Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. The youngest son of a modest family, he received most of his education from his mother and from himself. At the age of twelve, he left school for good. His first job was that of a “candy butcher” on the Grand Trunk Railroad. Around the age of fifteen, he was an apprentice to a telegraph operator, and he wandered around the Midwest for the next six years working in telegraph offices. In the spring of 1868, he landed in Boston, where he created his first, unsuccessful invention, a vote recorder.
Edison’s first contracts for inventions were with the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company in New York City. With the money he received from these invention contracts, he operated a few telegraph manufacturing shops in Newark in the early 1870s. While operating these businesses, he became embroiled in a patent battle over one of his inventions, the quadruplex telegraph. When the battle was settled, he received a new contract with Western Union. He used this capital to establish a research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876.
At the Menlo Park facility, Edison developed many important inventions. He improved upon Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (1877–8) and was embroiled in a number of court battles over the invention. (Bell was the victor of these battles.) He also invented the phonograph there. The device was patented on February 19, 1878. His most famous invention, the electric light bulb, was developed in 1878–9, with the breakthrough–Edison’s use of a carbonized thread filament–happening in October 1879. Edison moved rapidly from developing the bulb to developing entire electrical systems with centralized power stations.
After the development of the electric light system, Edison fought off patent battles with another inventor, Joseph Swan, and he engaged in market battles with George Westinghouse. Westinghouse had invented a high-voltage system, the AC system, to compete with Edison’s low-voltage DC system. Eventually, Westinghouse’s system triumphed in the marketplace.
Edison built a new facility at West Orange, New Jersey in 1886. The new focus of the facility was manufacturing rather than invention. Still, important inventions were made at the West Orange facility, including the Kinetoscope (a motion picture camera in 1893), the dictating machine, and the storage battery (1909). He was a key player in the development of the early motion picture industry. In addition, Edison experienced failures, such as his attempt to turn ore-milling into a profitable venture in the 1890s.
In 1911, all of Edison’s businesses were incorporated into Thomas Edison, Inc. Edison began spending more time at home with his family and with his friend Henry Ford. He died on October 18, 1931.