The story of Thomas Edison who switched on the first electric light on October 21st. 1879,
140 years ago, writes June McDonnell
As a small child Thomas Edison was often ill and, with the added handicap of deafness, his formal education was cut short. For a time he was taught at home by his grandmother. Always a curious child the words ‘How’ and ‘Why’ were uppermost in his mind. Failing to get satisfactory answers from his parents or grandmother, Edison began his own investigations.
His grandmother was encouraging and even let him have a small laboratory in her cellar. He was also quite enterprising and at 12 years of age he sold newspapers on the local trains. For a while he wrote and printed his own little newspaper, full of local news and gossip.
One day at the train station while sorting his newspapers, a carriage broke free and began sliding backwards down the track. Thomas quickly reaslised that the station master’s young son was in grave danger.
Jumping on to the track he rescued the young boy. The grateful father rewarded Edison with a job as an apprentice telegraph operator. This apprenticeship also introduced him to electricity. His first patent was for a telegraphic vote recording maching. It failed because politicians weren’t interested in a machine that recorded accurate votes!
By the age of 16 he was a fully qualified telegraph operator. Not content, he investigated the possibility of making the telegraph machine more effective. It proved to be a very successful venture, and his ideas were purchased by the Western Union for $40,000.
With this windfall he set up a workshop of his own in Newark and employed brilliant engineers to work alongside him. This workshop eventually evolved into the General Electric Company.
Edison set himself a target of a new invention every ten days and an important one every six months.
His first ‘important’ invention was to improve the ‘speaking telegraph’ or telephone that had previously been invented by Graham Bell. While it was a wonderful invention, the voices sounded faint and carried for only a few miles. He was invited by Western Union to work on the project. It was a hard and arduous task involving over 2,000 experiments.
Working day and night Edison and his team of engineers finally made a breakthrough. They invented a small carbon transmitter that solved the probem. He was handsomely rewarded for this invention and received a payment of $100,000.
His ambition now was to invent a ‘phonograph’ a machine that could record and play back the human voice. With great dilligence he eventually came up with a sharp-tipped carbon transmitter. He then recorded his own voice on a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil.