Thomas Alva Edison 1847 - 1931

Man of the Millennium


Until recently, Thomas Alva Edison was, for me, a famous American who had dabbled in science. However, my eyes were opened wide when I came to learn that Edison had 1,093 successful patents and around 600 unsuccessful patents. Moreover, in addition to having such a large number of patents, Edison's work was in areas that are at the very heart of much of what we take for granted now.

This page is just a small tribute to The Man of the Millennium, as I think he was voted at the end of 2000.

Thomas Alva Edison was born on 11 February 1847 in Milan, Ohio. With only three months of formal education he became one of the greatest inventors and industrial leaders in history. Edison obtained 1,093 United States patents, the most issued to any individual.

Edison's greatest contribution was the first practical electric lighting. He not only invented the first successful electric light bulb, but also set up the first electrical power distribution company. Edison invented the phonograph, and made improvements to the telegraph, telephone and motion picture technology. He also founded the first modern research laboratory.

Edison was also a good businessman. He not only designed important new devices, he created companies worldwide for the manufacture and sale of his inventions. Along with other manufacturing pioneers of his era, Edison helped make the United States a world industrial power. He and Henry Ford became friends after Edison encouraged Ford to use the gasoline powered engine for the automobile.

Edison was also a ruthless businessman who fought viciously to defeat his competitors. One of the most notorious examples of his competitive vigor were the lengths he went to to discredit Nicola Tesla's Alternating Current system, which is the system of electrical distribution in use today.

Edison had great faith in progress and industry, and valued long, hard work. He used to say, "Genius was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Edison believed that inventing useful products offered everyone the opportunity for fame and fortune while benefiting society.
(Source: Lucid Cafe)

In summary, Edison's patents are grouped as follows:

Batteries 146
Cement 49
Electric light and power 424
Mining and ore milling 53
Miscellany 50
Motion pictures 9
Phonographs, sound and recording 199
Telegraphy and telephony 186
Total 1,116

Note: this total exceeds 1,093 due to double counting within some categories.

Edison's first patent, number 90646, was issued on 1 June 1869 and was for a Electrographic Vote Recorder and Register.

We read in the Patent Application, "The object of my invention is to produce an apparatus which records and registers in an instant, and with great accuracy the votes of legislative bodies, thus avoiding loss of valuable time " this is what it looks like:

Edison's final patent, number 1908830 was granted on 16 May 1933 and was for a Holder for Article to be ElectroPlated and was an improvement on an earlier patent of his. His holder looks like this:

The electric light bulb is another one of Edison's major advances. Where would we be without them?


Edison worked on a large number of projects, as we can tell from the table above. The Sprocket Chain Drive is an example, away from telegraphy and phonography, of Edison's impact on the technology used in manufacturing. Patent number 954789 dated 12 April 1910 relates to a very simple idea but no one had thought of it before.

Some of his ideas, whilst fully explained in his patent applications could make us wonder how on earth he thought of them, when he was so busy with everything else! What's this, do you think?

In fact, it's a "Device for viewing motion pictures"; and it was used by holding it in front of, and a short distance away from, one's eyes when watching "animated pictures in the present state of the art." Why did he invent this and what does it do to improve the lot of the cinema going public? Apparently, it "reduces considerably the objectionable flicker or scintillation, which is a well known defect of moving or animated pictures "

You can take a look at Edison's work, patent by patent at Thomas Edison's Patents

Edison's Papers are available at About the Edison Papers

In conclusion, here is the time line of a very full and richly rewarding life.

Timeline: Edison's Life

1847 Thomas Alva Edison born on February 11 in Milan, Ohio.
1854 Edison's family moves to Port Huron, Michigan.
1859 Edison takes job selling newspapers and candy on the Grand Trunk Railway.
1862 Edison begins work as a telegraph operator in Port Huron.
1863 Edison obtains telegraph job for the Grand Trunk Railway in Ontario.
Edison returns to the U.S. in the fall and goes from city to city as a telegraph operator.
1869 Edison arrives in New York City and eventually gets job at Laws' Gold Indicator Co after fixing the company's stock ticker.
Edison receives patent in June for his first invention, an electric vote recorder.
1870 Edison opens his first workshop in Newark, New Jersey.
1871 Edison marries Mary Stilwell on December 25.
1873 Edison's daughter, Marion Estelle ("Dot"), is born.
1876 Edison moves to Menlo Park, New Jersey, and establishes laboratory.
Edison's son, Thomas Alva, Jr ("Dash"), is born on January 10.
1877 Edison invents carbon telephone transmitter, extending the clarity and range of the telephone.
Edison develops tin foil cylinder phonograph; files patent for it on December 24 which is awarded on February 19, 1878.
1878 Edison Speaking Phonograph Co incorporated April 24.
Edison's son, William Leslie, is born on October 26.
1878-79 Edison devises an electric incandescent light bulb that lasts for more than 13 hours.
1879 Organizes the Edison Ore Milling Company.
1880 Edison discovers phenomenon which is later termed the "Edison Effect".
1881 Edison creates the Edison Electric Lamp Co, the Edison Machine Works and other companies to produce his electric lighting system.
1882 Edison opens a commercial electric station in New York City with approximately 85 customers.
The Menlo Park laboratory is closed, and another instituted in New York City.
1884 Edison's wife, Mary, dies on August 9.
1886 Patent awarded to Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter for their wax cylinder graphophone; Edison later refuses to collaborate with them on the invention.
Edison marries Mina Miller on February 24.
Moves his laboratory to East Newark, New Jersey.
1887 Edison develops the New Phonograph, using a wax cylinder.
Edison Phonograph Co formed in October.
Edison moves to a larger and more modern laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.
1888 Edison meets Eadweard Muybridge, who shows him his zoopraxiscope; Edison sets William K. L. Dickson and other assistants to work to make a Kinetoscope, "an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear".
Improved Phonograph introduced, followed by the Perfected Phonograph.
Edison's daughter, Madeleine, is born on May 31.
Jesse H. Lippincott assumes control of phonograph companies by forming the North American Phonograph Co on July 14; leases phonographs as dictation machines.
Edison files his first caveat(a Patent Office document in which one declares his work on a particular invention in anticipation of filing a patent application) on the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph on October 8; William Kennedy Laurie Dickson assigned to work on project.
1889 Edison produces dolls with tiny cylinders inside to make them talk for the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co; project ceases in March 1891.
Edison General Electric formed in April.
Edison Manufacturing Co is organized.
1890 Lippincott becomes ill and loses control of North American Phonograph Co to Edison, its principal creditor.
Edison's son, Charles, is born on August 3.
1891 A peep-hole viewing machine shown by Edison on May 20 to participants from the National Federation of Women's Clubs.
1892 Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston merge into General Electric.
1893 Construction on a film studio known to Edison employees as the "Black Maria" completed in February; earliest Edison motion pictures were filmed there.
First public demonstration of Edison's 1 1/2" system of Kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute on May 9.
Copyright registered to William KL Dickson for sample kinetoscope records on October 6.
1894 Edison declares bankruptcy for the North American Phonograph Co
Applications submitted to U.S. Patent Office for the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope.
First Kinetoscope parlor opened in midtown Manhattan on April 14.
Edison puts the Edison Manufacturing Co in charge of the manufacture and sale of Kinetoscopes and films on April 1.
1894-95 Edison and Dickson experiment to synchronize sound with film; the Kinetophone is invented which loosely synchronizes a Kinetoscope image with a cylinder phonograph.
1895 The Edison Spring Motor Phonograph appears.
Dickson leaves Edison's employ on April 2.
C Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat demonstrate their Phantoscope, a motion picture projector, in Atlanta, Georgia, in late September to early October.
1896 Edison forms the National Phonograph Co with the purpose of manufacturing phongraphs for home use on January 27.
Spring Motor Phonograph is released under aegis of the National Phonograph Co, followed by the Edison Home Phonograph.
Edison negotiates in January with Raff & Gammon to manufacture the Phantoscope which Armat presents as his own invention; machine is renamed the Vitascope in February, and Edison's name put on it.
Vitascope publicly exhibited at Koster & Bial's Music Hall on April 23 to great acclaim.
The company begins practice of copyrighting its films on October 23 by sending short pieces of positive nitrate film from the motion pictures to the Library of Congress.
Edison distances himself from agreement with Raff & Gammon; introduces the Projecting Kinetoscope or Projectoscope on November 30 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
1897 Edison Standard Phonograph manufactured.
Edison begins to send positive paper prints of motion pictures for copyright deposit to the Library of Congress in August.
James White hired to head Kinetograph Department at the Edison Manufacturing Co in October.
Edison begins legal battles in December that continue for the following year against other producers and exhibitors whom he charges with infringement.
1898 Spanish-American War occurs; Edison Company sends cameraman to Cuba to film scenes of war.
Edison's son, Theodore Miller, is born on July 10.
1899 Edison Concert Phonograph introduced.
1900 Edison Manufacturing Co incorporated on May 5.
Edwin S Porter hired by Edison Co in November to work with film equipment; he later becomes the company's most famous director.
1901 Process for mass-producing duplicate wax cylinders put into effect; they are known as Gold Moulded cylinders.
A new film studio for the Edison Co in New York is completed in January; this is the nation's first indoor, glass-enclosed studio.
U.S. Circuit Court recognizes Edison's motion picture patent claims in his suit in July; American Mutoscope & Biograph Company appeals decision.
Edison cameras are present at Pan-American Exposition when President McKinley is shot by an assassin.
1902 Circuit Court's decision reversed on March 10 by Court of Appeals, which essentially disallows Edison having a monopoly on motion picture apparatus.
1903 One of the most famous early films, The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S Porter, is filmed during November.
1905 Business Phonograph introduced.
Nickelodeons become popular in Chicago and later spread to other urban areas.
1908 Amberol Record introduced; the cylinder could play as long as four minutes, twice as long as previous cylinders.
Association of Edison Licensees and Film Service Association formed; Motion Picture Patents Co formed from it later to include Biograph licensees.
New Edison film studio opened in the Bronx, New York, June-July.
1909 Edwin S. Porter fired on November 10.
1910 Company reorganized into Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
1911 Edison Disc Phonograph shown in public for the first time.
1912 Edison Disc Phonograph put on sale.
Blue Amberol introduced, an unbreakable cylinder with superior sound.
1913 Kinetophone is introduced, which attempts to synchronize motion pictures with a phonograph cylinder record.
1915 Kinetophone abandoned.
Tone tests for Diamond Discs introduced.
Motion Picture Patents Co found guilty of antitrust violation on October 1.
Edison named head of the Naval Consulting Board.
1917 American involvement in World War I begins; Edison creates Army and Navy Model of the Disc Phonograph.
1918 Motion picture studio ceases production in February; studio sold on March 30 to the Lincoln & Parker Film Co
1926 Edison resigns as president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc., and becomes chairman of the board; his son, Charles takes over as president.
1928 Edison takes over Aplitdorf-Bethlehem Electrical Co, a move which allows him to manufacture radios.
Edison awarded Congressional gold metal for his many contributions.
1929 Edison makes programs for radio on long-playing discs; first used by radio station WAAM of Newark, New Jersey, on April 4.
Edison Portable Disc Phonograph with New Edison Needle Records introduced.
Orders given on October 21 to close the Edison disc business.
1931 Edison dies in West Orange on October 18.

Duncan Williamson
17 February 9 2002 revised 24 December 2003

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