Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio on February 11, 1847, and was one of the well-known inventors of all time. Most of his schooling he has received was at his home. He set up a laboratory in the basement of his house in Michigan. He spent most of the time in his house experimenting in the laboratory. Edison’s mother, Nancy, knew her son was fond of chemistry and electronics, so she gave him books to read on the subjects. One book explained how to perform chemistry experiments at home. Thomas did every experiment in that book. She encouraged him to go on in that path. It was the very best thing she could have done for him. In 1859, the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended to Port Huron, Michigan. Thomas got a job as a newsboy for the day-long trip to Detroit and back. He had his laboratory there and continued his experiments there until one day when the train spilled some chemicals, setting the laboratory on fire. While working there, Thomas saved the life of a station official’s child who had fallen onto the tracks of an oncoming train. As a way of thanking him for saving his child’s life, the father taught Thomas how to use the telegraph. He got a job as a telegrapher. While working as a telegrapher he ended up inventing the automatic telegraph, duplex telegraph, and message printer. It was about this time that Thomas dedicated his life to being a full-time inventor. Thomas Edison moved to New York and set up a small laboratory in Newark, New Jersey. Edison wanted to build a new laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. His father Samuel supervised the construction of the new laboratory; it opened in 1876.

In the period from 1878 to 1880 Edison and his associates worked on at least three thousand different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp. Incandescent lamps make light by using electricity to heat a thin strip of material (called a filament) until it gets hot enough to glow. Many inventors had tried to perfect incandescent lamps to “subdivide” electric light or make it smaller and weaker than it was in the existing arc lamps, which were too bright to be used for small spaces such as the rooms of a house.Edison’s lamp would consist of a filament housed in a glass vacuum bulb. He had his glass blowing shed where the fragile bulbs were carefully crafted for his experiments. Edison was trying to come up with a high resistance system that would require far less electrical power than was used for the arc lamps. This could eventually mean small electric lights suitable for home use. It worked by passing electricity through a thin platinum filament in the glass vacuum bulb, which delayed the filament from melting. Still, the lamp only burned for a few short hours. To improve the bulb, Edison needed all the persistence he had learned years before in his basement laboratory. He tested thousands and thousands of other materials to use for the filament. He even thought about using tungsten, which is the metal used for light bulb filaments now, but he couldn’t work with it given the tools available at that time. One day, Edison was sitting in his laboratory absent-mindedly rolling a piece of compressed carbon between his fingers. He began carbonizing materials to be used for the filament. He tested the carbonized filaments of every plant imaginable, including Baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo. He even contacted biologists who sent him plant fibers from places in the tropics. Edison acknowledged that the work was tedious and very demanding, especially on his workers helping with the experiments. He always recognized the importance of hard work and determination. Edison decided to try a carbonized cotton thread filament. When voltage was applied to the completed bulb, it began to radiate a soft orange glow. Just about fifteen hours later, the filament finally burned out. Further experimentation produced filaments that could burn longer and longer with each test. Patent number 223,898 was given to Edison’s electric lamp. The Edison lamp from our Attic is dated January 27, 1880. It is a product of the continued improvements Edison made to the 1879 bulb. Even though it is over a hundred years old, this bulb looks very much like the light bulbs lighting your house right now. The base, or socket, on this 19th-century lamp is similar to the ones still used today. It was one of the most important features of Edison’s lamp and electrical system. The label on this bulb reads, “New Type Edison Lamp. Patented Jan. 27, 1880 OTHER EDISON PATENTS.”In the early 1880s, Edison planned and supervised the construction of the first commercial, central electric power station in New York City. In 1884, Edison began construction of a new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. The West Orange facility is now part of the Edison National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service. Before he died in 1931, Edison patented 1,093 of his inventions. The wonders of his mind include the microphone, telephone receiver, universal stock ticker, phonograph, kinetoscope (used to view moving pictures), storage battery, electric pen, and mimeograph. Edison improved many other existing devices as well. From a discovery made by one of his associates, he patented the Edison effect (now called thermionic diode), which is the basis for all electron tubes. Edison will forever be remembered for his contributions to the incandescent light bulb. Even though he didn’t dream up the first light bulb ever crafted, and technology continues to change every day, Edison’s work with light bulbs was a spark of brilliance on the timeline of the invention. At the very beginning of his experiments with the incandescent lamp in 1879, he said:

“We are striking it big in the electric light, better than my vivid imagination first conceived. Where this thing is going to stop, Lord only knows.”


Edison didn’t stop trying and was never scared of failing. Every time you fail, you are one step close to your goal.


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