Thomas Edison was born in Ohio in 1847, the youngest of seven children, and grew up in Michigan. Edison wasn’t much of a student in school because his mind always seemed to be wandering. He only attended school for a few months before his mother decided to home school him. He did a lot of reading, especially the books The Cooper Union and The School of Natural Philosophy, books that taught him a great deal. However, as a child, Edison suffered a bout of scarlet fever, an illness which caused him hearing problems. He had repeated ear infections which also contributed to his hearing loss
In spite of his hearing problems, Thomas Edison was always a bit of an entrepreneur. As a young man he sold candy, vegetables and newspapers. He was quite the businessman and had great talent and initiative.
Thomas Edison once saved a small boy from being hit by a train. In return, the boy’s father, J.U. MacKenzie taught Edison how to be a telegraph operator. In 1866, at the age of 19, Edison worked for Associated Press, volunteering to work the evening shift so he could have time for reading and working on experiments. However, Edison ended up being fired from this job after he spilled sulfuric acid while performing one of his experiments at work.
Thomas Edison began his career as an inventor in Newark, New Jersey. Although he had worked on improving telegraphic devices, Edison’s first invention to bring him fame was the phonograph. This invention in 1877 brought Edison the nickname of “Wizard of Menlo Park.” Edison’s original phonograph used tinfoil to record and had very poor sound quality. The phonograph was redesigned and improved in the 1880’s by Alexander Graham Bell and two of his co-workers.
In 1878, Edison formed his Edison Electric Illuminating Company in New York City with J.P. Morgan and other backers. Edison first displayed his electric light bulb at Menlo Park in 1879. He had been working in his Menlo Park lab with platinum and other metals, but finally decided to use a carbon filament. The first successful trail using the carbon filament lasted for forty hours. Edison patented his electric distribution system the next year, so that he could capitalize on his invention the electric light.
With all of his successes, Edison had problems with competitors such as George Westinghouse. Westinghouse wanted to promote an Alternating Current System invented by Nikola Tesla. Edison on the other hand, wanted to promote Direct Current. Westinghouse and Tesla felt that the AC current was more useful and could be used with high voltage transformers and were more easily transmitted.
Edison is also credited with the design and production of the fluoroscope, a machine that takes what is commonly called x-rays. Edison discovered that calcium tungstate screens produced brighter images than those from previously used chemicals. Unfortunately Edison abandoned his fluoroscope after his assistant died from the radiation exposure. However, the basic design from Edison’s invention is still in use today.
In 1890 Edison established the Edison General Electric Company by putting together all his businesses. He had a competitor, Charles A. Coffin, who created the Thomson-Houston company. Eventually due to competition and limited resources, they merged to form General Electric.
Edison’s most lucrative invention was telegraphy. With all his early work as a telegraph operator, Edison learned the in’s and out’s of electricity. He earned a lot of money with the stock ticker, a type of broadcast system. Among his other accomplishments was the motion picture camera, called the Kinetograph. Edison did the design and his associate did the optical development. He then developed the Kinetoscope in 1891. This worked like a viewer where people could look through an eye piece and watch short movies. In 1908, Edison started the Motion Picture Company. He saw the implementation of electric trains shortly before his death in 1931.