Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Wizard of Menlo Park

One of my plans to fend off dementia is to try to keep learning new things. We really enjoy visiting museums and historic places, so Saturday, in the stifling humidity, we set off for West Orange, New Jersey to tour the site of some of Thomas Alva Edison's greatest inventions. About a mile from the research lab complex stands Glenmont, the stately home of Edison, the Bill Gates of his day. I have a warm place in my heart for Mr. Edison since his genius at inventing not only the electric light, but the entire electric industry including power generation and distribution, allowed me to have a satisfying career of 30 years at the New York company that bears his name.

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio and lived for a time in Port Huron, Michigan where, as a twelve-year old he showed his industriousness and nose for making money by selling candy on the rail line between his home and the city of Detroit. Soon, at age 13, he was acting as an agent for local farmers along the train route by selling their produce to markets in the cities. Edison had very little formal education as a child, attending school only for a few months. He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and schooled himself by reading on his own. This belief in self-improvement remained throughout his life, despite being over 90% deaf as the result of a childhood accident.

After saving the life of a station master's son by pushing the child out of the path of an oncoming train, Edison was taught telegraphy by the grateful father and given a job. His insatiable curiosity and dogged determination to solve problems led to the development of some early inventions like a device for speeding up counting of the floor votes in the U.S. Congress. Edison soon found out that politicians were not interested in speeding up anything, thus learning a valuable lesson. From that day on he vowed never to waste time inventing products and processes for which there was not already a market demand.

Edison moved to New York City in 1869. He continued to work on inventions related to the telegraph, and developed his first successful invention, an improved stock ticker called the "Universal Stock Printer". For this and some related inventions Edison was paid the princely sum of $40,000, giving him the money he needed to set up his first small laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey in 1871. During the next five years, Edison worked in Newark inventing and manufacturing devices that greatly improved the speed and efficiency of the telegraph. He also found to time to get married to his first wife, Mary Stilwell and start a family.

In 1876 Edison sold his Newark manufacturing concerns and moved his family and staff to the small village of Menlo Park, twenty-five miles southwest of New York City. Edison established a new facility containing all the equipment necessary to work on any invention. This research and development laboratory was the first of its kind anywhere; the model for later, modern facilities such as Bell Laboratories. This teamwork approach to research is sometimes considered to be Edison's greatest invention. Here Edison began to change the world. The first great invention developed by Edison in Menlo Park was the tin foil phonograph. The first machine that could record and reproduce sound created a sensation and brought Edison international fame.

Other world-changing inventions included electric light and the electronics industry, motion pictures, the alkaline storage battery, the fluoroscope (an early forerunner of the X-ray which Edison chose not to patent so it would be available to the medical profession), the transmitter device that made the telephone possible...Alexander Graham Bell developed the receiver, and a host of other inventions, nearly 1100 patents in all. This period of success was marred by the death of Edison's wife Mary in 1884. After Mary's death, Edison constructed new lab facilities in West Orange, New Jersey. A year later, while vacationing at a friend's house in New England, Edison met Mina Miller and fell in love. The couple was married in February 1886 and moved to West Orange, New Jersey where Edison had purchased an estate, Glenmont, for his new bride. Thomas Edison lived here with Mina until his death in 1931.

In some ways Edison was more remarkable than Bill Gates in that he had to conceive from scratch ideas like generating/transmitting electricity, recording sound and filming motion pictures. Gates did not invent the computer, but he certainly revolutionized its use and brought it into households everywhere. I was proud to carry on Edison's traditions and work ethic during my 30-year career at Con Edison. Some of my inventions 1) turning a 15-minute work break into 30 minutes; 2) always leaving my suit jacket on the back of my chair to give the impression I was present when in fact I was across the street at Luchow's Bar, and 3) studying the sick day policy so I could get my days but not be out enough to require a doctors note. I know Tom would have been proud.


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The Whiner said...

I think that "jacket on back of chair" invention is by far the best..

Jim Pantaleno said...

Right? I call it "the Costanza maneuver".

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Tsk, Tsk! To think, I never thought of that!