Thomas Alva Edison after Forty: The Challenge of Success

By Finn, Bernard D. | USA TODAY, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Thomas Alva Edison after Forty: The Challenge of Success


Finn, Bernard D., USA TODAY


The great inventor had failed to foresee the effect of changes in the world around him. Thus, his work in the second half of his life never attained the level he reached in earlier years.

In 1887, at the age of 40, with a new wife, new home, and new winter retreat. Thomas Alva Edison took occupancy in a new and grandiose laboratory. In it, he hoped to recapture, and greatly expand upon, the inventiveness of the much smaller facility he had used earlier.

The goals proved to be elusive for several reasons. Some were personal, such as the demands of fame and family that inevitably drew him away from his work. Some had to do with scale, since increasing the number of assistants and amount of laboratory space by a factor of 10 did not mean automatically that 10 times as much would come out. Others were related to the fact that, in helping to create a new technology, he also had created a world in which he was partly a stranger, one in which he could not cope in the same way he had during the years before 40. His situation was not unusual and was shared by several contemporaries. With variations, it is shared by all of us.

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. He had little formal education, but was a voracious reader with good mechanical skills. At age 16, he learned how to use a telegraph key - sending and receiving with Morse code - and was hired as an operator at a succession of stations, mostly in the Midwest. He used the wires and batteries and other equipment at these locations for experiments, supplementing what he had discovered within chemical and electrical books. Edison eventually ended up in Boston and, deciding that he was tired of being a telegrapher, announced his profession to be that of an inventor. He soon moved to New York City, where he proceeded to make a series of significant improvements in the construction of printing telegraph instruments.

Reliable printers were of special value for sending stock market quotations over telegraph wires, and Edison's inventions were important enough to bring him substantial profits. By 1876, he had accumulated sufficient money to establish a laboratory of his own about 20 miles from New York, at Menlo Park, N.J. He assembled a dozen men, some with special scientific or technical skills, together with a range of materials and equipment, creating a resource unique for his day. Edison said, "I think . . . there is where I can beat other inventors, as I have so many facilities here for trying experiments." In his own person, he brought to the enterprise an inventive genius, dogged determination, and a special ability to get along with other men - working and relaxing with them, and thus inspiring them.

Over the course of the next four years, he earned the title "wizard" and a worldwide reputation for his success in inventing numerous patentable devices, including the phonograph, a carbon-resistance telephone transmitter, a much-improved dynamo, and a practical incandescent lamp. Edison's style was to immerse himself in a subject area, reading about the work of others, and then pursue ideas in an exhaustive fashion. He and his crew often labored late into the evening, breaking at midnight for supper and a round of jokes and stories.

Edison married and had three children. Yet, even though his home was only a short distance from the laboratory, he spent little time with his family, preferring the excitement of the chase after novel inventions.

Unfulfilled promise

In 1880, Edison moved back to New York to oversee the installation of his lighting system and to create the elements of a major manufacturing concern (which would become, by merger with the Thomson Houston Co. in 1892, General Electric). Six years later, he was anxious to get back to the laboratory. At a new site, in West Orange, N.J., he constructed a facility that was ready for partial occupancy in the fall of 1887, the year of his 40th birthday. …

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