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The man who lit up the world: Thomas Edison changed the world through his ability, persistence -- and hard work. "Genius," he said, "is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration". (History: American Ingenuity).

Thomas Alva Edison put it plainly: "I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work." And the man who lit up the world was indeed a worker. With little formal education, he was productively employed for 73 of his nearly 85 years (1847-1931).

According to the legend which Edison did little to alter, his sole teacher called him "addled," and said he was not worth schooling. The man who filed a patent on the average of every two weeks during the whole of his adult life enjoyed the tale. For his entry in Who's Who in America, he noted: "Received some instruction from his mother." And he once asserted that in 1862 he found refuge in what was to become the Detroit Public Library. "I started with the first book on the bottom shelf and went through the lot, one by one. I didn't read a few books. I read the library. Then I got a collection called The Penny Library Encyclopedia and read that through.... I read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy -- pretty heavy reading for a youngster. It might have been if I hadn't been taught by my deafness that I could enjoy any good literature.... Following the Anatomy came Newton's Principles...."

In point of fact, young Edison did attend several schools, and chemistry classes at Cooper Union in New York, and he wrote in private correspondence about his fabled self-education at the Detroit library: "I started to do it but gave up after reading about ten books that were pretty dry reading." But myths die hard, especially the self-effacing legends of great men.

For example, biographer Robert Conot reports in his book A Streak of Luck:

The most pervasive legend was that he slept only a few hours out of every twenty-four. It was, in reality, a smokescreen.... While in his young years there were stretches when he drove himself and others past the point of exhaustion, he always managed to catch up on his sleep afterward.

[Edison associate Alfred O.] Tate related: "His genius for sleep equalled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep anywhere, any time, on anything." He and his secretary once went to the beach for the weekend, and Edison slept thirty-six hours straight with only a two-hour interruption for a dinner of steak, potatoes, and apple pie. It was common for him to work a day and a night, taking occasional naps at the laboratory, then go to bed at Glenmont for eighteen hours.

It was another example of the division between the ideal and the practical. Ideally, Edison contended: "Sleep is an acquired habit. Cells don't sleep. Fish swim about in the water all night; they don't sleep. Even a horse don't sleep, he just stands still and rests. A man don't need any sleep." In practice, Edison did like everyone else, and went to sleep.

But he never let even sleep get in the way of his beloved work, with the result that he was granted 1,093 patents -- more than any other man in history. As it happened, one of his earliest inventions was a device he patched together in his days as a nightshift telegraph operator assigned to send a "wide-awake" signal every hour. He almost lost his job when it was discovered he had attached the sending set to a clock and rigged it to send an automatic signal so he could get some sleep.

Edison's hearing loss did not stop him from becoming a whiz at telegraphy, and actually helped him in improving a transmitter for Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and in inventing the gramophone. "Deafness, pure and simple," said Edison of the latter invention, "was responsible for the experimentation which perfected the machine. It took me twenty years to make a perfect record of piano music because it is full of overtones. I now can do it -- just because I'm deaf."

His defective hearing gave him another advantage. In Edison: The Man Who Made The Future, Ronald Clark explained: "In the business jungle where Edison necessarily carried out much of his business he could not rely on verbal agreements; everything had to be in writing, a safety net in what has been called 'a business era notorious For financial swindle and brigandage.'"

Persistence, Then Success

The genius of Thomas Edison was not immediately appreciated. He lost an early job as a telegraph operator for having tested the idea that two messages could be sent over the same wire. But his boss called the idea "crazy," saying "any damn fool ought to know that a wire can't be worked both ways at once."

Indeed, Edison's first patented invention, the electrical vote recorder, also was a failure. A congressional committee informed him: "If there is any invention on earth that we don't want down here, it is this." Delaying the game, Edison was told, "is the only right the minority has." In 1868, the legislators "did not want votes counted rapidly, which resolved Edison to produce only inventions of practical use." (The Indispensable Man, edited by George E. Probst.) It would be some 90 years before such an invention would be installed for the Congress.

Two years later, in 1870, young Edison received his first money for an invention -- $40,000 for a stock ticker. This enormous sum enabled him to open a "shop." As he wrote to his parents: "I have one shop which employs 18 men and am fitting up another which will employ over 150 men -- I am now what 'you' Democrats call a 'Bloated Eastern Manufacturer.'"

He did not believe in invention for its own sake. In 1875, for example, Edison discovered an electrical phenomenon which he called the "etheric force," but for which he saw no immediate practical use. Years later this purely scientific discovery became the foundation for wireless telegraphy.

Soon the brilliant Edison made the mistake of becoming involved with one of those "bloated" Easterners about whom he had written his parents. It was Jay Gould, the robber baron, and the young inventor suffered considerable loss in a dispute between Western Union and Gould's Atlantic & Pacific system over Edison's quadruplex telegraph.

In Edison, Matthew Josephson recounts how Edison learned that Gould "swindled his associates no less than his opponents, whenever it suited him to do so. Early in 1875, Gould took steps to merge the several telegraph companies under his control. By a written agreement drawn earlier, the Automatic Telegraph Company's stockholders were to exchange their shares, at a valuation of about four million dollars, for Atlantic & Pacific securities. Edison had been promised payment for his services in stock, which was supposed to total about $250,000 in new securities. That is, he had been assured in writing that he would receive 'one-tenth' of the benefits accruing to the Automatic Telegraph from his inventions, and that he would be named chief electrician of the new amalgamated company at a good salary. To his chagrin, none of these promises were kept. Jay Gould made cash payment only to Harrington, his lieutenant, and then by some legal chicanery discriminated against the other stockholders of the Automatic Telegraph , allowing them nothing for their stocks. Among those who was thus defrauded was Edison." The inventor joined in a lawsuit that was not decided until 1906, and then the damages were beaten down by the Gould interests to one dollar!

In the meantime Thomas Edison had set up the world's first research laboratory in 1876 at Menlo Park, New Jersey. He was working there in 1877 when he applied for a patent on a carbon transmitter that not only made the Bell telephone commercially practical but became the basis of the microphone. The patent was not granted until 1892, but Western Union agreed to pay him $100,000 for all rights. Payment was spread out over 17 years because, Edison said, "My ambition was about four times too large for my business capacity, and I knew that I would soon spend this money experimenting if I got it all at once...."

Menlo Park was also the site of his invention of the phonograph, more uniquely an Edison production than any of his other devices, which were frequently improvements on the work of others. When the crank on the gramophone (phonograph) was turned and the recorder played back "Mary had a little lamb...," even its inventor admitted he was "a little scared." Now that sound could be recorded, Edison predicted talking moving pictures. But it was not primarily entertainment that the inventor had in mind for the phonograph, but rather use in the office by secretaries. Edison's records were cylinders, and until 1913 he stubbornly refused to emulate the subsequent disk records.

Publicity abounded. With no small help from the new "Napoleon of Science," who welcomed the attention and knew how to milk the press. Such was his fame in 1878, reports Robert Conot, that a New York newspaper ran an April first story headlined "... 'Edison Invents a Machine That Will Feed the Human Race - manufacturing Biscuits, Meat, Vegetables, and Wine out of Air, Water, and Common Earth.' It was, of course, an April Fool's prank, but other newspapers around the country picked it up and ran it straight. Nothing seemed impossible for a man who could make a machine that talked. Newspapermen flocked to Menlo Park in the hope of being the first to catch the latest marvel from the magician's workshop." This story comes from A Streak of Luck, the title of which refers to an Edison comment in 1869: "I'll never give up for I may have a streak of luck before I die."

Turning On the Lights

The magic continued. By the end of 1879, Edison had developed the first practical incandescent light bulb after a long period of trial and error that gave proof to his much-quoted adage that "genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." The filament in the successful bulb was carbonized sewing thread, but scores of other materials had been tried previously. Thomas Edison described the occasion:

All night Batchelor, my assistant, worked beside me. The next day and next night again, and at the end of that time we had produced one carbon out of an entire spool of Clark's thread. Having made it, it was necessary to take it to the glassblower's house.

With utmost precaution Batchelor took up the precious carbon, and I marched after him, as if guarding a mighty treasure. To our consternation, just as we reached the glassblower's bench the wretched carbon broke. We turned back to the main laboratory and set to work again. It was late in the afternoon before we had produced another carbon, which was again broken by a jeweler's screwdriver falling against it. But we turned back again, and before night the carbon was completed and inserted in the lamp. The bulb was exhausted of air and sealed, the current turned on, and the sight we had so long desired to see met our eyes.

"We have produced a very good light" was the under-keyed entry in a laboratory notebook.

When a second bulb burned for 40 hours, the inventor declared: "I think we've got it. If it can burn forty hours, I can make it last a hundred." But not all were believers. Saturday Review sneered: "Three times within the short space of eighteen months he has had the glory of finally and triumphantly solving a problem of worldwide interest.... [T]here is no reason why he should not for the next twenty years completely solve the problem of the electric light twice a year without in any way interfering with the interest of novelty.... There is a strong flavor of humbug about the whole matter.... Mr. Edison's efforts in electric lighting seem cursed with a total absence of originality.... He is an inventor who is absolutely intoxicated with his own reputation.... Successes seem to have completely turned his head."

In short order, however, dynamos were improved to generate sufficient power and, on New Year's Eve, Edison gave a public demonstration of his lighting system in the streets and buildings of Menlo Park. Never "before or since," commented Smithsonian magazine one century later, "has an invention had such an impact on culture and society or led to so many other inventions. Between 1880 and 1882, Edison laid the foundation for the entire electric-light and power industry. He devised sockets, switches, fuses, cutouts, meters, chandeliers (called electroliers), and underground mains. He erected the first central power station in New York. Lighting systems were installed in plants and factories throughout the world - they enabled manufacturers to operate around the clock and were a factor in leading, ultimately, to eight-hour shifts in place of 12hour workdays."

Edison's objective, he said, was "to devise the means of establishing electric lights on a commercial basis; to distribute the current from a central station and measure it, as gas is now measured, and to bring the cost down to a point where the enormous moneyed influence of gas can be successfully countered." Not that there wasn't ignorant opposition like that heard today from the no-nukes kooks. Because of scaremongering it was necessary to install signs in rooms with electric lights, assuring the public that "the use of electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep."

Edison risked his entire fortune developing a lighting system he could install in New York City, and he faced many political and scientific confrontations. Thus, in February 1881, the inventor left Menlo Park, saying: "My work here is done, my light is perfected. I'm now going into the practical production of it." As biographer Matthew Josephson reported, "He must supervise the installation of the lighting plant in New York himself; he must start the manufacturing shops that were to supply the equipment for the new electric light and power industry he was initiating. The man of inventions must now double as industrialist and administrator."

The inventor put everything he had on the line in what he called the "greatest adventure" of his life. Installation costs of the underground network were entirely at the expense of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, and users didn't even have to pay unless their system not only worked properly but at a cost less than that of lighting by gas. In September of 1882 the power was finally turned on in his Pearl Street station. As the New York Times reported:

It was not until about seven o'clock, when it began to grow dark, that the electric light made itself known and showed how bright and steady it is. Then the twenty-seven electric lights in the editorial rooms and the twenty-five lamps in the counting rooms made those departments as bright as day, but without any unpleasant glare. It was a light that a man could sit down under and write for hours without the consciousness of having any artificial light about him.... The light was soft, mellow, and grateful to the eye, and it seemed almost like writing by daylight to have a light without a particle of flicker and scarcely any heat to make the head ache.

The next year saw installation of central power stations all over the world; there were more than 300 electric plants in operation by the spring of 1883. Meanwhile, Edison worked to make his bulbs last longer and to find ways to produce them more cheaply. But even the early expense of the bulbs, records Ronald Clark in Edison: The Man Who Made the Future, "did not affect the customers since Edison had audaciously priced the first lamps at forty cents each even though they cost $1.40 to make, and did not change the price for years. There was good sense in this, since the cost of manufacture dropped first to seventy cents, then to fifty and finally to twenty-two cents. What did affect customers was the increased life of the bulbs, about 400 hours when the Pearl Street station was switched on, but quickly increased."

Man of Inventions

In 1887, the Edison laboratory was moved to West Orange, New Jersey. Work was done to move more effectively into the phonograph business. He patented a plate-glass process, projected the first experimental motion picture, and applied for a patent on a motion-picture camera. In 1894 the first commercial motion pictures were shown on Edison's patented Kinetoscope. And he applied for a patent on the first fluorescent electric lamp, leaving the fluoroscope he invented in the public domain to further the interest of medicine.

Through all of this, Thomas Edison considered himself foremost a chemist -- though he worked in many separate fields simultaneously with an able assistant often specializing on each project. Such was the man's breadth that his secretary estimated that in 1890 he was engaged in 72 different projects. Consider this summary of Edison contributions in the field of chemistry, as detailed by Byron Vanderbilt's Thomas Edison, Chemist:

(a) The development of carbon fibers.

(b) First demonstration that carbon could be heated to a light yellow color (over 2,000[degrees] C) without disintegration or severe volatilization even in vacuc. (c) The first manufacture of a practical device containing a very high vacuum enclosure capable of maintaining that vacuum for months or even years. (d) Major advances in the fields of electrical insulation for indoor, outdoor, and underground installations. (e) Development of the first commercial alkaline storage battery and pioneered the manufacture of the nickel-iron battery. (f) Several advances in the field of electrochemistry, including the method of making nickel flakes of minute thickness and a method for making zinc and other metal sheeting in a continuous manner. (g) First observation of the strong adsorption of gases by platinum metal. (h) Development of several new techniques for concentrating magnetite ores by magnetic separation. (i) First preparation of iron powder commercially by direct hydrogenation; he manufactured and sold high pu rity iron to chemical reagent suppliers. (j) Pioneering work in the processing and molding of plastics. (k) Pioneering the development and use of rubber-fabric conveyor belting. (l) First use of foam concrete for structural purposes. (m) Several firsts in the manufacture of organic chemicals during World War I. (n) First determination that goldenrod leaves contain appreciable concentrations of rubber; he determined rubber contents of literally thousands of plants.

Electric Controversies

Nor was Thomas Edison at a loss when it came to controversies. For instance, one of the more heated arguments of the day was between Edison and his rival George Westinghouse, who wanted to use alternating currents in his own power plants rather than the direct current favored by the "Wizard of Menlo Park." The Edison camp mounted a propaganda campaign against Westinghouse very similar to the scaremongering to which Edison had himself been subjected by the gas-light companies earlier in his career. To prove how "unsafe" A.C. was, Edison aides publicly executed stray cats and dogs (gathered by boys who were paid 25[cents] per animal) with jolts of the "Westinghouse" alternating current. Edison and his supporters even arranged for underhanded purchases of Westinghouse motors which were first used on New York State's new electric chair in 1890 in an attempt to link the name of Westinghouse and alternating current with death by electrical shock. Eventually the promoters of A.C. prevailed, but it was some time before Edison Companies adopted it. As late as 1903 Mr. Edison complain ed about what he considered undue attention paid to alternating current.

And this genius with more patents than any other man in history grew to despair the patent laws and their enforcers as tools of charlatans. As Edison groused: "This class of men has risen in every field where my work has produced anything of commercial importance. I remember one fellow who swore he invented one of my machines before I did. We found out where he had it built, and the records of the machine shop showed it was made a long time after I put a machine on the market. He simply copied my mechanism, and rusted it up....I lost the German patent on the carbon telephone through the insert of a comma which entirely changed the interpretation of the patent. Another foreign patent was lost because the patent office in that country discovered that something similar had been used in Egypt in 2000 B.C. - not exactly the same device, but something nearly enough like it to defeat my patent."

Lasting Legacy

Whole modern industries resulted from Edison's pioneering work, including electronics, automation, radio, and television. "No other man," opines Robert Conot in A Streak of Luck, "has ever been responsible for striking the spring of so much wealth, nor had such influence on the lives of so many people." In 1979, one century after Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb, Conot noted: "Motion pictures are a $2 billion industry in the United States; phonograph and recording, $1.5 billion. The electric industry generates nearly 2 trillion kilowatts of power and grosses almost $150 billion a year. Sales of household appliances, washers and air conditioners, stoves and refrigerators, radio and television sets account for more than $15 billion annually. General Electric has assets of $10 billion and sales of $13 billion. The A.B. Dick company, which began by marketing the mimeograph, grossed $281 million in 1975." Such is the legacy of one individual man in a free society with access to a free m arket.

When Thomas Alva Edison died in 1931, President Herbert Hoover asked his countrymen to turn off their lamps for a moment in a widespread silent tribute to this great American. The country fell dark. And when the lights of our country once more were lighted they illuminated a world made infinitely better by one determined man with a dream.

This article originally appeared under the title "Edison: The Man Who Turned On the Lights" in the November 1979 issue of American Opinion, a predecessor of THE NEW AMERICAN.
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Author:Hoar, William P.
Publication:The New American
Date:Jun 30, 2003
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