We sat in the dark. No lights, electricity, phone, or computer. Life had come to a screeching halt. The late April snow caught me by surprise. Without power, I suddenly had almost nothing to do. I had stuff to do, sell some stuff on eBay, buy guitar supplies online, write about Thomas Edison... then it hit me. "What would the world be like without lights or a phone?" I thought. "If Thomas Edison had never lived, or he had never been an inventor, life could be like this all the time?" The "Wizard of Menlo Park" would leave a distinctive footprint on the sandy beaches of progress. Thomas Edison would accomplish great things, and leave valuable lessons behind for others to learn and benefit from.
As a young boy, Thomas was an entrepreneur. He started by selling newspapers on trains. Thomas also hired two boys to operate a periodical stand and sell the vegetables he grew in the family garden. Soon, he was printing his own newspaper, which he claimed had 250-750 readers at one time. That ended because of a chemical explosion in a boxcar, which was also where he printed his newspaper. Thomas would use these skills as an inventor/businessman.
Frequently awarded the title of "America's best inventor", Thomas Edison built a reputation through hard work and phenomenal accomplishments. He began inventing in 1867 at the age of 20. As a skilled telegraph operator, he invented a device to help him produce better work. For the next 10 years, Thomas Edison would focus his attention on inventing for the telegraph industry. Being a telegraph inventor would set the stage for the rest of his career, and give him experience that would fuel his journey to becoming an experienced inventor and American legend.
1877 was year Thomas Edison burst into the public spotlight by revealing the phonograph to the world. He astonished the staff at the Scientific American by demonstrating the first device able to record sound. According to the chief editor of the magazine, "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. These remarks were not only audible to ourselves but to a dozen or more persons gathered around, and they were produced by the aid of no other mechanism than the simple little contrivance explained and illustrated below."1 A machine capable of recording sound is no big deal in our technological age, but in 1877 the invention of the phonograph was a virtual earthquake to the scientific world. Newspaper articles and other publicity generated instant fame.
In one interview with a reporter from the New York Sun, Edison chatted about his expectations for the phonograph. "This is my baby and I expect it to be a big feller and support me in my old age." 2 Unfortunately for Edison, the phonograph never proved as profitable as he expected. A few people bought phonographs and demonstrated them at fairs and other public places. Edison received 20% of the profits. For a while, people willingly bought tickets to see the talking machine. But the novelty soon wore off and the device never achieved the commercial status that Edison anticipated. Even though the phonograph never made him as much money as he wanted, it definitely made him famous. The 30-year-old had become more than an inventor. Thomas Edison was now a celebrity and national hero.
Edison's improvements on Alexander Graham Bell's telephone also met with mixed success, only in a different way. While the phonograph made him famous, the carbon telephone made Edison a lot of money. However, unlike the phonograph, Thomas Edison's improvements brought very little notice by the public eye. Improving inventions would become a financially rewarding habit for him. Throughout his life, he would revise and refine many inventions he did not originally create. Even his most famous invention, incandescent lighting, was an improvement on arc lighting, an earlier primitive type of lighting. Edison and his assistants discovered that carbon made a better transmitter to work with Bell's receiver. Edison sold his patent rights for $100,000, the equivalent of $1.8 million today. In the end though, he received little fame for his improvements, but money to help his struggling financial situation.
By May 1893 Edison as showing the first movies. Even without sound, Edison had achieved an amazing breakthrough. So many people would come to see his "peep shows" that police had to control the masses trying to break through to see the world's first movies. The film company became very profitable. In 1903, Edison's film company released a 12-minute film called the The Great Train Robbery. The story was simple, but filmgoers were awestruck. Over time however, Edison lost interest in the film business. Competitors developed better films and soon outpaced him. He explained, "I was an inventor-an experimenter. I wasn't a theatrical producer."3 However, Edison set the stage for tens of thousands of businessmen, actors, directors, and the others involved in the booming film industry.
I sat in the dark watching the whirling snow fall, that frigid April night. The flickering candles cast their shadows across my thoughtful face. What would life be like without the great accomplishments of Thomas Edison? When he was a budding inventor, all but one of his coworkers laughed at his inventions. They told him, that they were worthless. He would never invent anything useful. If young Thomas Edison had listened to them, they would have been right. But I'm glad he refused to listen to the doubters. Unfortunately, I have been discouraged by others. I've also been the one to discourage others. My thoughts in the dark were a painful reminder about the power of words and discouragement.
Since the dawn of time, every human to walk the winding trail of life has stumbled. Thomas Edison was no exception. However, the brilliant inventor overcame obstacles and changed the world forever. Recording sound, the telephone, the light bulb, and movies, were all improved or invented the great thinker and national hero Thomas Alva Edison.