Thomas Edison and the "Heroic Age"

Thomas Edison and the "Heroic Age"

Thomas Edison and the "Heroic Age"

  • He represents the "Heroic Age" of Invention, holding 1093 domestic patents, the most ever granted to one person, plus 1300 foreign patents
  • He represents the transition from the Paleotechnic to the Neotechnic, from production to consumption, from the pastoral to the technological ideal
  • He reflects the ambivalence of technology, as a Good that serves mankind and exists in harmony with nature (myth of the Garden), and as an Evil that serves itself and exists to dominate nature (myth of the Machine)
  • He was known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park" but was in fact a plodder who once said that genius was "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"
  • He was more experimenter than true scientist, had no math training, was empirical rather than theoretical

Early Years 1847-1870

telegraph operator from Edison NHS
  • Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan OH 1847
  • self-educated, used books in Detroit Free Library
  • Grand Trunk Railroad job at age 12 in 1859
  • mobile chemical lab 1861
  • telegraph operator 1862
  • made improvements: repeater, printer
  • vote recorder 1869 but no market
  • stock printer 1870

Newark 1870-1876

cement house from Edison NHS
  • married 16-year old Mary Stilwell (died 1884)
  • formed Pope, Edison & Co., the first professional electrical engineering service in the U.S.
  • hired by Western Union to make stock printers
  • auto repeating telegraph 1872 for "robber baron" Jay Gould
  • quadraplex telegraph 1874
  • mutograph 1874 for Gould to replace the page relay
  • electrical pen 1874
  • mimeograph 1875 sold to A. B. Dick

Menlo Park 1876-1887

Phonograph History
West Orange lab from Edison NHS
Glenmont from Edison NHS
1929 Golden Jubilee from Edison NHS
  • most productive period: 420 patents, phonograph, light bulb
  • Menlo Park lab was pastoral "village of science" and tabernacle and monastery; buildings painted in winter scene as quaint, geometric, sleigh tracks out the gate, white picket fence
  • was a community, with Pennsy Railroad station, hotel, Sarah Jordan's boarding house, several homes
  • workers were artisans, "muckers" who shared bouts of intense labor and idleness, shared leisure such as fishing expeditions
  • traditional break at midnight, snacks, cigars, jokes, tales, dancing and singing, organ on 2nd floor, electric toy railroad
  • pet bear kept outside front door, to separate outside world from the exclusively male world of craftsman inside
  • lab was 100 ft. long, 30 ft. wide, no partitions, administration, hierarchy, dirt on floor, allowed to spit, two rows of tables and cabinets
  • after the electric light developed, Menlo Park dispersed, more workers came for new Lamp Factory, skilled workers became managers, Edison went to NY to install his system, new companies were formed
  • 1877 telephone transmitter with carbon button
  • 1877 cylinder phonograph became Edison's 1st important invention and symbol of the neotechnic era, not a mammoth brute device but small and delicate and "magical" reflecting new concept of the machine as intellectual control of nature, created myth of "wizard' who used his mind rather than muscles and waved a simple wand
  • 1878 electric light system due to momentum of the Menlo Park lab activities, was an idea "in the air" ready to develop by analogy and transfer, had generated public excitement
  • problem of the filament: carbonized cotton thread, then bamboo, sent explorers around the world on an empirical quest on a global scale, a war of science on nature, by 1889 replaced bamboo with Joseph Swan's squirted cellulose
  • Pearl Street power station 1882, became a businessman
  • Purchased vacation home in Fort Myers FL 1885, Glenmont home in Llewellyn Park NJ 1886, land in West Orange NJ for new lab 1887
  • 1887 organized Edison Phonograph Company and George E. Gouraud began international sales

West Orange 1887-1931

  • The new research and manufacturing complex was more factory than self-contained community, with unstable, specialized labor, regimented by administration, time clock. Edison became a director rather than participant, presided over managers and college-educated researchers, seldom worked with his hands, began to wear gray lab coat, not his old worker clothes; lived at nearby Glenmont mansion with 23 rooms, 8 servants, 1 coachman, new wife Mina, 3 step-children
  • 1888 improved phonograph after 72-hour work stretch in June, the "phonograph vigil" that was photographed and painted and caught American imagination, distributed as an advertising poster for the Edison Phonograph Co.
  • 1888 recordings by George Gouraud in London are the oldest surviving recorded music; listen to excerpts and documentary recordinngs at Edison NHS
  • 1889 motion picture camera perfected, another "idea in the air"
  • 1889-1899 major effort to develop a magnetic ore separator at Ogdensburg, world's largest steam shovel, 200 unskilled workers in shifts by the clock to operate huge ugly machines, Corliss engine powered ore crushers, 130-ton giant rollers and rubberized conveyor belts running by electricity, but plant not profitable, closed at loss of $2 million
  • 1892 formation of General Electric Co. by Henry Villard for German investors consolidated Edison's GE and Thomson-Huston; Edison sold out most of his interest
  • 1893 Black Maria studio began production of kinetographs; "The Sneeze" of 1894 is the first copyrighted motion picture
  • 1901 formation of the Edison Storage Battery Company, made batteries for electric car (1902), alkaline battery (1903), submarine battery (1910)
  • 1906 plan for the concrete house
  • 1929 Golden Jubilee of the invention of the electric light
  • 1931 died Oct. 18 at Glenmont


  • Edison's light bulb and Bell's telephone began the "long wave" of the electrical revolution 1890-1940 that produced cycles of development out of clusters of key inventions; the phonograph revolution followed the 1877 cylinder; the power revolution followed Pearl Street 1882; the "electrical city" followed Samuel Insull; the radio revolution followed the vacuum tube.
  • electric chair from APHF
  • Electricity was seen as a more humane capital punishment than hanging, especially after George L. Smith was instantly killed in an accident at a generator for arc lights in Buffalo NY Aug. 7, 1881. Physicians endorsed the idea of an electric chair rather than lethal injection because they were trying to gain public acceptance of hypodermic needles. A bill authorizing the electric chair was stalled in the NY legislature during 1888 due to a dispute between George Westinghouse and Edison over which electrical system was best for city lights, AC or DC. In order to discredit the Westinghouse AC system, Edison in late 1887 set up a 1000 volt generator in his lab to show how AC was so dangerous that it could kill cats and dogs, and even an 830-pound horse in 1888 in a test by Edison agent Harold P. Brown. The NY bill was signed June 4, 1888, and went into effect June 1, 1889, for anyone convicted of murder in 1889. William Kemmler killed his wife with an axe March 29, 1889, admitted his guilt and was found guilty at a quick trial in May. Westinghouse filed a lawsuit to prevent the use of the electric chair, and presented evidence that electricity did not cause a quick and painless death. But Kemmler was executed (painfully) on Aug. 6, 1890, at Auburn prison in New York, with 1600 volts from a Westinghouse AC generator supervised by Harold P. Brown.
  • MGM released two "heroic" film biographies of Edison in 1940: The Boy Edison with Mickey Rooney and Edison the Man with Spencer Tracy

- 2004 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

revised 1/10/04 | Recording Technology History
AES - Audio Engineering Society