31.07.2018 | Who invented it - Thomas Alva Edison and the light bulb

The Mastermind

He invented over 2000 things - and had over 1000 of these patented: For example, the light bulb and the phonograph. The American Thomas Alva Edison was one of the most ingenious inventors - a mastermind so to speak. He was also a good marketer and a clever manager, who was able to make money from his inventions.

Thomas Alva Edison holds an important place in the history books as a jack-of-all-trades among inventors - and as a clever businessman with a huge company empire. He said about himself: "Ingenuity is one per cent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Or: "I am more of a sponge than an inventor. I absorb ideas from every source. My principal business is giving commercial value to the brilliant but misdirected ideas of others."

Two statements that accurately describe Edison and his work.

Edison was born on 11 February 1847 in Milan, a town in Ohio/USA. He has six siblings. He attends school briefly and is then taught by his mother who is a teacher. At the age of 12 he gets his first job selling sweets and newspapers in the train that runs between Port Huron, Michigan and Detroit. His hearing problems begin during childhood and he remains hard-of-hearing throughout his life.

The inventor marries twice. His first wife Mary Stilwell dies young. He then marries Mina Miller, with whom he remains up until his death. He has three children from each marriage. His son Charles Edison is a public figure, serves as the governor of New Jersey, and is the US Secretary of the Navy.

Glenmont: Edison's home in New Jersey
The carbon filament light bulb

As of the mid-19th century, various researchers are working in the area of light bulbs. Electric arc light has already been discovered. Here two carbon rods under voltage produce an electrical discharge. This light source replaces outdoor gas lamps for example in Berlin. However, it is too bright and inefficient for households.

In developing the light bulb, Edison is faced with two problems. A complete vacuum must be created in the bulb, and he must determine the service life of the filament material. He solves the vacuum problem with the help of his colleague Francis Upton by means of a mercury pump. After 2000 experiments they find out that a burning time of nearly 40 hours can be achieved using carbonised cotton fibre. On New Year's Eve in 1879, Edison presents and celebrates his pioneer invention, the light bulb.

He drives the industrial break-through of the light bulb on his own: Edison invests in the construction of power plants, the establishment of a power grid, the development of switches and cables, and is hence significantly involved in bringing electric light to New York.

Who really invented it?

Historically speaking it is not 100 % clear whether Edison was really the first inventor of the light bulb. His patents were contested in various legal proceedings. One opponent is the German watchmaker Heinrich Goebel, who wins his case in a lengthy legal process. Goebel had already experimented with carbon filament light bulbs 30 years prior to Edison, and was hence the true inventor of the device. Recent studies come to the conclusion that Goebel could not have been in a position to do so.  

What is certain: Edison perfected the light bulb and made its commercialisation possible. In doing so he paved the way for the electrification of the industrialised world. However, not all of his inventions were a success. His electrification system with direct current was forced to yield to a technically better option using alternating current ... But more on this topic in the next article on Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse.

Successful entrepreneur

Edison’s success was not only due to his ability to develop and perfect new devices, but also thanks to "his determination to convince investors and the public of his inventions," says W. Bernard Carlson, Professor for Technology at the University of Virginia.

This was truly Edison's exceptional talent. It was hardly possible to match his business acumen and productivity. Over 2000 inventions can be ascribed to Edison and his team, and over 1000 were patented. He turns out to be a clever businessman with a strong sense for the usefulness of his inventions and their market potential, as well as being able to connect with the right investors.

With their help, he established an impressive business empire and became one of the richest men of his time. However, Edison's renown was also controversial. He was seen as "a ruthless marketer of his ideas, who pushed competitors into the background using questionable methods," reports the ARD magazine "PlanetWissen". Disputes and various court proceedings were as much a part of Edison's life as his inventions. He was "homo faber to the extreme... and his greatest invention was his own transformation into a cultural icon," concludes Edison biographer Neil Baldwin.

The young Edison
Multiple awards

Edison was not a lone inventor. Early on, he joined forces with other resourceful minds. In 1870, he built his first workshop for development and production in Newark, New Jersey. His laboratory for development in Menlo Park, New Jersey, was considered a model for future research and development departments of technology companies. In 1997, the New York Times wrote: "Edison's most important contributions were not his inventions, but the discovery of the invention industry."

In 1926, Edison withdraws from his company. He dies on 18 October 1931 at the age of 84 in his home "Glenmont" in West Orange, New Jersey. In recognition of his accomplishments, Edison received multiple awards, and to mention them all here would require a long list. But perhaps this in conclusion: Since 1983, the USA celebrates "National Inventor's Day" on Edison's birthday in February. And: A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame honours his inventions for the film industry.

A few inventions

Edison held 389 patents alone in the area of energy/light bulbs. In addition to the light bulb, he owned the patents for the screwed light bulb socket, an electricity counter, a system for the distribution of electrical energy and the electric chair. The invention of the phonograph (sound recording), granulated carbon microphone (telephony) or the kinetograph and kinetoscope (film) were also important for future technological developments.

Axpo presents important energy researchers, their inventions, and scientific findings in Energy dialogue online. Previous publications: Alessandro Volta, André Marie Ampère, and James Watt.

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