The world was ushered from the age of steam power into the modern age of electrical power by Thomas Alva Edison’s successful testing of the first durable and commercially practical electric light bulb. Except for Edison and five tired assistants at his New Jersey laboratory, no one knew that society and economics had been revolutionized. In the future, oil and kerosene lamps would be discarded and replaced by electric lights, and in 50 years the electric lighting industry would be valued at $1 billion.
The inventor of the electric light was a prolific worker who patented 1,097 inventions during his life. Constantly testing and experimenting, Edison discovered and perfected the Wall Street stock ticker, the phonograph, the Dictaphone, and the motion picture camera and projector. At the age of 80 he was still working, turning goldenrod plants into rubber. Throughout his life Edison concentrated on practical inventions which could be manufactured and sold to yield immediate profits.
Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, Edison spent his childhood in poverty. He attended school for only three months before his teacher told him to drop out because he was hopelessly stupid. At the age of 12, Edison was working full time selling newspapers and candy on railroad trains. Edison’s hearing had been impaired by a bout of scarlet fever, and when railroad coworkers playfully lifted him by his ears onto a train, the condition was worsened. Increasing deafness would trouble him for the rest of his life. Without a formal education and largely deaf, Edison educated himself while he worked on his inventions. Unfortunately, he lost his job on the railroad after one of his experiments set a train on fire.
Soon afterwards, he saved the life of a stationmaster’s son, and the grateful father made Edison an apprentice telegraph operator, which introduced him to his life’s obsession—electricity.
In 1868 Edison filed his first patent, for a telegraphic vote-recording machine, but the invention was a business failure because politicians did not want a machine that recorded an accurate vote; it would be bad for business.
Undaunted, Edison quit his job as a telegraph operator and devoted all his time to inventing. In 1871, he built a machine shop in Newark, New Jersey, which evolved into General Electric. In the next years, Edison gained financial security when Western Union and Automatic Telegraph paid him $70,000 for patent rights on his inventions. Meanwhile, his invention of the phonograph in 1877 earned him national fame. Edison built a new laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and was soon known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park.”
In the summer of 1878, Edison’s family forced him to take his first holiday. Edison decided on a trip to Wyoming to witness a total eclipse of the sun, but it was hardly a vacation. He spent the entire journey talking to a traveling companion about the scientific and business aspects of electric light. When he returned home, he shelved all other projects and began work on inventing a practical electric light.
Edison needed money for new equipment and pay for his lab assistants, so he went for help to J. P. Morgan, the New York banker. Edison told Morgan that he could turn out a marketable electric light in six weeks and convinced him that the invention would be a gold mine. In turn, Morgan talked other bankers into forming the Edison Electric Light Company in October of 1878.
Three thousand company shares were issued but did not sell. Therefore, to stimulate business Edison lied to the newspapers, telling reporters that he had already invented an electric light. The deception worked. The company’s stock was bought up, and Morgan gave Edison $50,000 to conduct his research. For the next year, Edison worked 20 hours a day with his five assistants.
Electric light was not a new concept. Seventy years earlier, in England, Humphry Davy had produced a glaring electric light by passing current through two sticks of charcoal, but after several minutes the charcoal was burned to cinders. Throughout the 19th century inventors had all encountered the same problem, which was that electricity quickly melted the filament—the substance the electrical current passed through to produce light. For this reason, lights were impractical, since they lasted only a few minutes before burning out.
Edison attacked this problem by enclosing the filament in a glass bulb and creating a vacuum inside the bulb, thereby removing the oxygen which caused the filament to bum. Also, Edison tested a multitude of substances as filaments, including various types of bamboo. Finally, he manufactured carbonized cotton thread and used it as a filament. It worked, and Edison’s electric light bulb was turned on, on Oct. 21, 1879. Emitting a reddish light, it burned for over 40 hours, and quit then only because Edison increased the voltage to see how much the filament could take before burning out.
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