Thomas Alva Edison is considered one of the greatest inventors in history. He was born in Milan, Ohio on February 11, 1847 and died in 1931. During his life he patented 1,093 inventions. Many of these inventions are in use today and changed the world forever. Some of his inventions include telegraphy, phonography, electric lighting and photography. His most famous inventions were the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb.
Edison did some of his greatest work at Menlo Park. While experimenting on an underwater cable for the automatic telegraph, he found that the electrical resistance and conductivity of carbon varied accordingly to the pressure it was under. This was a major theoretical discovery, which enabled Edison to invent a “pressure relay” using carbon rather than magnets, which was the usual way to vary and balance electrical currents. In February of 1877 Edison began experiments designed to produce a pressure relay that would amplify and improve the audibility of the telephone, a device that Edison and others had studied but which Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent, in 1876. By the end of 1877 Edison had developed the carbon-button transmitter that is still used today in telephone speakers and microphones.
Many of Thomas Edison’s inventions including the carbon transmitter were in response to demands for new products and improvements. In 1877, he achieved his most unique discovery, the phonograph. During the summer of 1877 Edison was attempting to devise for the automatic telegraph a machine that would transcribe a signals as they were received into a form of the human voice so that they could then be delivered as telegraph messages. Some researchers had theorized that each sound, if it could be graphically recorded, would produce a distinct shape resembling short hand, or phonography, as it was known then. Edison hoped to make this concept real by employing a stylus-tipped carbon transmitter to make impressions on a strip of paraffined paper. To his amazement, the barley visible indentations generated a vague sound when the paper was pulled back beneath the stylus.
In December 1877 Edison unveiled the tinfoil phonograph, which replaced the strip of paper wrapped in tinfoil. Many people would not believe what they were hearing including a leading French scientist who declared it to be a trick device of a ventriloquist. The public’s amazement was quickly followed by universal approval. Edison became famous all around the world and was dubbed the Wizard of Menlo Park, although ten years passed before the phonograph was transformed form a laboratory curiosity into a commercial product.
His most famous and most commonly used invention is the incandescent light bulb. American scientists including Samuel Langley needed a highly sensitive instrument that could be used to measure minute temperature changes in heat emitted from the Sun’s corona during a solar eclipse along the rocky mountains on July 29,1878. To please those needs Edison invented a “microtasimeter” employing a carbon button. This was a time when great advances were being made in arc lights so that electricity could be used for lighting in the same fashion as with small, individual gas “burners”. The basic problem seemed to be to keep the burner, or the bulb, from being consumed by preventing it from overheating. Edison thought he would be able to solve this by coming up with a microtasimeter-like device to control the current. He proclaimed that he would invent a safe, mild, and inexpensive electric light that would replace the gaslight.
Inventors had been attempting to devise the incandescent light bulb for fifty years, but Edison’s reputation and past achievements commanded respect for his bold prediction. As a result, a group of leading financiers, including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, established the Edison Electric Light Company, and advanced him $30,000 for his research and development. Edison’s idea was to connect his lights in a parallel circuit by subdividing the current so that the failure of one light bulb would not cause the whole circuit to fail. Some well-known scientists predicted that such a circuit could never be possible, but their findings were based on systems of lamps with low resistance (the only successful type of electrical light at the time). Edison, however, determined that a bulb with high resistance would serve his purpose, and he began his search for a suitable one.
By the summer of 1879 Edison and Francis Upton had made enough progress on a generator that considered offering a system of electric distribution for power, not light. By October Edison and his staff had achieved encouraging results with a complex, regulator-controlled vacuum bulb with a platinum filament, but the cost of the platinum would have made the incandescent light bulb to costly. While experimenting with an insulator for the platinum wire, they discovered that, in the greatly improved vacuum they were now achieving through advances made in the vacuum pump, carbon could be maintained for a longer amount time without complicated devices. Edison found that a carbon filament provided a good light with the simultaneous high resistance required for subdivision. Steady progress ensued from the first breakthrough in mid-October until the initial demonstration for the backers of the Edison Electric Light Company on December 3.
In the summer of 1880 Edison determined that carbonized bamboo fiber made a satisfactory material for the filament. The first commercial land-based “isolated” incandescent system was placed in the New York printing firm of Hinds and Ketcham in January 1881. In the fall a temporary, demonstration central power system was installed at the Holborn Viaduct in London, in conjunction with an exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Edison supervised the laying of the mains and installation of the world’s first permanent, commercial central power system in lower Manhattan, which became operative in September 1882. Although the early systems had problems and years passed before incandescent lighting powered by electricity from central stations began to replace gas lighting. Isolated lighting plants for such enterprises as hotels, theatres, and stores flourished, so did Edison’s reputation as the world’s greatest inventor.
Edison’s inventions were often discovered by chance while working on practical experiments and problem solving. This resulted in 380 patents for electric light and power, 195 for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, 141 for storage batteries, and 34 for the telephone. Until that point scientists had primarily been involved in pure research. Edison’s approach was to find useful and helpful ways of applying his inventions.
Today you can walk into a store and find light bulbs that can last for two years.
In 1991 Philips developed a light bulb that uses magnetic induction to excite a gas to emit light. There are no parts to wear out in this design, so the expected lifetime is 60,000 hours. In the future there will probably be light bulbs that never burn out.
Edison’s role as a machine shop operator and small manufacturer was crucial to his success as an inventor. Unlike other scientists and inventors of the time, who had limited means and lacked a support organization, Edison ran an inventive establishment. He was the antithesis of the lone inventive genius, although his deafness enforced on him isolation conductive to conception. His lack of managerial ability was, in an odd way, also a stimulant. As his own boss, he plunged ahead on projects more prudent men would have shunned, then tended to dissipate the fruits of his own inventiveness, so that he was both free and forced to develop new ideas. Few men have matched him in the positiveness of his thinking. Edison never questioned whether something might be done, only how.
Edison’s career, the fulfillment of the American dream of rags-to-riches through hard work and intelligence, made him a folk hero to his countrymen. In temperament he was an uninhibited egotist, at once a tyrant to his employees and their most entertaining companion, so that there was never a dull moment with him. He was charismatic and courted publicity, but he had difficulty socializing and neglected his family. His shafts at the expense of the “long-haired” fraternity of theorists sometimes led formally trained scientists to depreciate him as anti-intellectual; yet he employed as his aides, at various times a number of eminent mathematical physicists, such as Nicole Tesla and A.E. Kennelly. The contradictory nature of his forceful personality, as well as such eccentricities as his ability to catnap anywhere, contributed to his legendary status. By the time he was in his middle 30s Edison was said to be the best-known American in the world. When he died he was the venerated and mourned as the man who, more than any other, had laid the basis for the technological and social revolution of the modern electrical world.