Claim to fame: inventor of the lightbulb, phonograph
Date of death: 1931
Diabetes Type: 2
Thomas Edison was an American inventor and businessman who developed many important devices. “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” as he was popularly known, was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production to the process of invention. In 1880, Edison founded the journal Science, which, in 1900, became the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Born in Milan, Ohio, Edison was the last child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. and Nancy Matthews Elliot. In grade school, young Edison always seemed to have his focus elsewhere, and he was ultimately removed from school and homeschooled by his mother. Reflecting on those who gave him the determination to be so successful, he described his mother as “…the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; I felt I had something to live for.” Most of his education can be attributed to his mother and the books School of Natural Philosophy and The Cooper Union by R.G. Parker.
Edison stumbled upon a number of opportunities because of his actions of good will. He saved three-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from being hit by a train, and the boy’s father was so grateful that he trained Edison to become a telegraph operator. He got a job at the Western Union, and chose the night shift in order to read and experiment throughout the day. Ultimately, he was fired from this job due to a lack of concentration; he leaked sulfuric acid onto the floor, which burned through the floorboards and onto his boss’s desk.
Soon after being fired, Edison began his career in New Jersey, where he invented the phonograph. People thought this invention was magical due to its unbelievable capabilities for its time. Within Menlo Park, Edison created the first industrial research lab, which became a hub for technological innovation and improvement. The first invention was the telegraph, followed by the carbon telephone transmitter, and, most notably, the electric light bulb. These products were mass-produced and sold, generating profits and securing Edison’s success.
Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors of all time, holding a record of 1,093 patents in his name. Most of these inventions were not completely original, but improvements of earlier patents, and were actually made by his numerous employees. Edison was frequently criticized for not sharing the credits. Nevertheless, Edison received patents worldwide: in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Edison started the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate of nine major film studios commonly known as the Edison Trust. His inventions were breakthroughs for a number of communications industries, and included telecommunication, the stock ticker, electricity, and even car batteries.
The Edison Trust was the leading distributor and biggest supplier of raw film. The conglomeration of companies within the Trust created a monopoly that independent filmmakers found difficult to fight—but fight they did, causing a mass exodus to Hollywood in order to get away from the Trust’s New Jersey-based authority. The war between the Independents and the Trust yielded changes we see today, such as the crediting of film workers and recognition of actors, something the Trust was against. Eventually, changes instituted by independent filmmakers led to the demise of Edison’s Trust.
In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison bought a house in Fort Myers, Florida (Seminole Lodge) as a winter retreat. Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, lived across the street at his winter retreat (The Mangoes). Edison contributed technology to the automobile, and he and Ford were friends until Edison died from complications caused by diabetes. The Edison and Ford Winter Estates are now open to the public.