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Essay/Term paper: Illuminating the path of progress

Essay, term paper, research paper:  American History

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Illuminating the Path of Progress

Thomas Alva Edison is the most famous inventor in American History.
Edison designed, built, and delivered the electrical age. He started a
revolution that would refocus technology, change life patterns, and create
millions of jobs. He became famous for his scientific inventions, even though he
was not a scientist. His real talent was his ability to clearly judge a problem
and be persistent in experimenting. He was the master of the trial and error
Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He was the
last of seven children born to Samuel and Nancy Edison. Edison's early life was
spent in Ohio near the nation's busiest grain port. He spent time exploring the
canal and played near his father's shingle business.
When Alva was a child, he had scarlet fever. The fever damaged his
hearing and delayed his entrance into school. Edison was curious about the
world around him and always tried to teach himself through reading and
experiments. Alva spent three years in home schooling. He was taught by his
mother. He later returned to school but left at age twelve to get a job and
help support his family.
Edison got his first job selling newspapers and snacks to the passengers
on the train between Port Huron and Detroit. Edison bought a used printing
press in 1862 and published the Grand Trunk Herald for passengers. It was the
first newspaper published on a train.
When Edison was fifteen, he was taught Morse code and became a manager
of a telegraph office. Edison got the idea for his first invention from
working here. His first inventions were the transmitter and receiver for the
automatic telegraph. At 21, Edison produced his first major invention, a stock
ticker. In 1869, when Edison was twenty-two, he patented his first invention
and advertised that he would devote his time to bringing out his inventions.
The first patent received by Edison was for a vote recorder. Years later
Edison's design was put in use by state legislatures for use by the public in
general elections. By the age of twenty-three Edison owned two factories to
manufacture telegraphic equipment and had money to pursue his research.
On December 25, 1871, Edison married Mary Stilwell. They had three
children. Two of his children were nicknamed Dot and Dash after the Morse code.
In 1880 Edison made a discovery in science. He noticed that when a
metal plate was inserted into a light bulb, the plate became a valve and the
current could be controlled. This discovery is known as the "Edison Effect."
It is the basis for the whole field of electronics. Edison did not pursue this
Edison grew tired of the manufacturing side of business and wanted to
devote his time to experimenting on new inventions. He moved the laboratory to
Menlo Park, N.J., where he directed groups of employees working on various
projects. The move to Menlo Park was an important turning point for Edison. He
was devoted to improving and inventing useful products. In 1877, inspired by
the work he had done on improving Bell's telephone, Edison pursued the idea of
not only transmitting speech but recording it. The result was the phonograph.
This was the invention Edison was most proud of. Invented in 1877, it used
tinfoil and wax cylinders to record the sound. He demonstrated his phonograph
for the National Academy of Sciences and to President Rutherford B. Hayes.
After Edison conquered sound, he set out to produce electric lighting
that would be cheap, safe and reliable. It took Edison just over a year to
invent a practical light bulb. One of his bulbs burned for 1,589 hours. He
gave a public demonstration of his lighting system by lighting the town of Menlo
Park. He later established the Edison Electric Light Company. This would own
all of Edison's electrical inventions. Then came the challenge of creating a
system for distributing electric power over a wide area from a central
generating station. Edison applied for nearly 40 patents to cover the devices
he invented for his electricity distribution system. Later that year, New
York's first power station was opened. By the end of 1883, Pearl Street was
lighting 10,000 lamps for 431 customers.
In the summer of 1884, tragedy struck with the sudden death of his wife
who died of typhoid fever. Two years later he married Mina Miller. He moved to
West Orange, New Jersey and raised a second family.
In 1888, Edison invented a kinetoscope, an early form of motion picture
camera. The kinetoscope could not put a moving image onto a screen. Edison's
attempts to put sound and vision together ended in failure. In 1899 he develops
the fluoroscope, but chooses not to patent the invention because of its
universal need in medicine and surgery.
Edison's main interest during the 1890's was a project to develop a
method of extracting iron from low grade ore. Edison spent $2 million trying to
develop a method of extracting iron. He spent almost all of the money he had
made from his electricity business. He failed to develop a commercial process
for magnetic ore separation. In 1898, Edison bought a large area of land and
built a cement plant. By 1905 this new venture had become the fifth largest
cement works in the United States. His next project took him back to the field
he knew best, electricity. He improved the electric battery, making it last
longer and ensuring it was less easily damaged when overcharged.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Secretary of the Navy,
Josephus Daniels, invited him to become president of an advisory group of
scientists. Edison's contribution came through his scientific work on torpedo
detection methods and perfecting sailing lights and periscopes.
By the 1920's, Edison was the most famous living American. People in
the United States honored Edison's contributions by naming him one of the most
important individuals in American history. Among his many honors he was voted
the "most useful American" in 1913. In 1971 he ranked third of the ten greatest
men in American business history. He was elected to the American Academy of
Sciences. In 1928 Congress ordered a special gold medal to be made in his honor
for his lifetime contribution to society.
In 1927, when Edison was 80, he founded the Edison Botanic Research
Company to find a new way of making rubber. After examining 14,000 plants he
decided goldenrod offered a source of rubber. The process was too expensive,
but the onset of illnesses prevented him from finding a way to make it cheaper.
The fiftieth anniversary of the light bulb was celebrated in 1929.
Henry Ford set up a museum in Michigan. One of his exhibits was a recreation of
Edison's laboratory at Menlo, Park. Edison re-enacts his discovery of the light
bulb for this occasion. The government issued a special postage stamp, showing
Edison's prototype light bulb.
In his 70's he was working sixteen hours a day. He was told by his
doctors to slow down. He replied "There will be plenty of time to rest at 100."
Edison made his last public statement in 1931. He sent a message of goodwill to
lighting engineers who were meeting at a conference. Edison died four months
later on October 18, 1931. He suffered from diabetes, Bright's disease and
stomach ulcers. On the day of his funeral the torch of the Statue of Liberty
was extinguished as a mark of respect. People all across America dimmed their
lights in honor of the great inventor.
Edison's legacy is not in the machines he invented. It includes his
influence on the business of invention. Edison made invention a profession, an
occupation rather than a hobby. Edison's commercial success inspired other
inventors and businesspeople to copy his methods. Edison's invention of the
research and development laboratory continues to be one of America's most
important tools.
Edison owed his success to hard work. He often said his inventions came
from "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!" He believed in himself and was
willing to try different ways of doing things. He worked hard and did not give
Edison's wealth and scientific accomplishment set him apart from others.
However, things that contributed to his fame were things he had in common with
many average Americans.
Most Americans would find it hard to go through a day without using an
invention created by Edison.

Neil Gregory


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