Thomas Alva Edison


Thomas Alva Edison    1847 - 1931

   U.S. Inventor

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)
Thomas Alva Edison is known as the Wizard of Menlo Park and is one of the greatest inventors in the world. He holds 1,093 patents for his inventions. This is the largest number of patents held by any one person.

Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, near Lake Erie. His parents, Sam and Nancy, named him Thomas after an uncle and Alva after a friend. When Alva was seven years old (in 1854), Alva's family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, near Lake Huron.

Alva's Curiosity
As a boy, Alva was very curious. He tried to figure out how things worked. When he did not know how things worked, he asked questions.

As the story goes, when Alva was six years old, he saw a goose sitting on some eggs until they hatched. Being the curious youngster, Alva sat on other goose eggs to see if they would hatch. Unfortunately for Alva, the eggs did not hatch. This story may be more fiction than fact. In any event, it's a great story.

Alva wanted to know where grain came from so he climbed to the top of a grain elevator. He fell into a pile of grain and started to sink. Luckily, his father pulled him out before Alva suffocated. (Don't try this at home.)

At age nine, Alva received a science book with experiments from his mother. He loved to experiment. The next year, Alva set up his first laboratory in his bedroom. In an experiment to generate static electricity, he attached wires to the tails of two cats and quickly rubbed their fur. This experiment did not work. (Don't try this at home.)

Alva then set up a laboratory in the basement. He labeled his chemical bottles "POISON" to keep other people from using them even though the chemicals were not poisonous.

In an experiment to make a human balloon, Alva had a boy swallow Seidlitz powders which give off gas when mixed with water. Alva hoped the powder would mix in the boy's stomach and create a gas, and this gas would cause the boy to float. This experiment did not work. (Again, don't try this at home.)

When Alva was 11 years old, he built a telegraph with his friend, Jim Clancy. The telegraph connected their houses. Alva and Jim communicated with each other by using Morse Code. Morse Code was developed by Samuel Morse around 1838, and is named after him. It is a series of dots and dashes that represent letters and numbers so people can communicate with each other while using the telegraph.

Alva's curiosity continued throughout his life and led to a lifetime of experimenting and inventing.

Alva's Schooling
During Alva's time, children attended a one-room school house. They learned their lessons by memorizing and repeating facts.

At age eight, Alva was bored with this way of learning. He wanted to understand more about what he was learning so he asked a lot of questions. The teacher thought Alva asked too many questions and said he was "addled." Addled means a person who is slow and confused.

Alva's mother disagreed with the teacher. Alva was a smart child. Mrs. Edison was a former school teacher so she took Alva out of school and taught him at home. Alva only had three months of formal education. At home, Alva read William Shakespeare's works and the famous science book by Sir Isaac Newton called Principia Mathematica.

Grand Trunk Railroad
When Alva was 12 years old, he got a job as a "candy butcher" on the Grand Trunk Railroad from Port Huron to Detroit. As a candy butcher, Alva sold newspapers, books, fruit, and candy to the passengers on the train during the four hour trip.

The train stayed in Detroit from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. before it returned to Port Huron. This gave Alva time to experiment and read. He set up a laboratory in the baggage car of the train and conducted experiments. Did you know this was the first traveling laboratory?

Alva also visited the Detroit Public Library. Legend has it, Alva read every book in the library. Alva said, "I didn't read a few books. I read the library."

When the train pulled into a train station, Alva got off the train to sell his goods to the people waiting on the platform. One day, Alva was late getting back on the train. The train pulled away, and Alva chased after it. The train conductor grabbed Alva's ear and pulled him onto the train. Alva was safe, but he heard something snap in his ear. Alva began to lose his hearing. Although he began to lose his hearing after this train incident, it is more likely his loss of hearing was caused by the scarlet fever he had earlier.

At age 15, Alva bought a printing press and started his own newspaper called The Weekly Herald. He printed it from the baggage car on the train. Did you know this was the first paper edited, published, and printed on a train? The paper told stories about the passengers and the people who lived along the train's route. Alva sold over 400 copies of his newspaper per week.

Telegraph Operator
In the summer of 1862, Alva saw a train rolling towards a boy playing on the tracks at the Mount Clemens Train Station. Alva acted quickly, grabbed the boy, and they dove to safety. The boy's father was James Mackenzie, the stationmaster at Mount Clemens. Mr. Mackenzie was so grateful to Alva for saving his child that he taught Alva how to be a railroad telegraph operator.

The next year, at age 16, Alva got his first job as a telegraph operator in Port Huron. Alva then moved around the United States and Canada working as a telegraph operator. By age 20, he was considered one of the fastest telegraphers.

Alva continued to invent while he was a telegraph operator. At one job in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, Alva had to send a dispatch every half hour. Alva hooked up a clock to the telegraph. Every half hour the alarm on the clock sounded, and a message was sent automatically.

Alva also invented a machine to help him record messages which were sent in very fast. The machine automatically relayed the incoming fast message to a second line. The second line ticked off the message at a slower rate. Alva could then record the entire message more slowly. This machine gave Alva the idea for the phonograph, which he later invented.

Inventing was very important to Alva. He decided to leave his job as a telegrapher and devote his life to inventing. He began to write down his ideas in notebooks, took more care with his methods, and recorded the results of his experiments.

Electrical Vote Recorder
In 1868, Alva received his first patent for the Electrical Vote Recorder. A patent is a legal protection the government gives an inventor to protect the use of his or her invention. It gives an inventor the exclusive right over the invention, usually for a period of time. A patent excludes other people from producing or making use of the invention without the inventor's permission.

The Electrical Vote Recorder machine allowed votes to be recorded automatically which sped up the voting process and prevented errors in counting the votes. Alva showed his invention to the United States Congress, but the Congress did not use it. After that, Alva decided to only invent things that people wanted to use.

In 1892, 24 years later, the first voting machine was used by the New York State Legislature.

Edison Universal Stock Ticker
At age 22, Alva moved to New York City. Alva was visiting a friend at The Gold Indicator Company when the company's stock ticker broke. The stock ticker was very important because it transmitted the changing price of gold. Luckily, Alva was there and fixed the stock ticker. The company was very impressed with Alva, and they hired him to run the company's machinery.

In 1869, Alva invented an improved stock ticker called the Edison Universal Stock Ticker. It was better, faster, and printed the information more clearly.

Later that year, Alva wanted to sell the Edison Universal Stock Ticker and use the money to set up a laboratory in Newark, New Jersey. Alva hoped to receive $5,000 for his invention, but would settle for $3,000. Instead, the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company offered Alva $40,000. This was 8 times the price Alva had hoped to get! The following is how Alva described the conversation he had with General Lefferts, the President of the Gold and Stock Telegraph company:

"I had made up my mind that I should be entitled to $5,000 but could get along with $3,000. When the psychological moment arrived, I hadn't the nerve to name such a large sum so I said: 'Well, General, suppose you make me an offer.' Then he said: 'How would $40,000 strike you?' This caused me to come as near fainting as I ever got. I managed to say that I thought it was fair."

Alva established a shop to manufacture the stock tickers. It was Alva's first commercial invention. The leading stock exchanges in the nation used Alva's stock ticker to receive stock and commodity quotations for the next 80 years.

Other Inventions
If Alva already knew how things worked, he found ways to make them work better.

The typewriter was invented in the mid-1800s by Christopher Sholes. However, the letters on the first typewriters were not straight. Alva improved this. In 1872, Alva patented an improved electric typewriter which had straighter lines.

The telegraph was invented around 1832, by Samuel Morse. The first telegraphs received one message at a time over the same line. Alva improved this too. In 1874, he invented the quadruplex telegraph which could send four messages over one telegraph wire at the same time.

Invention Factory
In April, 1876, Alva built a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. This factory was a unique factory -- it was the first factory in the world built to produce only inventions. Did you know this factory was also one of Alva's inventions?

The factory was called the Invention Factory. Alva produced so many important inventions at this laboratory that he was given the nickname "The Wizard of Menlo Park."

Alva worked very hard and often worked through the night. Sometimes he would take short naps at his laboratory on his desk or workbench. One time, Alva used a chemistry dictionary as a pillow.

The Phonograph
In 1877, Alva experimented with a talking machine. He turned a crank on the talking machine and recited:

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

These words were successfully played back. The nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, were the first words ever recorded. The Talking Machine was known as the Phonograph and today is called the Record Player.

The phonograph changed the way the world listened to music. For the first time, people could listen to any type of music at any time and in any place.

Alva continued to experiment with the phonograph. One day, he placed a small phonograph inside a doll. A crank attached to the doll was turned, and the doll played nursery rhymes. It was the first talking doll.

The Light Bulb
Alva wanted to find a better and less expensive way to produce light. At this time, people used oil or gas lamps for lighting. These lamps were expensive and posed a risk of starting a fire.

In 1877, Alva "invented" the light bulb. However, he needed to find a material to place inside the glass bulb to make the light glow. Alva spent two years experimenting with different types of material including, his own hair, coconut hair, horsehair, straw, fishing line, and wood. Finally, after more than 1,000 trials, Alva used carbonized thread.

On October 19, 1879, at 9:30 p.m., Alva lit the first light bulb. It burned for 40 hours. Alva had invented the light bulb.

A New York newspaper reported:


Alva led America into the age of electricity and changed the world forever. The light bulb was a better and safer way to light up a dark room or street. For the first time, people had more hours in the day to work and play.

In 1882, New York City was the first city to be lit up by electric power.

The Movie Projector
In 1887, Alva moved to West Orange, New Jersery. Alva laid the groundwork for the booming movie industry and invented several machines which led to the invention of the movie projector.

In 1893, Alva built the first movie studio in West Orange. It was a long, thin building covered with black tar paper. It was called the Kinetographic Theater. It was nicknamed "Black Maria" because it looked like police wagons which were called Black Maria.

In 1903, Alva produced the first motion picture called The Great Train Robbery. This was a silent movie. Later, Alva connected the movie projector to the phonograph and produced movies with sound.

Alva's Determination to Succeed
If an experiment did not work, Alva did not see it as a failure. Instead, he saw it as a learning experience -- he learned one way it did not work. One time, a colleague told Alva that several thousand experiments had been failures. Alva said, "Failures? Not at all. We've learned several thousand things that won't work."

Remembering Alva
Thomas Alva Edison died on October 18, 1931, at his home in West Orange, New Jersey. He was 84 years old. On October 21, the night of Alva's funeral, people turned off their lights for one minute to honor the Wizard who lit up the world.

Today, Alva's birthplace in Milan, Ohio, is a museum called the Edison Birthplace Museum. His laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, is a national monument. Did you know Alva also had a winter home in Fort Myers, Florida? Today, this home is part of the Edison Ford Winter Estates.

In 1929 and 1979, there were celebrations marking the 50th and 100th anniversaries for the light bulb. Perhaps in the year 2,029 there will be another celebration for the 150th anniversary! So mark your calendars.

Thomas Alva Edison has been called the most useful man in America, and his inventions changed our lives forever. He turned darkness into light (light bulb), gave a machine a voice (phonograph), and allowed pictures to move (movie projector).

Alva Timeline

Alva Books

Click Here To Learn More

©  2009 D. K. Malowney