Thomas Edison Facts

Today I Found Out has teamed up with Jeremiah Warren to show his awesome “trivia” related videos here, along with Bonus Facts included after the video by me. I hope you enjoy his videos as much as I have.

Today I found out the History of Thomas Edison:

Bonus Thomas Edison Facts:

  • While Google’s company slogan is unofficially “Don’t Be Evil”, Edison had a different slogan that he placed on placards around his industrial laboratory.  The quote was from Joshua Reynolds and stated, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”  This quote is particularly poignant given Tesla’s not so flattering remarks about Edison which you can read below.
  • While his research lab churned out somewhat revolutionary products at an amazing pace, Nikola Tesla, who once worked there but after a dispute with Edison left, didn’t have good things to say about Edison.  Upon Edison’s death, Tesla published the following about him, “He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene… His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”
  • During his life, Edison generally didn’t have much positive to say about Tesla either, but in his later years he did mention that one of the great regrets in his life was not paying Tesla more respect and not fully appreciating Tesla’s work.
  • There are two disputed theories as to what exactly caused the rift between Tesla and Edison when Tesla worked at Edison’s research lab.  The first and generally more quoted theory was that Tesla was promised $50,000 (about $1M today) if he could make certain improvements to Edison’s DC generator plants.  Once Tesla had done this work, supposedly Edison refused to pay him the promised amount, telling him it had been a joke.  The other version is that Tesla’s dislike of the way the research lab was run coupled with the fact that he was refused a raise (from $18 a week to $25) caused him to leave.
  • During the War of the Currents, Edison routinely publicly electrocuted animals, particularly dogs and cats, in order to demonstrate to people how AC electricity was more dangerous than DC.  He even once electrocuted an elephant in order to kill it (the elephant had previously trampled and killed a few people, thus a method was needed to put her to death and Edison agreed to do it using AC electricity as a publicity stunt).  If for some odd reason you want to watch the elephant being executed, Edison filmed it and you can see it here.
  • Even though Edison lost the War of the Currents and AC became the method of choice for transmitting electricity (largely because it is somewhat practical over long distances and DC is not at all), up until 2007 there were still about 1600 customers in New York City receiving their power in the form of DC, rather than AC.
  • Edison is also credited with inventing the electric chair to be used on those sentenced to death (although, in fact, it was invented by employees of Edison, Harold Brown and Arthur Kennelly).  Edison also played a role in getting this particular method humans use to kill other humans made legal, touting it as a “painless method of execution”.  In the end, he not only provided the chair, but also the generators to power the chair.
  • Despite this, Edison in other facets of his life was particularly nonviolent and considered harming even the most insignificant of animals barbaric.  He went so far as to say,  “Nonviolence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”  Funny sentiments from the guy who publicly electrocuted animals in order to help line his pockets, but here we are. 😉
  • Some of Edison’s experiments also resulted in the death of one of his employees who’d volunteered to be the guinea pig in experimenting with X-ray radiation.  The employee was Clarence Madison Dally, who worked for Edison as a glass blower, particularly in developing an X-ray focus tube that produced much sharper images than others at the time.  As the experiments progressed, Dally began having various lesions appear on his hands and wrists and frequently needed time off due to complications as a result of the radiation.  Despite this, they continued to experiment for a couple years until Dally’s left hand had to be amputated as well as four fingers on his right hand.  Soon he had to have his arms amputated and eventually died of cancer, making him the first known person to die from experimenting with ionizing radiation.
  • After Dally’s death, Edison finally abandoned his research into X-rays.  However, his fluoroscope machine was the first commercially viable X-ray machine and the basic design of the machine is still more or less how X-ray machines work today.
  • Edison’s teacher at school, Reverend Engle, not only thought him dull, but also considered him to be “addled”, particularly noting Edison’s wide forehead and large head as supposed evidence that he had substandard intelligence.  In the teacher’s defense, at the time he was teaching 38 students in 11 age groups, so hardly an environment for a teacher to flourish in.  As mentioned in the video, Edison’s mother then took over his education, believing him to in fact be extremely intelligent, contrary to what the good Reverend thought.  Edison had this to say about his mother, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
  • Throughout his lifetime, Thomas Edison held 1093 patents in the United States alone.
  • For his invention of the phonograph, Edison earned the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park” because it seemed like magic to many at the time.
  • Edison was once fired from a job at Western Union where he worked helping run the Associated Press news wire.  When he got the job at the age of 19, he asked to be given the night shift, something most people didn’t want anyways.  He wanted the night shift because so little came across the wire during that shift that it allowed him to pursue other things, like performing experiments.  This worked out fine for several months until one day he was experimenting with batteries and accidentally spilled sulfuric acid, making a huge mess not only on the floor, but it also leaked through the floor boards and got all over his boss’s desk.  Needless to say, when his boss came in the next day, Edison was out of a job.
  • Edison was extremely hard of hearing.  As to why this was the case, it isn’t clear as he was born with no such disability.  Edison claimed that it was because when he was younger he accidentally started a chemical fire in the train he was working on during one of his experiments. The train conductor supposedly then hit him directly on his ears (thus perhaps damaging his ear drums).  However, Edison’s story for this changed over the years, so it isn’t entirely clear how accurate that is.  Others theorize that he became hard of hearing after a bout with scarlet fever.  Whatever the case, from a very young age, he didn’t have good hearing.  Edison claimed his near deafness was a great asset in that it allowed him to concentrate on his work even when there was significant noise going on around him.
  • At the age of 12, Edison started what is thought to be the first ever newspaper that was printed on a train, the Grand Trunk Herald.  He printed the paper on a small printing press he kept in the baggage car.  During this time, he also sold candy and vegetables to passengers on the train.
  • The child Edison saved from being struck by a train, Jimmie MacKenzie, was just three years old at the time.  This event was largely responsible for Edison’s later success in that when J.U. MacKenzie, the boy’s father, got Edison trained in telegraphy, it provided him the necessary knowledge that would become the foundation for many of his early business successes, such as the invention of the stock ticker, the electric vote recorder, the quadruplex telegraph, and the automatic repeater, among other things.
  • Edison sold his quadruplex telegraph to Western Union for $10,000 (about $200,000 today).  With the funds he got from this, he built the world’s first industrial research lab, which is where most all of Edison’s inventions stemmed from.  Of course, most of the inventions were made by other people there and Edison, being the owner and director, simply took credit. (Steve Jobs much?)  This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds on first glance as Edison did instruct his employees on what they were to be working on and in some cases how they should go about approaching the problem.  So the ideas were generally his, just he didn’t have time to run the necessary experiments for them all himself.
  • Edison’s lab was famous for having on hand “a stock of almost every conceivable material… eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels … silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell … cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores…”
  • Edison was 24 years old when he married his first wife, 16 year old Mary Stilwell who was one of his employees.  Unfortunately, Mary died about 13 years later from some unknown ailment, though not before the couple had three children, including two that Edison nicknamed “Dot” and “Dash”, referencing his background in telegraphy.  It is thought that perhaps Mary died of a morphine overdose, given that many of her symptoms were in line with what a person experiences when they experience such an overdose.  Further, it was a common practice for doctors at the time to give out morphine, particularly to women, when they suffered from pretty much any ailment.
  • About two years after the death of his first wife, Edison, now 39, married Mina Miller who was 20 years old at the time and the daughter of prominent inventor Lewis Miller.  With Mina, Edison had three more children, one of which lived until 1992 (Theodore Edison, who incidentally held 80 patents in his lifetime)
  • One of Edison’s final projects in his life was certain electric trains running in New Jersey.  Amazingly, the same set of electric train cars ran on this route from 1931 to 1984.
  • Because of Swan’s patents relating to the light bulb, Edison chose to team up with him, though Edison had already been making bulbs that were longer lasting and could be connected to electrical utility wires, something Swan’s filaments couldn’t handle due to their lower resistance.  As Swan stated, “Edison is entitled to more than I… he has seen further into this subject, vastly than I, and foreseen and provided for details that I did not comprehend until I saw his system.”
  • Because of Swan beating Edison to the punch in terms of the patent for the incandescent lamp, you’ll often read that Swan then is the actual inventor of the light bulb.  This isn’t correct by a long shot.  There are at least 22 other inventors before Swan and Edison who invented a version of the incandescent light bulb and numerous others who’d been experimenting with generating light via running electricity through some physical medium dating back to well before Swan or Edison were even born.  The problem was that no one had managed to make a commercially viable version of an incandescent light until Edison, let alone the fact that an infrastructure needed to be put in place to support it, which Edison also helped somewhat with.
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