Edison, America’s gift to civilization | Sunday Observer

Edison, America’s gift to civilization

Thomas Alva Edison
Thomas Alva Edison

Whenever you touch an electric light switch, pick up the telephone, turn on the gramophone, or watch a film, you are indavertantly paying tribute to Thomas Alva Edison, the greatest practical man of science. Some people call him the Father of the Mechanical Civilization for many valid reasons. He gave Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone a real transmitter making it ‘speak out loud and bold’. He invented the phonograph and reproduced human speech, and the public began to regard him as a marvel and newspapers conferred the title ‘Wizard’ on him.

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, United States, on February 11, 1847. His mother was of Scots descent, and his father, Dutch. When he was seven years, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, and he went to school only for three months. He was a backward student and the teacher described him as “addled.” After leaving school he was educated by his mother. He learnt by his own experimental observations. He tried to imitate a hen by sitting on some eggs to hatch them. On another day, he dosed the family odd-job man with seidlitz powders to see if the gases generated by them would enable him to fly!

Young Edison wanted to set up a laboratory, but he had no money to do so. Then he decided to sell newspapers on trains. Realizing the selling power of news, he installed a small printing plant on the train and published his own newspaper. He also had a mini-laboratory in the luggage coach where he experimented with telegraphy. One day, when the train lurched suddenly a stick of phosphorous was thrown on to the floor and ignited. When the coach caught fire the conductor of the train flung his laboratory and printing press on to the next station and boxed his ears. From then on he became partially deaf. On another day, he saw a child playing on the railway track. At the time a loaded truck was coming towards the child. Edison leaped from the platform and saved the child’s life. Mackenzie, the Station Master and the child’s father, decided to teach telegraphy to Edison to repay his gratitude. He learned telegraphy quickly and became a telegraph operator.

‘Rat paralyser’

Edison’s inventive faculties were awakened and he continued to do his research. Once he contrived a clock device to send signals automatically. He also made a ‘rat paralyser’ when a telegraph office in Cincinnati was infested with rats. At Indianapolis he made an automatic recorder to take down Morse messages. However, he left his job as a telegraph operator and arrived in New York to better his prospects.

When Edison arrived in New York he was penniless and he had nothing to eat for two days. Then he managed sleep in the battery-room of the Gold Indicator Company which ran a ‘ticker service’ for brokers. One day, the transmitter broke down and the workers ran here and there not knowing what to do. Edison volunteered to repair the machine and did so, quickly. Consequently the company offered him the post of manager.

In 1869, Edison in partnership with another technician known as Pope, invented a ‘gold printer’ to provide telephone lines. The Western Union which took over the business asked Edison to improve the tape-machine. When he accomplished his task the company chairman asked him how much he wanted for his invention. Edison wanted to ask $ 5,000, but the company president offered him $ 40,000. Edison nearly fainted when he got the money!

With a band of trusted men, Edison opened a large workshop to produce tape-machines and accessories. Then he obtained patents for the manufacture of duplex and quadruplex telegraphy.

He left New York in 1876 and set up his laboratory at Menlo Park where he improved the telephone invented by Alexander Graham Bell. His next invention was the electro-motograph. In 1877 he invented the phonograph after many experiments. It made him “The Wizard of Melo Park.”

Thereafter, Edison turned to electric lighting which was already in existence through incandescent lamps. Edison planned to light a number of separate lamps with the same current. He carried out more than 1,600 tests with various minerals. His main difficulty was to make the carbon filament, the incandescence of which is the source of light. After much trial and errors, he was able to produce a lamp that burned for 40 hours. Later he worked and equipped the complete electric lighting system from the generator to consumer bulbs.

In 1887 Edison produced the ‘Kinetoscope’ which is the fore-runner of the cinema. During the ‘Great War’ Edison was appointed the head of the Naval Consulting Board of the United States. Then he made some 40 inventions for use in naval warfare.


Until his death on October 18, 1931, Edison was actively engaged in research. Henry Ford said, “He was an inventor who frequently wasted his time and his money to extend his invention to uses which are not at all suitable. His knowledge is so nearly universal that he cannot be classed as an electrician or a chemist – in fact, Mr Edison cannot be classified … The more I have seen of him, the greater he has appeared to me – both as a servant of humanity and as a man.”

Edison became a renowned inventor with only three months of schooling. With his mother’s coaching he was able to read and understand Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Later in life he found time to run a newspaper. He edited “The weekly Herald”. He was the editor, reporter, advertising manager and news agent. While he was engaged in numerous experiments, people called him a “dreamer” and wrote to newspapers calling him a fool. Despite such adverse comments, Edison became America’s gift to civilization.

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