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The Life of Thomas Edison
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 More of This Feature
Part I: Early Years: From Edison's Birth to the Invention of the Lightbulb
Part 2: Edison and the motion picture industry, and Thomas Edison's final years.
More on Thomas Edison
The Inventions of Thomas Edison
Timeline for Inventing Entertainment - Thomas Edison
Second Biography: The Life of Thomas A. Edison
Man looking into the kinetoscopeWhile working on the phonograph, Edison began working on a device that, "does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear", this was to become motion pictures. Edison first demonstrated motion pictures in 1891, and began commercial production of "movies" two years later in a peculiar looking structure, built on the laboratory grounds, known as the Black Maria. Like the electric light and phonograph before it, Edison developed a complete system, developing everything needed to both film and show motion pictures. Edison's initial work in motion pictures was pioneering and original. However, many people became interested in this third new industry Edison created, and worked to further improve on Edison's early motion picture work. There were therefore many contributors to the swift development of motion pictures beyond the early work of Edison. By the late 1890s, a thriving new industry was firmly established, and by 1918 the industry had become so competitive that Edison got out of the movie business all together.

The success of the phonograph and motion pictures in the 1890s helped offset the greatest failure of Edison's career. Throughout the decade Edison worked in his laboratory and in the old iron mines of northwestern New Jersey to develop methods of mining iron ore to feed the insatiable demand of the Pennsylvania steel mills. To finance this work, Edison sold all his stock in General Electric. Despite ten years of work and millions of dollars spent on research and development, Edison was never able to make the process commercially practical, and lost all the money he had invested. This would have meant financial ruin had not Edison continued to develop the phonograph and motion pictures at the same time. As it was, Edison entered the new century still financially secure and ready to take on another challenge.

Edison's new challenge was to develop a better storage battery for use in electric vehicles. Edison very much enjoyed automobiles and owned a number of different types during his life, powered by gasoline, electricity, and steam. Edison thought that electric propulsion was clearly the best method of powering cars, but realized that conventional lead-acid storage batteries were inadequate for the job. Edison began to develop an alkaline battery in 1899. It proved to be Edison's most difficult project, taking ten years to develop a practical alkaline battery. By the time Edison introduced his new alkaline battery, the gasoline powered car had so improved that electric vehicles were becoming increasingly less common, being used mainly as delivery vehicles in cities. However, the Edison alkaline battery proved useful for lighting railway cars and signals, maritime buoys, and miners lamps. Unlike iron ore mining, the heavy investment Edison made over ten years was repaid handsomely, and the storage battery eventually became Edison's most profitable product. Further, Edison's work paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.

By 1911, Thomas Edison had built a vast industrial operation in West Orange. Numerous factories had been built through the years around the original laboratory, and the staff of the entire complex had grown into the thousands. To better manage operations, Edison brought all the companies he had started to make his inventions together into one corporation, Thomas A. Edison Incorporated, with Edison as president and chairman. Edison was sixty-four by this time and his role with his company and in life began to change. Edison left more of the daily operations of both the laboratory and the factories to others. The laboratory itself did less original experimental work and instead worked more on refining existing Edison products such as the phonograph. Although Edison continued to file for and receive patents for new inventions, the days of developing new products that changed lives and created industries were behind him.

In the 1915, Edison was asked to head the Naval Consulting Board. With the United States inching closer towards the involvement in World War One, the Naval Consulting Board was an attempt to organize the talents of the leading scientists and inventors in the United States for the benefit of the American armed forces. Edison favored preparedness, and accepted the appointment. The Board did not make a notable contribution to the final allied victory, but did serve as a precedent for future successful cooperation between scientists, inventors and the United States military. During the war, at age seventy, Edison spent several months on Long Island Sound in a borrowed navy vessel experimenting on techniques for detecting submarines.

Edison, 1904Edison's role in life began to change from inventor and industrialist to cultural icon, a symbol of American ingenuity, and a real life Horatio Alger story. In 1928, in recognition of a lifetime of achievement, the United States Congress voted Edison a special Medal of Honor. In 1929 the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of the incandescent light. The celebration culminated at a banquet honoring Edison given by Henry Ford at Greenfield Village, Ford's new American history museum, which included a complete restoration of the Menlo Park Laboratory. Attendees included President Herbert Hoover and many of the leading American scientists and inventors.

The last experimental work of Edison's life was done at the request of Edison's good friends Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. They asked Edison to find an alternative source of rubber for use in automobile tires. The natural rubber used for tires up to that time came from the rubber tree, which does not grow in the United States. Crude rubber had to be imported and was becoming increasingly expensive. With his customary energy and thoroughness, Edison tested thousands of different plants to find a suitable substitute, eventually finding a type of Goldenrod weed that could produce enough rubber to be feasible. Edison was still working on this at the time of his death.

During the last two years of his life Edison was in increasingly poor health. Edison spent more time away from the laboratory, working instead at Glenmont. Trips to the family vacation home in Fort Myers, Florida became longer. Edison was past eighty and suffering from a number of ailments. In August 1931 Edison collapsed at Glenmont. Essentially house bound from that point, Edison steadily declined until at 3:21 am on October 18, 1931 the great man died.

Next page > A Second Biography: The Life of Thomas A. Edison

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