Thomas Edison's Greatest Inventions (2023)


It's not a lightbulb, a gramophone, a film, or anything tangible. It's a way of thinking about technology.

crossDerek Thompson
Thomas Edison's Greatest Inventions (1)

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Thomas Alva Edisonlisten his tooth. The inventor of the phonograph was completely deaf in one ear and barely audible in the other, a result of mysterious ailments he suffered from as a child. To enjoy the subtle melodies of a music player or piano, it chews wood and absorbs sound waves into its skull. From there they would travel through the cochlea to the auditory nerve, which would relay the melody to his amazing brain. In addition to the visible bite marks all over the phonograph, Edison's way of consuming music had strange side effects. He couldn't hear the higher frequencies, couldn't stand vocal vibrato, and called Mozart's music an affront to the melody. But your inner ear is so sensitive that it can baffle recording engineers by pointing out subtle imperfections in recordings, like the squeaking of woodwind flute keys.

Edison, the sullen, almost deaf mute who founded the music industry, is just one of Edison's notable contradictions, and his reputation falters widely. Edison (1847-1931) was a genius or a thief, a hero of American capitalism or a monster of greed, the greatest technologist in history or a hotly contested Hall of Famer, depending on whether one leans towards the awe or the pinnacle of reference doctrine of revisionism. View. The overrated category of white Americans. Biographer Edmund Morris, who died last May, spent seven years summarizing Edison's kaleidoscopic figure.

Thomas Edison's Greatest Inventions (2)

Morris's detailed baroque portraits depict a money-hungry Edison from his Midwestern childhood, unconcerned about the trivia of wealth. He founded the world's first motion picture studio, but had little interest in entertainment films. He was a conspicuous PR guru, but regularly turned down invitations and celebrations that forced him to leave the lab. A workaholic, he had 1,093 patents and countless inventions on his last résumé, including the lightbulb, the phonograph, the alkaline battery, the X-ray fluoroscope, and the carbon button microphone. However, his most important ideas are neither patentable nor accessible to everyone.

Morris-BuchAnd It's not a revisionist biography (more on its strange structure later), but it effectively debunks various myths that have sprung up around Edison's legacy in recent years. First, Edison, like others who have been given the title of "genius" (e.g. Einstein, Picasso, Jobs), is sometimes portrayed as a beautiful ghost emerging from the uncomfortable doll of childhood. He attended and dropped out of various schools in Ohio and Michigan, frustrating teachers from the start. But under his mother's tutelage, he read with enthusiasm. At age 13, Edison started his own business selling fruit, groceries, and newspapers, earning $50 a week, which today equates to $80,000 a year. Almost the entire proceeds were used to purchase chemical and electrical laboratory equipment. Before he was a teenager, Edison combined the two skills that made him famous: a talent for making money and an innate urge to invent.

The second myth Morris debunks is that Edison was merely popularizing other people's work: a businessman who actually didn't invent anything. Most inventions build on earlier advances: from the steam engine to the iPhone, important advances have been made through constant adaptation. Creating something completely new is practically impossible. However, Edison appears to have done just that.

Early one morning in 1877, in his fledgling laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he was toying with a diaphragm—a cup-shaped device with a thin metal base—when Edison yelled at him, “The diaphragm is vibrating.” Edison believed that he could record the vibrations of his words on a soft surface by attaching a needle to the metal base. An assistant built a small cylindrical device to rotate a roll of waxed paper under the tip of the needle. Edison shouted "Mary had a little lamb" into the mouthpiece and the pen etched his words onto wax paper, creating a traceable record of the poem. "When we drew the paper a second time," wrote his assistant Charles Batchelor, transmitting the vibrations through the pen and out through the nozzle, "we all realized that we had recorded speech."

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time in history that humans have heard recorded sounds. Morris describes the moment in Homeric tones:

From the beginning of mankind, religions have claimed, without any evidence, that the human soul continues to exist even after the body has decomposed. The human voice is almost as insubstantial as the soul, but it is a product of the body and must therefore die; In fact, it dies and evaporates like breath at the sound of every word, every phoneme. In fact, even the sounds of inanimate things - trees falling in the forest, thunder rumbling, ice breaking - are heard only once, unless repeated in echoes that soon die away. But now the echo becomes difficult.

The year after the invention of the phonograph, Edison, in an official speech clarity contest, built a telephone that outperformed the devices of its inventors, Alexander Graham Bell and Eliza Gray. The following year, he attained demigod status with his lightbulb. He managed all this at the age of 33, although he had hardly any experience in acoustics, telephony or lighting technology. Such achievements are almost incalculable, as is the case for an athlete who has won consecutive MVP awards in basketball, football, and baseball for years with little or no formal training in ball sports.

Ab Dezember 1995: The Unknown World of Thomas Edison

even if heMorris, giving Edison due credit for his achievements, shattered the third myth, the lone genius myth, effectively bringing Edison's associate and eventual rival, Nicola Tess, into the process. in the internet age. In 1884, shortly after Edison hired Tesla to work at his generator factory in New York City, the young Serbian engineer left the company to pursue his dream of electricity. A race has begun to become the Prometheus of its time. Although Edison was the first to bathe communities in electric light, he relied on direct current technology, which was costly to operate over long distances. Tesla was the godfather of AC technology, which uses rotating magnetic fields to power large areas more efficiently. The shortest summary of this competition can be found hereA new film this fall is calledcurrent war, it was Edison who won the lightbulb war and Tesla's technology won the war.

But a comparison can provide deeper insights into the nature of innovation. Tesla died alone in 1943, drifting toward insanity, a fate sometimes revealed to be the ascetic purity of his genius. But to romanticize Tesla's lonely death is to implicitly praise what stopped him: his perseverance in solitude. Innovation thrives in opposite conditions, and it was Edison, not Tesla, who realized that geniuses love company.

The collaborative nature of science was understood long before Edison moved a diaphragm. When Isaac Newton wrote, "If I've seen furthest, it's on the shoulders of giants," he acknowledged that invention is a team sport, even though Newton's team was mostly dead men. Edison was so good at refining existing ideas that he made a useful change: if ghosts make good teammates, imagine how useful the living would be.

In 1876, Edison built a two-story cabin in Menlo Park where a team of "bums" (as he called professional experimenters) ran an invention factory where his sketches were developed, making him the world's most famous inventor. Edison, for example, could never have imagined his glassblower Ludwig Böhm or his right-hand man Batchelor carbonizing glowing paper in a pear-shaped lightbulb, the iconic lightbulb.

Menlo Park was unique and controversial from the start. T.D. Lockwood, head of AT&T's patent department, declared in 1885 that "the sustenance of the professional inventor has not been, and never will be, at commercial expense." But as Edison's team-based success changed, it is so evident that it cannot be ignored can be. and other companies have built similar facilities and achieved similar miraculous results.

In the early 20th century, AT&T gave up its Lockwood location and in 1941 opened a state-of-the-art facility on Murray Hill, just 10 miles north of Menlo Park, after years of occupying a former laboratory in New York City. . Research Center – Bell Laboratories. The unit later filed patents for transistors, lasers, and the first solar cells. From 1930 to 1965, the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware developed synthetic rubber, nylon, and Kevlar fibers. Over the next decade, Xerox PARC helped develop the modern personal computer. After Russia launched the Sputnik missile, the US government followed suit, founding the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1969 and laying the technological foundation for the Internet. It is no exaggeration to say that almost all technological inventions that were major figures of the 20th century were born in the research and development laboratories created by Edison.

Check out the Edison Studios photo gallery

Since the 1980s, various innovation indicators have mysteriously declined. Some researchers believe that the major challenges facing science and technology today, such as developing artificial intelligence that can mimic the human mind, are more challenging than the 19th-century problems of reproducing sound and light. But we may also have overlooked Edison's most important invention: the interdisciplinary invention factory.

Economists from Duke University and the University of East Anglia in the UK found in a 2019 paper:Ambitious in-house research and development labs like Menlo Park and Bell Labs have dwindledProductivity has also declined in recent decades. Research and development are still ongoing, but in the last 40 years both processes have become decoupled: basic research is concentrated at universities, while product development is taken on by large companies. Teams like Edison's -- scientists and abstract thinkers working side-by-side with mechanics, electricians, and other hardware repair workers -- are harder to find (although there are exceptions, such as X Research and Development Factory, Alphabet's parent company) . Google).

Now I have to tell youMorris' biography has a special feature: it is backward-looking. Thomas Edison is killed in the prologue and towards the end a young man named Alva reads a book about electricity and gets inspired. Each chapter goes back a full decade (the first chapter starts in 1920 and ends in 1929) and then the story kind of winds back 19 years and beginsEarlierTen Years (Chapter 2 begins 1910).

If Morris had thought that his innovations would shed light on a life characterized by improvisation rather than strictly cumulative and structured achievement, he would have been mistaken. Nothing is gained by this approach and much understanding is lost. Edison's creative sprints didn't quite fit the 10-year time frame. The lights in Menlo Park on New Year's Eve in 1879 caused quite a stir in the early 1880s. But since Morris crab trails have been a priority for the last decade, the lights in a small New Jersey town appear on more than 200 pages.backThe crowd cheers at his lighting.

But in the chapters, Edison is alive and well, and while Morris doesn't relent to make that point, Edison's magical abilities make him both the mascot and the epitome of the turn-of-the-century era. In 1880, Manhattan had no subways, cars, or electricity; The tallest building was a church. Thanks to the development of steel frame buildings, by 1915 New York had a subway system, thousands of automobiles, Great White Avenue (a nod to the new electric sign on Broadway), and the world's tallest skyscraper. The airplane, the air conditioner and the assembly line were also invented during the same period. Although today's technology news is often filled with cynicism, the Edison era was one of optimism. Humans believed they could reshape the entire physical world, and they did.

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But Edison was also prophetic for our world. Before designing a working lightbulb, he envisioned a networked city filled with electric elevators, sewing machines, and "every other mechanical device." Recognizing the environmental cost of electricity, he suggested that energy companies "should take advantage of natural forces like well as wind and tides." You could become a brilliant media mogul. Even before the introduction of the film projector, a device that combines film with live recorded sound, he urged President William Howard Taft to run for re-election by recording speeches that people could see on the screen and not only looked to the future of entertainment. , and look to the future of democracy.

Edison's life was full of patented and unrealized ideas, and he himself fueled his critics, emphasizing, "I've never had an idea in my life."

i have no imagination i never dream My supposed inventions already existed in the environment: I removed them. I haven't created anything. Nobody does. There are no brain-generated thoughts. Everything comes from outside. The worker attracts it from the environment.

This can be read in many ways: as provocative hype, as an honest exposition of the mechanics of creativity, or as a paean to the inventor's workaholic. To me, its ambiguity illustrates Edison's greatest contradiction. The man who founded the team's research and development lab used to speak about his work in the first person singular, referring to "mine"named invention" and self-proclaimed "hardworking man"likeEdison's life was to be an abiding lesson in the power of creative teamwork. Instead, his last name has become synonymous with individual genius that is at once heroic and hyped.edisonMorris' portraits respect the subject matter, but his portraits also show that while "working men" can be extraordinary catalysts, it is thanks to many hard-working people that creativity really thrives.


Edmund Morris

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