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Summary Article: Edison, Thomas Alva (1847-1931) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United States of America

Subject: biography, technology and manufacturing

US electrical engineer and inventor. He took out more than 1,000 patents, the best known of which were the phonograph, the precursor of the gramophone, and the incandescent filament lamp.

Edison was born in the small town of Milan, Ohio, on 11 February 1847 and brought up in Michigan. Most of his tuition was provided by his mother - he received only three months' formal public elementary education. His lifelong interest in things technical was soon apparent - by the age of ten he had set up a laboratory in the basement of his father's house. By the age of 12, he was selling newspapers and candy on trains between Port Huron and Detroit, and three years later, in 1862, he had progressed to telegraph operator, a job he maintained throughout the Civil War and for a couple of years thereafter. During this period, in 1866 (at the age of 19), he took out a patent on an electric vote recorder, the first of a total of 1,069 patents.

Perceiving the need for rapid communications, made apparent by the recent war, he turned his inventive mind to problems in that field. His first success came with a tape machine called a ‘ticker’, which communicated stock exchange prices across the country. He sold the rights in this and other telegraph improvements to the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company for $30,000, using the money to equip an industrial research laboratory in Newark, New Jersey, which he opened in 1869.

From telegraphy, the transmission of coded signals across long distances, he then turned his attention to telephony, the transmission of the human voice over long distances. In 1876 he patented an electric transmitter system that proved to be less commercially successful than the telephone of Bell and Gray, patented a few months later. Typically, he was undeterred and not for the first time he applied his keenly inventive mind to improving someone else's idea. His improvements to their systems culminated in the invention of the carbon granule microphone, which so increased the volume of the signal that despite his deafness he could hear it.

With the money made from this invention he moved to Menlo Park, where he bought a house and equipped the laboratory that was to remain the centre for his research. In the following year, 1877, he invented the phonograph, a device in which the vibrations of the human voice were engraved by a needle on a revolving cylinder coated with tin foil. Thus began the era of recorded sound.

In the 1870s gas was the most advanced form of artificial lighting, the only successful rivals being various clumsy and expensive types of electrically powered arc lamp. While experimenting with the carbon microphone, Edison had toyed briefly with the idea of using a thin carbon filament as a light source in an incandescent electric lamp, an idea he returned to in 1879. His first major success came on 19 October of that year when, using carbonized sewing cotton mounted on an electrode in a vacuum (one millionth of an atmosphere), he obtained a source that remained aglow for 45 hours without overheating, a major problem with all other materials used. Even this success was not enough for him, and he and his assistants tried 6,000 other organic materials before finding a bamboo fibre that gave a bulb life of 1,000 hours. In 1883 he joined forces with Joseph Wilson Swan, a chemist from Sunderland to form the Edison and Swan United Electrical Company Ltd.

To produce a serious rival to gas illumination, a power source was required as well as a cheap and reliable lamp. The alternatives were generators or heavy and expensive batteries. At that time the best generators rarely converted more than 40% of the mechanical energy supplied into electrical energy. Edison made his first generator for the ill-fated Jeannette Arctic Expendition of 1879. It consisted of a drum armature of soft iron wire and a simple bipolar magnet, and was designed to operate one arc lamp and some incandescent lamps in series. A few months later he built a much more ambitious generator, the largest built to date; weighing 500 kg/1,103 lb, it had an efficiency of 82%. Edison's team were at the forefront of development in generator technology over the next decade, during which efficiency was raised above 90%. To complete his electrical system he designed cables to carry power into the home from small (by modern standards) generating stations, and also invented an electricity meter to record its use.

Edison became involved with the early development of the film industry in 1888. After persuading George Eastman to make a suitable celluloid film, he developed the high-speed camera and kinetograph, viewing the picture through a peephole. Although he had referred to the possibility of projecting the image, he omitted it from his patent - a rare error. He had dropped his interest in kinematography by 1893, but three years later resumed it when Thomas Armat developed a projector. They joined forces but Armat was commercially naive and the machine was advertised as Edison's latest triumph; the resulting split caused considerable patent litigation.

Edison's later years were spent in an unsuccessful attempt to develop a battery-powered car to rival the horseless carriages of Henry Ford. During World War I he produced many memoranda on military and naval matters for the Department of Operational Research.

When he died, aged 84, on 18 October 1931, Edison had come a long way from the ten-year-old boy with a laboratory in his father's basement to being probably the most prolific and practical inventive genius of his age. He was a man whose work has greatly influenced the world in which we live, particularly in the fields of communication and electrical power. On the day following his death, his obituary in the New York Times occupied four-and-a-half pages, an indication of the importance of Edison to the 20th-century world.

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