Engineering Hall of Fame


Thomas Alva Edison
The accomplishments and life of electrical engineer and entrepreneur Thomas Edison, 1847-1931

Edison in 1877

American Innovator (total of 1,093 patents)
1847-1931, Milan, Ohio, USA

Thomas Edison became a telegrapher in Port Huron, Michigan at age 16. In 1869 young innovator Edison patented an electric vote recorder, but its unconventionality led to commercial failure, forcing Edison to focus on marketability as he innovated. Knowing the telegraph's extensive use led the newly entrepreneurial Edison to develop a telegraph to receive two messages while simultaneously sending two - a "quadruplex" capacity. Western Union purchased Edison's technology, financially enabling him to relocate from Newark, NJ to nearby Menlo Park. He created a premiere industrial research lab in 1876. In 1878 Edison founded the Edison Electric Lighting Company in lower Manhattan to produce his new incandescent filament bulbs.

Increasing use of dynamos provided DC power to a wide variety of technologies from trolley motors to electric arc furnaces. The Wallace dynamo, shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, inspired Edison to work on advancing dynamo technology. His version was belt driven and involved a lower internal resistance, larger bipolar magnets and greater efficiency. He formed Edison Machine Works in 1880 to produce his dynamos.


Edison then innovated a complete system to deliver DC power to large areas using his dynamos. His Edison Illuminating Company (formed in 1882) in lower Manhattan constructed the first U.S. commercial electric power generation station and distribution system to power a mile square residential and business area. He offered his customers more efficient lighting more cost effectively.

In 1886 Edison relocated the Edison Machine Works to Schenectady, NY - reminiscent of his rural birthplace involved in shipping grain by canal, he saw the Erie Canal as advantageous in receiving materials and shipping products. Three years later, Edison merged Edison Machine Works with Edison Electric Light Company, Bergmann & Company and the Edison Lamp Company to form Edison General Electric Company in Schenectady. Edison General Electric then merged with Thomson -Houston Company to form General Electric Company in 1892. Edison's difficult personality and reluctance to deal with AC power led the board of the General Electric to reduce his influence in the company. He remained a figurehead with little power after he sold his 10% stake in the company. By the 1890s a new crop of innovators like Steinmetz, William Stanley, Dr. Lois Bell, and Thomson took the reigns as leaders of AC power innovations at GE. Edison was left to pursue his passions and projects freely without the control of GE's board.

Written by Breanna Day and M. Whelan

Extended Edison Biography:
By Dr. Edwin Reilly Jr.

Thomas A. Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, February 11, 1847. In 1854 the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where seven-year old Tom Edison set up his first chemical laboratory in the cellar of their large house.

When he was 12 he got his first job as train-boy on the Grand Trunk Railroad. It was on this run between Detroit and Port Huron that he acquired exclusive newsdealer's rights selling candy and papers on the train.

Edison's career as a telegraph operator began when he saved the station agent's young son from the path of a moving freight car. Out of gratitude the father taught Edison the new science of telegraphy. By the time he was seventeen, Edison was "on the road" as a telegraph operator. He drifted from Stratford, Canada, to Adrian, Michigan, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Boston.

When he was 21 years old Edison went to New York, almost penniless. By fixing a broken-down machine in the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, he landed a $300 a month job as superintendent of the company. At the same time he was making many inventions, among them the "Universal" stock ticker. For this and other inventions he received $40.000 and with this money he opened a manufacturing shop in Newark, making stock tickers.

At the age of 29 he went to Menlo Park to make perhaps the greatest invention of all - a successful incandescent electric lamp. Out of the Edison laboratory in the important years between 1876 to 1886 came the carbon telephone transmitter, the phonograph, the Edison dynamo and the Edison incandescent lamp. When the electrical system with which he hoped to light whole cities required a new piece of machinery or a new device, Edison developed it. And if after developing it he could find no manufacturer, he would set up his own plants for manufacturing the equipment he had invented. By the very force of necessity the wizard of Menlo Park became a manufacturer of New York City. On September 4, 1882, Edison started operating the Pearl Street Station, the first central generating station to light New York City.

The Edison interests were expanding and in 1886 Edison sent his agents to look for suitable sites for a new factory. On the outskirts of Schenectady stood two unfinished factory buildings, which were to have been the McQueen Locomotive Works. The location of these buildings impressed Edison and he negotiated to purchase the two plants which were soon turning out the dynamos needed by the Edison generating stations. Other buildings sprang up alongside the original shops and in 1892 this plant became the headquarters of the newly formed General Electric Company.

It began to be apparent early in the 1890s that electrical development was being held up because no company controlled the patents on all the necessary elements for installing an efficient and serviceable system. The conviction was taking shape that the incandescent lamp and the alternating-current transformer system belonged together. The outcome in 1892 was the formation of the General Electric Company with the consolidation of the Thomson-Houston and the Edison General Electric Companies. Edison's was one of the many distinguished names which appeared on the first Board of Directors of the new Company. At this period, however, he concerned himself less and less with manufacturing activities and soon devoted his entire time to his laboratory in West Orange to perfect a modernized phonograph, a motion picture camera, and an electrical storage battery.

During World War I Edison experimented on many war problems for the US Government, among them the sound detection of guns and submarines, airplane detection, increasing power and effectiveness of torpedoes, improving submarines and mining harbors. But some of Edison's greatest contributions to America's war efforts were in developing synthetic products for goods we could no longer get from Europe.

Honors and awards were bestowed lavishly on Mr. Edison by persons, societies and countries throughout the world. His greatest honor perhaps, was the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest recognition of service.

Edison died October 18, 1931 in Llewellyn Park, New Jersey at the age of eighty-four.


Back to Home 

Edison. by Neil Baldwin. University of Chicago Press. 2001
Wikipedia "Thomas Alva Edison"
The Schenectady Museum

Dr. Edwin Reilly Jr. - Professor emeritus State University of New York at Albany

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