Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Let There Be (Cheap) Light: The Triumph of Thomas Edison

Let There Be (Cheap) Light: The Triumph of Thomas Edison

[quote]Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.

—Thomas Edison[/quote]

The world experienced enormous change during, and often because of, Thomas Edison’s life. To think that fifteen years after he was born, the United States was torn apart by its Civil War, where cavalry charges accompanied the exchange of rifle-musket fire, while fifteen years before his death, the entire world was at war behind machine guns and tanks rolled into battle under fighter planes.

Two months ago, when introducing my Henry Ford (#20) column, I noted the difficulty in placing him into a professional category. He wasn’t a scientist, nor was he quite an inventor. With Thomas Edison, I have no such problem. No man in history is more synonymous with the word “inventor.” His eye-popping 1,093 patents reigned supreme for a century.{{1}} He is the model against which we’ve compared inventors for a hundred years. Perhaps more important than any single patent, he set the standard for how inventions are pursued and created, birthing the idea of modern research and development labs across the world. Indeed, while he may have stopped inventing 80 years ago, he deserves some credit for countless inventions since his death.

Born in 1847 Ohio, Edison’s childhood was slow and quiet. It was a horse and buggy world with no motion pictures, recorded sound, or nightshifts. But his life was to be a time of great change, and Edison was to be a cause of it.

As young Edison grew up, no one expected genius. Three months of a formal education. A teacher who considered him mentally challenged. A reverend who called him “addled.” These attributes were not the making of the world’s most inventive brain.

But his mother was his savior. She schooled him. She bought him books and let him peruse the local paper. She had faith in him, and he grew up never wanting to let her down. He read as much as possible and, like we all do at a young age, developed a fondness for qualitative analysis. To help the household, he worked numerous jobs, including selling newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railway. His first entrepreneurial experiment came as a printer of a newspaper—the Grand Trunk Herald.{{2}} He set up a train car for printing the paper, but he also used it for conducting experiments.

At the age of 15, he happened onto a three-year old child stuck on train tracks as a runaway locomotive barreled toward him. Edison saved the boy, who turned out to be the son of the local station master. The grateful man gave Edison a job as a telegrapher, a job from which Edison would learn a great deal and use that knowledge for many of his later inventions. Edison quickly took to the work and wage, which allowed him time to experiment on the side. For the next few years, he bounced around the region, working telegraphs by night and experimenting by day, the latter ultimately costing him his job.{{3}}

A compassionate friend and fellow inventor, Franklin Leonard Pope, opened up his New Jersey basement to Edison, who then became a professional inventor. In 1869, at 21, he had his first invention and patent: an electric vote recorder, which he hoped would replace the paper and manual counting ballot system. Politicians, however, had little interest, and Edison made no money from it. As a result, Edison considered the invention a failure (see epigraph).

Knowing that there was value in telegraphy, he focused his efforts there. In 1874, his quadruplex telegraph, which could carry four telegraphs on a single wire, earned him $10,000 from Western Union. When he sold his stock ticker, another telegraphic advancement, it netted him another $40,000.

He used the money to start a research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Despite the impossibility of a patent for such a place, perhaps no contribution of Edison’s is more influential. The establishment became the first full-time research lab that dedicated itself to technological invention. He hired consultants and staff to work under his supervision. These white-coat assistants conducted experiments much like Henry Ford’s employees would construct cars a few decades later—efficiently and relentlessly. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a technological revolution across the Western world, and Edison’s Menlo Park lab was at its epicenter. Whereas Ford would go on to epitomize mass production, Edison was the first to use mass intelligence. The assistants had backgrounds in science, engineering, mathematics, and more, so they each brought certain knowledge and a skillset to the lab. Edison had them working together before Ford dreamed of his first assembly line. Menlo Park became Edison’s “research factory.”

Within three years, Edison had his breakthrough invention. His 17th patent was for a phonograph. For the first time in history, sound could be recorded and replayed.{{4}} With the phonograph in tow, Edison toured the country, even giving a demonstration to President Hayes. Edison sometimes introduced himself by playing recorded sound. Crowds were so astonished that some suspected magic, and he was dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park.”

The increased fame and income allowed Edison to expand the Menlo Park lab. Over the next decade, it grew to occupy two city blocks. Edison stocked it with seemingly endless supplies and ingredients for potential inventions.{{5}} He and his assistants went on to patent hundreds of mechanisms and processes, including a mimeograph, microphone, and a battery for an electric car.{{6}} Everything they did was documented, maximizing the possibility of patents.

Of course, none of these are the patents for which he’s most famous. In 1879, Thomas Edison had an idea that later became the symbol for all ideas—the incandescent light bulb. It’s worth noting that it was not the first means of artificial light, nor was it even the first light bulb.{{7}} What Edison brought to the invention, however, was a way to make the light bulb practical. He promised, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”

The earlier bulbs from throughout the century had fatal flaws. Some couldn’t last for more than a few minutes. Others were enormously expensive to create. Others still needed impractical amounts of power to run, making them impossible to distribute and run on a large scale. Edison’s genius, therefore, lied not in thinking of the light bulb, but in how to cheaply create an efficient, long-lasting one. His 48th patent did just that.{{8}} His first patented bulb lasted about 14 hours. By the following year, further modifications had it up to 1,200. Thanks to this invention, not only were the impractical light bulbs swept aside, but so, too, were gas, flame, kerosene lamps and the wax candle. The future had arrived.

Just as important as Edison’s modifications to the light bulb was that Edison found a way to control the electricity going to it. With the help of financial backers (including J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts), Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Company (which evolved into General Electric in 1892). Edison then not only controlled the light bulb but its generator and feeder system as well. He oversaw the layout of history’s first electric distribution grid. In 1882, for the first time ever, 59 customers in lower Manhattan had their lights turned on. What began there has since spread to an increasingly electrified world.

And there were still a thousand patents to go. While none approached the level of his light bulb and electric distribution, Edison was nowhere near done inventing. For example, he had the first commercially successful fluoroscope to help with x-ray machines. He discovered the thereafter named “Edison effect” where two wires that weren’t touching could transmit an electric current if they existed in a near vacuum.

He excelled at improving inventions. The typewriter, dictaphone, and telegraphy greatly benefited from his research lab. The audibility of the telephone was greatly improved by his carbon microphone. His kinetoscope, the first motion picture camera, was crucial in the development of motion pictures, and Edison founded the first motion picture studio. By the turn of the twentieth century and his 53rd birthday, he had over 700 patents. Over the next three decades, he tacked on 300 more.

Edison and his genius, however, were not without flaws. He had been hard of hearing since his youth, which could make him ornery in a conversation. He could be disheveled and was known for sometimes sleeping with his clothes on. He was a renowned boaster and swearer, and much of his army of assistants matched his bravado.{{9}} That army, however, received little credit. Despite so much help from his lab mates, it was still Edison who received almost all of the credit, income, and money.{{10}}

Also disappointing were Edison’s financial and management skills. His genius seemed limited to innovation; he was inept socially and financially. Of the 14 companies he founded, some of which became hugely profitable, he lost control of almost all of them. He was a millionaire by the age of 40, yet too often found himself in debt.

Nevertheless, he remained an icon in America and across the Western world. The Wizard of Menlo Park lived into his 80s and remained a prominent celebrity. When he died in 1931 at the age of 84, President Hoover, recognizing Edison’s most famous invention, asked Americans to dim their lights for one minute in his honor.

A healthy counter-argument to Edison’s importance was just presented there: many of “his” patents were largely developed by others. Moreover, with all the innovation happening in the era, it’s reasonable to conclude that many of his patents, which were often merely improvements on innovations of others, were probably certain to come about a few decades down the line. The inevitability of these improvements is surely a mark against his importance, which I have considered. I also considered the fact that of his 1,093 patents, few were of any real consequence, and of those few, some grew obsolete. The phonograph, for example, was impressive, but it was eventually outstripped by the record player, tape deck, CD, and mp3 file. Moreover, it paled in comparison to other inventions of the era, like the radio or telephone.

So why do I not have Guglielmo Marconi or Alexander Graham Bell, among many other notable inventors and scientists of the late nineteenth century, on my list? Simply, no scientist of the era—or, perhaps, ever—has had such a sheer diversity of contributions across numerous fields. Marconi and Bell, while certainly having incredible genius and other ideas, were essentially “one and done.”

But Edison catalyzed change in numerous areas. His phonograph evolved into a hundred-billion dollar music industry. His fluoroscope transformed the way doctors made diagnoses. His inventions in motion picture, including the first movie studio, launched one of the most popular artistic mediums in history. All told, he’s thought to have the most valuable brain ever. His businesses alone generated $25 billion at his death—the equivalent of $300 billion today. However, if one factors in all of the competitive businesses that have arisen because of his inventions, the value he has generated is incalculably large.

In regards to the help he received, we cannot forget that Edison was the one who broke through with his early inventions, which allowed him to assemble the Menlo Park lab, hire and organize the right assistants, and then guide those assistant to invention. He was the mastermind of the laboratory, and we should not overlook that he oversaw everything that happened there.

Nor should we ignore the importance of his most important inventions. His light bulb transformed the way the Western world conducted business. Factories and companies were chained to sunlight or the cumbersome, costly lighting alternatives. No longer. Edison’s light bulb allowed 24/7 operation at a fraction of the previous cost. Plus, there was not only more time to work, but also read, play, socialize, or go to an increasingly electric city and enjoy sporting events, concerts, or that other Edison creation: films.

Moreover, Edison’s network of electric distribution is of course crucial in today’s world. The home and its many appliances are powered by electricity. The Edison effect, moreover, led to the vacuum tube which was crucial in the development of electronics, another dominant part of Western culture.

And yet, his most important legacy could not be patented. At Menlo Park, Edison’s organization of the first modern research and development lab was a precedent that allowed the ongoing innovation that propels inventions to this day. R & D labs are the norm for countless companies across the world. They, and those who have benefitted from their creations, owe Edison a debt.

If someone transported from the time of Edison’s birth to the time of his death, they would not be able to recognize this new, wondrous place. In those 84 years, so much changed, and it often did so because of The Wizard of Menlo Park. Therefore, because of his role in ushering in modern technology, Thomas Edison is the 18th most influential figure in Western history.

[[1]]He’s been passed three times by modern inventors, all still living. Australian Kia Silverbrook and his 4,629 patents reigns supreme. Japan’s Shunpei Yamazaki, who eclipsed Edison in 2005 before being passed by Silverbrook three years later, he sits at 3,193 and counting. Edison now ranks fourth all-time behind the 1,266 patents from Paul Lapstun, who does not have a Wikipedia page and therefore might not exist.[[1]]

[[2]]It was the first of 14 businesses. You may have heard of another: General Electric.[[2]]

[[3]]At 19, he was working for Western Union in Louisville on the Associated Press wire. He requested the nightshift to allow more time for experimentation. One such experiment involved battery acid which, one night, spilled, seeped through the floorboards, and landed on his boss’s desk. He was promptly fired.[[3]]

[[4]]And what were the first recorded words in history? “Mary had a little lamb.” Unfortunately, the original recording perished, though Edison later reproduced it for posterity.[[4]]

[[5]]For example, an Edison biography lists: “eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels . . . silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell . . . cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores.” How would you like to work inventory week there?[[5]]

[[6]]The majority of these patents came in the late nineteenth century. His highest single year was 1882, where he patented 106 applications, or just under one every three days.[[6]]

[[7]]Indeed, at least 22 antecedent light bulbs of Edison’s have been acknowledged.[[7]]

[[8]]Among the apparatuses that made his light bulb better: an effective incandescent material, a strong vacuum achieved by the Sprengel pump, and a high resistance that made it possible for a central electric distribution system to deliver power cheaply.[[8]]

[[9]]George Bernard Shaw called them “profane; liars, braggarts, and hustlers.” He also called them “excellent company.”[[9]]

[[10]]Edison is a great example of what I talked about in my introduction to this series: “Almost all of these figures had help, people working with them every day or doing their menial work. These friends, co-workers, employees, subordinates, and acquaintances were imperative in the operation, but mostly forgotten by history.”[[10]]