It is hard for most people today – at least those of us in so-called “developed countries” – to remember or even imagine a world without telephones, movie theaters, recorded music or even electric lights. But that was the world when Thomas Edison was born in 1847.
As a child, Edison was extremely inquisitive, but also something of a dreamer (if modern psychology had existed at the time, he would probably have been diagnosed with ADD!).
By the age of 12 he was working on the Grand Trunk railway, where on one occasion his quick actions saved a child’s life. In gratitude, the child’s father taught him Morse code and the operation of the telegraph. In those days (1863) this was the equivalent of being trained to use and program a state-of-the-art computer today!
Tom immediately began tinkering with the technology, learning all he could about it, and finding ways to improve it or expand its principles into other areas.
By his early twenties, he had already registered patents on several of his own inventions, and sold the rights to an improved stock ticker, making him wealthy. He was now in a position to explore any field he wanted.
Over the next few years, he formed a team of researchers and inventors to work for him and continued to invent and patent a number of successful inventions. One of the most successful was a new carbon microphone which finally made Alexander Bell’s new “telephone” device loud enough and clear enough for practical use. (This same technology was still widely used in telephones right up to the 1980s.)
Edison moved his laboratory to Menlo Park, N.J., and within a year, the sprawling complex was the largest scientific testing laboratory in the world. He was one of the first to apply the principles of mass production and large teamwork to the process of innovation. Ultimately, he secured over 400 patents on the work done here and is regarded as one of the most successful idea incubators in history.
His wide-ranging curiosity took his research in many directions. For example, in 1877, more or less out of the blue, he invented the phonograph…a way of recording voices and music onto fragile wax cylinders. This new technology so amazed and excited the public imagination that Edison became immediately famous for it.
But a year later he put it on the back shelf for over a decade, as an even bigger opportunity now occupied his attention: the search for a practical, reliable form of electric lighting.
In truth, Edison didn’t actually even “invent” the light bulb; a number of other inventors had developed forms of electric lighting before he began his experiments. He simply found a better material (carbonized thread) to use as the filament.If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.– Thomas Edison