Today, Edison gives us his season in the sun. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
No one should go through
life without enjoying one season in the sun. If
you're lucky, you've had one. Remember what it was
like. Thomas Edison had a season in the sun, and
nothing has been the same since, for any of us.
Edison was self-educated and isolated by partial
deafness. When he was 15 he found work as a
telegraph operator. That led him to study
electricity. He read everything Michael Faraday had
written. At 21, now working for Western Union in
Boston, he filed his first patent -- an electric
By 29 he was able to set up his own company. He
located in Menlo Park, New Jersey. He had some
seclusion there. Yet he was only an hour's train
ride from New York or Philadelphia.
For ten years, Menlo Park was Edison's season in
the sun. He filed his 500th patent near the end of
that time. Menlo Park was a small operation. One
building housed his office and a library. The labs
and shops were in a two-story building. He built a
small coterie of bright engineers, scientists, and
Historian Thomas Hughes tells how Edison created a
complex, delicate, and unique collaboration. Menlo
Park gave us dynamos, improved telegraph and
telephone systems, the precursor to the fax
machine, electric rail systems, and the
photo-electric effect. Menlo Park gave us the
And it gave us the phonograph. Sound reproduction
was an idea almost without precedent -- a nearly
deaf man's profoundly original gift to the world.
Light bulbs weren't as original as phonographs, but
to make them work, Edison revealed another kind of
inventive genius. He built the whole support
technology, a web of electric companies.
In 1880 he put a complete electric lighting system
on a ship. By 1882 his Pearl Street Power Station
was providing New York City with DC electricity.
Then, in 1884, his wife died of scarlet fever.
That, and I suppose success itself, spelled the end
of the greatest gush of pure invention the world
had ever seen.
In 1886 Edison remarried and moved into a much
larger laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. He
continued inventing for another 45 years. More than
half his patents lay ahead of him. What he
accomplished after Menlo Park would've spelled fame
Yet it paled against that ten-year season in the
sun. After Menlo Park, says Hughes, Edison lost his
incisive insight and dramatic rendition. He lost
the chemistry of that cadre of geniuses and
craftsmen. The sun set on a great moment. But it
had happened. And none of us will ever be the same
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds