Thomas Alva Edison - born February 11, 1847, Milan, Ohio, U.S. d. Oct. 18, 1931, West Orange, N.J. American inventor who, singly or jointly, held a world record 1,093 patents. In addition, he created the world's first industrial research laboratory.
Edison was the quintessential American inventor in the era of Yankee ingenuity.
He began his career in 1863, in the adolescence of the telegraph industry, when virtually the only source of electricity was primitive batteries putting out a low-voltage current.
Before he died, in 1931, he had played a critical role in introducing the modern age of electricity. From his laboratories and workshops emanated the phonograph, the carbon-button transmitter for the telephone speaker and microphone, the incandescent lamp, a revolutionary generator of unprecedented efficiency, the first commercial electric light and power system, an experimental electric railroad, and key elements of motion-picture apparatus, as well as a host of other inventions.
Edison was the seventh and last child--the fourth surviving--of Samuel Edison, Jr., and Nancy Elliot Edison. At an early age he developed hearing problems, which have been variously attributed but were most likely due to a familial tendency to mastoiditis. Whatever the cause, Edison's deafness strongly influenced his behaviour and career, providing the motivation for many of his inventions.
In 1854 Samuel Edison became the lighthouse keeper and carpenter on the Fort Gratiot military post near Port Huron, Mich., where the family lived in a substantial home. Alva, as the inventor was known until his second marriage, entered school there and attended sporadically for five years. He was imaginative and inquisitive, but because much instruction was by rote and he had difficulty hearing, he was bored and was labeled a misfit.
To compensate, he became an avid and omnivorous reader. Edison's lack of formal schooling was not unusual. At the time of the Civil War the average American had attended school a total of 434 days--little more than two years' schooling by today's standards.
In 1859 Edison quit school and began working as a trainboy on the railroad between Detroit and Port Huron. Four years earlier, the Michigan Central had initiated the commercial application of the telegraph by using it to control the movement of its trains, and the Civil War brought a vast expansion of transportation and communication. Edison took advantage of the opportunity to learn telegraphy and in 1863 became an apprentice telegrapher.
Messages received on the initial Morse telegraph were inscribed as a series of dots and dashes on a strip of paper that was decoded and read, so Edison's partial deafness was no handicap. Receivers were increasingly being equipped with a sounding key, however, enabling telegraphers to "read" messages by the clicks.
The transformation of telegraphy to an auditory art left Edison more and more...