The story

Thomas Edison - History


Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847. He received almost no formal education, and began working in various capacities on the railroad. Although he was hearing impaired, he was able to become a telegraph operator. He learned how to experiment with chemicals and electric currents from reading a popular book on science, and set up a chemistry lab in the baggage car during his spare time. In 1869, he patented his first inventions, a vote recorder and a stock ticker. He moved to New York, and eventually manufactured stock tickers while he worked on further inventions.
In 1876, Edison established the first industrial research laboratory, in Menlo Park, New Jersey. It was at Menlo Park that he invented the phonograph (1877) and the carbon filament incandescent lamp (1879). In 1887, he moved his laboratory to a larger venue in West Orange, New Jersey. In the 1890s, because of the concentrated, systematic work Edison completed in his new lab, he developed the fluoroscope, a process for the separation of iron, the storage battery, the dictating machine, the mimeograph and the moving picture machine.
Edison began to focus his efforts on creating and promoting companies to market his inventions, including the Edison General Electric Company, which merged with the Thomson-Houston Company in 1891 to become the General Electric Company. After extensive litigation, however, he lost control of is companies to a group of businessmen led by J. P. Morgan. His holdings in General Electric reduced to 10%, Edison sold out in 1892.
During World War I, Edison served as president of the Naval Consulting Board. After the war, he worked with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to develop rubber from domestic plants, a project which came to fruition only after Edison’s death. Edison died on October 18, 1931, in West Orange, New Jersey.


Motion Pictures

The Black Maria. A building built for the recording of motion pictures.

Sometimes one invention might give you an idea for making something else. That is what happened to Thomas Edison with motion pictures.

In October 1888 Edison wrote, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear . . ." Actually, "motion" pictures only seem to move. A modern movie camera takes still pictures like a regular camera does. However, it takes 24 of these pictures, or frames, per second. When you show these pictures at a very fast rate, they look like they are moving. Even before Edison's work on movies, this basic idea had already been developed by a British photographer named Eadward Muybridge. He wanted to prove that when a horse ran, all four of its legs could be up in the air at once. By taking several photos very fast, Muybridge proved his point.

Around 1889 Edison picked a team of muckers to work on this project, headed by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. They built the Strip Kinetograph, which was a very early movie camera. The "strip" was a piece of long, flexible film that had been invented for regular camera. Unlike older photographic film, it could be wrapped around a wheel or a spool. The Strip Kinetograph took pictures so fast that they would seem to move.

Then Edison and his muckers built a Kinetoscope, a machine to watch these movies. One person at a time would pay five cents to watch a short, silent movie about twenty to thirty seconds long. The first kinetoscope parlor, or movie theater, opened on April 14, 1894, at 1155 Broadway in New York City.

To film these movies, the muckers needed a stage. Edison's light bulbs were not bright enough to make these films. They built a stage out of wood planks and tar paper, with a roof that opened up to the sun. This strange building looked a little like a police wagon or a hearse (which took coffins to the graveyard). A police wagon was sometimes called a "black Maria" (pronounced Ma-RI-uh). This "Black Maria" was built in 1893. Short films were made there for ten years until it was torn down around 1903. By then Edison had a newer, better movie studio in New York City.

Edison was one of the inventors of motion pictures, but he should not get all the credit. Other inventors in different parts of the world made important discoveries as well. For just one example, in 1896 Thomas Armat and Francis Jenkins designed the phantascope. This early movie projector showed the film onto a screen, so that a roomful of people could watch at the same time. Edison bought the rights to this machine and started making his own projectors. The Lumiere brothers in France were also extremely important in the development of movies. Other inventors also helped find pieces of the puzzle.

But, with his huge laboratory here in West Orange, Edison put the pieces of the puzzle together. That is why he is sometimes called the "Father of Motion Pictures."


Edison Biography

Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio the seventh and last child of Samuel and Nancy Edison. When Edison was seven his family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. Edison lived here until he struck out on his own at the age of sixteen. Edison had very little formal education as a child, attending school only for a few months. He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own. This belief in self-improvement remained throughout his life.

Edison began working at an early age, as most boys did at the time. At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit. He seems to have spent much of his free time reading scientific, and technical books, and also had the opportunity at this time to learn how to operate a telegraph. By the time he was sixteen, Edison was proficient enough to work as a telegrapher full time.

The development of the telegraph was the first step in the communication revolution, and the telegraph industry expanded rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. This rapid growth gave Edison and others like him a chance to travel, see the country, and gain experience. Edison worked in a number of cities throughout the United States before arriving in Boston in 1868. Here Edison began to change his profession from telegrapher to inventor. He received his first patent on an electric vote recorder, a device intended for use by elected bodies such as Congress to speed the voting process. This invention was a commercial failure. Edison resolved that in the future he would only invent things that he was certain the public would want.

Edison moved to New York City in 1869. He continued to work on inventions related to the telegraph, and developed his first successful invention, an improved stock ticker called the "Universal Stock Printer". For this and some related inventions Edison was paid $40,000. This gave Edison the money he needed to set up his first small laboratory and manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey in 1871. During the next five years, Edison worked in Newark inventing and manufacturing devices that greatly improved the speed and efficiency of the telegraph. He also found to time to get married to Mary Stilwell and start a family.

In 1876 Edison sold all his Newark manufacturing concerns and moved his family and staff of assistants to the small village of Menlo Park, twenty-five miles southwest of New York City. Edison established a new facility containing all the equipment necessary to work on any invention. This research and development laboratory was the first of its kind anywhere the model for later, modern facilities such as Bell Laboratories, this is sometimes considered to be Edison's greatest invention. Here Edison began to change the world.

Edison's first phonograph - 1877.

The first great invention developed by Edison in Menlo Park was the tin foil phonograph. The first machine that could record and reproduce sound created a sensation and brought Edison international fame. Edison toured the country with the tin foil phonograph, and was invited to the White House to demonstrate it to President Rutherford B. Hayes in April 1878.

Edison next undertook his greatest challenge, the development of a practical incandescent, electric light. The idea of electric lighting was not new, and a number of people had worked on, and even developed forms of electric lighting. But up to that time, nothing had been developed that was remotely practical for home use. Edison's eventual achievement was inventing not just an incandescent electric light, but also an electric lighting system that contained all the elements necessary to make the incandescent light practical, safe, and economical. After one and a half years of work, success was achieved when an incandescent lamp with a filament of carbonized sewing thread burned for thirteen and a half hours. The first public demonstration of the Edison's incandescent lighting system was in December 1879, when the Menlo Park laboratory complex was electrically lighted. Edison spent the next several years creating the electric industry. In September 1882, the first commercial power station, located on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, went into operation providing light and power to customers in a one square mile area the electric age had begun.

An early sketch from a laboratory notebook of an electric lightbulb.

The success of his electric light brought Edison to new heights of fame and wealth, as electricity spread around the world. Edison's various electric companies continued to grow until in 1889 they were brought together to form Edison General Electric. Despite the use of Edison in the company title however, Edison never controlled this company. The tremendous amount of capital needed to develop the incandescent lighting industry had necessitated the involvement of investment bankers such as J.P. Morgan. When Edison General Electric merged with its leading competitor Thompson-Houston in 1892, Edison was dropped from the name, and the company became simply General Electric.

This period of success was marred by the death of Edison's wife Mary in 1884. Edison's involvement in the business end of the electric industry had caused Edison to spend less time in Menlo Park. After Mary's death, Edison was there even less, living instead in New York City with his three children. A year later, while vacationing at a friends house in New England, Edison met Mina Miller and fell in love. The couple was married in February 1886 and moved to West Orange, New Jersey where Edison had purchased an estate, Glenmont, for his bride. Thomas Edison lived here with Mina until his death.

When Edison moved to West Orange, he was doing experimental work in makeshift facilities in his electric lamp factory in nearby Harrison, New Jersey. A few months after his marriage, however, Edison decided to build a new laboratory in West Orange itself, less than a mile from his home. Edison possessed both the resources and experience by this time to build, "the best equipped and largest laboratory extant and the facilities superior to any other for rapid and cheap development of an invention ". The new laboratory complex consisting of five buildings opened in November 1887. A three story main laboratory building contained a power plant, machine shops, stock rooms, experimental rooms and a large library. Four smaller one story buildings built perpendicular to the main building contained a physics lab, chemistry lab, metallurgy lab, pattern shop, and chemical storage. The large size of the laboratory not only allowed Edison to work on any sort of project, but also allowed him to work on as many as ten or twenty projects at once. Facilities were added to the laboratory or modified to meet Edison's changing needs as he continued to work in this complex until his death in 1931. Over the years, factories to manufacture Edison inventions were built around the laboratory. The entire laboratory and factory complex eventually covered more than twenty acres and employed 10,000 people at its peak during World War One (1914-1918).

After opening the new laboratory, Edison began to work on the phonograph again, having set the project aside to develop the electric light in the late 1870s. By the 1890s, Edison began to manufacture phonographs for both home, and business use. Like the electric light, Edison developed everything needed to have a phonograph work, including records to play, equipment to record the records, and equipment to manufacture the records and the machines. In the process of making the phonograph practical, Edison created the recording industry. The development and improvement of the phonograph was an ongoing project, continuing almost until Edison's death.

While working on the phonograph, Edison began working on a device that, "does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear", this was to become motion pictures. Edison first demonstrated motion pictures in 1891, and began commercial production of "movies" two years later in a peculiar looking structure, built on the laboratory grounds, known as the Black Maria. Like the electric light and phonograph before it, Edison developed a complete system, developing everything needed to both film and show motion pictures. Edison's initial work in motion pictures was pioneering and original. However, many people became interested in this third new industry Edison created, and worked to further improve on Edison's early motion picture work. There were therefore many contributors to the swift development of motion pictures beyond the early work of Edison. By the late 1890s, a thriving new industry was firmly established, and by 1918 the industry had become so competitive that Edison got out of the movie business all together.

The success of the phonograph and motion pictures in the 1890s helped offset the greatest failure of Edison's career. Throughout the decade Edison worked in his laboratory and in the old iron mines of northwestern New Jersey to develop methods of mining iron ore to feed the insatiable demand of the Pennsylvania steel mills. To finance this work, Edison sold all his stock in General Electric. Despite ten years of work and millions of dollars spent on research and development, Edison was never able to make the process commercially practical, and lost all the money he had invested. This would have meant financial ruin had not Edison continued to develop the phonograph and motion pictures at the same time. As it was, Edison entered the new century still financially secure and ready to take on another challenge.

Edison's new challenge was to develop a better storage battery for use in electric vehicles. Edison very much enjoyed automobiles and owned a number of different types during his life, powered by gasoline, electricity, and steam. Edison thought that electric propulsion was clearly the best method of powering cars, but realized that conventional lead-acid storage batteries were inadequate for the job. Edison began to develop an alkaline battery in 1899. It proved to be Edison's most difficult project, taking ten years to develop a practical alkaline battery. By the time Edison introduced his new alkaline battery, the gasoline powered car had so improved that electric vehicles were becoming increasingly less common, being used mainly as delivery vehicles in cities. However, the Edison alkaline battery proved useful for lighting railway cars and signals, maritime buoys, and miners lamps. Unlike iron ore mining, the heavy investment Edison made over ten years was repaid handsomely, and the storage battery eventually became Edison's most profitable product. Further, Edison's work paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.

By 1911, Thomas Edison had built a vast industrial operation in West Orange. Numerous factories had been built through the years around the original laboratory, and the staff of the entire complex had grown into the thousands. To better manage operations, Edison brought all the companies he had started to make his inventions together into one corporation, Thomas A. Edison Incorporated, with Edison as president and chairman. Edison was sixty-four by this time and his role with his company and in life began to change. Edison left more of the daily operations of both the laboratory and the factories to others. The laboratory itself did less original experimental work and instead worked more on refining existing Edison products such as the phonograph. Although Edison continued to file for and receive patents for new inventions, the days of developing new products that changed lives and created industries were behind him.

In the 1915, Edison was asked to head the Naval Consulting Board. With the United States inching closer towards the involvement in World War One, the Naval Consulting Board was an attempt to organize the talents of the leading scientists and inventors in the United States for the benefit of the American armed forces. Edison favored preparedness, and accepted the appointment. The Board did not make a notable contribution to the final allied victory, but did serve as a precedent for future successful cooperation between scientists, inventors and the United States military. During the war, at age seventy, Edison spent several months on Long Island Sound in a borrowed navy vessel experimenting on techniques for detecting submarines.

Edison's role in life began to change from inventor and industrialist to cultural icon, a symbol of American ingenuity, and a real life Horatio Alger story. In 1928, in recognition of a lifetime of achievement, the United States Congress voted Edison a special Medal of Honor. In 1929 the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of the incandescent light. The celebration culminated at a banquet honoring Edison given by Henry Ford at Greenfield Village, Ford's new American history museum, which included a complete restoration of the Menlo Park Laboratory. Attendees included President Herbert Hoover and many of the leading American scientists and inventors.

The last experimental work of Edison's life was done at the request of Edison's good friends Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. They asked Edison to find an alternative source of rubber for use in automobile tires. The natural rubber used for tires up to that time came from the rubber tree, which does not grow in the United States. Crude rubber had to be imported and was becoming increasingly expensive. With his customary energy and thoroughness, Edison tested thousands of different plants to find a suitable substitute, eventually finding a type of Goldenrod weed that could produce enough rubber to be feasible. Edison was still working on this at the time of his death.

During the last two years of his life Edison was in increasingly poor health. Edison spent more time away from the laboratory, working instead at Glenmont. Trips to the family vacation home in Fort Myers, Florida became longer. Edison was past eighty and suffering from a number of ailments. In August 1931 Edison collapsed at Glenmont. Essentially house bound from that point, Edison steadily declined until at 3:21 am on October 18, 1931 the great man died.


History of Edison Motion Pictures

Edison's laboratory was responsible for the invention of the Kinetograph (a motion picture camera) and the Kinetoscope (a peep-hole motion picture viewer). Most of this work was performed by Edison's assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, beginning in 1888. Motion pictures became a successful entertainment industry in less than a decade, with single-viewer Kinetoscopes giving way to films projected for mass audiences. The Edison Manufacturing Co. (later known as Thomas A. Edison, Inc.) not only built the apparatus for filming and projecting motion pictures, but also produced films for public consumption. Most early examples were actualities showing famous people, news events, disasters, people at work, new modes of travel and technology, scenic views, expositions, and other leisure activities. As actualities declined in popularity, the company's production emphasis shifted to comedies and dramas.

This collection features 341 Edison films, including 127 titles also available in other American Memory motion picture groupings. The earliest example is a camera test made in 1891, followed by other tests and a wide variety of actualities and dramas through the year 1918, when Edison's company ceased film production. The presentation also offers a brief history of Edison's work with motion pictures as well as an overview of the different film genres produced by the Edison company.


History of the Cylinder Phonograph

Phonograph Catalog/Advertisement:
"I want a phonograph in every home. ".

The phonograph was developed as a result of Thomas Edison's work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone. In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would transcribe telegraphic messages through indentations on paper tape, which could later be sent over the telegraph repeatedly. This development led Edison to speculate that a telephone message could also be recorded in a similar fashion. He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern. Edison gave a sketch of the machine to his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build, which Kruesi supposedly did within 30 hours. Edison immediately tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, "Mary had a little lamb." To his amazement, the machine played his words back to him.

Although it was later stated that the date for this event was on August 12, 1877, some historians believe that it probably happened several months later, since Edison did not file for a patent until December 24, 1877. Also, the diary of one of Edison's aides, Charles Batchelor, seems to confirm that the phonograph was not constructed until December 4, and finished two days later. The patent on the phonograph was issued on February 19, 1878. The invention was highly original. The only other recorded evidence of such an invention was in a paper by French scientist Charles Cros, written on April 18, 1877. There were some differences, however, between the two men's ideas, and Cros's work remained only a theory, since he did not produce a working model of it.

Original Edison Tin Foil Phonograph. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site.

Edison took his new invention to the offices of Scientific American in New York City and showed it to staff there. As the December 22, 1877, issue reported, "Mr. Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank, and 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." Interest was great, and the invention was reported in several New York newspapers, and later in other American newspapers and magazines.

The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was established on January 24, 1878, to exploit the new machine by exhibiting it. Edison received $10,000 for the manufacturing and sales rights and 20% of the profits. As a novelty, the machine was an instant success, but was difficult to operate except by experts, and the tin foil would last for only a few playings.

Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878:

  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

Eventually, the novelty of the invention wore off for the public, and Edison did no further work on the phonograph for a while, concentrating instead on inventing the incadescent light bulb.

In the void left by Edison, others moved forward to improve the phonograph. In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell won the Volta Prize of $10,000 from the French government for his invention of the telephone. Bell used his winnings to set up a laboratory to further electrical and acoustical research, working with his cousin Chichester A. Bell, a chemical engineer, and Charles Sumner Tainter, a scientist and instrument maker. They made some improvements on Edison's invention, chiefly by using wax in the place of tin foil and a floating stylus instead of a rigid needle which would incise, rather than indent, the cylinder. A patent was awarded to C. Bell and Tainter on May 4, 1886. The machine was exhibited to the public as the graphophone. Bell and Tainter had representatives approach Edison to discuss a possible collaboration on the machine, but Edison refused and determined to improve the phonograph himself. At this point, he had succeeded in making the incandescent lamp and could now resume his work on the phonograph. His initial work, though, closely followed the improvements made by Bell and Tainter, especially in its use of wax cylinders, and was called the New Phonograph.

The Edison Phonograph Company was formed on October 8, 1887, to market Edison's machine. He introduced the Improved Phonograph by May of 1888, shortly followed by the Perfected Phonograph. The first wax cylinders Edison used were white and made of ceresin, beeswax, and stearic wax.

Edison Home Phonograph

Businessman Jesse H. Lippincott assumed control of the phonograph companies by becoming sole licensee of the American Graphophone Company and by purchasing the Edison Phonograph Company from Edison. In an arrangement which eventually included most other phonograph makers as well, he formed the North American Phonograph Company on July 14, 1888. Lippincott saw the potential use of the phonograph only in the business field and leased the phonographs as office dictating machines to various member companies which each had its own sales territory. Unfortunately, this business did not prove to be very profitable, receiving significant opposition from stenographers.

Meanwhile, the Edison Factory produced talking dolls in 1890 for the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co. The dolls contained tiny wax cylinders. Edison's relationship with the company ended in March of 1891, and the dolls are very rare today. The Edison Phonograph Works also produced musical cylinders for coin-slot phonographs which some of the subsidiary companies had started to use. These proto-"jukeboxes" were a development which pointed to the future of phonographs as entertainment machines.

In the fall of 1890, Lippincott fell ill and lost control of the North American Phonograph Co. to Edison, who was its principal creditor. Edison changed the policy of rentals to outright sales of the machines, but changed little else.

Edison increased the entertainment offerings on his cylinders, which by 1892 were made of a wax known among collectors today as "brown wax." Although called by this name, the cylinders could range in color from off-white to light tan to dark brown. An announcement at the beginning of the cylinder would typically indicate the title, artist, and company.

Advertisement for the Edison New Standard Phongraph, in Harper's, September 1898.

In 1894, Edison declared bankruptcy for the North American Phonograph Company, a move that enabled him to buy back the rights to his invention. It took two years for the bankruptcy affairs to be settled before Edison could move ahead with marketing his invention. The Edison Spring Motor Phonograph appeared in 1895, even though technically Edison was not allowed to sell phonographs at this time because of the bankruptcy agreement. In January 1896, he started the National Phonograph Company which would manufacture phonographs for home entertainment use. Within three years, branches of the company were located in Europe. Under the aegis of the company, he announced the Spring Motor Phonograph in 1896, followed by the Edison Home Phonograph, and he began the commercial issue of cylinders under the new company's label. A year later, the Edison Standard Phonograph was manufactured, and then exhibited in the press in 1898. This was the first phonograph to carry the Edison trademark design. Prices for the phonographs had significantly diminished from its early days of $150 (in 1891) down to $20 for the Standard model and $7.50 for a model known as the Gem, introduced in 1899.

Standard-sized cylinders, which tended to be 4.25" long and 2.1875" in diameter, were 50 cents each and typically played at 120 r.p.m. A variety of selections were featured on the cylinders, including marches, sentimental ballads, minstrel dialect songs, hymns, comic monologues and descriptive specialities, which offered sound reenactments of events.

The early cylinders had two significant problems. The first was the short length of the cylinders, only 2 minutes. This necessarily narrowed the field of what could be recorded. The second problem was that no mass method of duplicating cylinders existed. Most often, performers had to repeat their performances when recording in order to amass a quantity of cylinders. This was not only time-consuming, but costly.

The Edison Concert Phonograph, which had a louder sound and a larger cylinder measuring 4.25" long and 5" in diameter, was introduced in 1899, retailing for $125 and the large cylinders for $4. The Concert Phonograph did not sell well, and prices for it and its cylinders were dramatically reduced. Their production ceased in 1912.

A process for mass-producing duplicate wax cylinders was put into effect in 1901. The cylinders were molded, rather than engraved by a stylus, and a harder wax was used. The process was referred to as Gold Moulded, because of a gold vapor given off by gold electrodes used in the process. Sub-masters were created from the gold master, and the cylinders were made from these molds. From a single mold, 120 to 150 cylinders could be produced every day. The new wax used was black in color, and the cylinders were initially called New High Speed Hard Wax Moulded Records until the name was changed to Gold Moulded. By mid-1904, the savings in mass duplication was reflected in the price for cylinders which had been lowered to 35 cents each. Beveled ends were made on the cylinders to accommodate titles.

A new business phonograph was introduced in 1905. Similar to a standard phonograph, it had alterations to the reproducer and mandrel. The early machines were difficult to use, and their fragility made them prone to failure. Even though improvements were made to the machine over the years, they still cost more than the popular, inexpensive Dictaphones put out by Columbia. Electrical motors and controls were later added to the Edison business machine, which improved their performance. (Some Edison phonographs made before 1895 also had electric motors, until they were replaced by spring motors.)

At this point, the Edison business phonograph became a dictating system. Three machines were used: the executive dictating machine, the secretarial machine for transcribing, and a shaving machine used to recycle used cylinders. This system can be seen in the Edison advertising film, The Stenographer's Friend, filmed in 1910. An improved machine, the Ediphone, was introduced in 1916 and steadily grew in sales after World War I and into the 1920's.

Catalog for Edison moulded cylinder records, March 1903.

In terms of playing time, the 2-minute wax cylinder could not compete well against competitors' discs, which could offer up to four minutes. In response, the Amberol Record was presented in November 1908, which had finer grooves than the two-minute cylinders, and thus, could last as long as 4 minutes. The two-minute cylinders were then referred to in the future as Edison Two-Minute Records, and then later as Edison Standard Records. In 1909, a series of Grand Opera Amberols (a continuation of the two-minute Grand Opera Cylinders introduced in 1906) was put on the market to attract the higher-class clientele, but these did not prove successful. The Amberola I phonograph was introduced in 1909, a floor-model luxury machine with high-quality performance, and was supposed to compete with the Victrola and Grafonola.

In 1910, the company was reorganized into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Frank L. Dyer was initially president, then Edison served as president from December 1912 until August 1926, when his son, Charles, became president, and Edison became chairman of the board.

Columbia, one of Edison's chief competitors, abandoned the cylinder market in 1912. (Columbia had given up making its own cylinders in 1909, and until 1912 was only releasing cylinders which it had acquired from the Indestructible Phonographic Record Co.) The United States Phonograph Co. ceased production of its U.S. Everlasting cylinders in 1913, leaving the cylinder market to Edison. The disc had steadily grown in popularity with the consumer, thanks especially to the popular roster of Victor artists on disc. Edison refused to give up the cylinder, introducing instead the Blue Amberol Record, an unbreakable cylinder with what was arguably the best available sound on a recording at the time. The finer sound of the cylinder was partly due to the fact that a cylinder had constant surface speed from beginning to end in contrast to the inner groove distortion that occurred on discs when the surface speed slowed down. Partisans of Edison also argued that the vertical cut in the groove produced a superior sound to the lateral cut of Victor and other disc competitors. Cylinders, though, had truly peaked by this time, and even the superior sound of the Blue Amberols could not persuade the larger public to buy cylinders. Edison conceded to this reality in 1913 when he announced the manufacture of the Edison Disc Phonograph. The Edison Company did not desert its faithful cylinder customers, however, and continued to make Blue Amberol cylinders until the demise of the company in 1929, although most from 1915 on were dubbed from the Diamond Discs.

Information for this section was culled from the following sources:


Thomas Edison dies

Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most prolific inventors in history, dies in West Orange, New Jersey, at the age of 84.

Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, Edison received little formal schooling, which was customary for most Americans at the time. He developed serious hearing problems at an early age, and this disability provided the motivation for many of his inventions. At age 16, he found work as a telegraph operator and soon was devoting much of his energy and natural ingenuity toward improving the telegraph system itself. By 1869, he was pursuing invention full-time and in 1876 moved into a laboratory and machine shop in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Edison’s experiments were guided by his remarkable intuition, but he also took care to employ assistants who provided the mathematical and technical expertise he lacked. At Menlo Park, Edison continued his work on the telegraph, and in 1877 he stumbled on one of his great inventions—the phonograph—while working on a way to record telephone communication. Public demonstrations of the phonograph made the Yankee inventor world famous, and he was dubbed the “Wizard of Menlo Park.”

Although the discovery of a way to record and play back sound ensured him a place in the annals of history, it was just the first of several Edison creations that would transform late 19th-century life. Among other notable inventions, Edison and his assistants developed the first practical incandescent lightbulb in 1879, and a forerunner of the movie camera and projector in the late 1880s. In 1887, he opened the world’s first industrial research laboratory at West Orange, where he employed dozens of workers to systematically investigate a given subject.


Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse

After an unsuccessful attempt to start his own Tesla Electric Light Company and a stint digging ditches for $2 a day, Tesla found backers to support his research into alternating current. In 1887 and 1888 he was granted more than 30 patents for his inventions and invited to address the American Institute of Electrical Engineers on his work. His lecture caught the attention of George Westinghouse, the inventor who had launched the first AC power system near Boston and was Edison’s major competitor in the �ttle of the Currents.”

Westinghouse hired Tesla, licensed the patents for his AC motor and gave him his own lab. In 1890 Edison arranged for a convicted New York murderer to be put to death in an AC-powered electric chair𠅊 stunt designed to show how dangerous the Westinghouse standard could be.

Buoyed by Westinghouse’s royalties, Tesla struck out on his own again. But Westinghouse was soon forced by his backers to renegotiate their contract, with Tesla relinquishing his royalty rights.

In the 1890s Tesla invented electric oscillators, meters, improved lights and the high-voltage transformer known as the Tesla coil. He also experimented with X-rays, gave short-range demonstrations of radio communication two years before Guglielmo Marconi and piloted a radio-controlled boat around a pool in Madison Square Garden. Together, Tesla and Westinghouse lit the 1891 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and partnered with General Electric to install AC generators at Niagara Falls, creating the first modern power station.


History of Edison Sound Recordings

--Thomas A. Edison on hearing his voice play back to him from his first tin foil phonograph.

Of all his inventions, Thomas A. Edison was most fond of the phonograph. As a result of his work on two other inventions, the telegraph and the telephone, Edison happened upon a way to record sound on tinfoil-coated cylinders in 1877. Edison set aside this invention in 1878 to work on the incandescent light bulb, and others moved forward to improve on his invention, including Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, who developed a wax cylinder for the phonograph. In 1887, Edison resumed work on his phonograph, using wax cylinders. Although initially used as a dictating machine for offices, the phonograph proved to be a popular form of entertainment, and Edison eventually offered a variety of recording selections to the public through his National Phonograph Company. Edison introduced improved phonograph models and cylinders over the years, ending with the Blue Amberol Record, an unbreakable cylinder with superior sound. In 1910, the company was reorganized into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. The Edison Disc Phonograph was developed in 1912 with the aim of competing in the popular disc market. The Edison Diamond Discs offered excellent sound, but were not compatible with other disc players. The advent of radio caused business to sour in the 1920's. Edison gave in to the popular trend and offered lateral-cut records and accompanying portable players in the summer of 1929, before recording production at Edison ceased forever in October 1929.

Histories of the Edison cylinder and disc phonographs are offered on the following pages along with selected representative recordings from the company, showing the variety produced during its existence. These selections include instrumental, vocal, spoken word, spoken comedy, foreign language and ethnic, religious, opera and concert recordings.


One concept that never took off was Edison's interest in using cement to build things. He formed the Edison Portland Cement Co. in 1899 and made everything from cabinets (for phonographs) to pianos and houses. Unfortunately, at the time, concrete was too expensive and the idea was never accepted. The cement business wasn't a total failure, though. His company was hired to build Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

From the beginning of the creation of motion pictures, many people tried to combine film and sound to make "talking" motion pictures. Here you can see to the left an example of an early film attempting to combine sound with pictures made by Edison's assistant, W.K.L. Dickson. By 1895, Edison had created the Kinetophone—a Kinetoscope (peep-hole motion picture viewer) with a phonograph that played inside the cabinet. Sound could be heard through two ear tubes while the viewer watched the images. This creation never really took off, and by 1915 Edison abandoned the idea of sound motion pictures.


The Influence of Thomas Edison on History

Thomas Alva Edison was a man who changed the entire landscape of the world through his amazing inventions. He discovered electric light bulb, the system of street lights, the phonograph and even the motion picture projector. Without the inventions of Edison, electricity and telephone would have remained as primitive discoveries with a lot of potential. Edison’s gifts to everyday life are so many. Many in fact say that Thomas Alva Edison invented the twentieth century. His inventions transformed the American economy from an agriculture based economy to a technology based one.

Each discovery encouraged the growth of other industries and lead to more discoveries. He had 1093 patents over many innovations and minor improvements in a wide range of fields, including telecommunications, electric power, sound recording, motion pictures, primary and storage batteries, and mining and cement technology (The Edison Papers para 1). Moreover, he also contributed a lot in the realm of research and development and more specifically the industrial research laboratory.

Edison’s role as an innovator is best seen in the big businesses his inventions have helped grow.

More than 300 companies formed worldwide manufacture and market his inventions. Some such companies even carry the name Edison, including some 200 Edison illuminating companies (The Edison Papers para 1). Edison’s first patented invention was the electrical vote recorder. It was initially considered a failure and it found its use only after 90 years when it was installed for the Congress. Once, Edison fixed a broken stock ticker so well that that the owners hired him to build a better one.

That was the machine that gave information about stock market prices. Within a year he made the Edison Universal Stock Printer. Later on, in late 1999, the Stock Ticker Company in cooperation with Henry Ford Museum Greenfield Village introduced a working reproduction of the Universal Stock Ticker, produced by the world-renowned Berner Machine Labs and the Berner family. In 1868 Edison became an independent inventor in Boston. Moving to New York the next year, he undertook inventive work for major telegraph companies.

His work included stock tickers, fire alarms, methods of sending simultaneous messages on one wire, and an electrochemical telegraph to send messages by automatic machinery (The Edison Papers p. 2). The major achievement of this period was the quadruplex telegraph, which sent two messages simultaneously in each direction on one wire (The Edison Papers p. 3). Western Union adopted the invention and had 13,000 miles of quadruplex lines by 1878. The Western Union entrusted Edison with the task of developing a telephone that could compete with Alexander Graham Bell’s (Lemelson Center para 6).

Consequently, Edison invented a transmitter in which a button of compressed carbon changed its resistance as it was vibrated by the sound of the user’s voice (The Edison Papers para3). This principle was widely applied in telephones for the next century. This was an innovation that led to the phone’s mass use and which is still integral to the instrument today. Edison’s carbon transmitter later helped to make radio possible in that the same principle was adopted in developing a practical microphone. In the summer of 1877, Edison discovered the phonograph.

Phonographs and records were the chief means of reproducing recorded sound at home until the 1980s, when they were largely replaced by recorded cassettes. No other factor has contributed more to the overall character of musical culture in the industrialized world during the 20th century than the development of sound reproduction technologies – both those of sound recording and broadcasting – and the rise of the recording industries (Lemelson Center). His invention found a receptive public and Edison became internationally famous.

His companies manufactured the phonograph as well as the wax cylinders and, later, the disks that the phonograph played. One can say that Edison’s inventions spawned a whole new music industry. People could not record their voices and commercially sell their music. All of today’s music industries, music channels and audio systems have their roots in that discovery of Edison. Americans’ enjoyment of records has evolved into a major phenomenon and by 1977 Americans were purchasing $3 billion worth of recordings a year at retail prices and playing them on 75 million domestic playback machines.

These records played a dominant role in spreading a taste for popular and vernacular music styles–jazz, blues, hillbilly, rock and roll–and a variety of other styles of popular music (Kenney xi of 260) In the fall of 1878, Edison devoted thirty months to developing a complete system of incandescent electric lighting. Edison became a business partner with some of New York’s richest people, J. P. Morgan and the Vanderbilt’s. Together they formed the Edison Electric Light Company.

They made this company before electric light bulbs had been invented. Today this company is called General Electric. Edison now created the industry of electric power generation and distribution. He ushered in the electrical age. The Pearl Street station, which opened in lower Manhattan in September 1882 featured safe and reliable central power generation, efficient distribution, and a successful end use all at a competitive price (Bellis para 2). The one-square mile lit up by the Pearl Street station demonstrated the potential of electric power.

The discovery of the electric light bulbs brightened up the industrial world like no other discovery had. There were soon many bulb companies manufacturing bulbs for the world. People could work better and for longer hours under the electric lighting. This would impact the US economy in a huge positive manner. During his lamp experiments, he noticed an electrical phenomenon that became known as the “Edison effect,” the basis for vacuum-tube electronics. This principle is still used today in the manufacture of computers.

Edison worked from 1888 till 1893 on a motion picture camera. In the 1890s Edison began working on motion picture technology, and in the process created another industry. In October 1888, he began working on a machine he called a “kinetoscope”. On 20 May 1891 a prototype Kinetoscope was demonstrated (Lemelson Center para 9). The final version of the Kinetoscope used 35mm film sprocketed along both edges running vertically through the camera and viewer. This film format became, and remains, the industry standard. Edison also set up a studio on the laboratory grounds.

Covered in black tar paper, it was nicknamed the “Black Maria” and Edison used the studio to shoot short movies in 1893. He in fact developed the entire system of film production just like in the case of electric light and the phonograph. He was both an inventor par excellence and a shrewd businessman. (Lemelson Center para 9). Although Edison’s work in motion pictures was pioneering, the industry quickly became very competitive. Today, the film industry stands as a monumental tribute to one of the world’s greatest inventors.

Numerous people depend on the film industry for their living. The film industry is serving to help people all over the world come together through film festivals. The Hollywood Film Industry in particular is still amazingly popular, prosperous and providing a boost to the country’s economy. Edison adapted some of the machinery to process Portland cement. A roasting kiln he developed became an industry standard. Edison cement was used for buildings, dams, and even Yankee Stadium (Dyer page 525). This helped in the growth of the construction industry.

In the early years of the automobile industry there were hopes for an electric vehicle, and Edison spent the first decade of the twentieth century trying to develop a suitable storage battery. Although gas power won out, Edison’s battery is used extensively in industry in things like railroad signals, miners’ head lamps, and marine buoys. In World War I the federal government asked Edison to head the Naval Consulting Board, which examined inventions submitted for military use. Edison worked on several problems, including submarine detectors and gun location techniques.

By the time of his death in 1931, Edison had received 1,093 U. S. patents, a total still untouched by any other inventor (Hoar 33). Even more important, he created a model for modern industrial research. In fact, historically speaking, Edison’s inventions brought in the Second Industrial Revolution – a period of rapid growth of the US economy. The impact of Edison’s inventions to the US history is too huge for computation when we consider the telegraph and telephone inventions. Edison’s improvisation of Watt’s steam engine made it more feasible in the wider global scope.

The phenomenal growth of the copper industry was due to a rapid and ever-increasing demand, owing to the exploitation of the telephone, electric light, electric motor, and electric railway industries. Similarly, as a result of Edison’s inventions, business and sales increased for iron, steel, brass, zinc, nickel, platinum, rubber, oils, wax, bitumen, various chemical compounds, belting, boilers, injectors, structural steel, iron tubing, glass, silk, cotton, porcelain, fine woods, slate, marble, electrical measuring instruments, miscellaneous machinery, coal, wire, paper, building materials, sapphires, and many others (Dyer 682).

Edison’s incandescent lamp has led to the rise of over 6000 central stations in this country for the distribution of electric current for light, heat, and power, with capital obligations amounting to not less than $1,000,000,000 and there were factories where these incandescent lamps are made. There are also great electrical works of the country, in which the dynamos, motors, and other varied paraphernalia are made for electric lighting, electric railway, and other purposes.

The largest of these works is undoubtedly that of the General Electric Company at Schenectady, New York, a continuation and enormous enlargement of the shops which Edison established there in 1886 (Dyer 683). The principle of the telephone is used in every one of the 7,000,000 telephones which are estimated to be employed in the country at the present day and has also spawned a competition in the telephone manufacturing sector (Dyer 684).

His cement corporation in five years grew to be the fifth largest producer in the United States, with a still increasing capacity (Dyer 684). When Thomas Alva Edison died in 1931, President Herbert Hoover asked his countrymen to turn off their lamps for a moment in a widespread silent tribute to this great American. In the words of Hoar (page 33): “The country fell dark. And when the lights of our country once more were lighted they illuminated a world made infinitely better by one determined man with a dream”.

Dyer, Lewis Frank (1910). Edison: His Life and Inventions. In Two Volumes Illustrated Volume II. Harper and Brothers. New York, 1910. Hoar, P. William (2004). The Man Who Lit Up the World: Thomas Edison Changed the World through His Ability, Persistence — and Hard Work. “Genius,” He Said, “Is One Percent Inspiration and Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration”. The New American. Volume: 19. Issue: 13. Publication Date: June 30, 2003. Page Number: 33+. Kenney, Howland William (1999).


History & Culture

An overview of the Glenmont collections is available here, and the Laboratory complex here.

Click here for information about the park's Recorded Sound Archive.

Thomas Edison with Madeleine, Mina, Theodore and Charles and the back porch of Glenmont.

At the corner of Main Street and Lakeside Avenue in West Orange , New Jersey stands a group of red brick buildings. To the passing motorist the buildings betray little evidence of their glory days and of the people who worked inside. A short distance away is Glenmont, Thomas Edison's estate. Together, the laboratory and residence preserve the work and character of America's foremost inventor, Thomas Edison and the family, friends and business associates who played a key role in his success.

The museum collections at Thomas Edison National Historical Park are by far the largest single body of Edison-related material extant. They are the product of Thomas Alva Edison's sixty-year career as an inventor, manufacturer, businessman, and private citizen. The collections are divided into three broad categories: History artifacts, archives, and natural history and comprise holdings at both the Laboratory complex and the Glenmont Estate. The sheer size of the holdings is daunting: the history collection is currently estimated to number over 300,000 items, while the archives contain approximately five million documents. The Natural History Collection consists of plant specimens collected from the Glenmont Estate as part of a 1995 plant inventory. In total, it is the third largest museum collection in the National Park Service.


Watch the video: The Story of Electricity Full Episode (November 2021).