Thomas Alva Edison’s impact on the modern world was so great that, when he died in October 1931, people all over the world dimmed their lights, or switched off their electricity in tribute to the man who literally lit up the 20th century. Edison registered 1,093 patents during his lifetime, but these are probably his top inventions. Probably? Well, any ‘Top 10’ list is always going to be subjective, but here goes…
The phonograph (1877)
Like many of the best ideas, the phonograph came about by accident, while Edison was trying to improve a telegraph transmitter. Edison’s phonograph – which used a cylinder rather than a disc – was the first machine to both record and reproduce sound.
Wireless telegraphy (1881 – 1887)
Edison’s system of wireless telegraphy allowed trains to communicate with each other, and also with stations, thus making rail travel much safer. He also invented a system allowing for ship to ship or ship to shore communication.
Incandescent light bulb (1879)
Edison did not actually invent the light bulb – there had been versions of light bulbs and experimentation with lighting for around 50 years. However, he did invent the incandescent light bulb, along with a lighting system that was practical for general use, safe, and affordable.
Direct current generator (1879)
The direct current (DC) generator was able to mass produce and transmit electricity for lighting. Edison also developed the first three-wire system for lighting, although it was rather crude.
Electric power (1882)
Again, Edison did not invent electricity, but he did invent the components to generate a reliable supply of electric power. He opened the world’s first commercial power station in Pearl Street, Manhattan, in September, 1882. The generation and supply of electric was reliable, but the current could only be transported a short distance of between 1 and 2 kilometers, as Edison used direct current.
The kinetograph (1891 – 97)
Edison’s kinetograph was the forerunner of movie cameras. His machine used celluloid film, which George Eastman had invented in 1899. Edison’s invention – which was the first motion camera – inspired the French Lumiere Brothers to develop a movie camera and projector that could show films to large audiences.
Rock breaking machine (1900)
While there were previous machines to break rocks, Edison’s machine was a large roller system which worked on kinetic energy principles and could crush large rocks into fine gravel. His machine saved time and manpower, and was the first of it’s kind.
Alkaline storage battery (1903)
Edison first intended storage batteries to be used in conjunction with his phonograph and other electrical inventions, but he had little success. He then tried to develop the battery for the new automobiles, but by the time it was perfected, automobiles were powered by internal cumbustion engines. However, the batteries were later used for railroad signals and lights, submarines, fork lift trucks and other vehicles. Edison’s storage batteries were manufactured from 1903 to 1972 in New Jersey.
Arising from improvements to the phonograph, the Ediphone was the first dictating machine and the predecessor of the modern dictaphone. The recording was made on a wax cylinder, and Edison’s machine was available until the early 1950’s, when it was superseded by machines that used magnetic tape.
The kinetophone improved on the kinetograph, because it combined sound synchronised with pictures, as opposed to the earlier kinetophone, which played music to accompany the pictures. Over 250 were made, and it is acknowledged as the forerunner of the talking picture.