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Thomas Edison
"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was an inventor and businessman. Nicknamed "The Wizard of Menlo Park" by the press. Edison made his first invention, a type of stock ticker, when he was only 22. By the time he died, 1,093 inventions were patented to him, which was the record for several decades.

Born in Ohio, he moved with his family to Port Huron, Michigan, when he was young. As a child, Edison's inquisitive mind wasn't challenged by his school work and his teachers called him "difficult," so his parents pulled him out to home school him. Edison was largely self-taught.

Port Huron is just across the border from Canada, and at the time was a major railroad crossing, bringing the Grand Trunk Railway into the US on its way from Toronto to Detroit and Chicago. As a teenager, Edison rescued a little boy from an oncoming runaway train; in gratitude, the boy's father, who worked as a telegrapher along the railroad, offered to give Edison lessons in telegraphy. Edison accepted, getting his first job on the Grand Trunk telegraph line in Canada, and worked as a telegraph operator in Michigan and Kentucky before his poor hearing—and an incident where the lead-acid battery he was tinkering with spilled sulfuric acid that dripped on to his boss' desk on the floor below—forced him to look for other means to make money. He found refuge with one of his telegraphy friends, who let him stay in his basement in Elizabeth, New Jersey, starting around 1869. By 1871, he had gotten married and moved to nearby Newark, as his inventions were making him enough money to live on. It was at that point that he had his biggest idea.

In 1876, Edison found a likely spot of land near Menlo Park in Raritan Township in Middlesex County, about 20 miles southwest of Newark. Here he built his new invention: an industrial research lab. It was responsible for world-changing inventions within just a year. Some of the most important inventions to come out of Edison's lab include the phonograph, a practical light bulb, storage batteries, transmitters, motion picture cameras, and microphones. Needless to say, the research conducted by Edison and his assistants were groundbreaking and forever changed the world. The proud Edison would often take credit for inventions largely completed by his workers, leading many people throughout history to claim that he stole them, which may be true. He is today, however, known to have stolen at least a few designs from other inventors.note  For what it's worth, often Edison was only taking previous inventions and making them practical; this includes his famous lightbulb.

More important than the things he invented though was the technique he developed for it. After a fashion, you could say that Edison invented inventing. He came up with the modern R&D cycle: Identify a market, get backing before you start, publicize it ahead of time so the public is wiling to pay for it, and plough back the profits into making more inventions. He also developed the world's first real R&D team—his numerous and largely nameless assistants, working hard on inventions for which Edison would get all the credit (eventually, he had the sense to start crediting things to his corporation, about which see below); before this, invention was usually one guy or a few, and it wasn't their only job.

He was also very important as a businessman. He founded and ran General Electric Corporation. Yes, that General Electric Corporation. (That one, too). He used several extravagant public demonstrations to bring attention to his inventions, such as lighting up entire city streets using his light bulbs. He aggressively used his media attention and his powerful connections to make his company the nation's chief electric powerhouse. One of the unfortunate side effects of this was pushing out Nikola Tesla's alternating current in favor of Edison's own direct current, despite AC being superior in terms of efficiency, flexibility, and long-range transmission. Edison tried to get AC banned, even going so far as inventing the electric chair (which set its first victim on fire), spreading false information, and electrocuting an elephant and making a movie out it. However, there are some factors everybody is forgetting. It is possible that Edison honestly believed Tesla's AC was a dangerous as he claimed it was, and many people who mention the incident with the elephant confidently leave out that the elephant was going to be put down no matter what Edison did.

Still, this might have set back electrical development by decades, though most modern day devices use both rather than one or the other. He also tried to use his law connections to keep a monopoly of the motion picture camera, forcing many aspiring film moguls to move to a town in California named Hollywood, which was out of his reach.

He was known to be quite a Jerk Ass. For example, Nikola Tesla (his employee at the time) said that Edison offered fifty-thousand US dollars to improve his DC generators, but when Tesla accepted the offer, Edison said that it was just a joke. (Whether this story is true or not, though, has been disputed.)

Because of his numerous inventions and his influence on world history, he's depicted quite a lot in popular culture. Any help listing and organizing all of them will be appreciated!

Depictions in popular media

  • Spencer Tracy played him in the 1940 film Edison, the Man.
  • Also in 1940, the movie Young Thomas Edison features Mickey Rooney as Edison during his earliest years.
  • The Bee Gees song "Edison" is about him.
  • The Schoolhouse Rock song "Mother Necessity," about the great inventions of American history, features him inventing a light bulb to help his mother, who had poor eyesight.
  • On NewsRadio, Joe insists on making his own components for every device he fixes rather than buy "any of that mass-produced garbage." When an impatient Bill asks Joe to just give up and buy the piece in question, Joe answers, "Did Thomas Edison give up?" Bill points out that "Thomas Edison wasn't trying to invent something that was readily available in a variety of stores near his home."
  • In The Simpsons episode "The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace," Homer becomes obsessed with Edison and tries to invent something to become famous just like he was. When Homey finally makes something useful, it turns out that Edison already made it. Made even better when it's later disovered that Edison stole it from Leonardo da Vinci.
  • In the short-lived show The Secret Adventures Of Jules Verne, the protagonists meet a young American boy named Al, deaf in one ear, who makes amazing inventions and is able to reverse-engineer a hovering machine from the future (or the past; not sure about this one). When leaving, he reveals that Al is a shortened form of his middle name - Alva. Yep, that's Thomas Alva Edison.
  • The graphic novel Tales From The Bully Pulpit features his ghost and Theodore Roosevelt stealing a time machine from H. G. Wells and going to the future to fight a descendant of Adolf Hitler and his army of evil martians.
  • The comic book series Atomic Robo features him as the Big Bad. The series is about a robot invented by his rival Nikola Tesla, so it only makes sense.
  • One of the more bizarre depictions of him is the webcomic Edison Hate Future, which features him listening to primitive headphones and complaining about the future.
  • The Back to the Future ride features the short film "Doc on the March," which features Doc going through time and witnessing various historical events. He witnesses Edison giving an important speech and then gets an autographed light bulb from him.
  • On The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Jimmy brings Edison to the present to show up Cindy, then has trouble sending him back when he falls in love with his teacher.
  • According to Assassin's Creed II, Edison was an agent of the Knights Templar, and his feud with the Assassin-affiliated Nikola Tesla was one of the great Templar-Assassin battles of the early 20th century.
  • He is portrayed in a very unflattering light in The Oatmeal's "Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived", mainly because of his feuds with rival Nikola Tesla. The Oatmeal also sells a variety of Tesla > Edison merchandise in its store.
  • Speaking of which, in Epic Rap Battles of History, he again makes an appearance alongside Nikola Tesla and he's depicted extremely unsympathetically, as an outright Jerkass in fact.
  • Edison makes an appearance in Murdoch Mysteries as a rival to fellow inventor James Pendrick. He's shown to be so ruthless as to be suspected of trying to kill Pendrick for his revolutionary sound equipment. He's not the murderer, though after Pendrick rejects his offer to collaborate, he does vow to freeze him out of any success in the moving picture industry in America at the end of the episode.
  • Edison is one of the main characters, along with Henry Ford and President Warren Harding, in Camping with Henry and Tom, a 1995 play written by Mark St. Germain. These men were in fact friends in real life and the play is based on real life road trips that these men actually took, along with another of their inventor-businessman friends, Harvey Firestone.

Tropes related to Thomas Edison

  • Ragsto Riches: Thomas Edison was not born in prosperous settings.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Tesla Supporters love to paint Edison as a Corrupt Corporate Executive, despite the fact that this is not true. The rivalry between Tesla and Edison was Greyand Gray Morality more than anything else.
  • Jerk Ass: Thomas Edison could sometimes be one.
    • Jerkwitha Heartof Gold: Thomas Edison had many redeeming qualities, one of which was his refusal to make weapons.
  • Shootthe Dog: Thomas Edison killed an elephant named Topsy using electricity. However, many people forget that Topsy trampled one of his handlers to death and would have been put to sleep anyway. If not for Edison, Topsy might have been hung like Mary (a different elephant who also trampled a handler to death).
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