Everything You Know About Edison and Tesla is Mostly Wrong
If you’ve spent any time on the interwebs there are three almost universal facts you’re going to come across. Nikola Tesla was a God among mortals, Thomas Edison was a patent thief charlatan who we only remember today because of how he stole other people’s ideas, including Tesla’s. And, third, X is a horrible renaming of Twitter and Elon Musk should seriously rethink his decision making paradigm. And yet, up until relatively recently, Nikola Tesla was something of a footnote in popular history, Thomas Edison was considered one of the most prolific inventors ever, the 19th century’s answer to DaVinci, and X was an objectively useless letter of the alphabet. Seriously. It doesn’t need to exist. And neither does Q or C.
But going back to Thomas Edison, as historian Keith Nier once very aptly noted, “He is actually one of the least well known of all famous people, and much of what everybody thinks they know about him is no more reliable than a fairy tale.”
And let me tell you, there is a reason this video is so long as Mr. Nier absolutely nailed it. Also because his life was an insanely interesting story.
So, today we are going to cut through all the misinformation and do an ultra deep dive into the real story of Thomas Edison- whether he was really one of history’s ultimate creatives, or just someone who was really, really good at taking credit for other people’s work.
In all this we are also going look at the various stories surrounding Nicholas Tesla and Edison, which, on this one. Just to cut to the chase, basically everything you’ve probably ever read about the supposed feud between those two is quite provably false. There was no feud. And not only did Edison not take any patents from Tesla, he actually allowed Tesla to patent things he came up with when working on projects at his job for Edison, even though this wasn’t typical, then or now, and it’s not really clear why Edison did this in Tesla’s case. But because Edison allowed this, via the sale of some of these, it allowed Tesla to crack on on his own. So much more on all this later! Because as much as there is an insane amount of misinformation about Edison, there’s just as much misinformation out there on Tesla. Stay tuned because we are going to clear that right up.
So let’s clear it all up, shall we?
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Now let’s dive into the real story of Thomas Edison and whether he was a creative genius, or just a genius at taking credit for what others did.
Our story begins today in Milan, Ohio, where on February 11, 1847, the 7th and final child of Samuel and Nancy Edison was born in the family’s small brick cottage. Not only from relatively humble origins, Thomas Alva Edison also didn’t have the benefit of a formal education growing up. While he did attend a private school for a few months under one Rev. George Engle in 1854 at the age of 7 before his father could no longer afford to pay according to Engle, and again briefly in 1859-1860 at Port Huron Union School where he studied math and science, in the end, his mother simply took to teaching him to read and write and do basic math. Edison would later state of this, “My mother taught me how to read good books quickly and correctly and as this opened up a great world in literature, I have always been very thankful for this early training.”
Once the basics out of the way, she also then set him on the local library where he notes, “My refuge was the Detroit Public Library. I started, it now seems to me, with the first book on the bottom shelf and I went through the lot, one by one…”
As for his opinions on formal schooling, he states, “I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being… The present system casts the brain into a mold. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning.”
By the age of 11, Edison set up his first chemical lab in the basement of the home they had moved to in Port Huron and where he apparently at one point also accidentally set his father’s barn on fire. For this, he reportedly got a very public town square spanking. This would not be the last time he accidentally set things on fire.
Now at 12 years old, being the 19th century, it was time for him to go to work, at first on the family’s little farm. But Edison would state of this: “After a while I tired of this work as hoeing corn in a hot sun is unattractive and I did not wonder that it built up cities. Soon the Grand Trunk R.R. was extended from Toronto to Port Huron at the foot of the Lake Huron and thence to Detroit, at about the same time the war of the Rebellion broke out. By a great amount of persistence I got permission from my mother to go on the local train as a newsboy. The local train from Port Huron to Detroit, a distance of 63 miles left at 7 A.M. and arrived again at Port Huron at 9 P.M.”
And so it was that at an age when most of us were wiling away our hours playing with friends or causing our parents to wear rubber gloves when handling our socks, Edison was not only out working 13 hrs a day, but starting his first successful business on the side. He stated of this,
“After being on the train for several months, I started two stores in Port Huron, one for periodicals and the other for vegetables, butter and berries in the season, these were attended by two boys, who shared in the profits. The periodical store I soon closed, as the boy in charge could not be trusted. The vegetable store I kept up for nearly a year. After the railroad had been opened a short time they put on an express which left Detroit in the morning and returned in the
evening. I received permission to put a newsboy on this train connected with this train was a car, one part for baggage and the other part for U.S. mail, but for a long time it was not used. Every
morning I had two large baskets of vegetables from the Detroit Market loaded in the mail car and sent to Port Huron where the German boy would take them to the store. They were much better than those grown locally and sold readily. I never was asked to pay freight and to this day cannot explain why, except that I was so small and industrious and the nerve to appropriate a U.S. mail car to do a free freight biz so monumental that it probably caused passivity. However, I kept this up for a long time and in addition bought butter from the fanners along the line and an immense amount of blackberries in the season; I bought wholesale and at a low price and permitted the wives of the engineers and trainmen to have the benefit of the rebate. After a while there was a daily immigrant train put on— this train generally had from seven to ten coaches filled always with Norwegians, all bound for Iowa and Minnesota. On these trains I employed a boy who sold bread, tobacco and stick candy.”
He would soon change tack, however, noting, “As the war progressed the daily
newspaper sales became very profitable and I gave up the vegetable store, etc.”
On this one, things really changed thanks to the battle of Shiloh, also known as the battle of Pittsburg Landing. He states, “On the day of this battle when I arrived at Detroit, the bulletin boards were surrounded with dense crowds and it was announced that there were 60 thousand killed and wounded and the result was uncertain. I knew that if the same excitement was attained at the various small towns along the road and especially at Port Huron that the sale of papers would be great. I then conceived the idea of telegraphing the news ahead, went to the operator in the depot and by giving him Harper’s Weekly and some other papers for three months, he agreed to telegraph to all the stations the matter on the bulletin board. I hurriedly copied it and he sent it, requesting the agents who displayed it on the blackboard, used for stating the arrival and departure of trains, I decided that instead of the usual 100 papers that I could sell 1000, but not having sufficient money to purchase that number, I determined in my desperation to see the Editor himself and get credit. The great paper at that time was the Detroit Free Press. I walked into the office marked Editorial and told a young man that I wanted to see the Editor on important business—important to me anyway. I was taken into an office where there were two men and I stated what I had done about telegraphy and that I wanted 1000 papers, but only had money for 300 and I wanted credit. One of the men refused it, but the other told the first spokesman to let me have them. This man I afterwards learned was Wilbur E Storey, who subsequently founded the Chicago Times and became celebrated in the newspaper world. By the aid of another boy we lugged the papers to the train and started folding them. The first station called Utica, was a small one where I generally sold two papers. I saw a crowd ahead on the platform, thought it some excursion, but the moment I landed there was a rush for me; then I realized that the telegraph was a great invention. I sold 35 papers; the next station, Mt. Clemens, now a watering place, but then a place of about 1000. I usually sold 6 to 8 papers. I decided that if I found a corresponding crowd there that the only thing to do to correct my lack of judgment in not getting more papers was to raise the price from 5 cents to 10. The crowd was there and I raised the price; at the various towns there were corresponding crowds. It had been my practice at Port Huron to jump from the train at a point about 1/4 mile from the station where the train generally slackened speed. I had drawn several loads of sand at this point to jump on and had become very expert. The little German boy with the horse met me at this point; when the wagon approached the outskirts of the town I was met by a large crowd. I then yelled 25 cents apiece, gentlemen, I haven’t got enough to go round. I sold all out and made what to me then was an immense sum of money…”
On top of all this, for about 6 months in 1862 Edison even started his own newspaper, the Weekly Herald, edited and printed in the baggage car of the train. This one was mostly comprised of local news he’d learn of at each stop, as well as news about the Grand Trunk Railway itself.
As for the profits from all this, he used it to both help support his family, as well as fund his varied experiments. This was something he was doing all at the same time, even on the train itself, which would get him into some amount of trouble when he accidentally set fire to it as we’ll get to shortly.
Speaking of flammable substances, he would also occasionally make explosives. For example, Edison recounts, “One day I found in my copy of the Scientific American a complete description of a method of making nitroglycerin… The product came out rather brown and the article warned makers that brown nitro-glycerin was impure and dark in color, that it was due to impurities and in this condition was dangerous and might explode spontaneously. To see if the quality was O.K. we exploded a few drops and the results were so strong that we both got frightened, so we put the nitro in a pop bottle, wound waste around it, tied a cord to the end of the bottle and let it down a sewer inlet on the street…”
One of his boyhood friends, James A. Clancy, would reminisce about such experiments, “the chances you and I used to take at your old home and how your good Mother used to talk to us and say we would yet blow our heads off.”
Speaking of that, then there was the time he accidentally simultaneously partially electrocuted himself, as well as covered himself in nitric acid all at the same time. He recalls,
“I had a large induction coil, which I had borrowed from Mr. Williams to make some experiments with. With this coil I had ten large cells employing nitric acid. One day I got hold of both electrodes and it clinched my hand on them so I couldn’t let go. The battery was on a shelf. The only way I could get free was to back off and pull the coil, so the battery wires would pull the cells off the shelf and thus break the circuit. I shut my eyes and pulled, but the nitric acid splashed all over my face and ran down my back. I rushed to the sink which was only half big enough and got in and wiggled around for several minutes to permit the water to dilute the acid and stop the pain. My face and back were streaked with yellow, the skin thoroughly oxidized. I did not go in the street by daylight for two weeks, as the appearance of my face was dreadful. The skin, however, peeled off and new skin replaced it without any damage.”
Of course, on the side, as noted, he also did his experiments in a little lab he’d set up in the train as well, ultimately culminating in a white phosphorous fire on the train that got him in some rather hot water and his ears thoroughly boxed.
On this one, it’s sometimes claimed that it was such boxing of ears that saw Edison go deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other starting around 12 years old, something that only got worse and worse as he aged. However, it’s generally thought this deafness was far more likely to have been the results of some infection.
As for the deafness, in something of a theme you’re going to see as we go, Edison was relentlessly positive, and had a strong propensity to look on the bright side of everything no matter what. He stated of the condition, “I had doctors. They could do nothing for me. I have been deaf ever since and the fact that I am getting deafer constantly, they tell me, doesn’t bother me. I have been deaf enough for many years to know the worst, and my deafness has not been a handicap but a help to me…” On this, because it helped him to better focus on his study and experiments without outside audible distractions.
And just for now for a brief taste of the level of positivity he applied to all aspects of life, in one instance in 1914 at the age of 67, an accidental fire burned six buildings of his phonograph factory, with total losses from it at around $7 million (about $210 million today), of which only $2 of the $7 million was insured. Yet his son, Charles, notes when he ran over to his father, instead of being upset, he simply smiled and told him to run get Edison’s wife, Mina, because she’d never have a chance to see a fire like that again in her life.
He later stated while the losses were extreme, a plus side of it was that they could redesign a new phonograph factory taking advantage of all they’d learned from the burned to the ground one, as well as to “arrange my machinery properly in order to take advantage of Mr. Ford’s methods as far as possible.”
In yet another instance, he had sold his GE stock to pursue an iron-ore innovation business, which flopped costing him all that money plus millions more he had to pull from his other businesses to keep the iron-ore company afloat before its final failure. After this, a reporter pointed out to him the insane amount the GE stock would have been worth had he kept it. In response, Edison simply laughed and quipped, “Well, it’s all gone, but we had a hell of a good time spending it!”
In yet another case, when one Walter S. Mallory asked why he didn’t give up on the storage battery after getting no results for so many years, Edison responded, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work!”
In yet another case, and giving a small glimpse of what working for Edison was like (and we’ll dive into this much more deeply later), one Dr. E.G. Acheson states, “I once made an experiment in Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park during the latter part of 1880, and the results were not as looked for. I considered the experiment a perfect failure, and while bemoaning the results of this apparent failure Mr. Edison entered, and, after learning the facts of the case, cheerfully remarked that I should not look upon it as a failure, for he considered every experiment a success, as in all cases it cleared up the atmosphere, and even though it failed to accomplish the results sought for, it should prove a valuable lesson for guidance in the future work. I believe that Mr. Edison’s success as an experimenter was, to a large extent, due to this happy view of all experiments.”
This all gave rise to perhaps the most famous Edison quote of all- “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.” And that, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
In any event, going back to the story of the young Edison, things were humming along quite smoothly for the teen in this way until one day his life changed forever when he added “save a life” to his efforts to make the rest of our teen years look completely wasted- specifically, saving the life of three year old Jimmie MacKenzie when Edison was 15 in 1862.
On this one, Edison explains he’d become fascinating by the relatively new technology of the telegraph, to the point that he began neglecting his formerly lucrative news business, which had peaked around a $200 profit per month (about $6K today) down to only about $30 a month profits, or a little over $900 today. Such an unproductive 15 year old…
In any event, he states, “The station agent at Mt. Clemens permitted me to sit in the Telegraph office and listen to the instrument; one day his little boy was playing on the track when a freight train came along—and I luckily came out just in time to pull him off the track; his mother saw the operation and fainted. This put me in the good graces of Mr. Mackenzie, the agent, and he took considerable pains to teach me, as I kept at it about 18 hours a day I soon became quite proficient.”
And note here, on the side, he also setup a telegraph line between his and his aforementioned friend James A. Clancy’s homes so they could both practice at home and communicate with each other any time.
At this point, he ceased his former business activities and switched to becoming a telegraph operator. He states, “I then put up a telegraph line from the station to the village a distance of 1 mile and opened an office in a drug store, but the business was small and the operator at Port Huron knowing my proficiency and who wanted to go into the U.S.M. Telegraph, where the pay was high, succeeded in convincing his brother-in-law (Mr. Walker) that I could fill the position all right. Mr. Walker had a jewelry store and had charge of the WU. Tel. office. As I was to be found at the office both day and night, sleeping there, I became quite valuable to Mr. Walker. After working all day I worked at the office nights as well for the reason that press report came over one of the wires until 3 A.M and I would cut in and copy it as well as I could, to become more rapidly proficient; the goal of the rural telegraph operator was to be able to take press.”
After this, “Mr. Walker tried to get my father to apprentice me at 20 dollars per month, but they could not agree. I then applied for a job on the Grand Trunk R.R. as a railway operator and was given a place nights at Stratford Junction, Canada. This night job just suited me as I could have the whole day to myself. I had the faculty of sleeping in a chair any time for a few minutes at a time. I taught the night yardman my call, so I would get 1 hour sleep now and then between trains and in case the station was called, the watchman would awaken me.”
Note here, not just transmitting and receiving messages, the telegraph operator was also in charge of maintaining the equipment, meaning he also had to understand all the inner workings, including gaining a lot of intimate knowledge on how batteries and electricity and circuits work. The skill and knowledge upgrade in all this ultimately laid the groundwork for a large percentage of his later work in life. Ever the tinkerer and with his insatiable curiosity, when he now wasn’t doing his duties as a telegraph operator, he was experimenting with all this. The insanely lucrative fruits of this tinkering wouldn’t be long in coming, making himself the equivalent of a million dollars in modern valuation only a handful of years after this. But before he got there, he had a few potholes in the road.
For example, going back to his rather odd sleeping habits and the Grand Trunk, Edison invented a device that would automatically check in on the hour even if he was sleeping or otherwise pursuing his research interests. Unfortunately for him, this got discovered by his supervisor and he was promptly fired from that location. Not the first time he’d be fired, in the next instance via almost getting people killed.
On this one he states, “One night I got an order to hold a freight train and I replied that I would. I rushed out to find the signalman, but before I could find him and get the signal set, the train ran past. I ran to the Telegraph Office and reported I couldn’t hold her, she had run past. The reply was “Hell”. The dispatcher on the strength of my message that I would hold the train, had permitted another to leave the last station in the opposite direction. There was a lower station near the Junction where the day operator slept. I started for it on foot. The night was dark and I fell in a culvert and was knocked senseless. However, the track was straight, the trains saw each other, and there was no collision. The next morning Mr. Carter, the station agent and myself were ordered to come at once to the main office in Toronto. We appeared before the General Superintendent, W J. Spicer who started in hauling Mr. Carter over the coals for permitting such a young boy to hold such a responsible position. Then he took me in hand and stated that I could be sent to Kingston States Prison, etc. Just at this point, three English swells came into the office. There was a great shaking of hands and joy all around; feeling that this was a good time to be neglected I silently made for the door; down the stairs to the lower freight station, got into the caboose going on the next freight, the conductor who I knew, and kept secluded until I landed a boy free of fear in the U.S. of America.”
In yet another instance of getting fired, in 1866 while working in Kentucky for Western Union as a part of their Associated Press bureau news wire, he asked to once again work the night shift. Unfortunately, while experimenting with a lead-acid battery one night, he accidentally spilled sulfuric acid on the floor. This quickly seeped through the floor board and onto his boss’ desk below, who, upon discovering this the next morning, promptly fired him.
Something to explicitly point out here was that in working in the news at these various telegraphic offices all over parts of the U.S. and Canada, Edison became acquainted and friends with many people in various facets of the news, both current and future individuals as this was a common transition for telegraph operators. He also learned well the power of the news for promotion. This was all later a great aid to him in the early going in getting his inventions in the public eye before he became world famous.
As for those devices, beyond the one that would automatically check in for him on the hour on the telegraph, another of his early unpatented inventions was a device that would automatically record a Morse Code message on a paper tape, and then could be used to play the message back, but at a slower speed. He apparently intended this device to be used to help train Morse Code operators. Yet another early device he worked on was a printer to convert the telegraph signals into letters automatically.
His first patented device, however, came when he was 22 in 1869. This was an electric voting recorder, intended to be used to massively speed up vote counting in institutions like Congress. Edison described the device in his patent (U.S. Patent 90,646),
“The object of my invention is to produce an apparatus which records and registers in an instant,- and with great accuracy the votes of legislative bodies, thus avoiding loss of valuable time consumed in counting and registering the votes and names, as done in the usual manner ;’and my invention consists in applying an electrographic apparatus in such a manner that each member, by moving a switch to either of two points, representing an affirmative and opposing vote, has his name imprinted, by means of electricity, under the desired head, on a previously-prepared paper, and at I the sametime-the number of votes is indicated on a-dial-plate by the operation…“
Unfortunately for him, speeding up vote counting was not something any political group he pitched it to were interested in. No doubt with some making disparaging remarks about young people these days, and how lazy they are needing newfangled technologies to do simple counting for them instead of tallying up by hand like people had always done.
But as noted, seemingly nothing could keep Edison down for long, and he reportedly resolved all his future work would be practical things that would have an obvious market. Stating, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility and utility is success.” And that, “I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent…”
That said, upon his waning years he switched up on this and decided just to enjoy himself experimenting with whatever tickled his fancy, regardless of marketability. But for most of his life, if it didn’t have extreme utility, he wasn’t interested.
Another key tenet of his work, and perhaps the most controversial today, as the New Yorker would write of him, Edison “did not look for problems in need of solutions; he looked for solutions in need of modification.”
Edison himself would concur, stating, “My principal business consists of giving commercial value to the brilliant, but often misdirected, ideas of others. Accordingly, I never pick up an item without thinking of how I might be able to improve it.” Essentially, finding potentially revolutionary new ideas that simply didn’t work or weren’t practical in their current state, and perfecting them so they were.
On this practical side, it also wasn’t just about perfecting the thing itself, but also, as he was often working on the cutting edge of things, creating the entire system and infrastructure needed to make the thing commercially viable.
But going back to his first failed patented invention, after this he continued inventing and ultimately came up with a Universal Stock Printer, shortly after which he resigned his position as a telegraph operator to pursue inventing full time.
On this one, he almost cost himself close to a million dollars, but by simply keeping his mouth shut, changed his future forever.
To start, he states of the invention, “I established a Laboratory over the Gold room and put up a line on which I opened a stock quotation circuit with 25 subscribers, the ticker being of my own invention. I also engaged in putting up private lines upon which I used a dial instrument. This instrument was very simple and practical and any one could work it after a few minutes explanation…”
This initial version of the device caught on somewhat and he states of the early funds from it, “Thinking that perhaps I might not get anything at all, I told General Lefferts [President of the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company which supplied tickers to Wall Street], who was at the head of the Company making the purchase, all about my relations. He said, say nothing, do nothing, leave it to me. When the deal went through, the General handed me $1500 [about $38,000 today] and said that was my share, he had saved it out when he made the payment.”
This was just the beginning though. With further funds and encouragement from Lefferts, he began work on improving the ticker. Edison states, “This [ticker] was made exceedingly simple as the outside cities did not have the experts we had in New York to handle anything complicated. The same ticker was used on the London Stock Exchange. After I had made a great number of inventions and obtained patents, the General seemed anxious that the matter should be closed up. One day after I had exhibited and worked a successful device, whereby if a ticker should get out of unison in a broker’s office and commenced to print wild figures, it could be brought to unison from the central station and which saved the labor of many men and much trouble to the broker.”
And here is where Edison keeping his mouth shut changed his life and the world. He states, “He called me into his office and said, ‘Now, young man, I want to close up the matter of your inventions, how much do you think you should receive?’ I had made up my mind that taking in consideration the time and the killing pace I was working that I should be entitled to $5,000, but could get along with $3,000, but when the psychological moment arrived, I hadn’t the nerve to name such a large sum, so I said, ‘Well, General, Suppose you make me an offer.’ Then he said, ‘How would forty thousand dollars strike you.’ [A little over $1 million today] This caused me to come as near fainting as I ever got. I was afraid he would hear my heart beat. I managed to say that I thought it was fair. ‘All right, I will have a contract drawn, come around in three days and sign it, and I will give you the money.’”
Still not believing it, Edison goes on, “[I] had been doing considerable thinking on the subject, the sum seemed to be very large for the amount of work, for at that time I determined the value by the time and trouble and not what the invention was worth to others. I thought there was something unreal about it. However, the contract was handed to me, I signed without reading it. The General called in the Secretary and told him to fix it up and pay the money.”
There was an issue there. Edison didn’t really know what to do with a check, and this was a time before banks would deal with basically anyone but business owners and the rich. (This would only change largely thanks to the efforts of one of the unsung heroes of American history, A.P. Gianini, who founded the Bank of Italy that became the Bank of America, and by the way was the partial inspiration for the character of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. See our video on that one, in which we dive into Gianini and his significance to modern history).
But in any event, Edison states, “I arrived on time, but I was then handed a check for $40,000 on the bank of the State of New York, which was at the corner of William and Wall Streets. This was the first check I ever had. I went to the bank and noticed the window marked “Paying Teller”, got in line with about a dozen men and a dozen messenger boys and slowly approached the window. When directly in front of the window passed in the check, he looked at it, turned it over and handed it back, making a few short remarks which I could not understand, being at that time as ever since, quite deaf. I passed outside to the large steps to let the cold sweat evaporate and made up my mind that this was another Wall Street game like those I had received over the press wire, that I had signed the contract whatever was in it, that the inventions were gone and I had been skinned out of the money. But when I thought of the General and knowing he had treated me well, I couldn’t believe it, and I returned to the office and told the secretary what occurred. He went in and told the General and both had a good laugh. I was told to endorse the check and he would send a young man down with me to identify. We went to the bank, the young man had a short conversation with the Paying Teller, who seemed quite merry over it, I presented the check and the Teller asked me through the young man, how would I have it. I said in any way to please the bank Then he commenced to pull out bundles of notes until there certainly seemed to be one cubic foot. These were passed out and I had the greatest trouble in finding room in my overcoat and other pockets. They had put a job up on me, but knowing nothing of bank customs in those days, I did not even suspect it. I went to Newark and sat up all night with the money for fear it might be stolen. The next day I went back with it all and told the General about it, and he laughed very greatly, but said to one of his young men—Don’t carry this joke on any further, go to the bank with Edison and have him open an account and explain the matter, which I did.”
The 24 year old Edison was now like a kid in a candy shop, stating, “I have too sanguine a temperment to keep money in solitary confinement, so I commenced to buy machinery, rented a shop and got some manufacturing work to do from the first shop; I moved into a large shop Nos. 10 and 12 Ward Street, Newark. I got large orders from the General to build tickers and had over 50 men, and as orders increased I put on a night shift. I was my own foreman on both shifts, one-half hour of sleep three or four times in the twenty-four hours was all I needed. Nearly all my men were on piece work and I allowed them to make good wages and never cut until their wages became absurdly high, as they got more expert. I kept no books. I had two hooks, all the bills and accounts I owed I jabbed on one hook and memorandum of all owed to myself I put on the other.
The first three months I had the bookkeeper go over the books to find out how much we made. He reported $3,000.1 gave a supper to some of my men to celebrate this, only to be told two days afterwards by this alleged accountant that he had made a mistake and that we had lost $500 instead of making $3,000, and then a few days after coming to me again and said he was all mixed up and now found we had made $7,000. I discharged him and got another man, but I never counted anything thereafter as real profits, until I had paid all my debts and had the profits in the bank.”
Edison’s next great invention was only a couple more years in coming- the quadruplex telegraph system, which he patented in 1874. On this one, Edison, demonstrating yet again his genius for taking an existing device and making it better, was experimenting with the existing duplex system and realized that if he added a diplex to it, he could double the number of messages at a time on the line. However, upon trying it, he discovered it wasn’t quite so simple as that and he encountered a number of hurdles. However, each bug he encountered he simply applied what he called a “bug trap”, essentially if he couldn’t get rid of the problem, he created a way to work around it to get the result he wanted while still keeping the benefits of the thing causing the bug. And, yes, he did use the term “bug” for this, which predated computers.
In the end, he was successful. And the resulting windfall of cash- there are varying reports on how much with the most often cited figure being $100,0000 or about $2.6 million today- allowed him to create arguably his greatest invention of all, his first version of The Industrial Think Tank Lab, also known as the Invention Factory.
Rather than stay in Newark, however, in 1876 Edison, with the help of his father locating suitable real estate, decided to build the lab in a small little town outside of New York City called Menlo Park. As to why the move, Edison variously referenced both issue with prices of rent in the city for the size of facility he wanted, and also that “I couldn’t get peace and quiet in Newark and was run down by visitors.”
With this lab, he took all he’d learned from his previous shop, as well as his most talented and hard working employees, and built his dream lab. A two story building, the bottom floor being a top of the line machine shop with just about any tool a machinist could want to make anything. The top floor was likewise a world class lab for experimenting on all manner of things. In all, Edison’s goal was to, to quote him, produce, “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.”
Of course, while Edison had some money, the lab itself at this point was a money sink, which is where his business savvy came in. Knowing that the inventions he would potentially churn out, especially in the beginning when focussing on the telegraph, could benefit Western Union, he wrote to Western Union President William Orton, “the cost of running my machine shop including coal kerosene & labor is about 15 per day or 100 per week; at present I have no source of income which will warrant continuing my machine shop and I shall be compelled to close it unless I am able to provide funds for continuing the same and keep my skilled workmen.” And that if Western Union would pay this money monthly, he would give them rights to use “every invention that I can make during that time which is applicable to commercial telegraphy.”
From here, with the help of his “muckers,” or also sometimes called the “insomnia squad,” the industrial age of inventing began. We’ll get to what the work environment and process was for the inventions and how much Edison was actually involved later. But for now, let’s talk about some of the world changing inventions they came up with. This video would be several times longer if we covered everything invented at Menlo Park. So we’ll stick with some of the more significant items.
For starters, Western Union requested Edison and his team turn their brains to the telephone, as Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention, while revolutionary, wasn’t commercially viable at scale. The biggest issue was that it had severe limitations all centered around the fact that it used a very weak signal from the way the microphone and transmission system worked on it.
And so it was that within a year of Western Union making the request, Edison and one Charles Batchelor invented the carbon transmitter microphone, which allowed for improving the volume, clarity, and distance with which you could transmit phone conversations, making it practical for mass and long distance communication, and ultimately becoming the basic staple design used in most phones up until the late 20th century.
Important to the value of Edison’s breadth of knowledge and experience, the inspiration for this device actually came back in 1873 where at one point Edison was trying to develop a rheostat, or variable resistor, using carbon filled glass tubes. However, he wrote in his notes that “found that the resistance of carbon varied with every noise, jar or sound.”
Not suitable for his original application, when it came to a microphone of sorts for the telephone, this property was perfect, though, as noted, it still took Edison and his team about a year to perfect their device for practical commercial use.
Of course, as ever, others were working on the same type of thing at the same time as the issue with Bell’s original system was obvious and needed fixing to make the telephone broadly useful as we think of it. For example, besides Edison and his team, German inventor Emile Berliner invented more or less the same thing in parallel, with Alexander Graham Bell purchasing Berliner’s patent. All kicking off a legal battle with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling “The [carbon microphone] is, beyond controversy, the invention of Edison.”
Speaking of the telephone, before we move on to the next major invention, as a brief aside to clear up one Edison myth, it is often claimed that Edison coined the word “Hello” and even popularized it for use when answering the phone. As for the former assertion, this is false. The first documented instance of the word “hello” being used as a greeting predates Thomas Edison, appearing in The Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. Davey Crockett, which was written in 1833, about 14 years before Edison was born. The exact quote from the text is: “Said I, ‘Hello stranger! if you don’t take keer your boat will run away with you.’” Further, based on significant literary evidence, it would seem that even though “hello” hadn’t graced the contents of dictionaries yet, by around the 1860s, “hello” had become a relatively common greeting.
As for the second assertion of Edison being the one to popularize “Hello” as a phone greeting, his contribution is less clear. This one stems from the fact that he wrote to the president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company of Pittsburgh, T.B.A. David, in 1877 suggesting, “Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think? Edison – P.S. first cost of sender & receiver to manufacture is only $7.00.”
However, from his exact wording, it’s not actually clear that he’s explicitly suggesting “Hello,” simply stating he doesn’t think the phone needs a ringer because you can hear someone shouting “hello” over the phone from quite a distance away. Or maybe he is suggesting it. It’s just not fully clear from his exact phrasing.
That said, he clearly thought it was the way to go in initial call and response greetings on the phone and as he was intimately involved in the early commercialization of telephones, he may well have helped popularize the standard. Especially as the other titan of the early telephone age in Bell was pushing for saying “ahoy hoy” instead for this purpose. This one is referenced in the Simpsons with Mr. Burns being so old he still answers the phone this way.
Either way, within a few years of this, “hello” had found its way into dictionaries, and telephone operators also got the nickname “hello girls”.
In any event, while working on this microphone for the telephone, he and others thought it likely the telephone would replace the telegraph as a means to disseminate news. Seeing a potential problem in that people talk too fast for the person on the other end to write it all down, Edison felt there was a need for a device to record the voice and play it back slower for dictation.
And so the phonograph was born.
You’ll often read that this was the first device in history to record sound, but this isn’t correct. It was the first device to be able to record AND play back the sound it had recorded. A couple decades before this in March of 1857, Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville was the first to patent a device for recording sound, and many others created similar devices. The issue with these was they simply drew the sound waves on paper tracings and, at least with technology of the age, it was impossible to play the sound back from this. (Researchers have actually in more recent times scanned surviving tracings and, with a bit of custom software, have been able to play them back, including hearing the voices of the people on some of the recordings, making them the first humans in history to have audible record of their voice still around today.) While these early devices were not remotely useful for a mass commercial product, they were, at least, very helpful in science in studying sound waves.
Edison’s device worked very differently from these and was perhaps his first truly original invention, or at least, as close as one can come to any invention being original, as every invention builds on the work of others on some level. Not only this, but this was a rare device that just sort of worked the first try, though, to be fair Edison was building off a lot of previous knowledge and experience he had accumulated over the years on it, as well as some experiments with wax paper before building the prototype. Nevertheless, Edison, with the help of machinist John Kruesi, sketched out the machine which more or less had a diaphragm and needle in a mouthpiece you talked into, as well as a crank for turning a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil. The vibrations from sound would then cause the needle to indent on the tinfoil in a given pattern. The sound could then be played back via resetting the cylinder and cranking the device, with the needle then tracing along the line and vibrating the diaphragm.
John Kruesi finished the prototype reportedly within 30 hours of the design being completed. And it just worked- the very first try, with the first ever recording being Edison reportedly reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and having the device play it back to them. This was also no doubt the first time in history a human exclaimed upon hearing himself, “Wait, that’s what I sound like?”
As for the device just working, Edison stated, “I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” That said, this version of the device was not commercially viable, with recordings extremely low quality and able to be played back only a few times before the recording became useless.
Nevertheless, it was something that the world had never seen anything like before. Adhering to the precept that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic…” when Edison showed the phonograph off to the press, it quickly vaulted him and his Invention Factory lab into the global spotlight, as well as earned him the nickname the “Wizard of Menlo Park”.
In one early demo at Scientific American magazine, they reported, “Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and the machine inquired as to our health, asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well, and bid us a cordial good night.”
He was also eventually asked to come demo it to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes in April of 1878.
Interestingly, despite its potential world changing implications, especially when it came to music, Edison and co did virtually nothing with the device for many years, other than use it to promote the company. Later they would realize it didn’t just have utility in recording and playing back voices, but also music, and at one point even made a mini phonograph to be placed in the world’s first talking dolls, where it would recite little nursery rhymes and the like. However, the fragility of these mini phonograph systems and the rough life dolls often lived made this particular venture fail after a run of only about 500 dolls, most of which were returned within a month when they stopped working.
Moving on from the phonograph and helping to make the telephone commercially viable, on the side they had countless other lesser talked about inventions, including devices for improvements on fruit storage via vacuum sealing them and the automatic electric pen in 1875. On this one, they used an electric motor to drive a needle up and down in a pen, which ultimately created a stencil as the user wrote, which then, with the help of a press, could be used to make copies of a handwritten document. This device was initially quite successful, but soon other technologies, such as the mimeograph, inspired by the electric pen and developed about a decade later, replaced it. However, this worked out for Edison too, as the inventor of the mimeograph, A.B. Dick, teamed up with Edison to create the Edison Mimeograph.
We bring this one up as it’s also often claimed, though whether true or independently invented is difficult to discern, that Samuel O’Reilly used the electric pen as the inspiration for his rather revolutionary electric tattoo needle device he invented in the 1890s, which worked in a somewhat similar fashion.
Beyond all this, in the 1880s Edison and his team also began working on the relatively new fuel cell technology, eventually using sulphuric acid to catalyze the oxidation of carbon from anthracite coal, which he managed to get a strong current out of.
He stated of the fuel cell, “The great secret of doing away with the intermediary furnaces, boilers, steam engines, and dynamos will be found, probably within ten years. I have been working away at it for some months and have got to the point where an apparently insurmountable obstacle confronts me. Working at the problem now seems to me very much like driving a ship straight for the face of a precipice, and when you come to grief picking yourself up and trying it again to-morrow. There is an opening in the barrier somewhere, and some lucky man will find it. I have got far enough to know that the thing is possible. … I give myself five years to work at it, and shall think myself lucky if I succeed in that time.”
However, as is a theme you’ll see a few notable times in his career, if a technology seemed to become too dangerous, or he perceived it as such, regardless of how potentially lucrative it might be, he tended to abandon it to work on something else. In this case, he would mostly abandon the fuel cell technology research after an accident in 1884 resulted in an explosion so great it blew the windows out of his lab.
But in any event, going back to shortly after inventing the microphone for the telephone and the phonograph, Edison and his team would put the phonograph aside to instead focus their efforts on revolutionizing the world of lighting.
As we covered recently in our video Who Actually Invented the Light Bulb, countless people in the decades leading up to Edison’s lightbulb were working on similar technologies, with the arc lamp being used to light an opera theater in Paris all the way back in 1846.
As for Edison, while he did briefly dabble in lighting previous to this, it wasn’t until 1877 when a physics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, George Barker, showed him an arc light system developed by Moses Farmer and William Wallave that, according to a contemporary account in the New York Sun, “Edison was enraptured. He fairly gloated over it. . . . He ran from the instruments to the lights, and from the lights back to the instrument. He sprawled over a table with the simplicity of a child, and made all kinds of calculations. He estimated the power of the instrument and of the lights, the probable loss of power in transmission, the amount of coal the instrument would save in a day, a week, a month, a year, and the result of such saving on manufacturing.”
But while arc lamps were fine for lighting large open spaces, their light was far too harsh for ordinary household use. Thankfully, by this time, research on incandescent lamps was beginning to show promise.
One of the first practical incandescent lamp designs was patented in 1872 by Russian inventor Alexander Lodygin. Lodygin’s bulb did not use a traditional filament but a pair of carbon rods, arranged so that current would pass to the second rod once the first burned out. To get around the limitations of vacuum pump technology at the time, Lodygin instead filled the bulb with inert Nitrogen, an arrangement that would later become standard – albeit with different gasses. Lodygin was later among the first to patent a light bulb using a tungsten filament – another now-standard design feature – but unfortunately at the time tungsten was prohibitively expensive to work with, and none of Lodygin’s designs saw commercial production.
For full details of the development of the lightbulb, go check out our video on it, but suffice it say, a whole lot of people were trying to do exactly as Edison and his team were, all at the same time. But while loads of people came up with designs that worked, none of them were commercially viable for a number of varied reasons depending on the exact device.
Some of them, however, including Canadian medical student Henry Woodward and hotel keeper Matthew Evans, did manage to patent devices that had elements Edison and his team felt were on the right track, and they purchased the rights, in this case for $5,000 or about $160,000 today. None of these were workable commercially viable products, however, and an insane amount of experimentation still needed done to get there, with Edison’s group and one Joseph Swan across the pond in England getting their first for a commercially viable product. Although in slightly different ways, and with Swan ultimately borrowing a lot of elements from Edison’s bulbs to markedly improve his own’s efficiency, with the ensuing court battle all initially going Swan’s way, but then later Edison’s.
As for the conclusion of it, as Lord Justice Fry of Great Britain’s Royal Courts stated, “Swan could not do what Edison did…the difference between a carbon rod (as employed by Swan) and a carbon filament (Mr. Edison’s method) was the difference between success and failure… Mr. Edison used the filament instead of the rod for a definite purpose, and by diminution of the sectional area made a physical law subserve the end he had in view. The smallness of size, then, was no casual matter, but was intended to bring about, and did bring about, a result which the rod could never produce, and so converted failure into success.”
Whatever your opinion on that, this all resulted in the Edison and Swan United Electric Company or Ediswan, which soon became one of the largest manufacturers of lightbulbs in the world.
But going back to Edison’s bulb, Edison began the project by pretty brazenly proclaiming that he could create a safer, cheaper, and more reliable electric light to replace gas lights in only six weeks. Amazingly, such was Edison’s clout at this time that this announcement caused gas company stocks to plummet. After raising funds from investors, which was the real point of the media circus on that one, Edison and his insomnia squad set to work.
While they did initially come up with various designs that worked great, such as one using a thin platinum filament, as with so many similar at the time, none of them were commercially viable on the scale Edison was seeking. For example, the platinum filament bulb lasted only about 14 hours, and platinum was too expensive for mass adoption. Thus, Edison and his muckers embarked upon a marathon hunt for a lightbulb filament that would be durable, long-lasting, and economical to manufacture.
As for the excitement within the company over the light bulb, one of his key employees, Francis Upton, wrote to his father, “The electric light is coming up. We have had a fine burner made of a piece of carbonized thread which gave a light of two or three gas jets. Mr. Edison now proposes to give an exhibition of some lamps in actual operation. There is some talk if he can show a number of lamps of organizing a large company with three or five millions capital to push the matter through. I have been offered $1,000 [about $31,000 today] for five shares of my stock. . . . Edison says the stock is worth a thousand dollars a share or more, yet he is always sanguine and his valuations are on his hopes more than his realities.”
Upton’s letters from here waxed and waned on optimism, but within a few weeks he wrote, “the first lamp that answers the purpose we have wished. It is cheap much more so than we even hoped to have. The lamp is obtained from a piece of charred paper which is bent thus [into a horseshoe shape]. The burner is made from common card board and cut to about the size shown [1″ high]. This is then sealed in a glass bulb and the air exhausted and then a current of electricity passed through it which heats it to a brilliant whiteness so that it will give a light equal to that from a good sized gas burner.”
And on this cheapness, Edison would state once ramped up it would become “so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
As for the Demo, the New York Herald reported, “Extra trains were run from east and west, and notwithstanding the stormy weather, hundreds of persons availed themselves of the privilege. The laboratory was brilliantly illuminated with twenty-five lamps, the office and counting room with eight, and twenty others were distributed in the street leading to the depot and in some of the adjoining houses. The entire system was explained in detail by Edison and his assistants, and the light was subjected to a variety of tests.”
Unfortunately, the initial paper filaments, while working great for a demo, had the issue of inconsistency for mass production. Edison stated, “Paper is no good. Under the microscope it appears like a lot of sticks thrown together. There are places where the fibres are packed and other places where there are few fibres, dense spots and great open holes… Now I believe that somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop there is a vegetable growth with geometrically parallel fibres suitable to our use. Look for it. Paper is man made and not good for filaments.”
On all this, what Edison might have lacked in theoretical knowledge, he more than made up for with the realization that large-scale technical problems require large-scale solutions – an ethos that predicted today’s era of “big science” and industrial research laboratories. And so it was that between 1878 and 1880, Edison and his team at Menlo Park tested over 6,000 different filament materials in various ways, including cotton, linen, cedar, baywood, boxwood, and hickory. Edison even wrote botanists from around the world to obtain samples of exotic plants to test. At first, carbonized cotton seemed to hold the most promise, glowing for nearly 500 hours straight. Ultimately, however, Edison and his team hit upon carbonized bamboo, which allowed for bulb lives of up to 1200 hours. Of the entire research and development, process, Edison later wrote: “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments.”
Naturally, ever the optimist, he went on, “I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.”
But to finish the story of the lightbulb, Edison and his team did not “invent” the lightbulb in the traditional sense; rather, they simply perfected the technology to the point where it became economically viable and practical, and then helped popularize it. As Robert Friedel, professor of history at University of Maryland College Park explains: “He carefully identified all of the key qualifications for a successful rival to the alternatives … reliability, longevity, economy and aesthetics. He deliberately set out to create an electric light that would check all these boxes — this is something no one else succeeded in doing.”
Interestingly, there was a rather insanely revolutionary and far more unique device Edison accidentally invented in parallel with the lightbulb that was just one of his lightbulbs with a slight twist. But unfortunately for Edison, he did not realize the implication of what he’d just made in one of his thousands of tests, and how revolutionary it could be if refined a bit, and in the right applications. Because of his failure to realize any of this, nor be the one to perfect it for commercial use, despite his patent for the device, Edison is almost never given credit for his contribution on this world changing invention. Which is unsurprising as, as is a theme you’re probably picking up on, it’s the person who ultimately did the thing in its perfected commercial form, rather than was the first to come up with the thing, that usually gets credit in popular history.
On this one, enter English physicist John Ambrose Fleming, who was an advisor to Edison Electric Light and consultant to Edison-Swan at one point. He would be inspired by Edison’s device to create his revolutionary Fleming valve vacuum tube in the early 20th century. Further, after reading Fleming’s paper on this in 1905, this was partially the inspiration, and in fact a decades long lawsuit would ensue related to this, for engineer Lee de Forest’s three element vacuum tube, and after a whole lot of work, the refined triode device that ultimately became the backbone for countless electronic devices from radar to the digital computer, until the transistor came along.
Going back to Edison’s original device, at one point during his experiments on the lightbulb, he and his staff were trying to figure out why carbon from the filament seemed to be jumping across the vacuum to the walls of the bulb. Clearly some current flow was involved. So in order to try to figure out what was going on here, Edison created a special bulb with a third electrode placed in between the legs of the filament, and then connected that to a galvanometer to measure the current. What he found was that if, relative to the filament, the plate was put at a negative potential, there would be no current between the plate and the filament. However, if the plate was at a positive potential, and the filament heated up enough, there would be a large current flow between the filament to the plate through the vacuum. Importantly in this, the electrons can only flow one way, from the hot element to the cold one, creating a rudimentary diode.
Edison ultimately patented the device for its potential use as a sort of voltage regulator, but seemingly did not understand the implications beyond that. Importantly, he did show it off at the International Electrical Exposition in Philadelphia in 1884, with one William Preece bringing several of these bulbs back to England and coining the term “Edison Effect,” also now known as “thermionic emission,” in a paper he published the following year on the phenomenon. And, of course, as noted, a couple decades later Fleming was inspired by all this and ultimately did his thing, and the modern electronics age was born.
In any event, going back to the lightbulb, in parallel to all of this, and keeping with Edison’s credo of making complete systems for his products to make them as commercially viable as possible, he and his team quickly realized the Wallace arc-light dynamo generator and others like it wouldn’t be suitable for incandescent light. Thus, the team got to work experimenting and studying electromagnets and generator designs. After a few weeks of this, they tasked their machine shop with building new generators based on their research, which they then experimented with ceaselessly, ultimately coming up with a much more efficient system that worked well for this application. Among other modifications, rather than having equal internal and external resistance as was the norm at the time as this produced maximum current, they found the generator was significantly more efficient overall if the internal resistance was smaller.
Upton would write of this to his father, “We have now the best generator of electricity ever made and this in itself will make a business.”
On this one, yet again, Edison and his team came up with nothing inherently original, but tweaked existing technology to make it better and more efficient and, thus, more practical for commercial use.
Beyond the commercially viable light bulb and generators to make the whole system as efficient as possible, Edison and his team also came up with everything from fuses, power meters, the screw in light socket design, and countless other things needed to make the entire system go.
Unfortunately for Edison, while business was booming at this stage, in 1884, around the same time he was accidentally blowing up his lab experimenting with fuel cells, his wife Mary died unexpectedly, of what isn’t clear. She had been suffering on and off again from what was called “obstinate neuralgia” and “gastritis” and “uterine troubles” which all apparently caused her severe pain. Part of her treatment for this for pain management was a regular dose of morphine… Given how suddenly she died and her young age at just 29, as well as some rumors that seemed to have swirled at the time about it, it’s often speculated that it was, in the end, a morphine overdose that killed her. Whatever the case, once this happened, Edison spent less and less time at the Menlo Park lab, in favor of living and working in New York.
Two years after this, he married one Mina Miller with perhaps the most adorably nerdy way of proposing to her of all time.
First, as he approached every other problem he encountered, Edison is speculated to have been highly analytical when it came to choosing his second wife. Or, at least, a rather curious scorecard was found amongst his countless notebooks. In this one, he appears to have been making an attributes list of himself and 60 people he knew, both men and women. Note here, this seemingly wasn’t just for prospective partners, but also ranking other men’s wives and the like too, to see how they fared together given their attributes list. He then ranked everyone based on various traits from things like temper, mouth, affectionate or not, ambition, conceit, reasonableness, etc.
As to why, as alluded to, it’s hypothesized this may have had something to do with his future wife, this is primarily down to the timing of the scorecard, which coincided with when he was looking for a new wife and actively being introduced to prospects for this, as well as the fact that he also ranked how he viewed the happiness of the people who were married and cross referenced them to their attributes. Thus, perhaps, in the most Thomas Edison way possible, he was trying to analyze what made a good match for a wife.
That said, it’s also been speculated that he was actually trying to test the theories of one Sir Francis Galton, the “father of eugenics”, concerning the connection between certain physical traits and psychological characteristics. Or perhaps he was doing both.
If it really was an attempt to find a woman who maximally fit someone who would make a good partner for himself, this rigor may have been from being a little burned by his former wife who, the only thing he ever seems to have mentioned about her in any of his insane amount of writings was in the earliest part of their relationship lamenting, “Mrs Mary Edison My wife Dearly Beloved Cannot invent worth a Damn!” Something he later doubled down on writing on valentine’s day, “My Wife Popsy Wopsy Can’t Invent.”
He also spent so much time away from his family in the lab that his daughter, Marion, would state her mother slept with a revolver under her pillow because how secluded Menlo Park was frightened her at night, and quite often her father would stay most of the night at the lab and not come home “until early morning or not at all.”
That said, he may have had great affection for her as Marion also states when her mother died he was “shaking with grief, weeping and sobbing so he could hardly tell me that mother had died in the night.” And that in the aftermath for several months he basically kept Marion glued to him, even often while working in his lab.
Nevertheless, her inability to invent seems to have been a sore spot. This is in stark contrast to his second wife, Mina, who sometimes helped him record test results, and otherwise witnessed on several of his experiment notebook entries, and even on at least one instance performed an experiment with him to determine if electrical shock could be used to get an oyster to open up. He would also write to Mina, “You & the children and the Laboratory is all my life. I have nothing else.”
Going back to their adorable courtship and proposal, Edison first met Mina Miller while vacationing in Winthrop Massachusetts with a friend. The daughter of inventor Lewis Miller, who made a fortune inventing the Buckeye Reaper harvester combine and subsequently devoted most of his wealth to various philanthropic endeavors, Mina checked a lot of the boxes of what Edison was looking for in a new partner. So smitten was he, he would later write in his journal, “Saw a lady who looked like Mina… got to thinking about Mina and came near being run over by a street car—If Mina interferes much more will have to take out an accident policy.”
During their relatively brief courtship that mostly comprised a trip Mina joined Edison and his group on, he also taught her morse code. After this, the two apparently enjoyed tapping out conversations to one another rather than talking when others were around. He states of this, “We could use pet names without the least embarrassment, although there were three other people in the carriage.”
Note here, his previous courtship to Mary Stilwell had also been remarkably brief from meeting to marriage taking just two months.
With Mina, when he finally decided to propose to her while they were in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, rather than just ask her directly. He, instead, asked by tapping the request out on her hand. Rather than reply with words, Mina simply tapped back “Yes” in Morse Code on his hand.
Of course, being the 19th century, Edison still needed to ask her father for permission. He thus wrote to him that during the trip their friendship had evolved into “admiration as I began to appreciate her gentleness and grace of manner, and her beauty and strength of mind. That admiration has on my part ripened into love.” In response, Lewis invited Edison to his home in Akron where they discussed the matter more fully, and consent was given.
And so it was that the couple were married on February 24, 1886. Edison then purchased a new estate in West Orange, New Jersey, and shortly thereafter also created a new lab within walking distance of his home in West Orange to work from.
And on this lab, utilizing all he’d learned from Menlo Park, and significantly more resources he had this time around, his ambition was to create “the best equipped & largest Laboratory extant, and the facilities incomparably superior to any other for rapid & cheap development of an invention, & working it up into commercial shape with models patterns special machinery— In fact there is no similar institution in existence.”, and that he hoped to be able to “build anything from a lady’s watch to a Locomotive.”
The initially 5 building complex included a central three story building with everything from every tooling equipment any inventor could want to even a massive library for research reference (and which functioned as Edison’s office). The facility also had separate physics and chemistry and metallurgy labs, etc. This was just the beginning. The complex rapidly grew from there, at its peak around WWI, covering about 20 acres with over 10,000 people working there.
Given the scale of all this, here, Edison did indeed begin to step back slightly, still putting in his long hours and directing everything, but no longer intimately involved in everything to the level he was at Menlo Park. As noted in Rutgers incredible Thomas A. Edison Papers Project, which catalogs the over 5 million documents by Edison and his cohorts while they were doing all their inventing, they state, “The big new laboratory that Edison opened in West Orange, N.J., late in 1887 led to one of his most important inventions: the professional research director. The lab’s unmatched size, equipment, supplies, and skilled staff allowed Edison to create in new ways. No longer did he have to take the lead on each problem: he could assign it to a talented man or team of men (always men). Over the next few years, Edison adapted his long habits; still working eighteen (or more) hours in a day, he learned to direct others’ work: planning, watching, quizzing, instructing, summarizing. Still the inventor working at a bench, now he could also multiply his personal efforts, pushing a variety of difficult projects at more or less the same time. Work could even go on without him, as it did when he spent almost two months abroad visiting the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. The new role of research director could not be patented, and it added little to Edison’s glittering fame at the time. But he proved the concept of industrial research that, within his lifetime, would be adopted by the likes of General Electric, Bell Telephone, and DuPont to transform the United States in the 20th century.”
It was at this lab that Edison decided to circle back with the phonograph, including not just coming up with various versions of the device itself, but the entire suite of things needed from equipment to mass manufacture the records for it, the recording equipment to record whatever on them, etc.
It was also around this time Edison and his team began to dip their toes into the burgeoning market of motion pictures, with the idea being to eventually link the phonograph with such motion pictures. We’ve covered the origin of the film industry in our video What was the First Movie Ever Made?, which is the fascinating tale of the unabashed murder, Eadweard Muybridge, who thanks to the fact that the jury let him off despite him being quite open about the murder, we got the world’s first motion pictures, which is what he was working on at the time when he decided someone needed killing.
As for Edison, he visited Muybridge’s studio sometime in the mid-1880s. Taking a keen interest in Muybridge’s groundbreaking work, but unimpressed by his execution, Edison began to develop a device that “would do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.”
Around 1889, the Kinetograph debuted out of Edison’s West Orange lab. Despite Edison’s peripheral involvement here in inventing what many hail as the first true video camera, because at this point Edison had become more of an administrator on a lot of projects, and seemingly was focussing his time on other inventions during this period, historians generally attribute Edison’s assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, as the primary creator of this history-making invention.
Whatever the case there, in 1890, Dickson shot a test movie he entitled Monkeyshines No. 1, featuring the movements of another lab assistant, with the result being like something a ghost hunter would use as “proof” that evil spirits are lurking, rather than like the films that would soon start to come out.
Nevertheless, it’s generally given credit for being the first official video camera motion picture in history. It also inspired Edison to build what was perhaps the first movie studio near his West Orange lab. Calling it “Black Maria” because they thought it resembled a police wagon, this is where they shot hundreds of motion pictures featuring vaudeville, magic shows, boxing matches, and Wild Wild West stunts – included among the latter is a video of Annie Oakley showing off her prodigious skills with a rifle.
From here, motion picture innovation took off. In April 1894, the Kinetoscope Parlor opened in New York City – essentially the first public movie theater. Then, there was the first movie projected for a wide audience, the first on-screen kiss, and the first theater permanently created entirely for a film.
The Lumières brothers and countless others also propelled the industry, and if you want to learn more on all that, do go check out our video What was the First Movie Ever Made? Because Eadweard Muybridge’s story is incredibly fascinating, as was the entire inspiration for the motion picture, which was to answer a question that had plagued artists pretty much as long as artists have been artisting- Do all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground in mid gallop? Something Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, wanted to know and was willing to throw prodigious sums of money at Muybridge to get it answered, as this was impossible to tell with the human eye or with photographic technology of the age. Muybridge’s solution to the problem was incredibly ingenious. And while what he came up with wasn’t a video camera, it did result in the first motion picture. His later work would be extensively studied by the likes of early Disney artists and researchers the world over to study things like how animals and humans actually move.
In any event, going back to other things Edison was working on, one major failure of his work during all this, as alluded to earlier, was in mining. There was a huge need for iron ore at the time, so Edison decided to throw he and his team’s brains into the fray. And so it was that he sold his stock in GE after mostly being ousted from it owing to the War of the Currents, which we’ll get to in a bit to separate fact from fiction on that one, because there is so much fiction commonly out there on this. Edison then promptly spent millions of dollars trying to come up with an efficient way to take low-grade ore and use a magnetic separator to create high-grade briquets for use in steel mills.
Ultimately this venture failed when large iron ore deposits were discovered in the Great Lakes, dropping the price too much for him to compete. However, one small success that came out of it was that the rock crushing technology they’d come up with would be adapted for use in producing portland cement after Edison and his team noted the waste sand they produced while milling ore could be used to make extremely durable cement. Ever one to not just make one innovation in an existing field, he and his team then came up with a long rotary kiln which they licensed out, which ironically resulted in Edison’s Portland cement plant being much less profitable because of the subsequent overproduction in the industry partially as a result. Nevertheless, Edison Portland cement was widely used, including to build the original Yankee Stadium. Trying to bolster demand, as well as revolutionize housing, Edison and his team also came up with a quick and inexpensive way to make concrete houses, though this never really caught on beyond a handful of homes made using their system.
Another thing that helped soften the blow of his misstep selling his GE stock and the failure of the iron-ore business was the fact that his phonograph company was exploding around the same time, fulfilling his former prediction a couple decades before that it would “grow up to be a big feller and support me in my old age.”
Also during all this, Edison turned his sights on electric cars. At the time, electric cars were actually vastly more popular than their noisy, smelly, gas powered or steam counterparts. And for city travel particularly, which is most of what people used cars for at the time, they were quite practical, if rather expensive.
On all this, for example, in 1899, 90% of New York City’s taxi cabs were electric vehicles, built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia. Not only that, but in 1899 and 1900, electric cars outsold all other types of cars, such as gas and steam powered vehicles. In 1902 an electric car, the Baker Torpedo, became the first car to have an aerodynamic body that enclosed both the driver and the platform. This car at one point reached 80 mph in a speed test before crashing and killing two spectators. It was later clocked as high as 120 mph, but with spectators not invited this time.
The issue with these cars was, as has been the case since, the need for improved batteries. Thinking electric cars would win the battle if they had these, Edison and his team got to work looking for alternatives to acid batteries, ultimately leading him to work on alkaline batteries. After over 10,000 combinations on this one, the battery Edison and his team were most famous for was the Nickel-iron battery, versions of which are still popular today for things like off-grid power storage due to their extreme durability and longevity, as well as speed of charge and energy density, all a huge advancement over lead-acid batteries of Edison’s era.
On this one, Edison initially told the press back in 1902 they had come up with a battery system that could enable over 100 miles range in a typical electric car of the era and that “I do not know how long it would take to wear out one of the batteries, for we have not yet been able to exhaust the possibilities of one of them.”
Unfortunately for him and his staff, they still had a LOT of work to do to work out all the kinks and initial sales came with a lot of complaints. And in the interim, one of Edison’s close friends and neighbors in Henry Ford changed the game with his Ford Model T, despite Ford himself being a fan of electric cars, with his wife, Clara, driving the 1914 Detroit Electric car instead of his Model T. For reference, this one had an impressive range of 80 miles.
While inferior to many electric cars of the age on a number of fronts, the Model T was dirt cheap in comparison. By 1915 Henry Ford, due in part to his innovative assembly line factory construction, was able to offer his cars at a base price of around $500 a piece (equivalent to about $15,000 today), which made it affordable for even the non-rich, something that had never been the case before. In contrast, at that time the average price of an electric car had steadily risen to about $1700 or about $50,000 today. This was also around the same time crude oil was discovered in Texas and Oklahoma, which drastically reduced the cost of gasoline so that it was now affordable to average consumers. In addition to these factors, Charles Kettering invented the electric starter, which eliminated the need to hand crank gas powered engines, which could be a somewhat dangerous process, as well as incredibly inconvenient. Road systems also began expanding, further tipping things more in gasoline engine car’s favor; this was not only because of the range factor, but also because gasoline cars were now becoming significantly faster than electric cars. For example, while the American Morrison electric car had a range of nearly 200 miles, it could only cruise along at about 15 mph. For city driving, this was not an issue, but on a roadtrip it wasn’t exactly ideal.
That said, all was not lost for Edison and co, as the batteries they came up with and sold were eventually extremely durable and extremely profitable. Henry Ford also initially solicited Edison’s help in coming up with a battery for the Model T’s starter in 1912, though ultimately lead-acid won the day there for that use-case. But, as noted, Edison’s nickel-iron batteries eventually sold well and were used in a variety of applications in his day, including for various railroad related applications, such as railroad signaling. His Edison Storage Battery Company even continued operating all the way to 1972 when they sold to Exide Battery Corporation.
In any event, it was around this time as WWI was raging along that Edison’s Thomas A. Edison Incorporated began to do less original inventing and more just refining things they’d already done, with the man himself, now nearing 70, more and more stepping away from day to day management, leaving it to his son Charles, among others, and, while he continued to work on various things, his glory days were behind him.
Noteworthy, as previously mentioned, this was intentional, with Edison stating he wanted to “give up the commercial end… and work in my laboratory as a scientist.” Essentially just exploring wherever curiosity led him and no longer worrying if where it led him was to a marketable product, with the exception of the phonograph, which he stated was his baby and “commercial reasons when it comes to the phonograph don’t count with me. It’s the only invention of mine that I want to run myself.”
This was a rather curious thing for him to focus on given he was mostly deaf… which was occasionally a problem such as when Edison insisted he get to select all the music they recorded.
In an interesting little family conflict aside here, noteworthy is that during WWI, his oldest daughter Marion’s husband was an officer in the German Army, and the couple had long lived in Germany, all getting her stuck behind enemy lines during the war. Meanwhile, on the other side, Edison’s son William was fighting for the U.S. Army in France in the Tank Corps. This presumably could have made family get togethers awkward in the aftermath, except that right after the war, Marion discovered her husband had been having an affair and shortly after ended their marriage, no doubt lamenting her brother hadn’t managed to blow his head off with one of his tanks during the war.
Also during WWI, Edison began consulting for the U.S. military, particularly the Navy, as well as shifting the focus of his personal research onto the war efforts. We bring this one up to debunk the first of our Edison / Tesla rivalry that actually never was a thing myth. And that’s that the spiteful Edison once torpedoed yet another of Tesla’s great innovations, when Tesla proposed to the Naval Consulting Board using a radar-like system he’d come up with to aid in the war effort, something that would have been truly revolutionary at the time…
On this one, it is true that the Naval Consulting Board shot down Tesla’s idea and Edison was seemingly involved in that decision, being head of the board. But this was not because of any spiteful act from Edison. Rather, simply because it was a genius idea that was dumb in the way Tesla was trying to apply it… Not too dissimilar to his work on wireless electricity. You see, Tesla was proposing to use radio waves to track submarines. The issue was that radio waves and Tesla’s proposed system wouldn’t have worked for this given water was their medium. Thus, the Navy rejected Tesla’s idea and went with working on an alternate technology in sonar instead, passive versions of which had already been in use by humans going all the way back to Leonardo Da Vinci, with active echo-location versions leading up to the war having been used by humans for things like detecting icebergs and the like. But around WWI, militaries of the world began focussing on refining sonar systems for use in detecting and locating submarines.
We should also briefly point out this story has also given rise to the myth that Tesla invented radar, but this isn’t correct either. A couple decades before this, Heinrich Hertz had already done experiments showing radio waves would reflect off metal objects when he was exploring the suggestion which had, in turn, previously been made by James Clerk Maxwell. Further, over a decade before Tesla’s suggestion to use the system in water, Christian Hülsmeyer had already patented the world’s first functional radar system, albeit a crude one compared to what would later be developed. One newspaper account of a demonstration of this system, which was used on ships in one test, even suggested what Tesla later proposed, “Because, above and under water metal objects reflect waves, this invention might have significance for future warfare.”
We should also point out here, as it’s important for some things we’re going to discuss later, that Edison only agreed to work with the Naval Consulting Board if it was for defensive technology. Edison at this stage in life had pretty strong feelings against the other way, stating, “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.”
You might find this a rather odd thing for an elephant killer to say, but we’ll get to that in a bit. But just briefly point out here that the entire elephant murder story is yet another of the Edison myths. As for the other animal killings, well. Stay tuned.
But speaking of animals and his later life feeling like we need to stop harming living things, according to an account in the June of 1908 edition of the Vegetarian Messenger, Edison even became a vegetarian, stating, “Mr. Thos. Alva Edison, the famous inventor ceased using meat and went for a thorough course of vegetarianism. Mr. Edison was so pleased with the change of diet that, now he has regained his normal health, he continues to renounce meat in all its forms.”
It’s generally reported he stuck with this for the rest of his life, both for health and moral reasons, though whether that’s true or not proved prohibitively difficult to track down definitively.
Whatever the case, going back to humans, he stated, “I want to save and advance human life, not destroy it… I am proud of the fact that I have never invented weapons to kill.”
As for WWI, most of his personal research during the war was centered around methods for evading torpedoes and detecting them and submarines, camouflaging ships and blinding periscope operators, as well as developing a telephone system for the ships, and methods for protecting passengers from toxic smoke stack gasses. He also worked on systems for spotting airplanes. On the side, he built and switched some of his manufacturing facilities to make various chemicals needed in the war effort that the U.S. and its Allies formerly got from England and Germany.
The rapidity he and his team did this was quite remarkable as well. For example, upon England’s embargo of carbolic acid, something Edison himself needed for production of his phonograph records, he simply, according to one newspaper account, “in a week, 163 consecutive hours of work for 40 men in three shifts and Edison in one, the plans were finished. . . . Seventeen days afterward his plant delivered its first day’s output of product, which other chemists assured him would take at least six months.” He more or less rinsed and repeated this general breakneck pace developing plants for certain other needed chemicals there was now a shortage of due to the war.
After the war, Edison continued experimenting, though, as noted, didn’t particularly focus on anything commercial- just whatever tickled his fancy in the moment. That said, in the late 1920s, due to rising costs of rubber, Henry Ford, along with Harvey Firestone, did ask Edison if he could find a good alternative to rubber for car tires, which he did in Goldenrod weed. This is what he was primarily working on when he suddenly collapsed in August of 1931. From here, his health continued to decline until his death on October 18, 1931 owing to complications due to diabetes.
In the end, Edison was listed on 1,093 patents, 389 related to electric light and power devices, 150 related to the telegraph, 141 for batteries, 195 related to the phonograph, and another 34 related to the telephone… The total there is still a record for one person unbroken today. And that’s not even counting the additional around 500 that he never finished or he applied for and was rejected.
So, this all brings us around to just how much of this was Edison inventing, and how much of it was him taking credit for others’ work like his lab workers and Nicola Tesla?
Let’s start with the Tesla story because more than just about any other facet of Edison’s life, this is the area of most controversy, has an astounding amount of commonly accepted misinformation, and is the source of much of the Edison hate on the interwebs.
First, upon immigrating to the United States, Tesla did indeed very briefly work for Edison thanks to one of Tesla’s former bosses, Tivadar Puskás, at The Budapest Telephone Exchange in Hungary. Puskás helped Tesla get a job at the Continental Edison Company in Paris installing indoor electricing lighting. Impressing his employers there, most notably the aforementioned Charles Batchelor, who, as previously noted, worked closely with Edison on the phonograph and the carbon transmitter for the telephone. When Batchelor was recalled to New York, he invited the brilliant young Tesla to come with him.
And so it was that almost immediately upon arriving in the United States, Tesla began working at Edison’s Machine Works for a period of just six months. It was this curiously short time span that is often cited as the origin of the next great myth of Tesla’s life and career- that Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla hated each other. There is zero evidence of this. And actually both men, at least as far as the scant surviving mentions the two made of each other, seem to have respected one another greatly. We’ll get to that shortly.
But, according to legend, their fictional feud all started when Tesla was offered a $50,000 bonus (about $2 million today) if he could improve the design of certain of Edison’s machinery. When Tesla successfully completed this task, Edison’s company (or Edison himself, in some versions of the tale) declined to pay out.
As to the origin of this story, it came from Tesla later in life. He wrote of all this,
“The S.S. Oregon, the fastest passenger steamer at that time, had both of its lighting machines disabled and its sailing was delayed. As the superstructure had been built after their installation it was impossible to remove them from the hold. The predicament was a serious one and Edison was much annoyed. In the evening I took the necessary instruments with me and went aboard the vessel where I stayed for the night. The dynamos were in bad condition, having several short-circuits and breaks, but with the assistance of the crew I succeeded in putting them in good shape… During this period I designed twenty-four different types of standard machines with short cores and of uniform pattern which replaced the old ones. The Manager had promised me fifty thousand dollars on the completion of this task but it turned out to be a practical joke. This gave me a painful shock and I resigned my position.”
Now, to begin with, even if true, it should be explicitly pointed out that Edison wasn’t involved in any of this, with the story simply mentioning Tesla’s manager.
Yet another problem with this supposedly being the origin of the fictional feud between the two is that it isn’t actually clear that it ever happened. First, even if Tesla’s manager had made such a promise of a, in modern dollars, near $2 million bonus, it bizarrely makes Tesla look rather dimwitted, given his pay at the time was only $18 per week and he would otherwise have just been doing his job in making these improvements. Further, even if bonuses were offered (and, indeed, Edison was known to give bonuses and promotions and the like to employees who did significant things), it certainly wouldn’t have been for a figure like $50,000, which would have made Tesla not only quite wealthy overnight, but given him more money than Edison’s Machine Works actually had on hand at the time.
The story, thus, seems a little suspect on its details.
This is also not documented in Tesla’s journal around the time it supposedly happened, which, we’re just guessing if someone offered you the equivalent of $2 million today as a bonus to do your normal job, you’d probably write that crap down in your nightly written musings. Further, you’d certainly write about it if they then reneged on the deal. Especially if it then made you so angry it was the reason you quit your job, as Tesla claims here. What he actually wrote in his journal when he left the company, however, was simply “Good by to the Edison Machine Works.”
And it’s at this point we should probably mention in the period of his life Tesla came up with this story, let’s just say the formerly brilliant mind was, very sadly, a slice of cheddar short of a cheese sandwich, with the man himself becoming increasingly “eccentric,” to put it kindly. For example, beyond making wild claims about various world changing inventions he’d supposedly successfully made later in life that were provably false and often wouldn’t have worked anyway (though that hasn’t stopped many an interweb commenter today citing them as fact), around this time, he was also claiming pigeons were speaking to him, one of whom he had fallen in love with. As he wrote, “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”
Going back to Tesla’s departure from the company, there seems to have been no animosity here. And, indeed, he was able to leave with some security thanks to Edison. You see, when the brilliant young scientist left, as mentioned, he was allowed patent rights to some of the things he’d come up with while working on things for Edison, something that normally would have seen the patent rights given to Edison’s company, but for whatever reason it was allowed in his case. With Tesla even using the attorney Edison used at the time to file his patents.
This is also noteworthy here in that it debunks the idea that Edison was just sitting back evilly cackling as he stole his brilliant employee, Tesla’s, inventions for fun and profit. In fact, it went the other way and, for whatever reason, he allowed Tesla to take them, something that would be pivotal in Tesla’s first steps into financial independence, with his ability to then sell them and keep the money himself, instead of giving or sharing it with Edison.
We should also explicitly point out here that Edison and Tesla were also not even really ever rivals at any point after this.
Now hold up you say!!! What about the war of the currents- AC vs DC? That was absolutely Edison vs Tesla…. Except no. No it was not. It was Edison against George Westinghouse and other companies like Thomson-Houston, with Tesla barely involved. In fact, the war of the currents was already pretty much done and Edison had already lost control of his electric company before Tesla’s AC Induction motor was really deployed. Its widespread adoption wouldn’t come until after.
We should also debunk here very briefly the idea that Tesla invented AC power, which is another common, and very inexplicable, one you’ll read on the interwebs. He did not. Others like Faraday and Hippolyte Pixii pioneered that. With significant AC generator and transformer work done by various individuals such as Sabastian Ziani de Ferranti. And as for AC Power transmission, almost a decade before Tesla threw his hat into the ring, guys like Oskar von Miller and Galileo Ferraris were doing their thing. The latter, Ferraris, is not called the “Father of three-phase current” for no reason. A title he ultimately earned through his work when he developed his AC motor three years before Tesla invented his version of mostly the same thing. In fact, Westinghouse initially debated whether to go with Tesla or Ferraris, but ultimately settled on the former. On top of that, countless AC powered devices existed before Tesla was even born. Further, Westinghouse, and others, had already developed a means of distributing AC power from his plants. Just Tesla, building off of other’s ideas, came up with a better, and more commercially viable, way, once the kinks were worked out anyway, which took some time, which is why his motor wasn’t really directly involved in the outcome of the war of the currents.
On all this, we are being intentionally a little harsh here because of the double standard in the Tesla vs Edison war of the interwebs. None of this is actually meant to diminish Tesla’s work, which was extremely important and significant, and his AC Induction Motor absolutely was a key innovation that made AC power distribution more practical. Just like countless inventions of Edison’s and his team that built off of existing ideas and made a new version that was refined to the point of being more practical and more commercially viable.
Neither Edison nor Tesla are unique on this one either- like literally every other inventor in history, both built off other people’s work, and were also developing basically the exact same devices as countless others around their time. Simultaneous invention is a thing you will find with just about every invention in history. When science and technology reach a certain state, countless inventions become, maybe not always obvious, but let’s just say, their time has come, and a lot of people tend to work on the same things at the same time. Who gets credit almost always is the one who made the thing commercially viable. Tesla, like Edison, was just another important cog in the collective human machinery of technological advancement. As to which was the bigger cog, we’ll leave that discussion for another video after we do one on Tesla with just as much depth as this one.
Going back to the war of the currents, news of Tesla’s Alternating Current Induction Motor eventually reached George Westinghouse, primary owner of the Westinghouse Company. Again, both Edison and Westinghouse were already fighting to secure dominance of the energy markets, and the latter put his faith in Tesla’s innovation to help his and his team’s system win the battle thanks to efficiency improvements over their previous system.
That said, once again, as mentioned, Tesla’s motor didn’t end up coming into play in the War of the Currents other than costing Westinghouse a lot of money. This is something that famously, during the Financial Panic of 1890, allegedly saw Westinghouse almost lose control of his company. At the time, the Westinghouse team, which for a time included Tesla, were still trying to work out the kinks, but during the interim, it was costing Westinghouse $15,000 per year (about $500,000 today) as part of the guaranteed minimum royalty arrangement regardless of distribution. Westinghouse’s new lenders who were refinancing his debts were not a fan of this and a few other such investments that seemed to not be needed to continue business as usual.
Thus, in 1891, Westinghouse told Tesla he had two options. He could either stick with that original agreement and Westinghouse would have to cede control of his company to his lenders. The result of this for Tesla would then be he would have to bank on getting his money somehow from them, and potentially have a nice legal battle over it, as Tesla had sold the manufacturing rights for the motor to Westinghouse for $65,000 (about $2.2 million) as part of the deal. Note, the deal also paid Tesla an additional $24,000 (about $800,000 today) for a year to consult while they tried to deploy his motor. Given the lenders were pretty explicitly wanting to cut ties with Tesla, not seeing the future potential value of what Tesla had made, Westinghouse seemed to think Tesla wasn’t going to have much luck there without a nice legal battle. Option 2 for Tesla was that he could agree to forgo those royalty payments and Westinghouse would continue to work on deploying and promoting his motor.
While Tesla choosing option 2 is often presented as him making an altruistic, or sometimes stated, naive, move, Tesla was not so stupid- obviously- nor altruistic when it came to his work. Considering his choices, this was probably just a good move given the data he had at the time. Having Westinghouse continue to push his motor and try to deploy it at scale was a huge benefit to him beyond the royalty payments. While certainly keeping both would have been massively better, if Westinghouse was being honest with him, which that’s not fully clear other than that Westinghouse was definitely in severe financial trouble at the time, and his new lenders were wanting him to cut back on such unprofitable spending, then it was a prudent move. Whether it was a smart one or not though, who knows? But, for what it’s worth, about 5 years later it all worked out reasonably well when Westinghouse and GE jointly paid $216,000 (about $8 million today) for the patent for the motor.
Moving on from there, as for Edison and Tesla hating each other, as alluded to, there is no evidence of this. As for Edison’s thoughts on Tesla. About the only potential thing he ever seems to have said about the man directly is “this is a damned good man,” although whether he actually said this isn’t quite clear. This incident allegedly occurred when Edison found out Tesla had stayed up all night working on a project he’d been assigned to and was told so by Tesla’s manager.
Whatever the case there, Tesla later praised Edison in an article he wrote for the New York Times when Edison died, stating, “The recurrence of a phenomenon like [Thomas] Edison is not very likely. The profound change of conditions and the ever increasing necessity of theoretical training would seem to make it impossible. He will occupy a unique and exalted position in the history of his native land, which might well be proud of his great genius and undying achievements in the interest of humanity.”
And as for Tesla’s criticism of Edison, about the worst he seems to have ever said was to take a little jab at Edison’s research methods. That said, even here, while it is a small criticism, it’s also a great compliment concerning Edison’s work ethic, persistence, and meticulous way of tackling problems. Tesla stated, “If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.”
Tesla would elsewhere expand on this, “[Edison’s] 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 per cent 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. In view of this, the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of a miracle.”
And given Edison himself allegedly, but not actually, stated, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” but he also definitely did have the quote “There is no experient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking” over his desk, this assessment of Tesla’s perhaps checks out, partially.
However, to be fair, if we’re going to go with a real Edison quote instead of the “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” thing he never actually said (more on this in the Bonus Facts later), what he did say ws “Genius is hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense.” That latter, common sense, is an important one, and Edison’s, through decades of work and experience had, over the years, become decidedly uncommon in the best ways.
Edison may not have had the depth of understanding of one field that Tesla did, outside of perhaps telegraphy, but his broad, more shallow, expertise was incredibly valuable in ability to take ideas and knowledge from one field and apply it to another in ways those who were only experts in that field likely wouldn’t have thought of. This advantage was only enhanced by his team, some of which were, maybe not Tesla level experts, as few were, at the least extremely advanced, and could augment Edison’s deficiencies. In some sense, Edison had the best of both worlds, so there was really no miracle at all in the prodigious amount of accomplishments.
With regards to the light bulb, famed British scientist John Tyndall would comment on Edison and his teams’ unique abilities in this way, stating in 1879, “Edison has the penetration to seize the relationship of facts and principles, and the art to reduce them to novel and concrete combinations. Hence, though he has accomplished nothing new in relation to the electric light, an adverse opinion as to his ability to solve the complicated problem . . . would be unwarranted. . . . Knowing something of the practical problem, I should certainly prefer seeing it in Mr. Edison’s hands to having it in mine.”
Edison further very correctly noted, “I never did anything worth doing entirely by accident…. Almost none of my inventions were derived in that manner. They were achieved by having trained myself to be analytical and to endure and tolerate hard work.”
All of this is an important point to explicitly highlight because the way Edison and co were doing research was, as alluded to, relatively revolutionary at the time, and is far more the way many new discoveries have happened since. Putting brilliant and complimentary minds on a problem, then systematically performing mass and very meticulous expiremention until they came up with a suitable solution. To Tesla this may have seemed inefficient, and maybe it was at times in some respects. But it also more or less industrialized invention and progress at whatever they put their minds to. Allowing them to make advancements vastly quicker than most, and with a much higher assuredness of success. Not relying on anyone’s individual ingenuity or genius, but almost a production-line approach to invention and innovation. This is in some respects how invention has always worked, with everyone building off each other’s ideas throughout history. Edison simply took the broad idea, and put it in one central lab work place. And then created an efficient system within that for his team to tackle any problem.
Alrighty, so Edison didn’t actually steal from Tesla. And, as noted, in fact, oddly allowed Tesla the patents for things he’d worked on while working for Edison which helped Tesla get his start… But what about with the rest of Edison’s workers? And then, beyond, perhaps his lab stealing inventions from others and simply patenting them themselves.
We’ll start with whether Edison was simply taking credit for what his workers did. And in this, there’s nuance. It is absolutely true that Edison, being a rather brilliant businessman, realized the value of building his company’s brand around himself, for both the company and himself. Because he did this, at a certain point, if Edison said he was going to do something, everyone just kind of believed him and that, no matter how fantastical, it would happen.
In fact, as a joke, he once claimed to reporter B.C. Forbes that he and his team were inventing a device to communicate with the dead, the so-called “spirit phone”. And because of his clout, a lot of people took him seriously, resulting in Edison later having to clarify, “I really had nothing to tell him, but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.”
As a brief aside on this, Edison did not actually believe in spirits. Stating, “I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence I do not doubt.” And clarifying this, “Nature is what we know. We do not know the gods of religions. And nature is not kind, or merciful, or loving. If God made me—the fabled God of the three qualities of which I spoke: mercy, kindness, love—He also made the fish I catch and eat. And where do His mercy, kindness, and love for that fish come in? No; nature made us—nature did it all—not the gods of the religions.” And that, further, “what you call God I call Nature, the Supreme intelligence that rules matter… it is doubtful in my opinion if our intelligence or soul or whatever one may call it lives hereafter as an entity or disperses back again from whence it came, scattered amongst the cells of which we are made.”
This stance on religion and his very public support of Women’s Suffrage made him unpopular in some circles, but Edison insisted, “Every woman in this country is going to have the vote.”
But as for his self promotion, while it no doubt did also appeal to his vanity, from a practical standpoint, as a result of his personal brand, investors would line up in droves almost literally throwing money at Edison whenever he wanted, with customers likewise clambering to buy the latest Edison innovation. And Edison absolutely played this up like crazy at every opportunity. Working the media, not just in his own inventions, but, particularly later in his career as noted when his lab had ballooned to extreme size, what his company as a whole were working on, even giving regular updates and details, unlike most inventors who tended to keep quiet on things like that, lest a competitor steal their ideas. Edison knew his team could do things massively quicker than most, both in innovation and ramping up production, thanks to the sort of industrialized lab concept he had and his financial resources. So someone beating him to the finish line wasn’t really too much of a concern to him. And the benefit to the company in building hype was massive.
So, yes, Edison, as the face of the company, and the brand name, so to speak, absolutely did get massively more credit than he may have individually deserved, especially once he moved away from Menlo Park to his facility in West Orange, where he for a time was still leading everything, but more and more offloading work and innovation in it to others.
While your mileage may vary on how your opinion of Edison sits from this, this is no different than quite literally anyone from a YouTube host with a team of writers and video editors to a professional athlete to actor in a movie- all of whom rely on countless others to do their thing, but the face always gets the vast majority of the credit. Despite that, for example with an actor like a Tom Cruise, without the writers writing most of the lines he speaks, sound and lighting and camera people and directors and hundreds of others making sure everything is captured and produced well- as well as making it look like everyone else in the movie isn’t taller than him- well, I mean, Tom Cruise is just a guy who’s extra good at role play and looking super cool running fast. That’s not to diminish Cruise’s contributions too. Without him doing his thing as well as he does, the rest couldn’t do theirs. Just, Cruise is the face and gets most of the credit in the end, and not one sound engineer or camera operator ever gets even the smallest credit from anyone outside of those in the industry, let alone do those even writing the script and story itself, outside of if they happen to also be the director, who is a secondary front man. And most don’t seem too bothered by any of this or hate on Tom Cruise because he gets disproportionate credit, as well as gets paid the most by far of anyone in just about any film he does.
But this does bring up the question- where on that spectrum was Edison? Well, if you’ve been following along this entire time, it would seem Edison had a brilliant mind and was a talented inventor from an early age. While it is quite literally impossible to look at every patent Edison attached his name to and tell how involved he was, a pretty clear picture emerges from a subset of the 5 million pages of notes from his lab and himself, as well as countless accounts from his workers as to what it was like working for Edison and what the general workflow was. And on all this, for most of his career, the evidence seems to be extremely strong that Edison was something akin to a micromanaging film director who also wrote the script, at least until later in life as previously noted.
But before this, Edison’s style was more or less to use his workers as extensions of himself. As described in the New York Herald in January of 1879, “Edison himself flits about, first to one bench, then to another, examining here, instructing there; at one place drawing out new fancied designs, at another earnestly watching the progress of some experiment. Sometimes he hastily leaves the busy throng of workmen and for an hour or more is seen by no one. Where he is the general body of assistants do not know or ask, but his few principal men are aware that in a quiet corner upstairs in the old workshop, with a single light to dispel the darkness around, sits the inventor, with pencils and paper, drawing, figuring, pondering. In these moments he is rarely disturbed. If any important question of construction arises on which his advice is necessary the workmen wait. Sometimes they wait for hours in idleness, but at the laboratory such idleness is considered far more profitable than any interference with the inventor while he is in the throes of invention.”
Francis Upton would write to his father on this point, “One thing is quite noticeable here that the work is only a few days behind Mr. Edison, for when he was sick the shop was shut evenings as the work was wanting to keep the men busy.”
Of course, this didn’t scale and by the time they’d reach around 60 employees, he began to shift to less micromanaging. He stated instead, “I generally instructed them on the general idea of what I wanted carried out, and when I came across an assistant who was in any way ingenious, I sometimes refused to help him out in his experiments, telling him to see if he could not work it out himself, so as to encourage him.” And the more ingenious among them would then be put in trusted positions and paid more and more.
As a specific example of this sort of thing, one Wilson Howell was given the job of coming up with a good underground cable insulation. He states, “Mr. Edison sent me to his library and instructed me to read up on the subject of insulation, offering me the services of Dr. [Otto] Moses to translate any French or German authorities which I wished to consult. After two weeks search, I came out of the library with a list of materials which we might try. I was given carte blanche to order these materials. . . . and, within ten days, I had Dr. Moses’ laboratory entirely taken up with small kettles in which I boiled up a variety of insulating compounds. . . . Of course there were many failures, the partial successes pointing the direction for better trials.”
At this point, Edison also began to further refine how everything everyone was doing was documented, and began to employ someone to distill it all down to a daily record so that he could keep track of what everyone was doing every day and where the status of their work was and what they were hung up on or pursuing.
And as for accusations of a horrible working environment and such insane expectations… This seems overblown from accounts. There are absolutely elements of truth to this, or at least by modern standards. This was the 19th century, a time when most factories or other such businesses didn’t exactly have HR departments, to put it mildly. And despite some industries in the United States managing to achieve eight hour work days, the average work week in the United States in 1890 was around 90-100 hours per week for, for example, most building tradesmen according to a survey done by the federal government at that time. By the standards of his day, Edison seems to have treated his employees extremely well, for whatever that’s worth, if a bit stingy on the pay unless a given employee really stood out. Perhaps scant consolation from a modern lens, but it’s generally advisable to judge people based on their time, and not our modern one. If we didn’t, there is quite possibly not a single human in history who any of us could ever, not just admire, but not loathe with every fiber of our beings. They were all insanely racist, sexist, occasionally rapists or even near to it or actual pedofiles, and otherwise insanely cruel to animals and a lot of other humans too.
But as for Edison, his employees seemed on the whole to love working for him. And apparently while the general work environment was insanely hard working, it was also fun, with frequent practical jokes, friendly competitions, and late night breaks where they’d all eat and drink beer, often featuring Edison himself singing bawdy songs and playing the pipe organ. From accounts of what all this was like, this seems not too dissimilar to what you see in most university computer science labs at all hours of the night, or is quite common in many tech startups today. Nerds gonna nerd when working in groups. Edison apparently also enjoyed taking his staff, at least at Menlo Park, out on fishing expeditions and the like.
As one of the workers, Charles Clarke would later in life note, “Laboratory life with Edison was a strenuous but joyous life for all, physically, mentally and emotionally. We worked long night hours during the week, frequently to the limit of human endurance; and then we had time off from Saturday to late Sunday afternoon for rest and recreation. . . . Here breathed a little community of kindred spirits, all in young manhood, enthusiastic about their work, expectant of great results; moreover often loudly emphatic in joke and vigorous in action.”
Machinist John Ott who spent basically his entire life working for Edison, would likewise later in life recall, “Edison made your work interesting. He made me feel that I was making something with him. I wasn’t just a workman.” The downside of how hard Edison himself worked and that he expected the same from his employees was that, according to Ott, “My children grew up without knowing their father. When I did get home at night, which was seldom, they were in bed.”
However, Francis Upton would write in 1879 in a letter to his father, “I find my work very pleasant here and not much different from the time when I was a student. The strangest thing to me is the $12 that I get each Saturday, for my labor does not seem like work but like study and I enjoy it. The electric light I think will come in time and then be a success . . . and then my place will be secure. . . . My pay I know is very small in dollars but the chance to get knowledge is beyond measure.”
And in the end the best among them would be well rewarded for their work, both directly if they stuck with Edison, or in many cases also when they left to use what they had learned there for their own endeavors. For example, Upton did indeed become wealthy when Edison gave him 5% interest in their electric lighting work, as well as promoted him to head of the lamp factory. The aforementioned Charles Clarke would, among other things, rise to Chief Engineer, and the aforementioned John Ott, the so-called “Friend to the end”, worked with Edison almost from the very beginning and all the way to their respective deaths, dying only one day after Edison. During his career he rose to superintendent of the machine shop, though owing to a previous injury, later in life Ott was stuck in a wheelchair or with crutches. Owing to Edison and Ott’s close friendship and lifelong work together, Mina Edison instructed that, as Ott having just died couldn’t be there for Edison’s funeral, his wheelchair and crutches should be placed next to Edison’s casket.
Alrighty, so work environment was extreme on the hours and expectations there, but otherwise seemingly pretty enjoyable relative to the era, and Edison’s relentless optimism and love of learning seemed rather infectious amongst his workers. This brings us to whether Edison was out stealing other’s ideas and then having his employees churn out versions and calling it their own. As ever, arguments against or for Edison on this one are making a black and white thing out of something that’s vastly more nuanced.
As previously alluded to, all evidence seems to be whenever Edison and his team were going to tackle an issue, they studied every related resource material they could get their hands on, including what was known of what everyone else was currently working on. They didn’t exactly have Google or the internet, so it’s not like they had access to the current state of everything, but they did their due diligence with what they did have access to. They then looked to try to make a better and more commercially viable solution through their own research, as well as purchased any patents they needed rights to along the way, if needed, for example as mentioned with Woodward and Evans’ patent for a version of the incandescent light bulb. This isn’t really any different than just about any inventor or company in history, but what Edison and his team did was industrialize the process, which absolutely gave him and his team a huge advantage over their competitors. But the general process wasn’t really any different. Just scaled up.
The primary issue here in terms of public perception seems to be both the common myth of the isolated inventor, as well as Edison and his team’s insane success compared to others. Edison vs Tesla is a classic example of this. Everybody loves the underdog. And yet, Tesla was no different than Edison on this front, utilizing all the knowledge of those who came before to do what he did. And even much of what he did still needed perfected by others after to actually be something practical. For example, even the Tesla Coil which bears his name was partially building off the Ruhmkorff coil invented almost a half century before Tesla got around to his advancement. And even the Ruhmkorff coil wasn’t wholly original, building off others’ work. That’s just how science and engineering and advancements work. Nobody comes up with things on their own. And generally multiple people come up with something similar all around the same time, as noted.
Of course, Edison also was allegedly a rather ruthless businessman, and definitely had an army of lawyers out to protect his company’s patents. But this, also, isn’t really different than what any other business and even small time inventors do. Edison is typically vilified for it though because, as ever, he did it at scale and was in a position to go after anyone infringing on his patents, not just the major players.
That said, he also doesn’t seem to have been quite as ruthless as most say. For example, at one point Edison hired a lawyer to file patents for things he’d been working on. But rather than do so, the lawyer simply took the papers and sold them to competitors. In total, 57 such potential patents were sold in this way before Edison found out. However, Edison refused to give the name of the attorney to the media, stating, “His family might suffer” if Edison did so, also ultimately calling into question the alleged persona of Edison as being spiteful, something that once again often comes up in the mythical Edison vs Tesla feud.
On the note of patents, Edison had a lot to say on their value, which was minimal compared to his ability to use them to manufacture products himself. For example, when told by reporter Remsen Crawford that seven of his patents were set to expire in one day, he initially stated to his assistant, “Go back. Tell that fellow that I say the expiration of those patents won’t amount to a hill of beans. Tell him that Mr. Edison says he has never had exclusive use of his inventions and never expects to in this world. Tell him the expiring of a patent has no effect whatever upon the fortunes of an inventor.”
Ultimately the reporter managed to use a brief back and forth from his assistant to get to talk to Edison directly to explain what he meant. Edison elaborated: “There is no such thing in this country as an inventor’s monopoly. The moment he invents something that is an epoch-maker in the world of science and commerce, there will be pirates to spring up on all sides and contest his rights to his ideas. I might invent a new monkey wrench which could go without infringement, but the moment I take certain forces and work out a moving picture for the first time in history… mark you how the pirates rise up and call it their own.”
Almost three decades later, Crawford asked Edison why he wasn’t the richest man in the world given all his inventions. To which Edison stated, “Nearly $10,000,000,000, they tell me, are invested in modern industries which developed from ideas embodied in my inventions and my patents. A billion or so dollars, I am told, may be the annual total income to artisans and workers in fields thus created. But I have made very little profit from my inventions. In my lifetime I have taken out 1180 patents, up to date. Counting the expense of experimenting and fighting for my claims in court, these patents have cost me more than they have returned me in royalties. I have made money through the introduction and sale of my products as a manufacturer, not as an inventor.”
On the lightbulb he states, “I have known of several inventors [whose] ideas would have made them millionaires. But they were kept poor by the pirates who were allowed through our very faulty system of protection to usurp their rights. Do you see that little incandescent lamp hanging over my head? Well, I fought in the courts of this and other countries for fourteen years to establish my rights as inventor, even after I had the patents. My associates and I had to spend more than $1,000,000 [about $32 million today] to prove our rights to the incandescent light, even though our claims had been duly vouched by the United States patent office. Everywhere, all around the earth, the pirates kept picking on that little lamp, and they were able to keep me out of the profits on my patents until there were but three years left out of the seventeen…”
Edison would go on that a large part of the problem was the fact that the judges often didn’t really understand what they were ruling on. And he suggested what was needed was “A separate and special court. Take the whole business out of the regular judicial system. It has never belonged there. What does the average judge of our district courts, or circuit courts of appeal—or even of the Supreme Court, for that matter—know about the technical phases of chemistry or physics? These judges have been lawyers all their lives, and they are—some of them—distinguished for their ability as jurists. But when it comes to understanding a contest over amperes, or ohms, or the atomic theory, or subatomic energy, they can be fooled by a smart lawyer quite as soon as… any farmer from the hinterlands. I would appoint, to this special court for trying patent cases, judges from the faculties of colleges of technology, men who know something about science. They could travel around the country and hold court, if need be, in the factories and workshops of the inventors and their competitors, and get first-hand data upon each issue involved in the litigation, just as President Wilson’s War Labor Board, headed by William Howard Taft, went around during the war settling labor disputes in the mills, right on the ground. There wouldn’t be much quibbling on the part of lawyers before these scientist judges. Then, and not till then, will an inventor stand some show of being rewarded for the long, tedious labors he has expended through ceaseless experimentation to gain the fruition of his ideas.”
So, in the end on patents and stealing ideas, the evidence seems to be that Edison and his lawyers were extremely zealous in protecting their patents and claims, what you might call the Disney of his era, but in patents instead of copyrights. Whether this is a knock against him or not depends on your personal opinion of all that. Although, I think one thing we can all agree on is that the world would be a better place if all company’s legal teams adopted the insanely nice disposition of Jack Daniel’s lawyers, who aggressively protect their trademark as they must to keep it, but famously do so in the very deliberately nicest and most reasonable way possible. See our video on the subject.
This all brings us to the whole animal murder thing. And this is arguably the biggest stain on Edison, at least from a modern lens, and a rather curious one given his stance on violence, even towards animals, though it is possible that was something he had not yet come to until later in life. Whatever the case there, even here most get the details of all this wrong. The devil is in the details. So let’s sort through it.
First, it’s often claimed that Edison ran a series of experiments on killing random animals using AC electricity, and ultimately even pushed for the electric chair for human execution, all culminating in the killing of an elephant on film, in one of the earliest motion pictures ever made- and all for the sole purpose of aiding his company in the War of the Currents fight and show off his fancy new video camera.
So is any of this true?
First, let’s start with the elephant thing because this one is completely false.
Now, to be clear, there was an elephant named Topsy who had been sentenced to death for killing three humans, and it was indeed electrocuted. But Edison had nothing to do with any of this at any stage before, during, or after. Nor was he mentioned in any contemporary news accounts of the event. Nor do any of his massive number of surviving writings such as journal or business correspondence make any mention of the event. Further, going back to the so-called War of the Currents, this elephant execution occurred about a decade after Edison had already lost the war and was no longer involved at all in his former electrical company. So this event was not in any way used by Edison or his company to discredit AC current either.
So why do most today think Edison did murder an elephant and use it to show AC current was dangerous?
First, because the electrical company that performed the execution bore his name- the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of Brooklyn. However, despite the name, again, Edison was not in any way involved with this power company at the time. It was a privately owned entity that had years before lost any association with the man himself outside of still bearing his name.
The second reason he is so associated with this execution is that Edison Manufacturing’s film branch filmed the event. While Edison was president of Edison Manufacturing, someone else ran the film company’s day to day operations, Edison Manufacturing vice president and general manager William E. Gilmore. It’s also noted that the company made about 1,200 films around this time with very little input or oversight from Edison. And, indeed, this particular execution seems to be one of those cases, as, once again, none of Edison’s surviving correspondence from this period between himself and Gilmore mention anything about it.
So why film the execution?
It would seem simply that it was a highly publicized event and Gilmore just thought it would be something worth documenting with their relatively new film technology.
Alrighty then, so what about the electric chair? Well, after a series of botched hangings, there was a push for a more consistent and humane way to kill other humans deemed unfit to continue existing in society because, capital punishment!
In parallel with this, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been interested in something similar to have a more humane way of euthanizing animals that needed put down for whatever reason, and had even eventually consulted with Edison, among others, to help come up with a more humane method for this- and long story short on this one, ultimately the idea of using electricity to put down humans percolate to the top as an alternative to hangings.
But Edison didn’t really have much of anything to do with the electric chair, other than the commission put in charge of looking into the feasibility of this contacted countless electrical experts and asked their opinion. Edison was one of those consulted.
However, contrary to the popular narrative, Edison’s initial response wasn’t positive. In fact, he initially refused to give his opinion, citing that he was morally against capital punishment. And, thus, was hesitant to give his thoughts.
After further prompting, however, he was finally convinced to give his opinion on what the most humane way to do this would be, and wrote in a letter in December of 1887 that if they really wanted to kill someone, they should use Westinghouses’ “alternating machines,” and about 6 months later doubled down, stating rather than needing to design such a device, they could just “Hire out your criminals as linemen to the New York electric lighting companies.”
This all brings us to the animals and back to the War of the Currents, and Edison’s rather curious crusade against AC power, even after it became clear it was the significantly more commercially viable option and his own team and investors were heavily pushing him to switch. Edison still refused, even publicly stating in 1889, right before he was ousted, Edison Electric would never adopt AC as long as he was in charge. It was pretty much right around then that his company started working on AC internally and he was more and more shunted to the side. The War of the Currents was mostly over. A couple years later, this culminated in some of his investors brokering a merger with Westinghouses’ main rival in the AC sphere, Thomson-Houston, despite Edison’s objections. And so it was that Edison General Electric merged to form GE in 1892. Edison was out not just in name, but in truth, more or less just a figurehead briefly at this point, before deciding to sell his shares in the company he could no longer lead to use the funds to pursue other ventures, in particular, as mentioned, focusing on iron ore refinement.
So why was Edison, who normally never saw a good idea he didn’t like to adapt and improve on, so stubborn on this particular issue to the bitter end?
While some have claimed Edison simply didn’t understand AC electricity, and so was doggedly pushing his company’s inferior low voltage DC power distribution systems, the evidence of notes and the like from his lab don’t back this at all. He very clearly was extremely well versed in how AC worked and its advantages for mass power distribution, and eventually his own people were explicitly pointing it out to him either way.
While it’s impossible to definitively discern his unfiltered thoughts precisely because of the company’s existing DC push. Edison right from the start, even before the war of the currents really got going, genuinely seemed to think the idea of high voltage AC lines running around in a city populated with countless thousands of people was a recipe for people getting killed regularly by these, writing in a private correspondence with one Edward Johnson in 1886 shortly after Westinghouse had installed his first scale AC system, “Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in a system of any size. He has got a new thing and it will require a great deal of experimenting to get it working practically.”
And, indeed, his prediction proved prophetic. With basically no regulation, Westinghouse just did things the cheapest way possible with a mishmash of wires strung overhead on polls and attached to buildings, with minimal insulation that also broke down relatively quickly with exposure to the elements- all inspiring one electrician to state the insulation was as useful as “a molasses covered rage”.
Noteworthy on this, Westinghouse’ aforementioned main AC competitor in Thomson-Houston was doing it a little differently. Every bit as concerned about the safety factor as Edison was, Elihu Thomson put a lot of money and research into trying to develop various mechanisms to make the whole system safer, including developing things like lightning arrestors and magnetic blowout switches to kill the power instantly if there was any surge. Further, he initially wouldn’t allow his system to be installed for use in homes for AC lighting as he felt it was too dangerous in its state at that point. Westinghouse’s system, in contrast, was built with seemingly not much of any thought given to safety.
Naturally, deaths quickly did follow from this, with a string of them in the spring of 1888, including the killing of some kids, particularly causing a media frenzy, and the press deeming the new phenomenon “death by wire”.
But it didn’t really matter. High voltage AC systems were significantly cheaper and more efficient for this use case than Edison’s low voltage DC systems, and it only got worse with time as prices of copper, which his system required much thicker lines of, continued to rise, and the AC technology continued to advance.
Nevertheless, Westinghouse was put on the defensive, and took to pointing out, quite reasonably, that while, yes, the pole mounted AC lines were dangerous, so were countless other things people dealt with in the city from street cars to gas lighting, the latter of which his system would actually help prevent deaths on.
Of course, Edison detractors tend to claim Edison was only taking this extreme stance against AC because he was trying to take down his competitor in Westinghouse. And there probably is some truth to this. But the reality seems far more nuanced. On all this, Edison was going against one of the core business tenants that had made him so successful- always trying to make something as practical and cheap as possible. Given how passionate he got on this one, and how he was even willing to be ousted from his company before agreeing to a switch, even after the war was all but lost, it doesn’t seem that far fetched that he may well have genuinely thought the risk of deaths were too great to pursue the path Westinghouse and Thomson-Houston and others were.
Especially as this was a bit of a theme throughout his life. For example we have the aforementioned fuel cell work, where despite significant progress, the explosion resulted in him ultimately abandoning the research line. Likewise, when it came to X-rays. While his company did make great strides in this, including creating the first commercially viable fluoroscope, vastly improving on the image quality of previous designs, and a design that’s still at its core what’s used today, he ultimately abandoned it after almost blinding himself with x-rays, and more famously accidentally killing one of his workers, Clarence Dally, who had eagerly volunteered for the project- a fate which countless other early X-ray researchers also shared.
As we’ve covered in our video When Going Shoe Shopping Was a Good Way to Die, it took a long time for humans to fully grasp the dangers of X-rays, with many shoe shops x-raying people’s feet every time they wanted to get fitted for shoes, sometimes even letting kids get their feet x-rayed for fun multiple times a fitting. This was something that was all the rage up to around the 1970s. Yes, 1970s.
As for Dally, there was nothing Edison could do once the damage was done, though he did keep him on the payroll and paid for all his medical expenses up through his death, and then afterwards made sure Dally’s widow and children were well taken care of financially. While this seems like a no brainer today, and a great way to avoid a lawsuit. At the time, this was extremely out of the ordinary. Mere decades before, as we noted in our video Charles’ Dickens’ Sledge Hammer for the Poor Man’s Child, it was common to use kids to remove jams in industrial machinery without even turning the machinery off. Such that if they didn’t get out rapidly, they’d lose limbs or life. And promptly be replaced by another child. Workers were literally disposable, and many business owners saw them this way, with this only really beginning to change markedly around the time of Dally’s death, interestingly enough.
But on this one, despite the significant advancements he and his team were making, Edison abandoned X-ray research completely, feeling it was too dangerous, not just for experiments in his labs, but beyond for most to use. That said, his basic design, as noted, if significantly improved in various ways, is still used today. After the utility of this for medical use was demonstrated in spades during WWI, he would later in life state, looking back, “I did not want to know anything more about X-rays. In the hands of experienced operators they are a valuable adjunct to surgery, locating as they do objects concealed from view, and making, for instance, the operation for appendicitis almost sure. But they are dangerous, deadly, in the hands of inexperienced, or even in the hands of a man who is using them continuously for experiment.”
Going back to War of the Currents, this all seems to have played into his choice to go with low voltage DC instead of high voltage AC, as he seems to have genuinely been prioritizing safety over cost, and presumably thinking with advancements he could get the cost down to be on par.
This brings us to the animal killings. Which Edison did indeed support, though not quite the way most people think.
As for the details on this one, an electrical engineer by the name of Harold P. Brown began a personal campaign against AC systems, with his initial salvo being a letter to the New York Post, stating, “The only excuse for the use of the fatal alternating current is that it saves the company operating it [AC] from spending a larger sum of money for the heavier copper wires which are required by the safe incandescent systems. That is, the public must submit to constant danger from sudden death, in order that a corporation may pay a little larger dividend.”
It was on from there and Brown ramped up his campaign to whoever would listen, including lobbying the New York Board of Electrical Control.
In one account it was noted, “At a July meeting Board of Electrical Control, Brown’s criticisms of AC and even his knowledge of electricity was challenged by other electrical engineers, some of whom worked for Westinghouse. At this meeting, supporters of AC provided anecdotal stories from electricians on how they had survived shocks from AC at voltages up to 1000 volts and argued that DC was the more dangerous of the two.”
Note here, Brown was lobbying at this point that line voltage be restricted to 300 volts.
Little was done about any of this given the lack of hard data on the dangers of a given voltage, and in comparison of AC and DC.
So, do you know what you do when there is no hard data and it’s needed? Rigorous experiments. And when potential death or injury may be involved, we humans tend to offer up our animal friends for the testing. And that’s exactly what Brown decided to do.
Going back to Edison, at this point, he seems to have had no association with Brown. But it didn’t last. How the connection was made exactly isn’t clear, with varying accounts, though internal records from Edison Electric Light seem to indicate that it was Francis S. Hastings who suggested to Edison they support Brown’s efforts and research, which they subsequently did, letting him use some of Edison’s equipment and facilities for his research into the dangers of AC vs DC power, to get the data needed.
Over the course of the experiments, Brown would pay for captured stray animals, as well as use some animals already slated to be euthanized, such as in one case a lame horse, and then run experiments on them using DC and AC power.
Of course, if this was all he was doing, there wouldn’t have been much controversy. After all, at the exact same time the New York Medico-Legal Society was likewise doing the same exact type of testing with nobody kicking up a fuss. And even today stray animals are regularly euthanized if taken in and no one wants them, and lame horses likewise are regularly euthanized and the like, let alone research labs across the world using animals in all sorts of experiments, even to death. And particularly on the latter, if the benefit is to humans, most aren’t too bothered about it. Or, at least, most of us who are, aren’t doing anything about it or vilifying the scientists explicitly. And this was even less the case back then when the idea of animal rights was almost non-existent in the public consciousness.
The issue here, of course, is that it wasn’t just about the research, but also to get the media involved to put a stop to high voltage AC power distribution, or alternatively to get regulations put in place to make it safer. For example, there was a push for switching to underground wires and the like as well. And it was these few very overt killings that seemed questionable, given they were solely to demonstrate the results of the research in the most graphic way possible, rather than advancing the research. Few, even then, were terribly enthusiastic about witnessing such things directly, even though most of us otherwise happily eat our cheeseburgers and chicken wings, and use our countless products built on the backs of animal research. Thus, given the graphic nature of the demonstrations, while not really seemingly terribly controversial at the time, they were highly effective for what they showed.
In one such, where notably the chairman of the death penalty commission Elbridge Gerry was there to observe, Brown had a stray dog in a cage which he gave a series of progressing DC shocks, all the way up to 1,000 volts. The dog was otherwise physically fine after each of these. Brown then switched to 330 volts of AC, which killed the animal. Critics of this demonstration noted that the previous DC shocks had likely made the dog more susceptible to being killed by the AC shock. Thus, Brown did another public demonstration, this time killing three dogs in succession via a shock of 300 volts of AC power each with no previous DC shock.
His hope was, once again, to use this to convince the board to set a limit of 300 volts for publicly run AC lines. He also did a few more tests using cows and the aforementioned lame horse that were killed with 750 volts of AC power.
Westinghouse, of course, claimed the demonstrations and data couldn’t be trusted and that DC was vastly more dangerous. In response, Brown put his money where his mouth was and publicly challenged Westinghouse to come take part in an experiment. In this one, Brown stated he would hook himself up to the DC current, and Westinghouse would be hooked to the AC current, and they’d start at low voltages and work their way up until one of them quit or died. Naturally, Westinghouse declined to take part in the challenge.
In the end, Brown ultimately published the pamphlet: “The Comparative Danger to Life of the Alternating and Continuous Electrical Current” laying out the detailed results of all his tests, and then had copies of it sent to newspapers and government officials.
Because of his now very unique expertise here, Brown would later be asked to design the first electric chair, but refused. And instead one George Fell was contracted for that, and it was later built by one Edwin F. Davis. However, Brown was contracted to find a suitable generator to use with the chair. With both the help of Edison Lighting and Thomson-Houston, Brown was able to acquire a decommissioned Westinghouse AC generator for this purpose. As to whether Edison was involved in helping Brown get this generator, this is often claimed to be so. However, at this point Edison had been, as noted, partially forced to the side in this company. And while most sources on this one imply he was involved, the aforementioned Rutgers University Thomas A. Edison Papers, which is unequivocally one of the most reliable sources out there on all things Edison, explicitly say no, he was not.
But he was involved in hiring Brown in the first place, as well as known to have witnessed one of the demonstrations. And for that, despite being, at least later in life if not before, well ahead of his time on thoughts against even harm to animals, this one is generally seen today as the biggest stain against Edison.
But to sum this one up, often lost in all this is that while absolutely Edison had a business vendetta against high voltage AC power and paid someone to have animals euthanized towards this end. The entire issue wasn’t so black and white. Brown was doing research to try to prove the relative dangers AC and DC power posed at various voltages, and to have hard data to show the regulatory bodies after initial outcries were rebuffed.
Further, people didn’t view animal cruelty quite the same back then as we do now. And, ironically, as noted, Edison, at least later in life, was ahead of his time on this, and it was actually the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that was one of the chief parties interested in this research at the time, as they wanted a more humane way to euthanize animals that needed to be put down, and were hoping such research would lead to this, and a device they could use for it.
And third, given Edison’s normal stance on such things, while nobody knows exactly what he was thinking because of the ambiguity introduced given he was out to vilify his competitor, the moral justification he may have used perhaps isn’t hard to see. If funding Brown’s research and killing some stray animals and others like a horse that was going to be put down anyway would save human lives, he may have simply deemed it worth it.
Or maybe he really didn’t care about any of it, and his harping on about the dangers of the high voltage AC systems of the era were just a smoke screen, and he was simply happy to murder as many animals as it took and say whatever needed said to take his competitor down.
You’ve now made it this far in this piece so now have a much better sense of the man than a couple hours ago. So what do you think?
But to sum everything up, it is unequivocally true Edison got credit for some things he was little involved with, such as the world’s first video camera, and other things that were the combined efforts of himself and his staff. But this isn’t really any different than every single institution that has a public face. And, arguably, Edison was directly involved in the work far more than most who get such excess of credit. Edison and his team also very much did build on the ideas of others… The same as every single inventor in history as long as humans have been humaning. There are almost no instances of isolated genius. And frankly most of the examples of that we think of, it’s very likely it’s only because history has forgotten all of the others who those inventors were aware of and built off of. With perhaps the only original human inventor ever being the first person to pick up a rock and realize they could smash something with it. But even there, perhaps inspired by gravity.
Humans, from rockets to rocks, always trying to make gravity look bad.
In the end, it is unequivocally true that Edison and his team changed the world in multiple ways. But arguably one way above all, which was Edison’s initial idea after that first couple inventions that made him rich- creating an industrial lab, first with Menlo Park, and then scaling it to an insane level in West Orange. That, more than anything else he did, changed the world both in his time, and ever since with everyone from his own General Electric to Xerox Parc to 3M and beyond copying the basic model, and, in so doing, changing the world over and over and over again since.
And, finally, circling back to Tesla- did Edison steal Tesla’s ideas and persecute him into oblivion? No. And that narrative needs to stop because it’s just wholly and unequivocally false. Yes, the internet and, most humans really, love the underdog, and love to vilify the most successful, sometimes for legitimate reasons, and sometimes just because they are the New York Yankees and dang it, 40 American League pennants and 27 World Championships in a bit over a century is too many! Screw those guys. Can’t just spare 1 for the Seattle Mariners?!?! It’s been almost a half a century and zero of either despite over the years having Ken Griffey Jr, A-Rod, Edgar, Randy Johnson, Ichiro, and Felix! Help us Julio-wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope.
Of course, was Edison perfect? Hardly. He was human. Obsessed with his work, unabashedly promoting his own personal brand, pushing his employees to their limits, but also expecting no different from himself, priding himself on being the hardest worker of all, something countless of his employees and former employees attest to. He led by example. He was also a product of his time, and you’ll find no shortage of ways to vilify pretty much any human from the 19th century in countless ways… Or, come to that, even most people from the 20th and 21st centuries. We all suck in our own ways… outside of Mister Rogers. Who not only didn’t suck, but always made sure all of us knew we didn’t actually either. And the ways we think we do, well, he believed in our ability to change and do better next time.
Again, in all of that, Edison was a complex human being like the rest of us. With things to admire and things to cringe at. And trying to encapsulate who he was from a given action or quote is as absurd as defining any of us based on our worst or best moments. He should no more be deified than Tesla sometimes is on the interwebs, generally cast as the God Genius, and Edison the Devil. But the truth for both men is that they were just people, if quite notable ones.
Much like Tesla, Edison was unequivocally a unique genius. And in Edison’s case, one who used his skills and resources to advance humanity in a handful of massive ways during his brief time on this Earth.
As for the whole “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” quote, in the spirit of debunking myths, we should probably point out that despite that maxim being one of the most famous of all Edison quotes, it wasn’t actually what he said, nor was he the originator of the idea. As for what he said, this was “Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration,” as well as supposedly expanding, “2% is genius and 98% is hard work.”
As to who actually seems to have come up with the source sentiment, enter academic Kate Sanborn in her “What is Genius?” lectures in the 1890s. In this, she stated that genius is a mix of perspiration and inspiration, and that perspiration was far more critical than its fellow -ation. Not long after, an editorial about her lecture in the paper popularly made the rounds, afterwhich Edison seemed to concur given his whole “inspiration is perspiration” thing.
That quote and the general idea evolved over time, to our present day “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” that Edison never actually said (nor did Sanborn say verbatim), and today everybody’s forgotten about poor Kate’s contributions given Edison’s long shadow.Expand for References
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