No Doubting Thomas

Thomas Edison is one of the Garden State’s adopted sons and on the 75th anniversary of his death, there is still plenty of light to shine on his life.

A brilliant young inventor has an idea for a gizmo that he’s sure will revolutionize the world. He needs $150,000 but doesn’t have a backer. So he contacts J. P. Morgan. Not the company, the man.

Back before the term venture capitalist was coined, in a time when $150,000 was real money, Thomas Edison was tired of running a factory in Newark that built his patented stock tickers, and frustrated about being told that his grand idea of bringing electric light to the masses was a pipe dream.

Edison’s notion was scoffed at by scientists around the world. But clearly the 29-year-old had the resolve to succeed. He’d already made his way from Ohio to Michigan to Boston and eventually to New York, determined to prove wrong the teacher who’d labeled him “addled” at the age of seven, thereby ending the future inventor’s formal education. And he already had a reputation as a big thinker, with a number of creations and refinements of gadgets that had modernized life in the mid-nineteenth century.

Edison had no prototype of his light, merely the belief that it would work. Morgan,
persuaded, agreed to create the Edison Electric Light Company, in exchange for a half interest in any resulting patents. Today, that company is known as General Electric.

As the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of Edison’s death, it’s easy to tick off what we learned about him as schoolchildren: his 1,093 patents; the West Orange compound where he worked, a recently restored national historic site; his development of the motion-picture camera. But this heroic adopted son of New Jersey should perhaps be most highly regarded for what he did in 1876, in Menlo Park, when he proved that research and development could change the world.

Young Edison never got tired of asking questions. But his teacher in the one-room schoolhouse in Port Huron, Michigan, got tired of answering them. So, three months into his first year of school, Edison was sent home. His unyielding curiosity and energy were embraced by his New York–born mother, Nancy, who home-schooled him in everything from the Bible to science, Shakespeare to world history. “My mother was the making of me,” Edison said of her tutelage. But he had little use for what he perceived as the affectations of academics who tried to explain the physical world. He began selling newspapers on Michigan trains—and conducting chemistry experiments in the baggage car. When one experiment accidentally started a small fire, the conductor whacked Edison in the head. Eventually he’d lose all hearing in his left ear and most of it in his right. “I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old,” said the man who would ultimately invent the phonograph.

The Civil War created a demand for telegraph operators and Edison joined their ranks in his early teens, roaming the Midwest from one job to another. He taught himself the workings of the telegraph and the principles of electricity, and soon added his own improvements to the machine and began to dream of being an inventor.

When the Civil War ended, Edison took a job with Western Union in Boston. Between shifts, he’d work on his own creations and take in lectures at Boston Tech, a fledgling university that would eventually become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Edison spent a year and a half in Boston before heading to New York City. He worked at Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, where he improved on the stock ticker that company owner Edward Calahan had created in 1867. Edison’s model became his first commercial invention, the Universal Stock Printer; in 1870 he sold the patent to Western Union for $40,000. Western Union subsequently contracted with Edison to manufacture the ticker, and in 1871 he set up a factory on Ward Street in Newark to produce the machines.

It was at the Newark factory that he met Mary Stilwell, a sixteen-year-old assembly-line worker. They were married on Christmas Day, 1871, and lived in Newark. Over the next seven years, they would have three children: a daughter, Marion, and two sons, Thomas Jr. and William Leslie.

During those years in Newark, Edison assembled a group of skilled assistants whom
he playfully called “muckers.” They, in turn, humorously referred to him as “the old man.” Only in his mid-twenties, this cigar-smoking, tobacco-chewing buckeye with a mop of chestnut-colored hair and bright eyes, was driven. Edison was easily consumed by his projects, stopping only to eat or nap in a chair or at a worktable. John Ott labored at Edison’s side for more than 50 years. “He made me feel that I was making something with him,” Ott said. “And we all hoped to get rich with him.” Many of them did, since Edison rewarded valued and loyal assistants with interests in his inventions.

Edison’s Newark factory was a success, but he wanted to create a center for invention. So in 1876 he sold the factory and bought a house and land in rural Menlo Park. Taking two dozen trusted assistants with him, he built a two-story white-clapboard building 100 feet long by 30 feet wide. The mandate for this “invention factory” was simple: to create. For once he’d leave the manufacturing to someone else. The lab had every resource imaginable, from chemicals to a machine shop, and Edison boldly declared that he and his crew would turn out “a minor invention every ten days and a big one every six months or so.” Edison ignored the doubters and was awarded roughly 40 patents annually.

“I readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off,” Edison once said. One of his first projects at Menlo Park was to design a telephone for Western Union that would compete with Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention. Edison’s design separated a receiver held to the ear from a mouthpiece that amplified a person’s voice over long distances. His patents revolutionized the telephone, but management at Western Union believed it had little use. Foolishly, they sold the patent rights to Edison’s improvements to Bell’s investors. Edison’s telephone inspired what he would later call his greatest accomplishment, the phonograph. In the fall of 1877, Edison and his chief machinist, John Kruesi, constructed the first iteration of the machine. The first recording? Edison’s rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The world was stunned, and the “Wizard of Menlo Park” was heralded around the world. At the time, however, Edison wasn’t convinced that it would be a commercial hit, so he put all his energies into the light project.

Many scientists had tried to invent a practical electric light before Edison, but all had failed. After conducting preliminary experiments, Edison brazenly proclaimed that he was about to render gaslights obsolete. In 1878, gas was noxious and dangerous, but it generated $150 million in annual revenues for U.S. gaslight companies. Edison’s boast—and that $150,000 investment from J. P. Morgan—roiled the financial markets in New York and London. Investors in the gaslight companies sold their shares, and the stocks tanked.

The scientific community persisted in calling Edison’s goal folly, but the inventor never wavered. “They all have been working in the same groove,” he said. The intricate workings of the bulb finalized, Edison set up an infrastructure, creating light bulbs, generators, fuses, sockets, insulated cable, and other machinery necessary for a power distribution system. He spent a year organizing and training 1,500 men and laying 80,000 feet of cable in fourteen miles of trenches in the streets. On September 4, 1882, he threw a switch at the Pearl Street power plant and lit up a mile-square section of lower Manhattan that included Wall Street.

Edison couldn’t invent anything to save his wife, though. In August 1884 Mary died of typhoid fever in Menlo Park. She was 29. Edison was devastated and buried himself in his work. Then, two years later, he married 19-year-old Mina Miller. They also had three children, Madeleine, Charles, and Theodore. Charles Edison eventually served one term as New Jersey governor.

When he was 40, Edison moved the family to Glenmont, a 23-room estate on thirteen acres within the gated community of Llewellyn Park. It was near his West Orange research-and-development center, built in 1887, which at its height employed 3,000 people. Edison finally finished his phonograph, then created a dictation machine before refining the modern phonograph and records. Then he said he intended “to do for the eyes what the phonograph did for the ears.” The motion-picture camera and film studio followed. The studio, built in 1893 for $637.67, was called Black Maria by his staffers because it reminded them of a small, cramped paddywagon, known back then as Black Maria. Cramped it may have been, but the studio was a marvel: built with a retractable roof and mounted on a circular railroad track so that it could use natural light to illuminate the stage. Edison and his crew filmed the first movie, The Great Train Robbery, in the hills of West Orange. Edison demolished the studio in 1901 and turned his attention to developing a long-lasting and rechargeable battery. It was during this process that a young assistant lamented the time “wasted” on more than 10,000 experiments. “Nonsense,” Edison replied. “I now know 10,000 things that won’t work!”

The man Life magazine named “Man of the Millennium” never tired of the chase. When asked if he was a genius, he coined the phrase: “Genius is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration.”

Edison died October 18, 1931, at Glenmont. He was 84. President Herbert Hoover asked all U.S. residents to dim their lights at ten o’clock that night. A minute later, the lights came back on. They’ve been burning brightly ever since.

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