'U.S. Historical Figures: Thomas Edison'


3 minutes

Thomas Edison is considered one of history's greatest inventors. He is credited with developing the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, among others.

Edison was born on February 11, 1847, the youngest of seven siblings. Early in his life, Edison sold newspapers and candy. Later he worked as a telegraph operator. He began his career as an inventor by creating improved versions of telegraph machines. Fame came to Edison when he debuted his phonograph, an early record player, in 1877. The device that was able to record and play back sound, which to people in his time, seemed almost magical. They began calling Edison the "The Wizard of Menlo Park".

Edison soon built an industrial research lab with money made from the success of one of his telegraphs, the quadruplex, which allowed up to 4 telegraph transmissions at a time. Edison was most inventive during the years he worked at this lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. He hired talented machinists, carpenters, and assistants to research and develop new technologies. In November of 1879, Edison's lab completed work on their famous work: the incandescent light bulb.

Contrary to popular belief, Edison did not invent the first electric light bulb. He made improvements to the design of an existing bulb and made it easier to produce on a large scale. At this time, Edison was also at work developing a system by which he could deliver electricity to customers to power all of the light bulbs he hoped to sell. Edison founded his Electric Light Company in 1878 in New York City. The company is now called General Electric (GE), the 6th largest business in the United States. They specialize in providing light, power and technology to customers.

Though his importance to history is not in question, there is some controversy surrounding Thomas Edison's life. He is often criticized for having profited off of the inventions of others and claiming them to be his own. Some say Thomas Edison's greatest talent was his penchant for business and self-promotion. Perhaps the greatest controversy was his feud with an inventor named George Westinghouse. Westinghouse created a method to deliver electricity to customers using something called Alternating Current (AC). Edison however was committed to selling his method of electricity delivery: Direct Current (DC). Most experts agree that Westinghouse's AC was the better product as it could carry electricity several hundreds of miles at a time without losing power, while Edison's DC could only carry electricity 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the generating station before it weakened. Knowing that he could not compete with the quality of AC, Edison tried to portray it as making electricity dangerous. Edison and his employees staged public executions of animals by electricity by way of AC. Edison's employees traveled the country killing stray animals with AC, including an elephant named Topsy in Coney Island in 1903.

Despite Edison's best efforts to defeat Alternating Current, the superiority of that system won out. In fact, while Edison was making it a mission to defeat AC, his own company General Electric began heavily investing in AC infrastructure back in 1892. Like any great inventor, Edison had his failures, but the impact that his successes have had on our society vastly outweigh anything you may consider a shortcoming for Edison.

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Ani Kington

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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