One of the most famous and prolific inventors of all time, Thomas Alva Edison exerted a tremendous influence on modern life, contributing inventions such as the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. Edison was born in 1847 in the canal town of Milan, Ohio, the last of seven children. His mother, Nancy, had been a school teacher; his father, Samuel, was a Canadian political firebrand who was exiled from his country.
The family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when Thomas was seven. He attended school briefly but was principally educated at home by his mother and in his father’s library. In 1859 Edison began working on a local branch of the Grand Trunk Railroad, selling newspapers, magazines, and candy. At one point he printed a newspaper on the train, and he also conducted chemical experiments in a baggage-car laboratory. By 1862 he had learned enough telegraphy to be employed as an operator in a local office. From 1863 to 1867 he traveled through the Midwest as an itinerant telegrapher. During these years he read widely, studied and experimented with telegraph technology, and generally acquainted himself with electrical science. In fact, Edison patented 1,093 inventions in his lifetime including the kinetoscope, the phonograph, and his most famous – the incandescent lightbulb. These inventions earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.”The Menlo Laboratory in Newark, New Jersey, was to become the first research and development lab in the world. Edison called this lab his “invention factory.”In 1879, after 1,200 experiments, Edison made a light bulb using carbonized filaments from cotton that burned for two days. With the help of an associate, Lewis Howard Latimer, who was responsible for inventing the process for manufacturing the carbon filament, the light bulb was one of Edison’s greatest achievements and it changed the world.
The first light bulbs were installed in a steamship and later in a New York factory. Even before the invention of the electric light bulb, Edison partnered with J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt’s to form the Edison Electric Light Company in 1876, known today as General Electric. By the time Edison died in October, 1931, entire cities were lit up by electricity and as a tribute to this American genius, all of America dimmed their lights for one minute in his honor. In the 1920s, Edison’s health became worse, and he began to spend more time at home with his wife. His relationship with his children was distant, although Charles was president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. While Edison continued to experiment at home, he could not perform some experiments that he wanted to at his West Orange laboratory because the board would not approve them. One project that held his fascination during this period was the search for an alternative to rubber. For his last two years, a series of ailments caused his health to decline even more until he lapsed into a coma on October 14, 1931. He died on October 18, 1931, at his estate, Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey.
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