Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 793:
EDISON'S GOLDEN YEARS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 793.

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 vote-recording machine.

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 technicians.

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 incandescent light.

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 by itself.

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 again.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Hughes, T.P., Thomas Alva Edison and the Rise of Electricity. Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas. (C.W. Pursell, ed.), Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986, Chapter 11.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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