Thomas Alva Edison was one of the most prolific and important scientists and inventors in modern history. Born in Ohio in 1847, the American filed almost 1,100 patents in a remarkable career. However it is not so much the quantity of patents but rather the specific inventions and ground-breaking discoveries that impress.
Edison’s premier achievements came in the fields of communication and electrical engineering. Even as a young child, Edison showed a fascination in the way things worked, and his scientific love was further awakened when he began work as a telegraph operator aged just 15. Having travelled and worked in Ontario and New York, he found prominence in 1869 when he invented the electric vote recorder, a device which could instantly record and communicate an electoral vote; however, far from bringing him fame and fortune, his invention was met with scepticism and near-hatred from political camps.
Edison was thus determined to concentrate on ideas which would be of widespread appeal and – importantly for an ambitious young man constantly devoid of money – help bring him the wealth and fame he craved. His interest in communication devices was further stimulated by an 18 month stay in Boston, which saw him visit Boston Tech (the future Massachusetts Institute of Technology) regularly. His friends included Benjamin Bredding, a prodigious young electrician who helped Alexander Graham Bell perfect telephonic communication. Under Bredding’s guidance, Edison learned how devices such as the harmonograph and the multiplex transmitter operated.
Having relocated again to New York, a chance opportunity to fix a faulty stock-ticker brought him a job offer and financial security. Further refinements to the device were so impressive that Edison was offered the astonishing sum of 40,000 dollars for the rights. Edison’s prowess for invention and electrical engineering led him to invent the phonograph in 1877.
However, in 1879 came the biggest breakthrough to date, one which would ultimately revolutionise the electrical industry – the invention of the incandescent electric light bulb. Having tested more than 3,000 filaments, Edison finally developed a practical working model that would work for more than 12 hours. This is perhaps the invention for which Edison is most readily remembered, yet it was dwarfed by the breakthrough which followed.
Edison’s ultimate invention followed in the early 1880s. In 1882, Edison began to network a lighting system in small areas of New York, before unleashing a monolithic power station in Brockton, Massachusetts in 1883. This helped to generate heating and lighting for a major area, and proved economically viable. Peers acknowledged that only Thomas Edison could have conceived and delivered a cheap energy source on such a large scale.
In 1887 Edison set up a large laboratory and testing facility in New Jersey, which ultimately became the world’s largest scientific testing suite. His establishment of the Edison General Electric Company followed in 1892, the precursor to the world-famous General Electric Corporation.
Edison continued to develop and invent throughout the remainder of his life, devising the storage battery, the dictaphone and the kinetiscope, the forerunner to modern cinema. His pioneering work in electrical engineering led him to be dubbed the greatest inventor of all time, and left a legacy that is unlikely ever to be surpassed.