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Top 8 Things You Didn’t Know About Thomas Alva Edison

November 18, 2013 - 3:00pm


Thomas A. Edison in his "Invention Factory," 1901. | Photo courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas A. Edison in his "Invention Factory," 1901. | Photo courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

This week on, we’re revisiting the storied rivalry between two of history’s most important energy-related inventors and engineers: Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Check back each day to learn more about their lives, their inventions and how their contributions are still impacting the way we use energy today. Support your favorite with the hashtags #teamedison and #teamtesla on social media, or cast your vote on our website. And be sure to submit questions about the inventors for our live Google+ Hangout with Tesla and Edison experts, happening Thursday, Nov. 21, at 12:30 p.m. ET.

8. At age 16, after early forays in the newspaper business, Thomas Edison began working as a telegraph operator. The experience taught him a great deal about practical electricity -- from circuit wiring to batteries to electromagnetism -- and spurred his first serious efforts at invention.

7. In 1876, Edison set up his famous “Invention Factory,” a laboratory complex in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison and the Menlo Park gang -- an expansive staff of scientists and engineers -- pioneered improvements to a variety of inventions, including the incandescent light bulb.

6. Edison left a profound impact on the nation’s energy sector. Beyond inventing a light bulb that was both practical and inexpensive, he devised a whole system of electric lighting -- including electricity generators, wires to get electricity from the power station to homes and light fixtures (lamps, sockets and switches).

5. In 1882, Edison launched Pearl Street Station in New York City -- the first modern electric utility. Within a year of its opening, Pearl Street served more than 500 customers -- including The New York Times. Offering both reliable power generation (there was only one single three-hour interruption throughout its existence) and efficient and safe distribution, Pearl Street served as the catalyst for cost-competitive incandescent lighting.

4. Back when the automobile was first introduced, electric cars outsold their internal combustion counterparts. Still, the lead-acid batteries that powered these vehicles featured several limitations: not only were they very heavy, acid from the battery would corrode the car’s interior. Edison was among the first scientists focused on developing a better alternative. However, the project proved to be his most difficult undertaking. Despite being released with substantial fanfare and bold claims of superior performance, Edison’s batteries were plagued by many shortcomings and were eventually outpaced in the automobile market by the arrival of Henry Ford’s Model T. Although it failed to live up to automotive expectations, the Edison battery proved to be a profitable invention and paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.

3. In recent years, Edison’s battery has come back into the spotlight. In 2012, scientists at Stanford University created a high-performance, low-cost version of the nickel-iron battery Edison developed more than a century ago. The prototype battery developed by the researchers could someday be used to help power electric vehicles -- much as Edison originally envisioned.

2. Edison was a huge enthusiast of clean energy technologies -- even designing prototypes for small-scale wind-powered electricity generation. In 1912 he announced an innovative new energy-self sufficient home called the “Twentieth Century Suburban Residence.” Every device and system in the house was powered by Edison batteries and a small-scale electrical generator -- making it completely “off the grid.” Near the end of his life, the New York Times reports Edison as telling friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

1. At the end of his life, Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” had close to 1,100 patents to his name. To this day, no one has topped his record.