Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison


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Thomas Alva Edison was born February 11, 1847 in the port town of Milan, Ohio, which was one of the largest wheat-shipping centers in the world. The youngest of seven children, Thomas was home schooled by his mother, Nancy Edison, who taught her son the "Three R's" and the Bible. Thomas was deeply interested in world history and English literature — he had a special fondness for Shakespeare — and enjoyed reading and reciting poetry.

His parents taught him how to use the resources of the local library, and gradually, Thomas preferred learning through independent self instruction. At an early age, he he became attracted to mechanics and chemical experiments. When young Thomas became interested in science, his parents scraped together money to hire a tutor. Thomas began to experiment with chemicals in the basement of his home.

When Edison was 14, he contracted scarlet fever. The effect of the fever, as well as a blow to the head by an angry train conductor, caused Edison to become completely deaf in his left ear, and 80-percent deaf in the other. He learned Morse code and the use of the Telegraph, and began a job as a "brass pounder" (telegraph operator). At age 16, Edison produced his first invention, called an "automatic repeater." The device transmitted telegraph signals between unmanned stations, allowing almost anyone to easily and precisely translate code at his own speed and convenience.

In 1868 Edison moved east and began to work for the Western Union Company in Boston as a telegrapher. He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and continued to "moonlight" on his own projects. Within six months, he had applied for and received his first patent for an electric vote-recording machine, which was intended to speed the voting process. He tried to market it to members of the Massachusets Legislature, who were completely uninterested. Edison decided that he would concentrate on making all his future inventions things the public would want.

Edison moved to New York where he was given a job at a brokerage firm to make repairs to their equipment. He continued to "moonlight" with the telegraph, as well as the quadruplex transmitter and the stock-ticker. At age 29, Edison began work on the carbon transmitter, which made Alexander Graham Bell's new telephone audible for practical use.

Shortly thereafter, Edison moved his laboratory to Menlo Park, New Jersey. In 1877 he invented the first phonograph. The cylindrical device was the first machine that could record and reproduce sound. It created a sensation and brought Edison international fame. He toured the country with his invention, and was even invited to the White House to demonstrate it to President Rutherford B. Hayes.Lights, camera, action!

Thomas Edison's greatest challenge — and what he is credited with in the history books — was the development of a practical incandescent electric light bulb. Contrary to popular belief, he didn't invent the light bulb, but improved upon a 50-year-old idea. Numerous people had worked on forms of electric lighting without success. In 1879 he managed to produce a reliable, long-lasting light bulb. Most importantly, all of Edison's achievements were in Direct Current or simply "DC."

Edison had hired Nikola Tesla to design a Direct Current electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the light efficient, safe, and economical. However, DC was (and is) impractical for long-range distribution. The first public display of Thomas Edison's lighting system, designed by Tesla, was in December 1879, when his laboratory complex was electrically illuminated for the first time. The success of his electric light bulb brought Thomas Edison to new social and economical prominence.

However, as electric light spread around the world, it was on Tesla’s patented Alternating Current (AC) electrical distribution system controlled by Westinghouse Electric. Edison’s various electric companies continued to grow until 1889, when they were all brought together to form Edison General Electric, which was controlled by J.P. Morgan. By 1892 the Edison General Electric Company had become the General Electric Corporation.

The Panic of 1907 further illustrates the personal struggle between Edison and Tesla, and the abuse of power by J.P. Morgan.

Thomas Edison is most famous as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, but what many people don't realize is that he also invented the motion picture camera. He desired a device that would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear" — record and reproduce objects in motion. He dubbed it the kinetoscope.

One of Edison's first motion pictures -- the first ever copyrighted -- featured one of his employees pretending to sneeze. A good film for motion pictures was not available until 1893, at which time he built a motion picture studio in New Jersey. The studio had a roof that could be opened to let in light, and the entire building was constructed so that it could be moved to stay in line with the sun. The first motion pictures shown in a "movie theater" in America were presented to audiences on April 23, 1896, in New York City.

In 1915, as the United States inched closer to involvement in World War I, Edison was asked to head the Naval Consulting Board, which was an attempt to organize the talents of America's leading inventors and scientists for the benefit of the armed forces.

Although the Board did not make any remarkable contributions to the overall Allied victory, it did serve as a precedent for future cooperation among scientists, inventors, and the U.S. military. During the war, Edison spent several months in a navy vessel on the Long Island Sound, experimenting with techniques for detecting and identifying submarines.

The last experimental work of Edison's life was done at the request of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. They asked Edison to find a substitute source of rubber for use in automobile tires. The natural rubber used for tires up to that time came from the rubber tree, which does not grow in the United States. It was becoming increasingly expensive.

Edison tested thousands of different plants to find a suitable alternative, eventually finding a type of Goldenrod weed that could produce enough rubber to be practicable. Edison was still working on this at the time of his death.

Edison obtained his last patent (his 1093rd) at age 83. He died October 18, 1931 in New Jersey. Countless individuals, communities, and businesses throughout the world recognized that his death marked the end of an era in the progress of civilization.

Homes and businesses alike throughout the world dimmed their lights or briefly turned off their electric power in his honor on the evening of the day he was laid to rest at his estate in Glenmont, New Jersey.


See also The Wright Brothers.


Motion Pictures

The Black Maria. A building built for the recording of motion pictures.

Sometimes one invention might give you an idea for making something else. That is what happened to Thomas Edison with motion pictures.

In October 1888 Edison wrote, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear . . ." Actually, "motion" pictures only seem to move. A modern movie camera takes still pictures like a regular camera does. However, it takes 24 of these pictures, or frames, per second. When you show these pictures at a very fast rate, they look like they are moving. Even before Edison's work on movies, this basic idea had already been developed by a British photographer named Eadward Muybridge. He wanted to prove that when a horse ran, all four of its legs could be up in the air at once. By taking several photos very fast, Muybridge proved his point.

Around 1889 Edison picked a team of muckers to work on this project, headed by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. They built the Strip Kinetograph, which was a very early movie camera. The "strip" was a piece of long, flexible film that had been invented for regular camera. Unlike older photographic film, it could be wrapped around a wheel or a spool. The Strip Kinetograph took pictures so fast that they would seem to move.

Then Edison and his muckers built a Kinetoscope, a machine to watch these movies. One person at a time would pay five cents to watch a short, silent movie about twenty to thirty seconds long. The first kinetoscope parlor, or movie theater, opened on April 14, 1894, at 1155 Broadway in New York City.

To film these movies, the muckers needed a stage. Edison's light bulbs were not bright enough to make these films. They built a stage out of wood planks and tar paper, with a roof that opened up to the sun. This strange building looked a little like a police wagon or a hearse (which took coffins to the graveyard). A police wagon was sometimes called a "black Maria" (pronounced Ma-RI-uh). This "Black Maria" was built in 1893. Short films were made there for ten years until it was torn down around 1903. By then Edison had a newer, better movie studio in New York City.

Edison was one of the inventors of motion pictures, but he should not get all the credit. Other inventors in different parts of the world made important discoveries as well. For just one example, in 1896 Thomas Armat and Francis Jenkins designed the phantascope. This early movie projector showed the film onto a screen, so that a roomful of people could watch at the same time. Edison bought the rights to this machine and started making his own projectors. The Lumiere brothers in France were also extremely important in the development of movies. Other inventors also helped find pieces of the puzzle.

But, with his huge laboratory here in West Orange, Edison put the pieces of the puzzle together. That is why he is sometimes called the "Father of Motion Pictures."


Edison Biography

Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio the seventh and last child of Samuel and Nancy Edison. When Edison was seven his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. Edison lived here until he struck out on his own at the age of sixteen. Edison had very little formal education as a child, attending school only for a few months. He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own. This belief in self-improvement remained throughout his life.

Edison began working at an early age, as most boys did at the time. At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit. He seems to have spent much of his free time reading scientific, and technical books, and also had the opportunity at this time to learn how to operate a telegraph. By the time he was sixteen, Edison was proficient enough to work as a telegrapher full time.

The development of the telegraph was the first step in the communication revolution, and the telegraph industry expanded rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. This rapid growth gave Edison and others like him a chance to travel, see the country, and gain experience. Edison worked in a number of cities throughout the United States before arriving in Boston in 1868. Here Edison began to change his profession from telegrapher to inventor. He received his first patent on an electric vote recorder, a device intended for use by elected bodies such as Congress to speed the voting process. This invention was a commercial failure. Edison resolved that in the future he would only invent things that he was certain the public would want.

Edison moved to New York City in 1869. He continued to work on inventions related to the telegraph, and developed his first successful invention, an improved stock ticker called the "Universal Stock Printer". For this and some related inventions Edison was paid $40,000. This gave Edison the money he needed to set up his first small laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey in 1871. During the next five years, Edison worked in Newark inventing and manufacturing devices that greatly improved the speed and efficiency of the telegraph. He also found to time to get married to Mary Stilwell and start a family.

In 1876 Edison sold all his Newark manufacturing concerns and moved his family and staff of assistants to the small village of Menlo Park, twenty-five miles southwest of New York City. Edison established a new facility containing all the equipment necessary to work on any invention. This research and development laboratory was the first of its kind anywhere the model for later, modern facilities such as Bell Laboratories, this is sometimes considered to be Edison's greatest invention. Here Edison began to change the world.

Edison's first phonograph - 1877.

The first great invention developed by Edison in Menlo Park was the tin foil phonograph. The first machine that could record and reproduce sound created a sensation and brought Edison international fame. Edison toured the country with the tin foil phonograph, and was invited to the White House to demonstrate it to President Rutherford B. Hayes in April 1878.

Edison next undertook his greatest challenge, the development of a practical incandescent, electric light. The idea of electric lighting was not new, and a number of people had worked on, and even developed forms of electric lighting. But up to that time, nothing had been developed that was remotely practical for home use. Edison's eventual achievement was inventing not just an incandescent electric light, but also an electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the incandescent light practical, safe, and economical. After one and a half years of work, success was achieved when an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonized sewing thread burned for thirteen and a half hours. The first public demonstration of the Edison's incandescent lighting system was in December 1879, when the Menlo Park laboratory complex was electrically lighted. Edison spent the next several years creating the electric industry. In September 1882, the first commercial power station, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, went into operation providing light and power to customers in a one square mile area the electric age had begun.

An early sketch from a laboratory notebook of an electric lightbulb.

The success of his electric light brought Edison to new heights of fame and wealth, as electricity spread around the world. Edison's various electric companies continued to grow until in 1889 they were brought together to form Edison General Electric. Despite the use of Edison in the company title however, Edison never controlled this company. The tremendous amount of capital needed to develop the incandescent lighting industry had necessitated the involvement of investment bankers such as J.P. Morgan. When Edison General Electric merged with its leading competitor Thompson-Houston in 1892, Edison was dropped from the name, and the company became simply General Electric.

This period of success was marred by the death of Edison's wife Mary in 1884. Edison's involvement in the business end of the electric industry had caused Edison to spend less time in Menlo Park. After Mary's death, Edison was there even less, living instead in New York City with his three children. A year later, while vacationing at a friends house in New England, Edison met Mina Miller and fell in love. The couple was married in February 1886 and moved to West Orange, New Jersey where Edison had purchased an estate, Glenmont, for his bride. Thomas Edison lived here with Mina until his death.

When Edison moved to West Orange, he was doing experimental work in makeshift facilities in his electric lamp factory in nearby Harrison, New Jersey. A few months after his marriage, however, Edison decided to build a new laboratory in West Orange itself, less than a mile from his home. Edison possessed both the resources and experience by this time to build, "the best equipped and largest laboratory extant and the facilities superior to any other for rapid and cheap development of an invention ". The new laboratory complex consisting of five buildings opened in November 1887. A three story main laboratory building contained a power plant, machine shops, stock rooms, experimental rooms and a large library. Four smaller one story buildings built perpendicular to the main building contained a physics lab, chemistry lab, metallurgy lab, pattern shop, and chemical storage. The large size of the laboratory not only allowed Edison to work on any sort of project, but also allowed him to work on as many as ten or twenty projects at once. Facilities were added to the laboratory or modified to meet Edison's changing needs as he continued to work in this complex until his death in 1931. Over the years, factories to manufacture Edison inventions were built around the laboratory. The entire laboratory and factory complex eventually covered more than twenty acres and employed 10,000 people at its peak during World War One (1914-1918).

After opening the new laboratory, Edison began to work on the phonograph again, having set the project aside to develop the electric light in the late 1870s. By the 1890s, Edison began to manufacture phonographs for both home, and business use. Like the electric light, Edison developed everything needed to have a phonograph work, including records to play, equipment to record the records, and equipment to manufacture the records and the machines. In the process of making the phonograph practical, Edison created the recording industry. The development and improvement of the phonograph was an ongoing project, continuing almost until Edison's death.

While working on the phonograph, Edison began working on a device that, "does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear", this was to become motion pictures. Edison first demonstrated motion pictures in 1891, and began commercial production of "movies" two years later in a peculiar looking structure, built on the laboratory grounds, known as the Black Maria. Like the electric light and phonograph before it, Edison developed a complete system, developing everything needed to both film and show motion pictures. Edison's initial work in motion pictures was pioneering and original. However, many people became interested in this third new industry Edison created, and worked to further improve on Edison's early motion picture work. There were therefore many contributors to the swift development of motion pictures beyond the early work of Edison. By the late 1890s, a thriving new industry was firmly established, and by 1918 the industry had become so competitive that Edison got out of the movie business all together.

The success of the phonograph and motion pictures in the 1890s helped offset the greatest failure of Edison's career. Throughout the decade Edison worked in his laboratory and in the old iron mines of northwestern New Jersey to develop methods of mining iron ore to feed the insatiable demand of the Pennsylvania steel mills. To finance this work, Edison sold all his stock in General Electric. Despite ten years of work and millions of dollars spent on research and development, Edison was never able to make the process commercially practical, and lost all the money he had invested. This would have meant financial ruin had not Edison continued to develop the phonograph and motion pictures at the same time. As it was, Edison entered the new century still financially secure and ready to take on another challenge.

Edison's new challenge was to develop a better storage battery for use in electric vehicles. Edison very much enjoyed automobiles and owned a number of different types during his life, powered by gasoline, electricity, and steam. Edison thought that electric propulsion was clearly the best method of powering cars, but realized that conventional lead-acid storage batteries were inadequate for the job. Edison began to develop an alkaline battery in 1899. It proved to be Edison's most difficult project, taking ten years to develop a practical alkaline battery. By the time Edison introduced his new alkaline battery, the gasoline powered car had so improved that electric vehicles were becoming increasingly less common, being used mainly as delivery vehicles in cities. However, the Edison alkaline battery proved useful for lighting railway cars and signals, maritime buoys, and miners lamps. Unlike iron ore mining, the heavy investment Edison made over ten years was repaid handsomely, and the storage battery eventually became Edison's most profitable product. Further, Edison's work paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.

By 1911, Thomas Edison had built a vast industrial operation in West Orange. Numerous factories had been built through the years around the original laboratory, and the staff of the entire complex had grown into the thousands. To better manage operations, Edison brought all the companies he had started to make his inventions together into one corporation, Thomas A. Edison Incorporated, with Edison as president and chairman. Edison was sixty-four by this time and his role with his company and in life began to change. Edison left more of the daily operations of both the laboratory and the factories to others. The laboratory itself did less original experimental work and instead worked more on refining existing Edison products such as the phonograph. Although Edison continued to file for and receive patents for new inventions, the days of developing new products that changed lives and created industries were behind him.

In the 1915, Edison was asked to head the Naval Consulting Board. With the United States inching closer towards the involvement in World War One, the Naval Consulting Board was an attempt to organize the talents of the leading scientists and inventors in the United States for the benefit of the American armed forces. Edison favored preparedness, and accepted the appointment. The Board did not make a notable contribution to the final allied victory, but did serve as a precedent for future successful cooperation between scientists, inventors and the United States military. During the war, at age seventy, Edison spent several months on Long Island Sound in a borrowed navy vessel experimenting on techniques for detecting submarines.

Edison's role in life began to change from inventor and industrialist to cultural icon, a symbol of American ingenuity, and a real life Horatio Alger story. In 1928, in recognition of a lifetime of achievement, the United States Congress voted Edison a special Medal of Honor. In 1929 the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of the incandescent light. The celebration culminated at a banquet honoring Edison given by Henry Ford at Greenfield Village, Ford's new American history museum, which included a complete restoration of the Menlo Park Laboratory. Attendees included President Herbert Hoover and many of the leading American scientists and inventors.

The last experimental work of Edison's life was done at the request of Edison's good friends Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. They asked Edison to find an alternative source of rubber for use in automobile tires. The natural rubber used for tires up to that time came from the rubber tree, which does not grow in the United States. Crude rubber had to be imported and was becoming increasingly expensive. With his customary energy and thoroughness, Edison tested thousands of different plants to find a suitable substitute, eventually finding a type of Goldenrod weed that could produce enough rubber to be feasible. Edison was still working on this at the time of his death.

During the last two years of his life Edison was in increasingly poor health. Edison spent more time away from the laboratory, working instead at Glenmont. Trips to the family vacation home in Fort Myers, Florida became longer. Edison was past eighty and suffering from a number of ailments. In August 1931 Edison collapsed at Glenmont. Essentially house bound from that point, Edison steadily declined until at 3:21 am on October 18, 1931 the great man died.


Thomas Edison dies

Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most prolific inventors in history, dies in West Orange, New Jersey, at the age of 84.

Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, Edison received little formal schooling, which was customary for most Americans at the time. He developed serious hearing problems at an early age, and this disability provided the motivation for many of his inventions. At age 16, he found work as a telegraph operator and soon was devoting much of his energy and natural ingenuity toward improving the telegraph system itself. By 1869, he was pursuing invention full-time and in 1876 moved into a laboratory and machine shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Edison’s experiments were guided by his remarkable intuition, but he also took care to employ assistants who provided the mathematical and technical expertise he lacked. At Menlo Park, Edison continued his work on the telegraph, and in 1877 he stumbled on one of his great inventions—the phonograph—while working on a way to record telephone communication. Public demonstrations of the phonograph made the Yankee inventor world famous, and he was dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”

Although the discovery of a way to record and play back sound ensured him a place in the annals of history, it was just the first of several Edison creations that would transform late 19th-century life. Among other notable inventions, Edison and his assistants developed the first practical incandescent lightbulb in 1879, and a forerunner of the movie camera and projector in the late 1880s. In 1887, he opened the world’s first industrial research laboratory at West Orange, where he employed dozens of workers to systematically investigate a given subject.


History of Edison Motion Pictures

Edison's laboratory was responsible for the invention of the Kinetograph (a motion picture camera) and the Kinetoscope (a peep-hole motion picture viewer). Most of this work was performed by Edison's assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, beginning in 1888. Motion pictures became a successful entertainment industry in less than a decade, with single-viewer Kinetoscopes giving way to films projected for mass audiences. The Edison Manufacturing Co. (later known as Thomas A. Edison, Inc.) not only built the apparatus for filming and projecting motion pictures, but also produced films for public consumption. Most early examples were actualities showing famous people, news events, disasters, people at work, new modes of travel and technology, scenic views, expositions, and other leisure activities. As actualities declined in popularity, the company's production emphasis shifted to comedies and dramas.

This collection features 341 Edison films, including 127 titles also available in other American Memory motion picture groupings. The earliest example is a camera test made in 1891, followed by other tests and a wide variety of actualities and dramas through the year 1918, when Edison's company ceased film production. The presentation also offers a brief history of Edison's work with motion pictures as well as an overview of the different film genres produced by the Edison company.


History of the Cylinder Phonograph

Phonograph Catalog/Advertisement:
"I want a phonograph in every home. ".

The phonograph was developed as a result of Thomas Edison's work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone. In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, which could later be sent over the telegraph repeatedly. This development led Edison to speculate that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern. Edison gave a sketch of the machine to his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build, which Kruesi supposedly did within 30 hours. Edison immediately tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, "Mary had a little lamb." To his amazement, the machine played his words back to him.

Although it was later stated that the date for this event was on August 12, 1877, some historians believe that it probably happened several months later, since Edison did not file for a patent until December 24, 1877. Also, the diary of one of Edison's aides, Charles Batchelor, seems to confirm that the phonograph was not constructed until December 4, and finished two days later. The patent on the phonograph was issued on February 19, 1878. The invention was highly original. The only other recorded evidence of such an invention was in a paper by French scientist Charles Cros, written on April 18, 1877. There were some differences, however, between the two men's ideas, and Cros's work remained only a theory, since he did not produce a working model of it.

Original Edison Tin Foil Phonograph. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site.

Edison took his new invention to the offices of Scientific American in New York City and showed it to staff there. As the December 22, 1877, issue reported, "Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night." Interest was great, and the invention was reported in several New York newspapers, and later in other American newspapers and magazines.

The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established on January 24, 1878, to exploit the new machine by exhibiting it. Edison received $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and 20% of the profits. As a novelty, the machine was an instant success, but was difficult to operate except by experts, and the tin foil would last for only a few playings.

Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878:

  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

Eventually, the novelty of the invention wore off for the public, and Edison did no further work on the phonograph for a while, concentrating instead on inventing the incadescent light bulb.

In the void left by Edison, others moved forward to improve the phonograph. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell won the Volta Prize of $10,000 from the French government for his invention of the telephone. Bell used his winnings to set up a laboratory to further electrical and acoustical research, working with his cousin Chichester A. Bell, a chemical engineer, and Charles Sumner Tainter, a scientist and instrument maker. They made some improvements on Edison's invention, chiefly by using wax in the place of tin foil and a floating stylus instead of a rigid needle which would incise, rather than indent, the cylinder. A patent was awarded to C. Bell and Tainter on May 4, 1886. The machine was exhibited to the public as the graphophone. Bell and Tainter had representatives approach Edison to discuss a possible collaboration on the machine, but Edison refused and determined to improve the phonograph himself. At this point, he had succeeded in making the incandescent lamp and could now resume his work on the phonograph. His initial work, though, closely followed the improvements made by Bell and Tainter, especially in its use of wax cylinders, and was called the New Phonograph.

The Edison Phonograph Company was formed on October 8, 1887, to market Edison's machine. He introduced the Improved Phonograph by May of 1888, shortly followed by the Perfected Phonograph. The first wax cylinders Edison used were white and made of ceresin, beeswax, and stearic wax.

Edison Home Phonograph

Businessman Jesse H. Lippincott assumed control of the phonograph companies by becoming sole licensee of the American Graphophone Company and by purchasing the Edison Phonograph Company from Edison. In an arrangement which eventually included most other phonograph makers as well, he formed the North American Phonograph Company on July 14, 1888. Lippincott saw the potential use of the phonograph only in the business field and leased the phonographs as office dictating machines to various member companies which each had its own sales territory. Unfortunately, this business did not prove to be very profitable, receiving significant opposition from stenographers.

Meanwhile, the Edison Factory produced talking dolls in 1890 for the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co. The dolls contained tiny wax cylinders. Edison's relationship with the company ended in March of 1891, and the dolls are very rare today. The Edison Phonograph Works also produced musical cylinders for coin-slot phonographs which some of the subsidiary companies had started to use. These proto-"jukeboxes" were a development which pointed to the future of phonographs as entertainment machines.

In the fall of 1890, Lippincott fell ill and lost control of the North American Phonograph Co. to Edison, who was its principal creditor. Edison changed the policy of rentals to outright sales of the machines, but changed little else.

Edison increased the entertainment offerings on his cylinders, which by 1892 were made of a wax known among collectors today as "brown wax." Although called by this name, the cylinders could range in color from off-white to light tan to dark brown. An announcement at the beginning of the cylinder would typically indicate the title, artist, and company.

Advertisement for the Edison New Standard Phongraph, in Harper's, September 1898.

In 1894, Edison declared bankruptcy for the North American Phonograph Company, a move that enabled him to buy back the rights to his invention. It took two years for the bankruptcy affairs to be settled before Edison could move ahead with marketing his invention. The Edison Spring Motor Phonograph appeared in 1895, even though technically Edison was not allowed to sell phonographs at this time because of the bankruptcy agreement. In January 1896, he started the National Phonograph Company which would manufacture phonographs for home entertainment use. Within three years, branches of the company were located in Europe. Under the aegis of the company, he announced the Spring Motor Phonograph in 1896, followed by the Edison Home Phonograph, and he began the commercial issue of cylinders under the new company's label. A year later, the Edison Standard Phonograph was manufactured, and then exhibited in the press in 1898. This was the first phonograph to carry the Edison trademark design. Prices for the phonographs had significantly diminished from its early days of $150 (in 1891) down to $20 for the Standard model and $7.50 for a model known as the Gem, introduced in 1899.

Standard-sized cylinders, which tended to be 4.25" long and 2.1875" in diameter, were 50 cents each and typically played at 120 r.p.m. A variety of selections were featured on the cylinders, including marches, sentimental ballads, minstrel dialect songs, hymns, comic monologues and descriptive specialities, which offered sound reenactments of events.

The early cylinders had two significant problems. The first was the short length of the cylinders, only 2 minutes. This necessarily narrowed the field of what could be recorded. The second problem was that no mass method of duplicating cylinders existed. Most often, performers had to repeat their performances when recording in order to amass a quantity of cylinders. This was not only time-consuming, but costly.

The Edison Concert Phonograph, which had a louder sound and a larger cylinder measuring 4.25" long and 5" in diameter, was introduced in 1899, retailing for $125 and the large cylinders for $4. The Concert Phonograph did not sell well, and prices for it and its cylinders were dramatically reduced. Their production ceased in 1912.

A process for mass-producing duplicate wax cylinders was put into effect in 1901. The cylinders were molded, rather than engraved by a stylus, and a harder wax was used. The process was referred to as Gold Moulded, because of a gold vapor given off by gold electrodes used in the process. Sub-masters were created from the gold master, and the cylinders were made from these molds. From a single mold, 120 to 150 cylinders could be produced every day. The new wax used was black in color, and the cylinders were initially called New High Speed Hard Wax Moulded Records until the name was changed to Gold Moulded. By mid-1904, the savings in mass duplication was reflected in the price for cylinders which had been lowered to 35 cents each. Beveled ends were made on the cylinders to accommodate titles.

A new business phonograph was introduced in 1905. Similar to a standard phonograph, it had alterations to the reproducer and mandrel. The early machines were difficult to use, and their fragility made them prone to failure. Even though improvements were made to the machine over the years, they still cost more than the popular, inexpensive Dictaphones put out by Columbia. Electrical motors and controls were later added to the Edison business machine, which improved their performance. (Some Edison phonographs made before 1895 also had electric motors, until they were replaced by spring motors.)

At this point, the Edison business phonograph became a dictating system. Three machines were used: the executive dictating machine, the secretarial machine for transcribing, and a shaving machine used to recycle used cylinders. This system can be seen in the Edison advertising film, The Stenographer's Friend, filmed in 1910. An improved machine, the Ediphone, was introduced in 1916 and steadily grew in sales after World War I and into the 1920's.

Catalog for Edison moulded cylinder records, March 1903.

In terms of playing time, the 2-minute wax cylinder could not compete well against competitors' discs, which could offer up to four minutes. In response, the Amberol Record was presented in November 1908, which had finer grooves than the two-minute cylinders, and thus, could last as long as 4 minutes. The two-minute cylinders were then referred to in the future as Edison Two-Minute Records, and then later as Edison Standard Records. In 1909, a series of Grand Opera Amberols (a continuation of the two-minute Grand Opera Cylinders introduced in 1906) was put on the market to attract the higher-class clientele, but these did not prove successful. The Amberola I phonograph was introduced in 1909, a floor-model luxury machine with high-quality performance, and was supposed to compete with the Victrola and Grafonola.

In 1910, the company was reorganized into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Frank L. Dyer was initially president, then Edison served as president from December 1912 until August 1926, when his son, Charles, became president, and Edison became chairman of the board.

Columbia, one of Edison's chief competitors, abandoned the cylinder market in 1912. (Columbia had given up making its own cylinders in 1909, and until 1912 was only releasing cylinders which it had acquired from the Indestructible Phonographic Record Co.) The United States Phonograph Co. ceased production of its U.S. Everlasting cylinders in 1913, leaving the cylinder market to Edison. The disc had steadily grown in popularity with the consumer, thanks especially to the popular roster of Victor artists on disc. Edison refused to give up the cylinder, introducing instead the Blue Amberol Record, an unbreakable cylinder with what was arguably the best available sound on a recording at the time. The finer sound of the cylinder was partly due to the fact that a cylinder had constant surface speed from beginning to end in contrast to the inner groove distortion that occurred on discs when the surface speed slowed down. Partisans of Edison also argued that the vertical cut in the groove produced a superior sound to the lateral cut of Victor and other disc competitors. Cylinders, though, had truly peaked by this time, and even the superior sound of the Blue Amberols could not persuade the larger public to buy cylinders. Edison conceded to this reality in 1913 when he announced the manufacture of the Edison Disc Phonograph. The Edison Company did not desert its faithful cylinder customers, however, and continued to make Blue Amberol cylinders until the demise of the company in 1929, although most from 1915 on were dubbed from the Diamond Discs.

Information for this section was culled from the following sources:


What Jobs Did Thomas Edison Have?

Thomas Alva Edison, famed American inventor and holder of 1,093 U.S. patents, sold newspapers, published his own newspaper and worked as a telegraph operator prior to becoming a full-time inventor and entrepreneurial businessman. He began selling newspapers at age 12 and worked as a telegraph operator from 15 to 22.

When Edison was 22 years old, he sold one of his inventions for $40,000, quit his telegraph operator job and devoted himself to inventing full-time. He built an independent industrial research facility with machine shops and laboratories. After patenting the light bulb in 1880, Edison started a company, the Edison Illuminating Company, to deliver the electricity to power his light bulbs. This utility company later became the General Electric Corporation.


Thomas Edison

He was charismatic. He was brilliant. He had famous rivalries and electrocuted an elephant to death. He created jobs, factories, and some of the most important inventions known to man. He was the Wizard of Menlo Park, and his name was Thomas Alva Edison. The coolest thing about Thomas Edison wasn’t that he invented the lightbulb – it’s that his entire career began in Newark, New Jersey.

More Than Just A Light Bulb

You probably already know that Edison was the inventor of the lightbulb, and that he was the main person who advocated for the use of DC (Direct Current) for lighting systems. What you may not know is how many different inventions he had created during his stay in New Jersey.

The first invention that got peoples’ attention was the phonograph – the world’s first sound playback device. Using the money that he received from the phonograph and the sale of a quadruplex telegraph, he created the first research laboratory in West Orange. Soon after the invention of the phonograph, he moved his operations to a larger lab in Menlo Park.

Even in his earlier days, Edison was known for teaming up with some of the greatest scientists that had ever lived so that he could complete his projects. He’s been known to work with Nikola Tesla, John Sprague, and William Joseph Hammer on various inventions – many of which became major hits in markets around the world.

The Menlo Park Lab

Edison’s Menlo Park research lab was the stuff of legends, and a veritable candyland for anyone who has ever wanted to create. It was a laboratory that regularly recruited the best of the best to work on projects that would have been the stuff of science fiction and imagination for anyone else of the time. It was a laboratory that was regularly stocked with almost any material known to man – including over 8,000 chemicals, animal hair, silk, and metals galore.

It was there in Menlo Park that the lightbulb, DC current, the carbon microphone that was standard in all phones, as well as the fluoroscope were all invented. In the mid-1880’s, Edison also invented the world’s first financially viable way to generate heat and electricity for homes throughout the area. Party due to the lightbulb and the methods in which he was able to help people power their home, Menlo Park’s laboratory quickly became synonymous with state of the art inventions that were quick to revolutionize the way life was lived.

The Menlo Park lab became one of the world’s most famous locations for those who wanted to invent. It didn’t take too long for the lab to also expand to a full two city blocks in size. Because of his natural inventive character, and because he seemed to be able to “magically” make things work, Thomas Edison quickly became known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”
The Entrepreneur

Many people often forget that he was not just an inventor, but an exceptionally shrewd businessman. Edison was the head of a number of major companies – many of which are still extant today. You might have heard of General Electric, which was known back in the day as Edison General Electric. He also was the founder of the Edison Illuminating Company, which was credited with helping many homes and businesses get light. Oddly, it was Edison’s cutthroat business practiced that earned him the hatred of several rivals – including Westinghouse and Tesla.

The Rivalries

The vast majority of Edison’s rivalries, if not all, were sparked by his drive to maximize profits at his company. His most famous rivalry was solely based on making sure that his Direct Current electricity overtook Westinghouse’s Alternating Current as the number one mode of electric power in the US in the 1880’s. It was a competition and heated rivalry that was so vicious, so outspoken, that it became known as the Battle of the Currents.

Though people generally approved of Westinghouse’s cheaper Alternating Current (AC), Edison was not about to let the opportunity to market and install DC transformers in neighborhoods across the country. Edison was the first to provoke the war, and he did it in one of the most brutal, shocking ways imaginable.

The way he began the war was very straightforward – he started a campaign advising people to avoid using Westinghouse’s current citing its dangers. Edison famously spread disinformation about accidentally killings via AC, had multiple scientists preside over electrocutions of animals, and even electrocuted a circus elephant by the name of Topsy in order to prove that Alternating Current was far more deadly than Direct Current.

It may not have been Edison’s best move to pick a fight with Westinghouse. Edison had already refused to pay world-famous electrician Nikola Tesla for his work on a previous project. It should not have come as any surprise to Edison that Tesla would eventually team up with his AC rival Westinghouse to complete a number of patents. Between Tesla and Westinghouse, Edison had every reason to worry about the success of DC current.

Though Edison definitely did an excellent job excorciating Westinghouse’s invention and current, AC generally won out – primarily due to the investments put forth by General Electric after it was bought out by a different company. Though there are still parts of the world that choose DC current, most homes and businesses are now powered by Westinghouse’s choice current.

Edison And New Jersey Now

Edison definitely left a huge mark on New Jersey history. In fact, you might have noticed that Menlo Park is no longer even called Menlo Park anymore. It’s been renamed to Edison, with only the local mall really keeping its original name.

The town also has a fully functional museum dedicated to Edison’s achievements – the Thomas Edison Center, also known as the Menlo Park Museum. The museum holds a model of the Menlo Park laboratory, various inventions created by the Wizard himself, as well as access to a state park that was also dedicated in his name.

If you want to take a look at the place where Thomas Edison called home, you can also check out the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. The beautiful red house which sits on the property is actually his old home, and the laboratory that he built in West Orange still remains intact on the park property. This museum comes with guided audio tours, amazing exhibits and a chance to watch some of the movies that Edison created.

For future scholars who look up to the father of modern lighting, there’s also a Thomas Edison College located in the state. Rutgers New Brunswick has also been known to hold Edison-themed discussions and gatherings from time to time as well.

In 2008, Edison was also inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In other words, the guy is still pretty big in New Jersey – even if he passed away over 50 years ago. So, if you want to check out anything Edison-related, New Jersey’s the best place to be.


Edison the Telegrapher

While Edison worked for the railroad, a near-tragic event turned fortuitous for the young man. After Edison saved a three-year-old from being run over by an errant train, the child’s grateful father rewarded him by teaching him to operate a telegraph. By age 15, he had learned enough to be employed as a telegraph operator. 

For the next five years, Edison traveled throughout the Midwest as an itinerant telegrapher, subbing for those who had gone to the Civil War. In his spare time, he read widely, studied and experimented with telegraph technology, and became familiar with electrical science.

In 1866, at age 19, Edison moved to Louisville, Kentucky, working for The Associated Press. The night shift allowed him to spend most of his time reading and experimenting. He developed an unrestricted style of thinking and inquiry, proving things to himself through objective examination and experimentation. 

Initially, Edison excelled at his telegraph job because early Morse code was inscribed on a piece of paper, so Edison&aposs partial deafness was no handicap. However, as the technology advanced, receivers were increasingly equipped with a sounding key, enabling telegraphers to "read" message by the sound of the clicks. This left Edison disadvantaged, with fewer and fewer opportunities for employment.

In 1868, Edison returned home to find his beloved mother was falling into mental illness and his father was out of work. The family was almost destitute. Edison realized he needed to take control of his future. 

Upon the suggestion of a friend, he ventured to Boston, landing a job for the Western Union Company. At the time, Boston was America&aposs center for science and culture, and Edison reveled in it. In his spare time, he designed and patented an electronic voting recorder for quickly tallying votes in the legislature. 


History of Edison Sound Recordings

--Thomas A. Edison on hearing his voice play back to him from his first tin foil phonograph.

Of all his inventions, Thomas A. Edison was most fond of the phonograph. As a result of his work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone, Edison happened upon a way to record sound on tinfoil-coated cylinders in 1877. Edison set aside this invention in 1878 to work on the incandescent light bulb, and others moved forward to improve on his invention, including Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, who developed a wax cylinder for the phonograph. In 1887, Edison resumed work on his phonograph, using wax cylinders. Although initially used as a dictating machine for offices, the phonograph proved to be a popular form of entertainment, and Edison eventually offered a variety of recording selections to the public through his National Phonograph Company. Edison introduced improved phonograph models and cylinders over the years, ending with the Blue Amberol Record, an unbreakable cylinder with superior sound. In 1910, the company was reorganized into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. The Edison Disc Phonograph was developed in 1912 with the aim of competing in the popular disc market. The Edison Diamond Discs offered excellent sound, but were not compatible with other disc players. The advent of radio caused business to sour in the 1920's. Edison gave in to the popular trend and offered lateral-cut records and accompanying portable players in the summer of 1929, before recording production at Edison ceased forever in October 1929.

Histories of the Edison cylinder and disc phonographs are offered on the following pages along with selected representative recordings from the company, showing the variety produced during its existence. These selections include instrumental, vocal, spoken word, spoken comedy, foreign language and ethnic, religious, opera and concert recordings.


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