Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,411 pages of information and 245,908 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Thomas Alva Edison

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1879 dynamo at the Deutsches Museum
1881. Exhibited at The 1881 Paris Electrical Exhibition.
1882. Dynamo.
1882. Edison electric light in New York.
1882. Edison electric light in New York.
1882. Edison electric light in New York.
1889. Municipal system for street lighting.
1889. Exhibit at the 1889 Paris Exhibition.
1889. Edison dynamos.
1893. The Edison Tower of Light exhibited at the Chicago Exhibition.
1897. Briquette-Moulding Machine, New Jersey.
1897. The Giant Rolls, New Jersey.
1897. Steam shovel at work on an ore vein, New Jersey.
1897. Depositing the Edison Sand, New Jersey.
1897. One of the Conveyors, New Jersey.

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was an American inventor of Dutch origin and businessman who developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph and a long lasting light bulb. Dubbed "The Wizard of Menlo Park" by a newspaper reporter, he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production to the process of invention, and therefore is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.

Edison is considered one of the most prolific inventors in history, holding 1,093 U.S. patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

1847 February 11th. Born

1876 Edison's major innovation was the first industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, New Jersey, built with the funds from the sale of his quadruplex telegraph (which could send four simultaneous telegraph signals over the same wire) which he had invented two years earlier. With Menlo Park, Edison had created the first industrial laboratory concerned with creating knowledge and then controlling its application.

1877 Began his career as an inventor with the invention of the phonograph gaining him fame. In Newark, New Jersey.

1877 Invented the 'Recording Telephone', see The Engineer 1877/11/23.

1877–78 Edison invented and developed the carbon microphone used in all telephones along with the Bell receiver until the 1980s.

1878 Edison put forward allegations of his invention of the carbon microphone being copied. Full write up in The Engineer 1878/06/28.

Edison may not have invented the first electric light bulb but instead invented the first commercially practical incandescent light.

1878 Edison applied the term filament to the element of glowing wire carrying the current, although the English inventor Joseph Swan had used the term prior to this. Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Co in New York City.

By 1879, he had produced a new concept: a high resistance lamp in a very high vacuum, which would burn for hundreds of hours. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on 31 December.

1880 Edison patented an electric distribution system, which was essential to capitalize on the invention of the electric lamp. On 17 December, Edison founded the Edison Electric Illuminating Co.

1881 Edison exhibited his first "Jumbo" steam-driven dynamo, and installed two sets at Holborn Viaduct in the following year to supply current to neighbouring premises. The output of these sets was about 90 kilowatts at 110 volts, which was so much larger than anything previously constructed that the name " Jumbo " was applied to these sets.[1]

1882 The Edison Electric Light Co was set up in London, a subsidiary of the US company, to control Edison's British patents.

1882 The company established the first investor-owned electric utility at Pearl Street Station, New York City. On 4 September 4 Edison switched on his Pearl Street generating station's electrical power distribution system, which provided 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan.

1883 On 19 January, the first standardized incandescent electric lighting system employing overhead wires began service in Roselle, New Jersey.

1883 Edison and Swan United Electric Light Co was set up to merge Edison Electric Light Co with the Swan United Electric Light Co.

1889 Introduced primary batteries under licence from Felix Lalande of France.

1892 The Edison General Electric Co. was merged into the General Electric Co.

1899 Seeking to improve on the lead-acid accumulator, Edison started work on improving the battery, particularly one suitable for powering an automobile.

1901 Thomas Edison set up a new company, the Edison Storage Battery Co. He introduced the nickel-iron storage battery, which he judged was more suitable for use in vehicles, but it was soon withdrawn because it was unreliable[2]

1910 An improved version of Edison's storage battery was introduced by the Edison Storage Battery Co of Orange N.J.

1911 Established Thomas A. Edison Inc to bring together many of his companies, so as to control costs and centralise common operations such as advertising, legal and purchasing.

1913 Edison organised the manufacture of phenolic acid and other chemicals which were in short supply because of the war.

1927 With support of his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, Edison began the search for an improved rubber plant suitable for growing in the USA.

Late 1920s he introduced a range of luxury kitchen appliances but the timing was wrong and demand did not grow enough.

1931 October 18th. Died at his home, "Glenmont" in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey, being active in his business right until the end.

Review of his Inventions in The Engineer

The following links are articles published in The Engineer detailing his early inventions.

1931 Obituary[3]


The death of Mr. Thomas Alva Edison, which occurred last Sunday at the age of 84, raises the question whether engineering progress is more due to a carefully planned advance from an already well-established line or is the outcome of an instinctive insight, which sweeps away the obstacles that hamper the progress of lesser men. Protagonists of both theories will find many examples in the past to support their opposing views, but it is probable that in the future the balance will swing more and more in favour of the former. There will, however, always be something romantic about the man who invents apparently because he cannot help it, and that romance acquires an added glamour when the results of his efforts are commercially successful. In the popular view, therefore, Edison justly deserved both the title of the Wizard of Electricity and the gratitude of mankind. It may be doubted, however, whether this popular view has altogether enhanced his reputation as a scientist. It has certainly obscured the care with which he examined all that had previously been done on the subject, with which he was at the time concerned, and has caused a not altogether favourable opinion of his work to be held in scientific and technical circles. It is not unlikely that the future will show him in a better, if less garish, light than that in which he has often been depicted.

Edison’s early life was a worthy prelude to the role which, by accident or inclination, he was afterwards called upon to fill. He was born at Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, his father being of Dutch origin and his mother a Canadian of Scottish descent. At an early age he was moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where he went to school for three months. This is stated to have been the only regular education that he had, but at the age of nine he was reading Parkin’s Philosophy and carrying out for himself the experiments in that book. The need for funds to continue these activities caused him to obtain a post as newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railway, while the rescue of a stationmaster’s daughter from beneath the wheels of a shunting engine led to his employment as a telegraphist. In the meantime he had begun his career as an inventor by devising an electrical vote recorder. He soon followed this up with an automatic repeater, which was quickly put into service, and also produced a private line printer and a multiplex telegraph system. The funds he obtained from this and other inventions, for he was always a good business^man, enabled him to open a laboratory at Newark. He moved thence to Menlo Park in 1876, and to West Orange in 1887, the latter place being his headquarters for the remainder of his career, though for many years he also had a laboratory at Fort Myers, Florida, and factories and offices in other parts of the United States. Throughout his life his interests were many and varied, and it has been stated that he had taken out over 1,400 patents, covering such varied equipment as the phonograph, typewriters, micrographs, magnetic separators, electric incandescent lamps and dynamos.

In the late ’seventies of last century the sole method of electric lighting was by arc lamps, which were supplied in series from dynamos generating current at a high voltage. Such a system was quite unsuitable for domestic purposes, and endeavours were, therefore, pretty generally being made to “ sub-divide ” the electric light. The complete solution of {this problem necessitated not only the discovery of a lamp of low candle power, but the operation of the latter in “ multiple arc,” and the production of suitable generating plant and accessory apparatus. As regards the lamp, Sawyer and Mann suggested the use of a carbon rod enclosed in an exhausted glass bulb, but the resistance of this was too low to make it practicable, and Edison therefore made many experiments with a view to obtaining a high resistance filament. In the course of his investigations he tried platinum wire, both pure, mixed with iridium, and in combination with a coating of such earths as ceria, zirconia and magnesia, as well as a form of grass known as “ monkey baste.” In fact, the method he adopted of trying every possible material was a good example of the lines along which he generally worked. Finally, he carbonised some cotton thread and brought it to incandescence in a vacuum, thus producing, on October 21, 1879, a lamp that would bum for some hundreds of hours. Meanwhile, Swan had exhibited a lamp', in which a high resistance carbon rod was used, at Newcastle, in 1878, and had followed this up by employing carbon thread. Actually, in the first commercial lamps produced by Edison, use was made of bamboo cane, while in 1882, Swan found that a much more uniform filament could be obtained by squirting a solution of cotton wool in zinc chloride through a die, and afterwards carbonising and “ flashing ” it with carbon by a method devised by Sawyer and Mann. This gave a result that was both better and cheaper than the earlier processes, and actually held the field in all countries until the metallised filament was introduced in 1906. Unbiassed opinion will, therefore, hold that the credit for the invention of the electric incandescent lamp, which is usually given to Edison alone, should at least be shared with other workers.

Edison also played a leading part in the establishment of a public electricity supply in New York, where the Pearl-street station was opened in 1882 with sets capable of supplying 400 8-c.p. lamps at 110 volts, that is, with a capacity of. about 13 kw. according to modem reckoning. These machines were of the shunt type, so that they could be run in parallel and their pressure adjusted in accordance with the load. The same idea had, however, occurred to Lane Fox in this country, while the use of the three-wire system of distribution, whereby the employment of a higher voltage, with its consequent saving in copper, was rendered possible, was at least as much due to John Hopkinson as to his American contemporary. The existence of this contemporary work in no way minimised Edison’s vision and painstaking endeavours, but a proper idea of the early development of electrical engineering is not obtained unless it is realised that the best electrical thinkers in all countries were working in parallel and obtaining similar results almost simultaneously.

As we have already noted, Edison’s earlier activities were largely concerned with the weak-current side of electrical engineering. In addition to telegraph apparatus, he patented a microphone and, as far back as 1883, discovered that when a metal plate was placed between the loops of a lamp filament and the latter was raised to incandescence by a direct-current, a small current flowed from the plate to the positive terminal of the filament, while no such flow to the negative terminal occurred. This phenomenon, which was termed the Edison effect, was not applied to any purpose for many years until the work of Fleming and Fessenden led to the development of the thermionic valve with results which are generally known. Edison also devised a secondary battery with the object of overcoming the heavy weight and delicacy of the lead accumulator. In this the active materials were nickel-oxide and iron in a solution of caustic potash, a combination giving, as is well known, a greater watt-hour energy and a larger current for a given ampere-hour capacity without damage, than the lead battery. Other activities of Edison included a magnetic separator for the treatment of low-grade ores, a system of monolithic concrete construction, and a microtasimeter for the detection of small variations in temperature. During the war he was responsible for the design and erection of a number of plants for the manufacture of carbolic acid, benzol, myrbane aniline oil, parapheny-lenediamine and aniline salt.

Edison contributed very little to technical literature or to the proceedings of the many scientific societies, of which he was an ordinary or honorary member. He was, however, the recipient of many honours, including honorary degrees from the Universities of Princeton and New York, a gold medal from the United States Congress, and the John Fritz and Rathenau Medals. He was a Commander of the Legion of Honour and an honorary member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the American Illuminating Engineering Society. His career was a remarkable example of self-help, and that from such unassisted beginnings he achieved so much may well explain the almost legendary position he came to occupy in American popular opinion. The unbalanced enthusiasm with which his slightest contribution to technical advance was often hailed, and the failure to relate his work to that of others, tended to obscure the value of his more important contributions to the advance of electrical work. It is probable that as matters fall into their proper perspective with the passage of time, the prominent position which Edison occupied among the pioneers of electrical practice will be more clearly and generally recognised by competent opinion in all countries."

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1924/08/08
  2. The Times Feb. 9, 1910
  3. Engineering 1931/10/23
  • [1] Wikipedia
  • Trademarked. A History of Well-Known Brands - from Aertex to Wright's Coal Tar by David Newton. Pub: Sutton Publishing 2008 ISBN 978-0-7509-4590-5
  • "Thomas Edison in West Orange" by Edward Wirth (2008)
  • Edison’s companies [2]