Next up in the self made men series is Thomas Edison.

Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history, holding 1,093 U.S. patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. [1]  I can’t begin to talk about all of Edison’s inventions.  This post would go on forever.  I’ve barely scratched the surface but I tried to stick to his more well known inventions, the phonograph and electric lights.

Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan Ohio.  Edison had hearing loss early in childhood and became totally deaf in his teens.  This has been attributed to scarlet fever and chronic untreated ear infections.  He was quite the day dreamer in school and only received 3 months of formal schooling.  He was home schooled by his mother and has said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

His first entrepreneurial venture was selling newspapers and candy on the train.  At age 19, he got a job with Western Union but was fired when he was experimenting with a battery.  He had accidentally spilled sulfuric acid on the floor and it dripped down onto his boss’ desk.  Edison went on to invent many telegraphic improvements. His first patent was for the electric vote recorder, which was issued on June 1, 1869.  But the first invention to bring fame was the phonograph in 1877.  The first phonograph had poor sound quality and the recordings could only be played a few times.  He continued to work on it until he developed the “perfect phonograph”.  You can listen to Thomas Edison talking into a phonograph here.  I highly recommend it, it’s pretty neat.

He eventually came up with the quadruplex phonograph which he sold to Western Union.  It allowed the transmission of 4 messages at the same time over a single wire.  He used the money gained on the sale of the phonograph to build a research lab.  It was the first institution dedicated to the advancement of technology.  Over his desk, Edison displayed a placard with Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous quote: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” [2]

Edison and his team mostly made improvements to existing designs.  For example, he did not invent the first electric light bulb, but instead invented the first commercially practical light bulb.[3]  Previous electric lights had short lives, were expensive to produce, and drew a high amount of electricity.  But Edison and his team were able to come up with a light bulb that could be mass produced and sold to homes and businesses.  Edison’s patent used carbonized bamboo as the filament but he later bought a patent that had been issued 3 years earlier to Henry Woodward.  This patent used a carbon rod in a nitrogen filled glass cylinder.

Edison also created a system for the generation and distribution of electricity.  The first public display of an electric lamp was on December 31, 1879.  At the time Edison said “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”  In 1880, Edison started Edison Electric Illuminating Company and on September 4th, 1882 Edison switched on the electrical power distribution system and provided 110 volts of Direct Current to 59 customers in Manhattan.

Direct Current (DC) had major disadvantages.  It could only transmit power to customers up to a mile and a half way and used thick expensive wires.  Edison employed a young immigrant named Nikola Tesla.  Edison told Tesla that he would give him $50,000 (53 years of pay) if he could improve upon his DC plants.  Tesla then discovered Alternating Current (AC).  When he asked Edison for his bonus Edison laughed and told him “When you become a full-fledged American you will appreciate an American joke.”  This upset Tesla who quit immediately.

Tesla took his design for AC to Westinghouse which began to promote the new technology.  AC could transmit power hundreds of miles and used thin inexpensive wires.  To fight the transition to AC Edison launched a campaign against alternating current which stated that AC was too dangerous to use.  He went as far as to publicly electrocute animals to demonstrate the dangers of AC.  But his efforts were mostly in vain and AC became the current of choice.  DC is still used to power subway systems today and was used in some buildings in downtown New York City power as late as 2007.

Thomas Edison died on October 18th, 1931 at his home in West Orange, New Jersey.  His last breath is said to be in a sealed test tube in the Henry Ford museum.

Other Self Made Men in the series:
Warren Buffett
Henry Ford
Ingvar Kamprad
Sam Walton
Oprah Winfrey
Steve Jobs

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