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AT A GLANCE:
The modern world is an electrified world. The light bulb, in particular, profoundly changed human existence by illuminating the night and making it hospitable to a wide range of human activity. The electric light, one of the everyday conveniences that most affects our lives, was invented in 1879 by Thomas Alva Edison. He put together what he knew about electricity with what he knew about gas lights and invented a whole of electrical system.
Inventor: Thomas Alva Edison
Thomas Alva Edison photo courtesy General Electric
Criteria: First practical. Modern prototype. Entrepreneur.
Birth: February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio
Death: October 18, 1931 in West Orange, New Jersey
Invention: electric light bulb in 1879
Electric Lamp image courtesy General Electric
Function: noun / electric light bulb / incandescent lamp
Definition: An electric lamp in which a filament is heated to incandescence by an electric current. Today’s incandescent light bulbs use filaments made of tungsten rather than carbon of the 1880’s.
Patent: 223,898 (US) issued January 27, 1880
1868 Edison’s first invention was a Vote Recorder
1869 Printing Telegraph
1869 Stock Ticker
1872 Automatic Telegraph
1876 Electric Pen
1877 Carbon Telephone Transmitter
1878 Thomas Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company
1879 Incandescent Electric Lamp
1880 223,898 Thomas Edison 1/27 for Electric Lamp and Manufacturing Process
1881 Electric Motor
1881 238,868 Thomas Edison 3/15 for Manufacture of Carbons for Incandescent Lamps
1881 251,540 Thomas Edison 12/27 for Bamboo Carbons Filament for Incandescent Lamps
1883 he observed the flow of electrons from a heated filament—the so-called “Edison effect”
1886 Talking Doll
1889 Edison Electric Light Company consolidated and renamed Edison General Electric Company.
1890 Edison, Thomson-Houston, and Westinghouse, the “Big 3” of the American lighting industry.
1892 Edison Electric Light Co. and Thomson-Houston Electric Co. created General Electric Co.
1897 Projecting Kinetoscope
1900 Storage Battery
capS: Edison, Thomas Alva Edison, Incandescent Electric Lamp, electric lamp, electric light bulb, light bulb, General Electric, most U.S. patents, electric industry, inventor, biography, profile, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
Thomas Alva Edison, whose development of a practical electric light bulb, electric generating system, sound-recording device, and motion picture projector had profound effects on the shaping of modern society. His greatest invention may not have been his products but the funding and impotence he placed on his company’s research and development efforts.
Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. He attended school for only three months, in Port Huron, Michigan. When he was 12 years old he began selling newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railway, devoting his spare time mainly to experimentation with printing presses and with electrical and mechanical apparatus. In 1862 he published a weekly, known as the Grand Trunk Herald, printing it in a freight car that also served as his laboratory. For saving the life of a station official’s child, he was rewarded by being taught telegraphy. While working as a telegraph operator, he made his first important invention, a telegraphic repeating instrument that enabled messages to be transmitted automatically over a second line without the presence of an operator.
Edison next secured employment in Boston and devoted all his spare time there to research. He invented a vote recorder that, although possessing many merits, was not sufficiently practical to warrant its adoption. He also devised and partly completed a stock-quotation printer. Later, while employed by the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company of New York City he greatly improved their apparatus and service. By the sale of telegraphic appliances, Edison earned $40,000, and with this money he established his own laboratory in 1876. Afterward he devised an automatic telegraph system that made possible a greater speed and range of transmission. Edison’s crowning achievement in telegraphy was his invention of machines that made possible simultaneous transmission of several messages on one line and thus greatly increased the usefulness of existing telegraph lines. Important in the development of the telephone, which had recently been invented by the American physicist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, was Edison’s invention of the carbon telephone transmitter.
In 1877 Edison announced his invention of a phonograph by which sound could be recorded mechanically on a tinfoil cylinder. Two years later he exhibited publicly his incandescent electric light bulb, his most important invention and the one requiring the most careful research and experimentation to perfect. This new light was a remarkable success; Edison promptly occupied himself with the improvement of the bulbs and of the dynamos for generating the necessary electric current. In 1882 he developed and installed the world’s first large central electric-power station, located in New York City. His use of direct current, however, later lost out to the alternating-current system developed by the American inventors Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse.
In 1887 Edison moved his laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, to West Orange, New Jersey, where he constructed a large laboratory for experimentation and research. (His home and laboratory were established as the Edison National Historic Site in 1955). In 1888 he invented the kinetoscope, the first machine to produce motion pictures by a rapid succession of individual views. Among his later noteworthy inventions was the Edison storage battery (an alkaline, nickel-iron storage battery), the result of many thousands of experiments. The battery was extremely rugged and had a high electrical capacity per unit of weight. He also developed a phonograph in which the sound was impressed on a disk instead of a cylinder. This phonograph had a diamond needle and other improved features. By synchronizing his phonograph and kinetoscope, he produced, in 1913, the first talking moving pictures. His other discoveries include the electric pen, the mimeograph, the microtasimeter (used for the detection of minute changes in temperature), and a wireless telegraphic method for communicating with moving trains.
At the outbreak of World War I, Edison designed, built, and operated plants for the manufacture of benzene, carbolic acid, and aniline derivatives. In 1915 he was appointed president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board and in that capacity made many valuable discoveries. His later work consisted mainly of improving and perfecting previous inventions. Altogether, Edison patented more than 1000 inventions. He was a technologist rather than a scientist, adding little to original scientific knowledge. In 1883, however, he did observe the flow of electrons from a heated filament—the so-called Edison effect—whose profound implications for modern electronics were not understood until several years later. Edison died in West Orange on October 18, 1931.