weapons more powerful. He claimed to have made an explosive that would explode if yelled at. He invented an electric torpedo. “Edison urged Congress to establish the Naval Research Laboratory in 1920.” (Allen pg. 58) This was the first military research laboratory.

For more than forty years, the laboratory created by Thomas Alva Edison in West Orange, NJ, had enormous impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. Edison’s last patented invention was a way to make manmade rubber. The lab continued to invent things even after Edison died in 1931. So to create a rough summary of Thomas Alva Edisons life would be simple. He was raised in a positive environment with lots of encouragement from his father. And he made it possible for electronics to become an everyday part of our lives.


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