Thomas Alva Edison was one of the foremost inventors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Not only did he play a key role in ushering in the modern age of electricity, he also laid the groundwork for many of the technological innovations that modernized the world. In the process, he also created the first modern industrial research laboratory.
Swami Kriyananda has noted that it is “through the focused energy and magnetism of a few that real changes are made.”
In an era known as the “Age of Invention” (1870-1910), Edison, along with Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Luther Burbank, Nikola Tesla, George Washington Carver and others, formed a community of inventors and innovators who led the way into the 20th Century. They knew one another, drew inspiration from each other’s efforts, and often collaborated.
Edison, a deeply spiritual man, was sometimes accused of atheism because he subscribed to no formal religion and referred to God as the “Supreme Intelligence.” For Edison, however, the marvels of science proved beyond doubt the existence of an “Intelligent Creator that rules matter and is mathematical in its precision.” He was well-acquainted with the Bible and the scriptural teachings of the major religions, which he considered to be “the greatest rules of human conduct every set up for man.”
Throughout his life, Edison dedicated himself to the ideal of honest, loving service to his fellow man. He said, “My philosophy of life is work. Bringing out the secrets of Nature and applying them for the happiness of man—I know of no better service to render during the short time we are in this world.”
“My mother was the making of me”
Thomas Edison was born February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. His formal education ended after three months, when he refused to return to school because the headmaster referred to him as “addled” and thus unteachable.
His mother, a former schoolteacher, took charge of his education. From her, Edison received a basic grammar school education. More importantly, she discovered that his real interest lay in the physical sciences and encouraged him along those lines. In later years Edison wrote, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
At age ten, Edison developed a passion for chemistry and, inspired by Samuel Morse’s invention of telegraphy, designed his first telegraph set. Two years later, to help support the family, he became a newsboy on the local railroad line. In spite of the long hours, he set up a laboratory in the baggage car and spent his free time in the reading room of the Detroit Free Library.
An itinerant telegrapher
Like many boys of his day, he followed the progress of the telegraph lines across the country and dreamed of becoming a part of this new, innovative technology. At age 16, an opportunity presented itself when he saved a three-year-old from an oncoming train. The boy’s father, a telegrapher, rewarded young Edison by offering to train him as a telegraph operator. Edison caught on quickly and within three months began his career as an itinerant telegrapher.
In the spring of 1868, the twenty-one year old Edison moved to Boston, the hub of electrical and scientific research in the United States. His intention was to become a full time inventor, but not finding enough backers to finance his efforts, he moved to New York City the following year, seeking better opportunities.
Finally, a breakthrough
His breakthrough came when Western Union, the largest of the telegraph monopolies, hired him to improve its stock printers, which occasionally ran wild and spit out crazy figures. He promptly invented a device that brought the stock tickers in line with the central transmitter.
Over the next several years, Edison divided his time between working for Western Union and freelance invention. In 1876, with money from his successful inventions, and subsidies from Western Union, Edison, with his young wife and child, moved to Menlo Park, New Jersey to become a full-time inventor.
His most creative years
This move marked the beginning of his most productive and creative years. Within two years he developed the carbon transmitter and the phonograph. The carbon transmitter was essentially a microphone that made it possible to hear the human voice over long distance wires, and was crucial to the use of the recently invented telephone.
The phonograph, Edison’s first original invention, brought him international acclaim. When he was unable to find backers to develop the invention, he turned his attention to the development of an incandescent light bulb.
The light bulb: 43,000 experiments
His first challenge was to find a durable filament, which could burn in a high vacuum glass bulb. Over the next fourteen months he conducted over 43,000 experiments using every conceivable kind of material, and finally settled on a carbon-based filament that could burn for nearly 1200 hours.
The key to his success was his unflagging energy and enthusiasm in the face of constant difficulties.”The electric light,” he said, “has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments. I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. But I cannot say the same for all my associates.”
Describing Edison’s efforts as “an extraordinary commitment to what seemed an impossible dream,” Swami Kriyananda writes:
Edison tested 43,000 filaments before finding the right one for the electric light bulb. His assistants pleaded with him, after 20,000 failures, to give up the attempt. It was his intuitive certainty that such a filament existed that drove him to keep on trying until he succeeded. Nobody would go through that much work if he didn’t already know he was going to succeed.
Edison didn’t just invent a light bulb. He invented an entire system of lighting that included a central power plant, generators, cables, switches and other equipment. When his financial backers balked at these further expenses, he and his associates put up their own money and created the Edison Lamp Company.
On September 4, 1882, the world’s first permanent electric power plant went into operation in New York City providing light to fifty-nine customers in a square mile area.
Edison’s lighting system transformed the use of energy and electrical power worldwide and was soon adapted to every aspect of household and industrial use. Later, he perfected the phonograph; key elements of a motion picture camera; the alkaline storage battery; and a host of other inventions. By 1911, Edison had created a large industrial empire based on his inventions.
An American folk hero
Though Edison achieved great success and wealth, he was a man of simple tastes. He saw money as the means to further his research and fulfill his vision of a better world. Nonetheless, his “rags to riches” life through hard work and intelligence made him an American folk hero, and he was often invited to speak on various topics. His views reflected the depth and scope of his ideas:
On energy: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
On war: “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”
On the future of medicine: “The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in the care of his body, proper diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
“It is very beautiful over there!”
Henry Ford, Edison’s best friend, spent time with him a few weeks before his death. After Edison’s passing, perhaps to dispel doubts about Edison’s beliefs, he spoke publicly of Edison’s belief in an afterlife:
When the years increased and he began to think of the natural end of this stage of life, he turned his thoughts to that great question. He then reached the conclusion that individual life continues through the change which we call death. He felt there was a central progressing core of life that went on and on…. We talked of it many times.
A few days before his passing, surrounded by family and friends, Edison sat up suddenly and, gazing upward into space, said, “It is very beautiful over there!” He died October 18, 1931 at the age of 84.