How did Thomas Edison go from poverty to creating an electric empire as well as the first research institute? Well, I’ll tell you and along the way, I’ll talk about relentless drive, a strange philosophy on sleep, the invention of the phonograph, telegraph humor, lighting beards on fire, and a long-legged generator Ready? Let’s go…
Thomas Alva Edison, Al to his friends and family, was born in 1847 to a lower-income family in Ohio although he grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. He only went to school for three months and was mostly self-taught. When he was just twelve years old, Edison got a job selling fruit and newspapers on the train as a “news butch” (a 14-hour workday). He soon realized that the money was in newspapers, so, he collected enough castoff items to create his own paper, the “Grand Trunk Herald” which he shilled on the train with the other publications. At its pinnacle, he sold around two hundred papers a day and had four assistants!
By 1862, the telegraph had arrived in Michigan, and Edison was entranced. Edison quit his job, sold his newspaper, and spent all his time loitering around the telegraph office. According to Edison, one day Edison saved the local telegraph operator’s three-year-old son from being hit by a train. With the operator’s help, Edison got a job as a night shift operator. He loved working at night as he could experiment and read during the day and work at night. His big drawback in that plan was there was no time for sleep. He took multiple naps at all times of day and night (a practice he continued for the rest of his life). In fact, he later said that “sleep is an absurdity, a bad habit” that he felt would be defeated. Unfortunately for Edison, he missed an important signal and a train crash was narrowly adverted. For the next few years, he went from job to job. Meanwhile, he read voraciously and experimented as well as he could in his rented room above a saloon or wherever he had space.
By the time Edison was 22, he filed for his first patent for an electronic vote counter. Unfortunately for Edison, this was not a success, as it worked well but no one wanted it (legislators needed time to filibuster if they wished). After this, Edison liked to say, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent”. Despite this setback, Edison quit his job at Western Union in Boston to “bring out his inventions.” By the very next year, Edison had backed to create his own company with over fifty workers, which he created in Newark, New Jersey.
When Edison was 24 he married Mary Stilwell, a 16-year-old girl that he had employed three months earlier at one of his shops. She had three children in the next six years (the oldest two he nicknamed “dot” and “dash” in a bit of telegraph humor). Edison however, mostly ignored his family and focused on work patenting invention after invention. At this time, Edison patented the first phonograph (or record player) based on an object called the phonautograph. The phonautograph was used to study sounds and would take a person’s speech and make a needle scratch on a roll of coated glass. Edison’s idea was to have the needle imprint into a softer material than glass (they started with thick paper but it worked better with tin foil). They would then rotate it again where the bumps in the tin foil would cause the needle to vibrate which would cause the cone to vibrate and recreate the sound. Edison recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and became instantly famous. Joseph Henry said that Edison was “the most ingenious inventor in this country… or in any other.”
Edison was now famous enough to get major backers and he moved his main offices from Newark to Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was not an ordinary building but an “invention factory” churning out a promised, “minor invention every ten days and a major invention every six months or so.” He was a relentless boss, which took a toll on everyone around him including himself. He said that the stress had turned his hair, “damned near white. The man told me yesterday I was a walking churchyard.” In 1878, Edison decided to focus that unrelenting energy on creating commercial light with electricity.
Over seventy years earlier an English chemist named Humphrey Davy had discovered two ways to create light with electricity. He found that if you put a large voltage between two carbon rods it would make a bright light, in an object he called an arc lamp. Edison played around a bit with Davy’s arc lamp but felt it was a dead-end – too bright and harsh for indoors and with a short lifespan. Luckily, Davy also noticed that if current flowed through a thin piece of metal the metal would glow, in an effect called incandescence. Edison focused on incandescence even though all previous attempts quickly lit on fire and burned out.
One of the first things Edison did was to keep the wire away from the air by encasing it in a bowl of glass that they then pumped as much air out of as they could. These bowls of glass were fitted to screw caps from kerosene cans that looked a little bit like tulip bulbs and were thus called “light bulbs”. On September 16th, 1878, he gave an interview to the New York Sun declaring total victory. The title of the article was “Edison’s Newest Marvel. Sending Cheap Light, Heat, and Power by Electricity.” But in truth, he was nowhere near ready either with his light bulb or his power generator. He was very good at collecting money from investors but went through failure after failure in his experiments.
By April of the next year, however, they had devised a generator that would produce strong and relatively constant DC power. It had very large electromagnets to create a large magnetic field and a small rotating coil in the center with a complex winding to maximize current output that was spun with a steam engine. They called their machine “long-legged Mary-Ann” as the two electromagnets looked like legs to the overworked male engineers (no women were allowed to work in the factory). One of the biggest changes from other generators was that the coils of wires that were rotated had very low resistance, which caused the system to generate more current than the others previously used.
Now they had the power but still, the light bulb would burn out in a matter of hours. His workers started experimenting with different materials in the bulb, even as far as a good-natured competition between clippings from his worker’s beards (which didn’t work very well). Finally, in October 221879, they found that cotton thread worked surprisingly well, up to fourteen and a half hours. This was, of course, nowhere near enough for commercial use, but good enough to patent. Which is what he did in November of that year.
Still, Edison needed a material that would last hundreds of hours not fifteen. He focused on natural materials saying, “Now I believe that somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop, there is a vegetable growth with geometrically parallel fibers suitable to our use. Look for it!” Special envoys were sent all over the world. A particularly unfortunate man named Mr. Ségrador survived mercury poisoning in Menlo Park only to die of yellow fever in Havana all in Edison’s service. Finally, an Edison employee found that Mandake bamboo from Japan made a pleasant glow that lasted for over 1,500 hours! Finally, Edison’s results were rising up to his claims.
What is little remembered now is how much Edison had to create for this single invention. He had to make the light bulb of course but also all light fixtures. He also had to create a power source for the electricity as well as the lines to get them to the light fixtures. He had to determine how to transfer the electricity without losing too much power or using too much copper or accidentally electrocuting street workers. He had to invent all the switches and all the safety devices (and when he forgot about the safety devices he had to deal with the fires). “Everything is so new that each step is in the dark. I have to make the dynamos, the lamps, the conductors, and attend to a thousand details the world never hears of.” No wonder he was always looking for new wealthy investors or his factory in Menlo Park took up two whole city blocks! Edison seemed ready to take over the world. Instead, he started an all-out war with men named Westinghouse and Tesla. The AC/DC war between Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla is next time on The Secret History of electricity.