Thomas Edison

Edison, Thomas Alva

Thomas Alva Edison, 1847–1931, American inventor, b. Milan, Ohio. A genius in the practical application of scientific principles, Edison was one of the greatest and most productive inventors of his time, but his formal schooling was limited to three months in Port Huron, Mich., in 1854. For several years he was a newsboy on the Grand Trunk RR, and it was during this period that he began to suffer from deafness, which was to increase throughout his life. He later worked as a telegraph operator in various cities.

Edison's first inventions were the transmitter and receiver for the automatic telegraph, the quadruplex system of transmitting four simultaneous messages, and an improved stock-ticker system. In 1877 he invented the carbon telephone transmitter (see microphone) for the Western Union Telegraph Company. His phonograph (patented 1878) was notable as the first successful instrument of its kind.

In 1879, Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent lamp (with a carbon filament). For use with it he developed a complete electrical distribution system for light and power, including generators, motors, light sockets with the Edison base, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conductors, and other devices. The crowning achievement of his work in this field was the Pearl St. plant (1881–82) in New York City, the first permanent central electric-light power plant in the world. He also built and operated (1880) an experimental electric railroad, and produced a superior storage battery of iron and nickel with an alkaline electrolyte.

Other significant inventions include the Kinetoscope, or peep-show machine. Edison later demonstrated experimentally the synchronization of motion pictures and sound, and talking pictures were based on this work. During World War I he helped to develop the manufacture in the United States of chemicals previously imported; he also served as head of the U.S. navy consulting board concerned with ship defenses against torpedoes and mines. Edison later worked on the production of rubber from American plants, notably goldenrod.

Edison held over 1,300 U.S. and foreign patents, and his workshops at Menlo Park (1876) and West Orange, N.J. (1887), were significant as forerunners of the modern industrial research laboratory in which teams of workers, rather than a lone inventor, systematically investigate a given subject. An Edison memorial tower and light was erected (1938) in Menlo Park, N.J.; Edison's laboratory and other buildings associated with his career are preserved or replicated in Greenfield Village. Some of his various companies were consolidated to form the General Electric Company (GE).

See the autobiographical Diary and Sundry Observations (ed. by D. D. Runes, 1948, repr. 1968); his papers, ed. by R. V. Jenkins, P. B. Israel, L. Carlat, et al. (7 vol., 1989–); biography by R. Silverberg (1967); W. Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (1981); R. Friedel and P. Israel, Edison's Electric Light: The Art of Invention (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Thomas Edison: Selected full-text books and articles

Thomas Alva Edison: Inventing the Electric Age By Gene Adair Oxford University Press, 1996
A Model Technology Educator: Thomas A. Edison: Recognizing Edison's Incorporation of Team-Based, Cooperative Learning into His Development Process Is Essential to Appreciating His Success and His Influence Today By Pretzer, William S.; Rogers, George E.; Bush, Jeffery The Technology Teacher, Vol. 67, No. 1, September 2007
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
FREE! Edison: His Life and Inventions By Frank Lewis Dyer; Thomas Commerford Martin Harper and Brothers, vol.1, 1910
FREE! Edison: His Life and Inventions By Frank Lewis Dyer; Thomas Commerford Martin Harper and Brothers, vol.2, 1910
From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity By Richard Munson Praeger, 2005
Librarian's tip: Edison is discussed in Chapter 2 "Early Competition"
In the Mind's Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images, and the Ironies of Creativity By Thomas G. West Prometheus Books, 1997
Librarian's tip: "Analogies and Perpetual Motion: Thomas Alva Edison" begins on p. 137
Magic Shadows: The Story of the Origin of Motion Pictures By Martin Quigley Jr Georgetown University Press, 1948
Librarian's tip: Chap. XV "Edison's Peep-Show"
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.