Thomas Edison – History, Facts, Inventions & Major Achievements

A prominent pioneer of the mass usage of and distribution of electricity, Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific inventors of the modern era, who developed commercially available electric light bulbs. In addition to coming out with devices in electric power generation, Edison also ventured into devices in media and mass communication, including sound recording and motion pictures.

What jobs did Thomas Edison hold? And what were his major inventions?

WHE presents the life, famous works, and major accomplishments of Thomas Edison (1847-1931), one of the most influential figures in the history of the United States.

Famed for coming out with commercial electric bulbs, Thomas Edison, founder of Edison Electric Company, was a pioneer in the electricity distribution industry of America, which transformed the lives of many people in the country.

The youngest of seven siblings

Thomas Edison was born in a small village called Milan in the U.S. state of Ohio. He was the youngest of eight children of middle class parents – Nancy Matthews Elliot and Samuel Ogden Edison Jr.

He lived in Milan, Ohio until around the age of 7, when he and his family relocated to Port Huron, a city on the southern end of Lake Huron in Michigan. The move was as result of dwindling business for the Edisons.

What was Edison’s childhood like?

Thomas Edison

Milan, Ohio is famous for being the birthplace of American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison. As a result it has been nicknamed Edison. His birth home, a small hillside brick house, is now a museum in honor of the inventor’s amazing inventions and achievements. Image: Birthplace of Thomas Edison

His mother, who used to work as a school teacher, provided the bulk of his early childhood education, teaching how to read and write. Right from his early years, he had always had a curious mindset. It’s been stated that much of the things he learned came via being an avid reader. He was also very interested in gadgets and conducting experiments here and there.

How was Edison educated?

Image: Edison as a boy, 1861

Thomas Edison was enrolled at a school in Port Huron, Michigan. Due to his slightly obnoxious behavior, he came to be disliked by his teachers. The young Edison was said to be awful at following instructions in school. His mind was always full of questions. As a result, his interest in school waned.

With just about three months of formal schooling, Edison made up for his that by being an avid reader, self-educating himself along the way. He would go to the library in his neighborhood and read every book on the shelf. He had a particular liking for English scientist Sir Isaac Newton’s famous work – Principia Mathematica.

Grand Trunk Railway Depot and the small scale confection business

Currently part of the Port Huron Museum, the Grand Trunk Railway depot is where the growing Thomas Edison used to travel on. His unrelenting desire for doing business even at that young age is what made him approach and successfully convince the railroad company to allow him sell newspapers and sweets on their premises. Steadily he was able to grow his petty confectionery business to include two newsboys. The profits he made from that petty trading and newspaper business were used to buy chemicals, electrical and other lab equipment.

He also worked as a telegraph operator for the Grand Trunk Railway at Stratford Junction, Ontario.

Did you know: In his early teens, Thomas Edison made about $50 in weekly profit selling candy and newspapers on trains that run from Port Huron to Detroit, Michigan?

The Grand Trunk Herald

Thomas Edison’s newspaper – Grand Trunk Herald

Having excelled very well in buying and selling candy and newspapers on his daily runs from Port Huron to Detroit, Thomas Edison ventured in the printing business, where he attained considerable success printing the Grand Trunk Herald, the first newspaper published on a train.

Thomas Edison’s inspiration to venture into engineering fields

As time went by, he became a bored of the complex mathematical theories. He preferred the application aspect of science. Therefore he set out to truly understand how science could be applied to everyday problems. Right from an early age, he loved conducting experiments. Sometimes his experiments did not go as planned. One time chemical tool kit that he was carrying malfunctioned while traveling on a train.

Time at Western Union, Louisville, Kentucky

Having shunned formal schooling and going into business right from his early teens, Edison trained as a telegraphy operator. At the age of 19, he moved from Michigan to Louisville, Kentucky, where he started working as a telegraphy operator for the famous multinational financial service Western Union.

Although a diligent worker at Western Union, Edison got booted out after one of his experiments went bad. The sulphuric acid from his lead-acid battery had accidentally poured in his manager’s cubicle. While in Louisville, he also worked for the Associated Press bureau in the news wire section.

He lost his job at Western Union in 1867 after a private chemical experiment went wrong at his workplace. | Photograph of Edison with his phonograph (2nd model), taken in Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C. studio in April 1878

Major Accomplishments of Thomas Edison

Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.

Here are five major achievements of American inventor Thomas Edison:

The Menlo Park Laboratory

Thomas Edison's lab

Edison’s industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey was the first of its kind in the United States. Image: Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, reconstructed at Greenfield Village at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan

Established in 1876 in Middlesex County, New Jersey, the Menlo Park Laboratory was an industrial research laboratory Edison used to produce many of his inventions. Prior to Edison’s Menlo lab, there was no lab set up specifically for technological inventions and development. The inventor therefore holds the record of being the first to accomplish the feat.

With a well-equipped and well-resourced lab, Edison and his qualified group of scientists embarked on numerous experiments and research. Among those workers of his was the Pennsylvania-born electrical engineer William Joseph Hammer (1858-1934), who later went on to lead an organization called Edison Pioneers.

Edison and his team of scientists carried out research in several areas, including phonography, electric railway, electric lighting, telephone, and among others.

Following the commercial success of the incandescent bulbs, Edison expanded the laboratory in not just size but also scope. Edison wanted to experiment on every subject.

Established the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878

After raking in quite a significant amount of profit from the sale of his very successful electric light bulbs, Edison channeled some of those monies into the establishing of the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City. Formed in 1878, the company’s goal was to explore ways of making electric light very cheap as well as universal. His company received financial backing from very powerful individuals and financiers, including J.P. Morgan and Spencer Trask.

Edison made his first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879. The first commercial application of Edison’s incandescent light bulb was on the Columbia, a steamer owned by the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. The bulbs were fixed in May 1880.

Founder of General Electric

In 1889, the Edison Electric Light Company, merged with other companies established by Edison, including Edison Lamp Company in East Newark, New Jersey, to form Edison General Electric Company. The merger was carried out by J.P. Morgan’s company Drexel, Morgan & Co. That same year, the company acquired Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company.

In 1892, General Electric was born from the merger of Thomson-Houston Electric Company of Lynn, Massachusetts, and the Edison General Electric Company.

Today, after more than 120 years, GE is a massive multinational conglomerate which is headquartered in the U.S. state of New York. In addition to electricity, GE has its tentacles in a number of industries, including aviation, healthcare, digital industry, locomotives, and weapons manufacturing. It consistently makes it into Fortune 500, a list of the largest 500 corporations (in terms of total revenue) in the United States.

Edison was the head of the Naval Consulting Board during World War I

In 1915, the federal government tasked Edison to provide scientific advice to the U.S. military. As a naval consultant, he worked on defensive weapons. Edison would later state the immense pride he felt because his work never came out with a weapon that could be used to kill. For example, he chose not to sell the industrial chemicals like phenol that he produced at the Silver Lake facility to the military. The inventor, like his rival Tesla, was a big admirer of non-violence.

Thomas Edison

A big admirer of non-violence, Thomas Edison was very proud that none of his inventions were weaponized to kill during World War I.

Thomas Edison was a leading pioneer in electricity distribution

Having captured the electric bulb market, Thomas Edison and his business associates needed to make electricity available across the nation in order to make the gains against gas and oil-based lighting more permanent. To achieve this objective, he set up the Edison Illuminating Company in 1880. In the years that followed, he and his team of engineers worked on building a robust electricity supply network that would deliver power to the homes of Americans. In 1882, an electric power plant – the Pearl Street Station – was established in Manhattan, New York City. With about 110 volts direct current generated, the plant was able to deliver electricity to almost 60 customers in lower Manhattan.

His well-equipped and resourced large studio played a role in helping him become the successful inventor that he was. It was in the studios that he worked diligently to improve many of his designs, particularly those in electricity distribution.

Companies that Thomas Edison was involved with or its founding

  • the Edison Illuminating Company (later Consolidated Edison)
  • Commonwealth Edison, now part of Exelon
  • Consolidated Edison
  • Edison Ore-Milling Company
  • The Edison Portland Cement Company

Thomas Edison’s battle with Nikola Tesla – DC versus AC

With the help of Nikola Tesla, American entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse came out with a rival AC-based power distribution network in 1886. Edison and Tesla wrestled for dominance, with both trying very hard to convince investors and the American public of the superiority of their systems. Lasting for about half a decade, the DC-AC battle came to be known as the ‘current war’. In the end, AC came out top as it was relatively cheaper and could deliver electricity over longer distances.

Popularly dubbed as the battle of the titans in the electricity power generation and distribution – DC (direct current) versus AC (alternating current) – Thomas Edison locked horns with fellow inventor and brilliant engineer Nikola Tesla. Edison championed his DC system, while Tesla promoted AC system. By the early 1880s, AC had started gaining popularity due to its susceptibility to be transferred over long distances. Thomas Edison’s DC system struggled to supply electricity to customers more than a mile from the electric power plant.

Additionally, compared to Edison’s DC, AC system required relatively thinner and cheaper wires. This meant that AC was the preferred choice, especially for lighting up streets and other domestic purposes. As a result, the famous electric manufacturing company the Westinghouse Electric Corporation preferred AC.

Prior to the AC-DC rivalry, there was bad blood between Edison and Tesla. Tesla had worked with Edison for about two years; however, the two men parted ways because of a dispute over remuneration.

Following AC trumping DC in the War of Currents (1886-1892), Thomas Edison’s Edison General Electric began losing out on the market. As a result, his financiers forced him out of the company. Edison General Electric merged with Thomson-Houston to form General Electric.

Did you know: Edison some took the drastic measure of electrocuting animals in order dampen the trust people had for AC current, as he maintained that AC’s high voltages were extremely dangerous?

People who worked for Edison

In addition to Nikola Tesla, some famous people who worked for Edison include Edward Goodrich Acheson, John I begs, Henry Ford, Miller Reese Hutchinson (inventor of hearing aid), and the physicist Francis Robbins Upton. From 1881 to 1899, Henry Ford worked as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit, Michigan.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford

Left to right: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone in Ft. Myers, Florida, February 11, 1929

While in West Orange, New Jersey, he maintained a close friendship with automaker and industrial magnate Henry Ford. The two businessmen lived in the same neighborhood in Fort Myers in Florida. Edison collaborated with industrialists Henry Ford and Harvey S. Firestone to establish a botanical laboratory in Fort Myers, Florida.

Thomas Edison was also a member of the Civitan club – an organization that was involved in a number of philanthropic initiatives.

Did Thomas Edison invent the light bulb?

Contrary to the popularly held belief, Thomas Edison was in fact not the inventor of the light bulb. That honor goes to a British scientist called Warren de la Rue.

The first light bulb was invented in 1840 by Rue using a coiled platinum filament. High production cost due to the cost of the platinum used made it difficult for the British scientist to commercialize the light bulb.

Following in Rue’s footsteps, a number of famous scientists and engineers, including Italian physicist and inventor of the electric bulb Alessandro Volta, worked on making incandescent lamps function better as well as reducing the production cost. However, it was not until Thomas Edison and his team of scientists had a breakthrough with the production.

Thomas Edison also went a step further by making the bulbs last longer, securing about 1,000 hours of use. After several trials, he came to a conclusion that bamboo was the best filament that would allow him to make the light bulb a commercially viable product. Barring a long litigation proceeding over the validity of Edison’s patent for the bulb technology, which he ultimately won, Edison’s bulb was very popular not only in America but in many European countries as well.

Other notable accomplishments of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison held a staggering 1093 patents in the United States. He also held patents in other countries. | Image: American inventor Thomas Edison commemorative stamp, issued on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1947

The following are some other important achievements of Edison:

  • Edison’s works in electrical engineering had a huge impact on the industrialization efforts of America.
  • His industrial laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey is considered the first industrial research laboratory. The facility was were many of the inventor’s works were produced.
  • In 1893, Edison established the world’s first film production studio. Called Black Maria, the film studio was set up on the premises of Edison’s laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey. The studio helped him advance his kinetoscope technology.
  • Thomas Edison held a staggering 1093 patents in the United States. He also held patents in other countries.
  • From humble beginnings in business, Edison went on to be involved in the establishment of more than a dozen companies, most famous among them was General Electric, the global multinational company headquartered in Boston.

How did Thomas Edison excel at so many inventions?

His early encounter with telegraph operations proved to be a huge inspiration to further his experiments. | Image: Thomas Edison statue at Port Huron

Thomas Edison once stated that he had no hidden secret to his success. Rather it was simply a combination of a lot of hard work, dedication and repeated trial and error. There were times that he would set himself on a path only for him to hit barriers after barriers. However, he would go back to the drawing board and make changes here and there until what he secured a breakthrough.

Take the example of his invention of the electric light bulb. Thomas Edison once stated that he worked on the light bulb several times, producing in the region of 3,000 different theories. Although all of those experimental takes seemed plausible, only two times could he get a sound and workable result.

Edison also adopted sound principles of organized science and teamwork. He implemented an innovative process to govern his invention. He also employed enthusiastic and well-skilled researchers and assistants to help him realize many of his goals.

Thomas Edison quote

Spouses and children

He married his first wife Mary Stilwell in 1871. The marriage, which produced three children – Marion, Thomas, and William – lasted until the death of Mary on August 9, 1884. Edison then married Mina Miller in 1886.

Thomas Edison had a total of six children from his two marriages. Image: Thomas Edison’s second wife, Mina Miller Edison in 1906

On February 24, 1886, he married his second wife Mina Miller, the daughter of American inventor and philanthropist Lewis Miller. Following their wedding, he purchased a home in Llewellyn Park, West Orange, New Jersey as a gift for Mina. Together with Mina he gave birth to three children – Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore.

Edison also maintained a winter home – Seminole Lodge – in Fort Myers, Florida.

Thomas Edison’s hearing and possibly ADHD issues

Thomas Edison began to have hearing problems right from an early age, probably beginning at the age of 12. By his old age he had lost about 90% of his hearing ability. He consistently refused seeking medical assistance as he believed that medicine might interfere with his ability to be creative. Edison never regarded his hearing loss as a disability.

Historians and experts today claim that his hearing loss was triggered by a severe scarlet fever he suffered when he was young. He also suffered an ear infection which was left untreated for a while. It has also been suggested that the brilliant inventor likely suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Talks with Edison” by G.P Lathrop in Harper’s magazine, Vol. 80 (Feb. 1890), p. 425

Later years and death

As he aged, so did his number of inventions produced decline. However, he still kept working in his lab and stacking up more and more patents.

Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931 aged 84. The cause of death was diabetes. He was laid to rest at his “Glenmont” home in Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. Edison was survived by his second wife Mina and his six children.

Thomas Edison’s greatest heroes

One of Thomas Edison’s greatest heroes was 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Having been born about a decade before the breakout of the American Civil War in 1861, Thomas Edison must have grown to appreciate the selfless work put in by President Lincoln and his administration to keep the Union together. Edison even took to selling portraits of Abe at the Grand Trunk Railway depot.

Another very important influence on Thomas Edison was Thomas Paine – the famous Enlightenment philosopher and author whose works symbolized the spirit of the American Revolution. In 1925, Edison wrote a book – The Philosophy of Paine – showering immense praise on Paine. The inventor had similar beliefs to Paine’s, which bordered on scientific deism. As a matter of fact Thomas Paine’s The age of Reason was one of his most favorite reads.

“In ‘Common Sense’ Paine flared forth with a document so powerful that the Revolution became inevitable. Washington recognized the difference, and in his calm way said that matters never could be the same again.”

Edison was also influenced by 18th century English portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Edison frequently displayed the English painter’s quote in his lab.

Read More:  Life and Major Achievements of Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th President

Thomas Edison’s last breath

On the instructions of his friend Henry Ford, Thomas Edison’s last breath captured in a test tube, which can be found at The Henry Ford Museum close to Detroit, Michigan.

Other Interesting facts about Thomas Edison

Milan, Ohio is famous for being the birthplace of American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison. As a result it has been nicknamed Edison. His birth home, a small hillside brick house, is now a museum in honor of the inventor’s amazing inventions and achievements.

Port Huron in the U.S. state of Michigan is home to a number of important museums, including the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, the Carnegie Center (Port Huron Museum), among others. In 1977, Thomas Edison Depot Museum received a call up to the National Register of Historic Places.

He once saved the life of young boy by the name of Jimmie MacKenzie from being hit by a runaway train. The boy’s father J.U. MacKenzie, a station agent, was so thankful to Edison that he decided to sponsor Edison’s training as a telegraph operator.

Thomas Edison took a short chemistry course at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Edison was a huge supporter of women’s rights and their right to vote. About the suffrage movement, he said, “Every woman in this country is going to have the vote.”

Edison was never in favor of the gold standard that America used. Rather than a debt-based money, he supported having a commodity-backed currency. He once told the New York Times that gold was the relic of the Roman Empire.

On February 11, 1983, the U.S. Congress made his birthday – February 11 – the National Inventor’s Day. In 2008, he was posthumously inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Edison quote to the New York Times about the gold standard and interests charged by the banks

Top 6 quotes by Thomas Edison

  • “Through all the years of experimenting and research, I never once made a discovery. I start where the last man left off. … All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention pure and simple.”
  • “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”
  • “If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.”
  • “Everyone steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot, myself. But I know how to steal! They don’t know how to steal!”
  • “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
  • “Nature is what we know. We do not know the gods of religions. And nature is not kind, or merciful, or loving. If God made me—the fabled God of the three qualities of which I spoke: mercy, kindness, love—He also made the fish I catch and eat. And where do His mercy, kindness, and love for that fish come in? No; nature made us—nature did it all—not the gods of the religions.”

Fast Facts about Thomas Edison

Born: Thomas Alva Edison

Birthday: February 11, 1847

Place of birth: Milan, Ohio, United States

Died: October 18, 1931

Place of death: West Orange, New Jersey, United States

Aged: 84

Father: Samuel Ogden Edison Jr.

Mother: Nancy Mathews Elliot

Siblings: Seven

Education: Self-educated

Spouses:  Mary Stilwell (1871-1884); Minal Miller (married in 1886)

Children: six children, including Charles, Madeleine, and Theodore

Nicknames: The Wizard of Menlo Park

Major awards and honors: Chevalier in the Legion (1879), Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (elected in 1887), John Scott Medal (1889), Franklin Medal (1915), Navy Distinguished Service Medal (1920), Edison Medal (1923), Congressional Gold Medal (1928).

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