Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) earned the reputation as “The Wizard of Menlo Park” because of his work as an inventor and scientist. Though he is best known for inventing incandescent light bulbs, Edison was a prolific inventor who held more than 1,000 US patents, as well as additional patents in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. His inventions helped usher in the 20th century, changing the way people lived, worked and played. In a sense, Edison carried the world out of a second Dark Ages. Many of his inventions served as blueprints for devices used in the 21st century.
Edison received the patent for the electric vote recorder in 1869, the first in his long line of patents. Congress was one of the first users of the machine. This machine featured a mechanism that recorded “yes” and “no” votes and made it easier to count. The chairman of the congressional committee did not like the slow pace of the machine. This machine, though, led to faster voting machines, including computerized machines used today.
The cylinder phonograph developed in 1877, as Edison worked on two other groundbreaking inventions – the telegraph and the telephone. This invention went through numerous transformations. The phonograph had a diaphragm with an embossing point held against paraffin paper. The paper became a metal cylinder with a foil wrapping. Edison eventually established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878. The machine was used for business and pleasure. Uses included books for the blind, letter dictation for stenographers, speech recordings and of course music. The phonograph served as a precursor for records, eight tracks, cassettes and CDs.
The motion picture camera, or kinetograph, changed the way people entertained themselves, creating entertainment venues outside the home. Edison began working on the camera because he saw a lecture by Muybridge, whose zoopraxiscope simulated a horse moving across a series of freeze frames. Edison employed W. K. L. Dickson to help him design a motion picture device. The men invented the kinetoscope in 1892, and they presented their creation to the public in 1893.
In 1903, the Edison Manufacturing Company and Kleine Optical Company released “The Great Train Robbery,” a film thought to be a milestone in American cinema. The 12-minute silent film used camera angles, close up and framing techniques not seen in recordings. It was also the first movie with a narrative. Edison’s company went on to produce more than a dozen movies. In 1913, Edison improved this invention, creating the kinetophone – an invention that added talking to motion pictures.
Electric Safety Lantern
The invention of mining safety equipment was nothing new when Edison invented the electric safety lantern in 1914. As far back as the 1700s, inventors have tried to create devices to make this job less dangerous. Edison found a way to manufacture synthetic carbolic acid because, at the time, the substance was used for making bombs for World War I. He eventually produced a ton of carbolic acid a day at his West Orange plant. His plant became a useful resource during the war, and Edison became president of the Naval Consulting Board.
Edison’s inventions helped transform the 20th century, making dangerous and time-consuming jobs easier. He also changed the way people entertained themselves, creating a recreational culture not seen before the turn of the century. More importantly, his inventions served as forerunners for technologies seen today, even in an interactive world dominated by computers.
The Franklin Institute
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
The Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park
Edison Birthplace Museum