Thomas Alva Edison is known as
the Wizard of Menlo Park and is one of the greatest
inventors in the world. He holds 1,093 patents for his
inventions. This is the largest number of patents held
by any one person.
Thomas Alva Edison
was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, near
Lake Erie. His parents, Sam and Nancy, named him Thomas
after an uncle and Alva after a friend. When Alva was
seven years old (in 1854), Alva's family moved to Port
Huron, Michigan, near Lake Huron.
As a boy, Alva was very curious.
He tried to figure out how things worked. When he did
not know how things worked, he asked questions.
As the story goes,
when Alva was six years old, he saw a goose sitting
on some eggs until they hatched. Being the curious youngster,
Alva sat on other goose eggs to see if they would hatch.
Unfortunately for Alva, the eggs did not hatch. This
story may be more fiction than fact. In any event, it's
a great story.
Alva wanted to know
where grain came from so he climbed to the top of a
grain elevator. He fell into a pile of grain and started
to sink. Luckily, his father pulled him out before Alva
suffocated. (Don't try this at home.)
At age nine, Alva
received a science book with experiments from his mother.
He loved to experiment. The next year, Alva set up his
first laboratory in his bedroom. In an experiment to
generate static electricity, he attached wires to the
tails of two cats and quickly rubbed their fur. This
experiment did not work. (Don't try this at home.)
Alva then set up
a laboratory in the basement. He labeled his chemical
bottles "POISON" to keep other people from using them
even though the chemicals were not poisonous.
In an experiment
to make a human balloon, Alva had a boy swallow Seidlitz
powders which give off gas when mixed with water. Alva
hoped the powder would mix in the boy's stomach and
create a gas, and this gas would cause the boy to float.
This experiment did not work. (Again, don't try this
When Alva was 11
years old, he built a telegraph with his friend, Jim
Clancy. The telegraph connected their houses. Alva and
Jim communicated with each other by using Morse Code.
Morse Code was developed by Samuel Morse around 1838,
and is named after him. It is a series of dots and dashes
that represent letters and numbers so people can communicate
with each other while using the telegraph.
continued throughout his life and led to a lifetime
of experimenting and inventing.
During Alva's time, children attended
a one-room school house. They learned their lessons
by memorizing and repeating facts.
At age eight, Alva
was bored with this way of learning. He wanted to understand
more about what he was learning so he asked a lot of
questions. The teacher thought Alva asked too many questions
and said he was "addled." Addled means a person who
is slow and confused.
Alva's mother disagreed
with the teacher. Alva was a smart child. Mrs. Edison
was a former school teacher so she took Alva out of
school and taught him at home. Alva only had three months
of formal education. At home, Alva read William Shakespeare's
works and the famous science book by Sir Isaac Newton
called Principia Mathematica.
When Alva was 12 years old, he
got a job as a "candy butcher" on the Grand Trunk Railroad
from Port Huron to Detroit. As a candy butcher, Alva
sold newspapers, books, fruit, and candy to the passengers
on the train during the four hour trip.
The train stayed
in Detroit from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. before it returned
to Port Huron. This gave Alva time to experiment and
read. He set up a laboratory in the baggage car of the
train and conducted experiments. Did
you know this was the first traveling laboratory?
Alva also visited
the Detroit Public Library. Legend has it, Alva read
every book in the library. Alva said, "I didn't read
a few books. I read the library."
When the train pulled
into a train station, Alva got off the train to sell
his goods to the people waiting on the platform. One
day, Alva was late getting back on the train. The train
pulled away, and Alva chased after it. The train conductor
grabbed Alva's ear and pulled him onto the train. Alva
was safe, but he heard something snap in his ear. Alva
began to lose his hearing. Although he began to lose
his hearing after this train incident, it is more likely
his loss of hearing was caused by the scarlet fever
he had earlier.
At age 15, Alva
bought a printing press and started his own newspaper
called The Weekly Herald. He printed it from
the baggage car on the train. Did
you know this was the first paper edited,
published, and printed on a train? The paper told stories
about the passengers and the people who lived along
the train's route. Alva sold over 400 copies of his
newspaper per week.
In the summer of 1862, Alva saw a train rolling towards
a boy playing on the tracks at the Mount Clemens Train
Station. Alva acted quickly, grabbed the boy, and they
dove to safety. The boy's father was James Mackenzie,
the stationmaster at Mount Clemens. Mr. Mackenzie was
so grateful to Alva for saving his child that he taught
Alva how to be a railroad telegraph operator.
The next year, at
age 16, Alva got his first job as a telegraph operator
in Port Huron. Alva then moved around the United States
and Canada working as a telegraph operator. By age 20,
he was considered one of the fastest telegraphers.
Alva continued to
invent while he was a telegraph operator. At one job
in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, Alva had to send a dispatch
every half hour. Alva hooked up a clock to the telegraph.
Every half hour the alarm on the clock sounded, and
a message was sent automatically.
Alva also invented
a machine to help him record messages which were sent
in very fast. The machine automatically relayed the
incoming fast message to a second line. The second line
ticked off the message at a slower rate. Alva could
then record the entire message more slowly. This machine
gave Alva the idea for the phonograph, which he later
Inventing was very important to Alva. He decided to
leave his job as a telegrapher and devote his life to
inventing. He began to write down his ideas in notebooks,
took more care with his methods, and recorded the results
of his experiments.
In 1868, Alva received
his first patent for the Electrical Vote Recorder. A
patent is a legal protection the government gives an
inventor to protect the use of his or her invention.
It gives an inventor the exclusive right over the invention,
usually for a period of time. A patent excludes other
people from producing or making use of the invention
without the inventor's permission.
The Electrical Vote
Recorder machine allowed votes to be recorded automatically
which sped up the voting process and prevented errors
in counting the votes. Alva showed his invention to
the United States Congress, but the Congress did not
use it. After that, Alva decided to only invent things
that people wanted to use.
In 1892, 24 years
later, the first voting machine was used by the New
York State Legislature.
Universal Stock Ticker
At age 22, Alva moved
to New York City. Alva was visiting a friend at The
Gold Indicator Company when the company's stock ticker
broke. The stock ticker was very important because it
transmitted the changing price of gold. Luckily, Alva
was there and fixed the stock ticker. The company was
very impressed with Alva, and they hired him to run
the company's machinery.
In 1869, Alva invented
an improved stock ticker called the Edison Universal
Stock Ticker. It was better, faster, and printed the
information more clearly.
Later that year,
Alva wanted to sell the Edison Universal Stock Ticker
and use the money to set up a laboratory in Newark,
New Jersey. Alva hoped to receive $5,000 for his invention,
but would settle for $3,000. Instead, the Gold and Stock
Telegraph Company offered Alva $40,000. This was 8 times
the price Alva had hoped to get! The following is how
Alva described the conversation he had with General
Lefferts, the President of the Gold and Stock Telegraph
"I had made up my mind that
I should be entitled to $5,000 but could get along
with $3,000. When the psychological moment arrived,
I hadn't the nerve to name such a large sum so I said:
'Well, General, suppose you make me an offer.' Then
he said: 'How would $40,000 strike you?' This caused
me to come as near fainting as I ever got. I managed
to say that I thought it was fair."
a shop to manufacture the stock tickers. It was Alva's
first commercial invention. The leading stock exchanges
in the nation used Alva's stock ticker to receive stock
and commodity quotations for the next 80 years.
If Alva already knew
how things worked, he found ways to make them work better.
The typewriter was invented in the mid-1800s by Christopher
Sholes. However, the letters on the first typewriters
were not straight. Alva improved this. In 1872, Alva
patented an improved electric typewriter which had straighter
The telegraph was invented around 1832, by Samuel Morse.
The first telegraphs received one message at a time
over the same line. Alva improved this too. In 1874,
he invented the quadruplex telegraph which could send
four messages over one telegraph wire at the same time.
In April, 1876, Alva built a laboratory
in Menlo Park, New Jersey. This
factory was a unique factory -- it was the first factory
in the world built to produce only inventions. Did
you know this factory was also one of Alva's
The factory was
called the Invention Factory. Alva produced so many
important inventions at this laboratory that he was
given the nickname "The Wizard of Menlo Park."
Alva worked very
hard and often worked through the night. Sometimes he
would take short naps at his laboratory on his desk
or workbench. One time, Alva used a chemistry dictionary
as a pillow.
In 1877, Alva experimented with
a talking machine. He turned a crank on the talking
machine and recited:
Mary had a little
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
These words were
successfully played back. The nursery rhyme, Mary Had
a Little Lamb, were the first words ever recorded. The
Talking Machine was known as the Phonograph and today
is called the Record Player.
The phonograph changed
the way the world listened to music. For the first time,
people could listen to any type of music at any time
and in any place.
to experiment with the phonograph. One day, he placed
a small phonograph inside a doll. A crank attached to
the doll was turned, and the doll played nursery rhymes.
It was the first talking doll.
Alva wanted to find a better and
less expensive way to produce light. At this time, people
used oil or gas lamps for lighting. These lamps were
expensive and posed a risk of starting a fire.
In 1877, Alva "invented"
the light bulb. However, he needed to find a material
to place inside the glass bulb to make the light glow.
Alva spent two years experimenting with different types
of material including, his own hair, coconut hair, horsehair,
straw, fishing line, and wood. Finally, after more than
1,000 trials, Alva used carbonized thread.
On October 19, 1879,
at 9:30 p.m., Alva lit the first light bulb. It burned
for 40 hours. Alva had invented the light bulb.
A New York newspaper
THE GREAT INVENTOR'S TRIUMPH
IN ELECTRICAL ILLUMINATION
IT MAKES LIGHT WITHOUT GAS OR FLAME,
CHEAPER THAN OIL.
Alva led America
into the age of electricity and changed the world forever.
The light bulb was a better and safer way to light up
a dark room or street. For the first time, people had
more hours in the day to work and play.
In 1882, New York
City was the first city to be lit up by electric power.
In 1887, Alva moved to West Orange,
New Jersery. Alva laid the groundwork for the booming
movie industry and invented several machines which led
to the invention of the movie projector.
In 1893, Alva built
the first movie studio in West Orange. It was a long,
thin building covered with black tar paper. It was called
the Kinetographic Theater. It was nicknamed "Black Maria"
because it looked like police wagons which were called
In 1903, Alva produced
the first motion picture called The Great Train Robbery.
This was a silent movie. Later, Alva connected the movie
projector to the phonograph and produced movies with
Determination to Succeed
If an experiment did not work,
Alva did not see it as a failure. Instead, he saw it
as a learning experience -- he learned one way it did
not work. One time, a colleague told Alva that several
thousand experiments had been failures. Alva said, "Failures?
Not at all. We've learned several thousand things that
Thomas Alva Edison died on October
18, 1931, at his home in West Orange, New Jersey. He
was 84 years old. On October 21, the night of Alva's
funeral, people turned off their lights for one minute
to honor the Wizard who lit up the world.
Today, Alva's birthplace
in Milan, Ohio, is a museum called the Edison
Birthplace Museum. His laboratory
in West Orange, New Jersey, is a national monument.
Did you know Alva
also had a winter home in Fort Myers, Florida? Today,
this home is part of the Edison-Ford
In 1929 and 1979,
there were celebrations marking the 50th and 100th anniversaries
for the light bulb. Perhaps in the year 2,029 there
will be another celebration for the 150th anniversary!
So mark your calendars.
Thomas Alva Edison
has been called the most useful man in America, and
his inventions changed our lives forever. He turned
darkness into light (light bulb), gave a machine a voice
(phonograph), and allowed pictures to move (movie projector).
He was a great inventor and a hero in our hearts.