Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was a world-famous American inventor and businessman, nicknamed "The Wizard of Menlo Park" by the press. Edison received his first patent, 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 Milan, 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." He may also have been affected by undiagnosed hearing loss after a bout of scarlet fever, which could have given them the misimpression that he was ignoring them intentionally. His mother Nancy (a former schoolteacher) pulled him out to home school him, and when he was twelve he started working. Edison was thus largely self-taught. Throughout life he disliked lectures because he could hardly hear what the presenter was saying, so instead he voraciously read books.
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 moved to nearby Newark, as his inventions were making him enough money to live on, and married Mary Stillwell, a young female employee. It was at that point that he had his biggest idea.
In 1876, at the age of 29, 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 Menlo Park and Edison's later and bigger lab in West Orange include phonographs and recorded music,note a practical light bulb and commercial electrical power system, an electric railroad, nickel-iron storage batteries, devices for filming and exhibiting motion pictures, methods for producing cement and cement buildings, an X-ray flouroscope, and an improved telephone microphone. Needless to say, the research conducted by Edison and his assistants was 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 or may not be true. He is known today, however, to have stolen at least a few designs from other inventors. For what it's worth, often Edison was only taking previous inventions and making them practical; this includes his famous lightbulb. Edison's light bulb was not the first, but it was the first that could actually be considered practical. Joseph Swan, an Englishman who invented one before Edison, openly admitted as much. Also, he eventually hit upon the idea of crediting the patents to the various corporations he established to manufacture and market his inventions, rather than to himself or to his researchers; this meant that nobody could accuse him of stealing credit for the products of his lab, as technically he didn't claim to be the inventor.note
More important than the things he invented though was the technique he developed for it. After a fashion, you could say (James Burke did) that Edison invented inventing. He came up with the modern R&D cycle, which consists of (as Burke put it): 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 unsung 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. In 1892 he merged the aforementioned various corporations he had founded into one company: the 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.
Unfortunately, Edison took the wrong side of history when alternating current systems developed in Europe appeared as competition to his direct current system. The difference for potential customers was that Edison's DC power grid used a low 110 volts from generation to its final destination, and could only transmit power about a mile or two away from the generator. As a result the Edison grid depended on a distributed network of small, local power stations: this was fine for a dense city like New York, but infeasible for serving rural customers. Unlike DC, AC was compatible with an important invention called the transformer, which enabled the voltage of the electricity flowing from the power station to be stepped up for long distance transmission, and stepped down again to a low voltage when it reached the customers. This allowed power to flow from large central power stations to customers near and far, yielding much greater range and economies of scale while allowing power plants to be removed from residential areas. Edison's associates begged him to switch the business to AC when other companies such as Westinghouse and Thomson-Houston began undercutting their prices and beating them for contracts, but AC was a much more technically complicated system than DC. Edison, lacking advanced formal education in the theory of electricity, was ill-equipped to understand it and held stubbornly to what he knew. Meanwhile, the use of high voltage wires by Westinghouse and other AC companies to carry power into communities was seen by many as a potential danger, and newspapers reported several incidents where linemen were electrocuted by high voltage AC arc lighting systems. Edison was convinced that safety had to be the number one selling point in order to convince people to give up gas lighting and allow electricity into their homes; experiments and anecdotal reports indicated that a given amount of AC current was more harmful than the same amount of DC current.
After going all-in on DC power he tried to get AC banned, colluding with electrical engineer and anti-AC crusader Harold P. Brown to turn the public against it. He sponsored Brown's use of AC current to kill cats, dogs, mules, and horses in demonstrations at his West Orange laboratory. When New York State's Gerry Commission was investigating the use of a proposed invention—the electric chair—as a replacement for hanging, Edison was consulted. Despite opposing the death penalty as a matter of principle, Edison said it was better at least to be carried out as humanely as possible, and claimed that an alternating current would cause instantaneous death. Because of his fame his advice carried a lot of weight with the commissioners, and he ensured that the first ever electric chair would use Westinghouse AC generators surreptitiously acquired by Brown. The chair failed to kill its first victim quickly and set him on fire, which Edison afterwards blamed on the executioner not following all of his instructions. Also famous in the popular imagination is an Edison film depicting the electrocution of Topsy the elephant. However, we should be fair in judging Edison. He believed sincerely, albeit self-servingly, that AC was more dangerous than DC. Experiments in the 1970s showed that there was some truth to this. He also had a point that companies often cut corners when installing AC, and many of the safety mechanisms such as fuses and breakers we have to make AC power safe today didn't exist initially. Edison avoided the problem of tangled overhead wires through the expensive measure of burying his wires under the streets. Finally, the elephant was actually electrocuted by the Coney Island Circus because it had killed its trainer (who had abused and provoked the elephant), and Edison had no part in the electrocution, especially since he had already long since exited the current wars by that time; all that he did was send a crew to film it.
Edison's attacks, while making a big splash in public discussion, failed to make a dent in AC's business dominance. In 1893, the investors in his company sidelined him and merged with Thomson-Houston, dropping the name "Edison" to become General Electric and switching to AC. Edison was thus largely kicked out of the very industry he had helped to pioneer. Never one to miss a beat, he poured his dividends from that deal into an ultimately unfruitful ore-milling venture, as well as a little side project called "motion pictures".
Edison made both many friends and many enemies during his career, reflecting both the light and dark sides of his personality. He was seen as a Benevolent Boss by most of his employees at Menlo Park, working them hard but working just as hard himself, and periodically treating them to food or declaring a day off to take everyone fishing. However, the huge numbers of strangers who came knocking on his door starting when he struck fame with the phonograph made him wary of people trying to take advantage of him. As a result, he tended to put his trust in old friends and longtime employees whom he had worked with in the frat house atmosphere of telegraph offices and machine shops. Charles Batchelor and Samuel Insull were examples of employees who gave years of devoted service during the electrification of Manhattan, and whom he eventually rewarded with large salaries and positions managing his various enterprises. At the same time, he was very sensitive to disloyalty, whether real or perceived. Ezra Gilliland was Edison's best friend from his telegraphy days, and became an increasing presence in his life after the death of his wife Mary in 1884. Gilliland introduced Edison to an eligible girl named Mina Miller, who would become his second wife. Edison and Gilliland were partners in the commercial introduction of the phonograph, and at one point they even had matching vacation homes in Fort Myers, Florida. Unfortunately, after Gilliland persuaded him to sign a deal with an entrepreneur for the rights to market Edison's perfected phonograph, Edison found out that Gilliland had accepted a kickback for doing so. Enraged and hurt, Edison basically cut his friend out of his life. A similar story of partnership gone sour occurred with W.K.L. Dixon, an experimenter who had an equal role with Edison in conceiving the technology of the film camera and did most of the actual work of making Edison films a reality. Dixon was frustrated that Edison ignored the need to transition from peephole machines to film projection, and felt that he wasn't being paid or credited enough for his work. When he left to go into film-making for himself, taking his experimental notes with him, Edison considered it a great betrayal. Edison might have felt lonely after 1900 as his old Menlo Park cadre dwindled due to moving on, dying, or falling out with him. His friendship with Henry Ford—to whom he had given vital encouragement back when people were saying "It Will Never Catch On" about Ford's Quadricycle—bore fruit in Edison's later years. They were able to relate to each other as equals, and perhaps it helped that they didn't have strong business entanglements with each other. Ford moved into the winter home in Fort Myers evacuated by Gilliland, and would give a heartfelt eulogy at Edison's funeral.
Edison was undeniably ruthless towards his competition, as were many of the great figures who built industrial America. He saw outdoing other inventors as a vital motivation for his own progress, and he didn't necessarily have much respect for people who were trying to tackle the same problems as him. The issue of how unethical Edison's behavior was is made murky by the very different atmosphere around patent and copyright law when he lived. Different countries did not respect each other's patents as a matter of course, and if an invention hadn't been patented in the United States by its originators then it could be perfectly legal to take that invention and claim it as your own. Patents were difficult to enforce even in one's own country. For his part, Edison felt that U.S. patent law made it too easy for people to profit by infringing on his patents, since by the time the case made its way through court and they were ordered to stop, they would have already made their money. Despite making many of his greatest successes by improving other people's inventions, he jealously guarded the inventions on which his fame rested: when Chichester Bell (Alexander Graham Bell's cousin) approached him with an improved phonograph design and proposed that they collaborate, Edison called the Bell associates "pirates" and rebuffed their overtures in favor of developing it himself.
While he was in the film business he litigiously enforced his motion picture patents, joining with Eastman Kodak to keep a monopoly on the sale of cameras and film. If independent filmmakers tried to make movies using cameras brought from Europe, Edison could call up any judge in New Jersey and get a cease and desist order. He might even send security guards to confiscate or smash their cameras. Some got fed up and moved to Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, which had fine weather, varied geography, and most importantly was 3,000 miles away from Edison and his lawyers. After 1902 he was one of several U.S. film producers to pirate the groundbreaking science fiction film A Trip to the Moon, which was financially ruinous for its creator Georges Méliès. To us this was certainly hypocritical, but Edison thought the whole film business was his intellectual property. For what it's worth, international copyright was practically unenforceable back then, and Edison also suffered from competitors producing remakes and knockoffs of his most successful short films.
Nikola Tesla, who worked briefly for Edison in the early 1880s, said that the manager of Edison Machine Works, Charles Batchelor, offered US$50,000 to improve his DC generators, but when Tesla fulfilled the conditions, Batchelor said that it was just a joke. This is often mistold as Edison himself having put up the offer, but Tesla stated in his autobiography that it was Batchelor (whether this story is true has been disputed, thoughnote ). A fed-up Tesla quit to work for George Westinghouse, but in subsequent years he and Edison were relatively cordial. It was actually Westinghouse, and not Tesla, with whom Edison had a bitter rivalry.
Edison did not practice large-scale philanthropy the way some of his "Robber Baron" peers such as Rockefeller and Morgan did; for him, his inventions were his gift to the world. An example was his lab's development of commercial X-ray viewing machines for medical use. One notable stab at public service was his leadership of the Naval Consulting Board, which was established during World War I as an attempt at Federal Government sponsored research and development. He did not like the idea of developing offensive weaponry that could be used to kill people, and instead focused on developing technologies such as batteries for submarines and methods for producing large quantities of chemicals which had previously been imported from Germany.
Edison's birthplace in Milan, Ohio was rescued by one of his daughters and is now a historic house. The Menlo Park lab fell into disrepair after Edison left it, but Henry Ford saved the remaining buildings by taking them apart and rebuilding them as part of his Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Today the original site in New Jersey hosts an Edison memorial tower and volunteer-run education center. Edison's lab at Fort Myers, Florida and the twin vacation homes that he and Henry Ford would stay at are now a museum as well. Edison's laboratory at West Orange, NJ and his nearby mansion, Glenmont, are maintained by the National Park Service as Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
Because of his numerous inventions and his influence on world history, as well as his status as one of the world's first record and film producers, he's depicted quite a lot in popular culture. Any help listing and organizing all of them will be appreciated!
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Agnosticism: Edison was not religious, but believed in some form of higher intelligence. He was famously quoted as having witnessed something resembling an afterlife about a week before his death. He also once built a device meant to harness electricity and use it to communicate with the dead which would imply that he believed in the continuance of human consciousness after death.
- Cigar Chomper: He was very keen on cigars.
- Covert Pervert: In an interview, his listed potential applications for the newly-invented phonograph ranged from practical (audiobooks) to treasonous (hiding one in the White House to act as a listening device) to perverse (parents putting one in the homes of their married children to record sounds of their "spoony courtship" for private "use").
- Creepy Doll: He created the world's first talking doll. A very unnerving talking doll.
- The Determinator: As the two quotes above can attest to, Edison believed this was the secret to his success. Not genius but working very hard and persisting, no matter the setbacks.
- Glad I Thought of It: If he couldn't invent it first, then he'd be at the front of the line to improve and patent it. However, Alexander Graham Bell creating the telephone was a major sore spot for him, as Edison was on the very cusp of premiering the technology.
- Historical Hero Upgrade & Historical Villain Upgrade:
- Thomas Edison is either portrayed as a quirky underdog genius who had to fight to get his honest hard work recognised, or as a concept-stealing Corrupt Corporate Executive who swept away all opposition with threats and slander. There's plenty of evidence for and against both portrayals, but the market for energy and electricity was absolutely feral back then.
- From a more meta standpoint, it is nowadays known that Edison can be personally credited with far fewer inventions than he laid claim on during his lifetime, most prominently the incandescent light bulb and the microphone.(Though Edison never actually claimed that to have invented the first incandescent light bulb and actually formed a partnership with Joseph Swann to develop it.)
- In particular, Edison's relationship with Nikola Tesla is often exaggerated to make them seem like archenemies, usually to Edison's detriment. Some accounts even blame Edison for the later collapse of Tesla's career, which had nothing to do with Edison. The two men were hardly friends, but respected each others' work and were more occasional competitors than lifelong rivals. Edison even offered Tesla the use of his workshop after a fire at Tesla's laboratory in 1895, further suggesting that there was no personal animosity between them.note
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Used his partial deafness to feign attention when the people he was in the presence of were speaking while using the semi-isolation to think of other matters.
- It Will Never Catch On: His electric voting system was declined by the politicians of his time because they believed it would compromise lobbying and his attempt at creating private business telegraphy channels à la a proto-Bloomberg utterly failed. However, it was through this latter business that he met his first wife, Mary Stilwell.
- When he moved his lab to it, the Menlo Park of his time was frontier land that people largely avoided because it was infested with snakes.
- He ventured to create the world's first electric car, only to decommission his experiments when he admitted that Ford's internal combustion engine was far more practical.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: Thomas Edison was the last of his parents' seven children, and he went on to have six children of his own divided between two marriages. His fifth child, Charles, served as Governor of New Jersey and as Franklin D. Roosevelt's second Secretary of the Navy.
- Middle Name Basis: During his lifetime, he preferred to be known by his middle name Alva rather than his given/first name Thomas. Nowadays, he's referred to by his normal-sounding given name and/or his world-famous surname/last name more than the obscure-sounding Alva.
- Mundane Utility: When he believed he had stumbled on supernatural "etheric" energies (actually electromagnetic waves), his first thought as to how they could be used lay squarely in the realm of improving telegraphy.
- Not the Intended Use: Edison created an "electric pen" that was very difficult to actually write with, but Samuel O'Reilly would later use its fundamental design and workings to create the first electric tattoo needle.
- Psycho Electro: Elephant incident aside, even early in his career, Edison was fond of using electricity for pranks. From sabotaging public wash basins, to advertising that a domestic electrode used to alleviate rheumatism could also be used to "amuse" oneself by shocking their friends and family.
- Rags to Riches: Edison was born in a poor family, but when he died in 1931 he was a successful businessman and respected inventor with an estate of about $12 million.
- Self-Deprecation: He once called himself "the world's greatest inventor" and the "world's greatest damn fool" in the same breath.
- Self-Made Man
- Taught by Experience: Had no real formal schooling and became a scientist through a lot of trial and error.
- Theme Naming: He nicknamed his first two children, Marion and Thomas, Jr. "Dot" and "Dash" after telegraphy lingo.
- Too Dumb to Live: When he was working as an amateur journalist and newspaper mogul out of a locomotive, he had the bright idea to install a chemistry lab on said train so he could practice science on the go. Said lab was full of volatile chemicals which soon set fire to the train. Later, he was almost killed by a high-speed badger corpse when he insisted on sitting on the cow-catcher grill at the front of a train instead of just riding inside of it like a normal passenger.
- Trademark Favorite Food: He really loved his milk and used it as a pick me-up if he needed a burst of confidence.
- Workaholic: The man barely slept. And on the very same day he got married, he immediately made a beeline for his lab to continue his work.
- Younger Than They Look: In his mid-twenties, his hair started to prematurely grey from stress. By the time he was 30, he was known as "The Old Man" in his own lab for his unkempt and weathered appearance as he worked.
- Zany Scheme: Spent his youth Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life as a newspaper boy, amateur chemist, telegrapher, and produce trader before finally settling on "inventor."
Films produced by Edison's company:
Appears in the following works:
- 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.
- Atomic Robo stars a robot invented by Tesla, so naturally Edison is one of the series' Big Bads. Here he's presented as doing highly immoral things in a quest for immortality; and the War of the Currents was a fight to stop one such scheme. He dies in a climactic battle with Tesla in 1931, but somehow re-forms as a ghost in 1999.
- Mad Scientist The Inventor, one of the major villains in Ms. Marvel (2014), was intended to be a clone of Edison. However, the clone's DNA got scrambled with that of a cockatiel, so he wound up as a Half-Human Hybrid/Mix-and-Match Man.
- In American Dreams (2021), Edison is behind the Mass Super-Empowering Event in the first issue, after he tries out a device created by Tesla without fully understanding what it does.
Film - Live Action
- 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 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.
- Edison is the titular Science Hero of Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars, a 1898 science fiction Fan Sequel to The War of the Worlds that spawned a genre known as "Edisonade."
- Edison's ghost is a character in Expiration Date, which gives a relatively sympathetic portrayal of him.
- 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 just to 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 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.
- 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.
- In Kamen Rider Ghost, Edison is one of fifteen Ghost Eyecons based from fifteen different famous people in the world. In this form, Takeru wields Gan Gun Saber in Gun Mode.
- He gets a relatively even-handed portrayal in the Doctor Who episode "Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror", in which he is forced to team up with Tesla to help the Doctor fight off an alien invasion.
- The Bee Gees' song "Edison" is about him.
- Tesla slam him in "Edison's Medicine". Not surprising, since they are named after his arch-rival.
- Edison is the Big Bad of the role-playing game Punk Rock Saves the World. His goal is to be credited as "the greatest inventor of his time", even if he has to take credit for other people's inventions, such as the Time Machine that spurs the plot (and was actually created by Tesla).
- 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.
- According to Assassin's Creed II, Edison was an agent of the Templars, and his feud with the Assassin-affiliated Tesla was one of the great Templar-Assassin battles of the early 20th century that escalated to The Tunguska Event.
- In Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time, the titular villain has V.I.L.E. henchman Dee Cryption steal Edison's first light bulb, and he doesn't have any cotton left to make a new one before investors arrive the next morning. An ACME agent and Ivan Idea help him get a new spool of cotton thread.
- Mentioned, but not outright depicted in The Order: 1886. Tesla, The Engineer of the eponymous order, still isn't a fan.
- Appears as an antagonist, and later on an ally, in the America chapter of Fate/Grand Order as a Caster-class Servant. As a man with a lion head, and in a red, white, and blue jumpsuit. Yes, really.◊ And he's also the President of the United States due to an altered timeline. Tesla also appears as Archer-class Servant and is Edison's Rival/Sitcom Arch-Nemesis/Worthy Opponent.
- Edison is one of several guests invited to Tesla's mansion in The Invisible Hours. When Tesla is killed, Edison is an obvious suspect, and his self-important Jerkass attitude doesn't help.
- 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.
- 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 Tesla. The Oatmeal also sells a variety of Tesla > Edison merchandise in its store.
- In Epic Rap Battles of History, he makes an appearance alongside Tesla and he's depicted as an outright Jerkass, deriding Tesla as a poor businessman (which he was) and claiming that he (Edison) was mainly in it for the money.
Edison: The truth hertz, you're broke and washed upDon't give a smidgen 'bout your visions if they can't make a buck
- 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.
- 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.
- On The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius, Jimmy brings Edison to the present to show up Cindy, then has trouble sending him back when he falls in love with his teacher.
- Edison is featured in the "American Inventors" episode of This Is America, Charlie Brown.
- The story of Topsy the Elephant is recounted in the Bob's Burgers episode "Topsy", complete with a catchy song by Gene.
They say that Thomas EdisonIs the man to get us in-To next century.And that man is me.
- In a cutway of the Family Guy episode "Underage Peter," Edison walks around a workspace loudly proclaiming to have invented the lightbulb and the phonograph in front of their actual inventors.
Look it upEdison was a dick!