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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); 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. 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. 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


Amelia EarhartHistorical-Domain CharacterAlbert Einstein

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