Sample Biography: Thomas Edison

Research PaperHistory
Apr 20, 2022

Thomas Alva Edison is one of the most popular American inventors of the nineteenth century. Throughout his life, he faced numerous struggles including partial loss of his hearing. Furthermore, unlike most investors of his time, Edison received little formal schooling but his passion for invention, ingenuity, and industriousness propelled him to become a pioneer in the electronic and communications field. Thomas Edison’s life was devoted to experiments and inventions. His work is characterized by practicality, as he was always prompted to invent out of necessity. In this famous person’s biography , the author will go through the events that led Edison toward a life of invention, his most notable inventions, touching on his outlook, and finally his legacy. Edison’s life’s work led to the invention and development of numerous technologies that served as the foundation for the technical and social revolution that led to the modern world as we know it. 

Early Life

Edison lived in Port Huron, Michigan where his father, Samuel Edison, worked as the lighthouse keeper and carpenter. Like most children of the time, he attended school sporadically. However, he developed hearing problems at a young age due to the loss of his hearing, which affected his performance at school. The actual cause of this remains unsettled as some speculate that it was due to the family’s tendency for mastoiditis, others say it is the effects of scarlet fever, while some blame it on a train conductor boxing his ears after he caused a fire in a baggage car, while Edison himself claims it was caused by an incident wherein he was grabbed by his ears and lifted onto a train (Bellis, “Loss of Hearing). Although naturally curious, Edison struggled with keeping up with the school’s emphasis on rote instruction because of his partial deafness. When a teacher labeled him “addled” his mother decided to teach him at home instead, where he was able to become a voracious reader (Bellis, n.p.). Edison’s disability did not discourage him from learning, conducting research, and experimenting—a testament to the benefits of homeschooling over traditional schooling.

Edison’s Love For Invention

Edison’s first introduction to electronics and communication happened in 1868 when the father of the 3-year-old he saved from a boxcar taught him railroad telegraphy out of gratitude (Bellis, “Telegraph Operator”). This allowed him to work as a telegraph operator. Initial telegraphs transmitted messages through Morse code. Even as he worked as a telegraph operator, he spent his free time inventing things. His first official invention was prompted by the shift from the use of Morse code to auditory clicks in telegraphy, which was difficult for Edison. He improved the duplex telegraph so that it could now convert electrical signals into letters (Josephson, “Early Years”). His success here encouraged him to resign as a telegraph operator and pursue invention and entrepreneurship (Josephson, “Early Years”). 

To focus on invention, Edison moved to New York and worked as an independent entrepreneur. His first work was an electronic vote recorder, which was not received well by politicians. According to Bellis, this is what prompted Edison’s motto of inventing only things that people or industries wanted (n.p.). He then founded the American Telegraph Works and was hired by Western Union Telegraph Company to work on a quadruplex telegraph that could transmit four messages simultaneously over one wire. However, Edison sold the rights to the quadruplex to Western Union’s rival, Wall Street financier Jay Gould for a higher price (Bellis, n.p.; Josephson, “Early Years”). This became the subject of long litigation between the two companies. 

In 1876, Edison opened a laboratory in Menlo Park. He worked on numerous experiments and projects in this laboratory. He was not the strict or organized type, however, he was known to work long hours in pursuit of answers. He is also known to stop one experiment whenever an unexpected discovery that warranted attention emerged. This type of attitude is what allowed him to make unique breakthroughs, such as the discovery of the phonograph (Josephson, “The Phonograph”). Some of Thomas Edison’s most notable inventions include the aforementioned phonograph and the magnetic iron ore separator, as well as improvements on some existing technologies like a more durable light bulb, the telephone transmitter, industrialized electrical systems, and kinetoscopes (Edison Innovation Foundation, n.p.). These inventions and improvements on existing technologies are demonstrative of Edison’s thrust in inventing new technologies that will improve the lives of humans. With that approach, he was not afraid to try new experiments or build upon others’ work. 

Edison’s Legacy

Although Edison struggled to manage his finances, he was a great and prolific inventor whose work propelled society to evolve technologically. Others, bankers, also took notice of his abilities and did not hesitate to hire him to develop useful devices for their businesses. 

Although it is inaccurate that Edison invented the light bulb, what he did is improve upon the existing light bulb, which was unreliable and expensive. Edison was able to find a way to make the light bulb last longer and cheaper. This development of the incandescent light bulb was also applied to an electric lighting system that made electric light reliable and practical for home use. Thus, Edison’s work on the light bulb is critical to the establishment of industrialized systems, which he also worked on afterward, prompting the start of the electric age.

The long-lasting light bulb has also paved the way for the establishment of the electricity-generating system at Pearl Street. The system was much more efficient than its predecessors in terms of fuel use and distribution of electricity. This invention is the one that propelled Edison to greater heights. He was able to establish the Edison General Electric. However, this company was not completely owned and controlled by Edison himself because he needed the financial support of bankers, particularly J.P. Morgan. The company focused heavily on developing the incandescent lighting industry. The company, however, later on merged with competitor Thompson-Houston and became General Electric.

While many of Edison’s inventions and works proved successful and useful to society, his works were not always successful. His involvement with motion pictures, though he was partially successful in the development of the kinetograph and kinetoscope, was halted as other groups were able to develop better systems for motion pictures. Likewise, Edison chose to stop the development of magnetic iron ore separator even though he saw the potential for concrete as a material for housing, but it was still not economically feasible (Bellis, n.p.). These ideas, though abandoned, still are quite important in the developments in those fields. In the case of the magnetic iron ore separator, he was ahead of his time for envisioning concrete as a low-cost housing material. Edison’s career is characterized by this ability to see what the world needs even when it was not yet wanted or completely possible. 

Edison’s Rivalry With Tesla

One of Thomas Edison’s most cited rivals is another prolific inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla was hired by the Continental Edison Company in Paris and was eventually invited by Edison to migrate to the US to work closely with him. Tesla eventually leaves Edison’s company and set forth to establish his own business, rivaling that of Edison’s. 

The reason for this is their clash regarding the most efficient light technology. Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), which he managed to engineer to deliver electricity to homes and businesses near his central power station (Zakarin, 2021). However, DC is deemed inefficient because electricity carried through DC can travel for a limited distance. This limitation is something the AC can address, but Edison refused to accept this because he had invested in DC, which he developed. Despite Tesla’s efforts to show Edison the potential of the alternating current, Edison remained steadfast in upholding DC. This prompted Tesla to leave Edison’s company and work on his own on AC (Zakarin, 2021). With his brilliance, Tesla was able to find investors of his own, allowing him to pursue work on alternating currents. 

The division between the two inventors marked what was called the War of the Currents (Lantero, 2014). Both inventors were eager to prove that their respective systems were better. Edison insisted that the AC system is more dangerous than DC, and that using it as the primary system for distributing electricity would be dangerous for the general public. Edison had engaged in various tactics to discredit AC to the public, but those were not sufficient to prevent Tesla from proving AC’s benefits (Waxman, 2019). The so-called war was essentially won by Tesla when he, via Westinghouse, won the bid to electrify the Chicago World’s Fair in 1983 (Waxman, 2019). This facilitated Westinghouse being awarded the contract to install the first AC-based hydroelectric power plant (Waxman, 2019). With the installation of this power plant, AC became the prevalent electricity distribution system. However, that does not mean that DC is no longer used. Although DC was, indeed, pushed back in the peripheries in the past, modern technology now uses DC (Lantero, 2014). Computers, LEDs, and electric vehicles are a few examples of technologies that use DC (Lantero, 2014). However, AC remains well-established. Edison and Tesla were not on good terms due to their rivalry based on differences in their beliefs. Both their inventions were useful and contributed to the technological progress of the world. Both Edison and Tesla were brilliant, passionate, and opinionated in their field, which motivated them to work on numerous projects that became of significant importance to the world. 

 Conclusion

Thomas Edison is a crucial individual in world history. His life was not completely easy due to his partial deafness. However, this disability did not prevent him from pursuing his passion for invention, but rather fueled his creativity in finding solutions to problems of his time. Indeed, his life written out would be a well-read motivational book for students . Much of the modern world—the foundations in which the modern world is built—is possible due to Edison’s works. He was indeed one of the most prolific inventors of his time. His undying fervor that started his career and business, as demonstrated in this biography essay, continued until his old age, leaving a legacy that not just his family enjoys but the entire world.


References

Bellis, M. (2019, December 4). Biography of Thomas Edison, American inventor. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/thomas-edison-1779841 

Conot, R. E. (2022). Thomas Edison: American inventor. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Edison 

Lantero, A. (2014, November 18). The war of the currents: AC vs. DC power. Department of Energy. https://www.energy.gov/articles/war-currents-ac-vs-dc-power

Venable, J. D. (n.d.) A brief biography of Thomas Alva Edison. Edison Innovation Foundation. https://www.thomasedison.org/brief-biography 

Waxman, O. B. (2019, October 25). The real history behind The Current War. Time. https://time.com/5698700/current-war-real-history/

Zakarin, J. (2021, May 13). Why Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla clashed during the Battle of the Currents. Biography. https://www.biography.com/news/thomas-edison-nikola-tesla-feud# 

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