(Va, Vb, Vc, E7, G5)


Edison: portrait by the American artist Abraham Archibald Anderson (1847-1940), 1890 – National Portrait Gallery, Washington. As Boy: date and artist unknown. Phonograph: advertising card, issued by the National Phonograph Company, West Orange, New Jersey, in 1901. Pearl Street: sketch, 1882/90, artist unknown. Swan: c1900, artist unknown – Science and Society Picture Library, Science Museum, London. Westinghouse: by the New York photographer Joseph G. Gessford (c1875-c1930), 1900/1914 – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington. Edison: detail, 1922, by the Bachrach photographic studio, founded in Baltimore in 1868, restored by the Belgian photographer Michel Vuijlsteke – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington. Tesla: detail, postcard, by the American lithographer and photographer Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896), c1890. Diagram: by courtesy of, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.

xxxxxThe American scientist and entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison was a remarkable man in more ways than one. Written off as a muddle-headed waster at school, and with no scientific training behind him, he became one of the greatest inventors in the history of technology, making developments in the fields of communication and electrical supply which profoundly affected - and enhanced - the everyday lives of millions of people. He has rightly been seen as the most influential figure of the millennium. Amongst his major achievements were the making of the first practical electric light bulb; the invention of the telephone transmitter and the phonograph (forerunner of the gramophone); pioneer work in the production of silent and talking movies; and the introduction of a central generating system for the distribution of electricity to consumers. And it was Edison who set up the first research laboratory where technological problems and theories could be studied in depth and solved by a team of skilled scientists and industrial technicians.

xxxxxEdison was born in Milan, Ohio, but his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when he was seven. By that time he was quite deaf, caused by a bout of scarlet fever, and this was probably the reason why he was considered “addled” (confused) at school and virtually un-teachable. After three months his mother took over the task, and her teaching revealed a highly inquisitive boy who was eager to learn and had very decided ideas of his own. He showed a special interest in science, and by the age of ten he had set up his own laboratory in the basement of his home to validate known facts by his own experiments.

xxxxxHe began work at the age of twelve, working as a “trainboy” on the Grand Trunk Railway - the line which ran from Port Huron to Detroit. He quickly summed up the business opportunities available to supplement his somewhat meagre income. Before long he was selling vegetables, fruit and sweets, and producing a weekly newspaper, The Grand Trunk Herald, the first to be produced and issued onboard a train. Then came a turning point in his life. It was while he was thus employed that in 1862 he rescued a three-year-old boy from the path of a runaway train. To show his gratitude, the little boy’s father, the station master at Mount Clemens, Michigan, trained Edison as a telegraph operator, and this gave him employment in a fast growing industry.

xxxxxOver the next seven years he worked as a roving telegrapher in the Mid-West, the South, Canada and New England. It was during this period that he came up with his first two practical inventions, a telegraphic repeating instrument which transmitted messages automatically over a second line, and a much improved “stock market ticker”, an apparatus that printed and sent out the latest stock-market prices on a roll of paper tape. On the strength of these innovations he left his work as a telegrapher in 1869 to chance his arm as an inventor in New York City. He arrived there with but a few cents in his pocket but, as good fortune would have it, while visiting the Gold Indicator Company on Broad Street, the company’s primitive stock-ticker broke down and he was able to make the necessary repairs. This landed him a well paid job supervising and improving the company’s machinery, and he was able to set up a small shop and laboratory in Newark, New Jersey, in order to benefit from his inventions By 1876 he had devised a quadruplex multiple telegraphic system which could send four messages along a single line at the same time; had paid a brief visit to London to advise the British Post Office on an automatic telegraph system; and had made himself a fortune by manufacturing and selling his Edison Universal Stock Ticker. The proceeds from his business enterprises financed a state-of-the-art research laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey, where, for the first time, scientists and technicians were employed on the development of new ideas.

xxxxxThe eleven years spent at Menlo Park were highly productive and produced some outstanding innovations. In 1877, for example, he opened up the age of sound recording and reproduction by inventing the phonograph, a device by which a needle indented the vibrations made by varying levels of sound onto a revolving cylinder (later a disc) which was coated with tin foil. A second needle played back these sound variations, thereby reproducing the human voice and musical notes. It is perhaps fitting that when Edison first spoke into the mouthpiece to try out this sensational piece of equipment he should recite the very simplest of words - the nursery rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb”! He was astonished at the quality of his invention, and so was the world at large! The following year he established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, producing machines which could be used for a variety of purposes, including dictaphones, the keeping of records, music boxes and talking dolls and clocks. Initially, the enormous potential that the machine had in the field of home entertainment was not fully grasped, but he had given birth to a whole new industry and gained international fame overnight. He toured the country to demonstrate his cylinder phonograph, and in April 1878 was invited to the White House to show it to President Hayes. (Ten years later the German-born American inventor Emile Berliner (1851-1929) developed the disc as a means of recording, but it was more than twenty years before the record replaced the cylinder. Andxin 1900 the Danish engineer Valdemar Poulson (1869-1942) was the first to show that sound could be recorded magnetically onto a moving tape - the forerunner of the tape recorder.)

xxxxxIt was in 1878 that Edison and his team turned their attention to the improvement of the light bulb. A number of scientists in the past, including the English scientists Humphry Davy and James Prescott Joule, had tried to produce a modified electrical light system which could be of practical use in the home, but none had found a workable solution. The need was to produce a filament which, when charged, would give sufficient light by its glow but would not burn out quickly in the process. Creating a vacuum within the bulb - in itself a difficult task - was vital to prevent the filament from burning up, but just as important was the make-up of the filament itself.

xxxxxNearly two years were spent on finding the best material to meet the need, during which time thousands of different substances were put on trial, including plant fibres, horse hair, straw, flax, boxwood, hickory and cedar wood. “I ransacked the world,” he later recalled, “to find the most suitable filament material.” Towards the end of 1879 he found it. By using a filament made of carbonised cotton thread he provided a source of light which lasted for up to 45 hours. He gave a public demonstration of his invention in December by lighting up his Menlo Park complex. Some 3,000 people attended, and a New York newspaper called it “the Great Inventor’s Triumph”.


xxxxxBut for the “Wizard of Menlo Park”, as he had come to be known, this was a triumph in part only, even though he had increased the life of the bulb to 1500 hours by the end of 1880. For some years oil and natural gas had been the source of light and, despite the fire risk both of these posed, a fairly efficient supply system was well in place in the major cities. Edison had now to provide the infrastructure required to provide a ready and dependable supply of electricity to the office, factory and home. This was no mean task, but he had given much thought to the creation of an electrical industry during his research for a workable bulb. Thus by September 1882 he had installed the country’s first central electric power station on Pearl Street, New York, with steam driven generators (dynamos) capable of providing sufficient power for over 7,000 lamps within an area of one square mile. Distribution followed with the laying of cables and the installation of switches and meters. The age of electricity was under way. By the late 1880s the Edison Light Company had been formed, and small power stations were in operation in many cities across the United States. By 1901 the country had 3,500 different generating systems at work, and the various undertakings had been merged into the General Electric Company, one of the largest industrial enterprises in the United States. By this time, however, - as we shall see - Edison’s power supply, based on DC (direct current) was being replaced by AC (alternating current), a power source developed by the Croatian-born American Nikola Tesla, an electrical engineer employed by the American entrepreneur George Westinghouse. Nonetheless, the spread of the electricity industry across the world, brought Edison to new and dizzy heights of fame and fortune.


xxxxxAs we have seen, among Edison’s other inventions was the carbon microphone, acquired by the Bell Company in 1879. This greatly improved the quality of Graham Bell’s telephone, increasing its volume and giving it a much wider range. Over the years he also invented an alkaline storage battery, an electric pen, and an electric vote recorder, an idea which aroused little interest at the time. And there were more inventions to come. In 1887 Edison moved to West Orange, New Jersey, and built an even larger laboratory for experimentation and research purposes. And it was here, as we shall see (1891 Vc), that together with the likes of the Lumière Brothers and others, he became one of the foremost pioneers in the development of silent and talking movies.

xxxxxIncidentally, among the famous who recorded their voices on the Edison phonograph was the English composer Arthur Sullivan. After congratulating Edison on his invention, he said he was terrified at the thought that so much “hideous” music could be placed on record forever! ……

xxxxx…… In the 1920s the American industrialist Henry Ford, a great admirer of Edison, reconstructed the Menlo Park complex of laboratories - the first “invention factory” - at his museum at Dearborn, Michigan. ……

xxxxx…… The steam generating power station built at Pearl Street, in Lower Manhattan, New York, in 1882 was not the first of its kind. In January of that year Edison had supervised the installation of such a plant at Holborn Viaduct in London. However, a limited amount of electric street arc-lighting had been introduced into London in 1878 and into New York two years later, powered by battery or small generators. ……

xxxxx…… Edison’s phonograph was substantially improved in the mid-1880s with the introduction of Bell’s wax recording cylinder. Patented under the term “graphophone”, this proved a highly successful improvement on the original metal cylinder covered in tinfoil. ……

xxxxx…… It was Edison who coined the phrase that genius was “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.  

xxxxxThe English inventor Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) showed an interest in electric lighting from his late teens. His first attempt at producing an electric lamp, using a filament made of carbon fibre, proved unsuccessful. The filament burned out quickly because he was unable to create a complete vacuum within the glass container. However, with the use of the vacuum pump, invented in the mid-1860s, and the development of an improved filament made out of cotton thread treated with sulphuric acid, he succeeded in making a practical light bulb by 1880. He demonstrated its use at his home in Low Fell, Gateshead, and began manufacture two years later. His patent was then challenged by Edison, but when this was dismissed, they formed a joint company - the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company (“Ediswan”) - in 1883. Swan also made important contributions to the development of photography. He invented a dry photographic process in 1871, and introduced bromide paper eight years later.


Joseph Wilson Swan and

George Westinghouse


xxxxxThe American inventor Thomas Alva Edison became a telegrapher in 1862, and from then on made a number of far reaching improvements to the telegraphy system, then in its infancy. In the early 1870s, as we have seen, he invented the carbon microphone - used by Graham Bell in his telephone – and he also produced a more dependable “stock market ticker” (to record the fluctuations in share prices). This proved his first financial success, and with the proceeds he set up the world’s first research laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was here in 1877, aided by a team of skilled technicians, that he invented the phonograph, a revolutionary device which, by passing a needle over a cylinder coated with tinfoil, recorded and reproduced the sound of the human voice and music. Initially used in business, its value in home entertainment was soon realised and made Edison famous and wealthy. In 1879 there followed his practical electric light bulb, made possible by using a filament of carbonised cotton thread. This gave light for up to 45 hours, and this period was increased to 1500 hours by the end of 1880. Two years later he installed an electric power station in Pearl Street, New York, and began to lay the cables and install the switches and meters to meet the demand for this new source of power. It was the beginning of a huge electric industry. Nor were his days of inventing over. In 1887 he moved to West Orange, New Jersey, and it was here, as we shall see (1891 Vc), that along with the likes of the Lumière Brothers, he was to become a major pioneer in the development of silent and talking movies.

xxxxxEdison’s bid to develop America’s network based on DC (direct current) was challenged in the 1880s by the American inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse (1846-1914). Using a new and more powerful transformer, he introduced an AC network (alternating current). Thus began the so-called “War of the Currents”. Edison claimed that AC was highly dangerous and attempted to restrict the transmission of electricity to 800 volts, but alternating current proved more efficient and had a much greater range of operation. When, in 1893, Westinghouse won the contract to harness Niagara Falls for the generation of electricity, the success of this scheme won the approval of alternating current. During his career Westinghouse applied for more than 400 patents, many concerning the improvement of the railroads and gas industry. He is remembered above all for his railroad air-braking system and his advances in railroad signalling and switching. In his later years he increased the capacity of existing steam turbines and adapted them for use at sea.

xxxxxBut in his bid to develop America’s electricity network based on DC (direct current), begun as we have seen with the setting up of a power station in New York in 1881, Edison came up against a formidable opponent, the American inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse (1846-1914). In 1889, using a new and more powerful transformer, he began experimenting with an AC network (alternating current) and, following a pilot scheme in Pittsburgh, formed the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.

xxxxxSoxbegan the “War of the Currents”, with Edison claiming that alternating current was highly dangerous, and Westinghouse arguing that the advantages far outstripped the risks. Edison attempted to obtain a legal restriction of 800 volts on transmitted power but he failed. The major disadvantage of DC was that it was only effective within a two mile radius of the generating station, and this proved the decisive point. AC was more efficient and had a vastly extended range. As a result, in 1892 General Electric took over Edison’s company and began the production of AC equipment. Then in 1893 Westinghouse won the contract to harness Niagara Falls for the generation of electricity. The success of this scheme, in operation three years later, proved the turning point in the acceptance of alternating current. Westinghouse had won the day. (See diagram below).

xxxxxDuring his career Westinghouse applied for more than 400 patents. Apart from the electricity industry, these concerned the development of the railroads and the improvement of the gas industry. He is best remembered today for his railroad braking system using compressed air - made automatic in 1872 - and his improvement in railroad signalling and switching. In his later years he turned his attention to electrical power production, increasing the efficiency and capacity of existing steam turbines and adapting them for use in large sea-going vessels.

xxxxxIncidentally, as part of his campaign during the “War of the Currents”, Edison had animals publicly electrocuted to demonstrate the strength and inherent danger of alternating current. And when this system was used to power the electric chair - introduced for capital punishment in 1890 and not successful in the first instance - he dubbed this form of execution “Westinghousing”. ……

xxxxx…… Nikola Tesla worked hard for Edison over several years, but he left in 1885 when Edison broke his word over the promise of a substantial payment. Tesla was told that he would be paid $50,000 dollars if he successfully made improvements to the DC generating plants, but, having done so, Edison said that it had been an “American joke” and refused even to increase his salary. Tesla resigned and for a time earned a living digging ditches. In 1888, however, he began working for Westinghouse, providing him with the means by which he could develop a network based on alternating current. Edison later confessed that he had treated Tesla unfairly.