The Wizard of Menlo Park, a.k.a. Inventor Thomas Edison

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about the amazing life and accomplishments of the great inventor Thomas Edison.

As you observe your family members enjoying conveniences such as talking on cellphones, downloading music, charging batteries and living in a well-lit house, remind them to give thanks to Thomas Edison. These modern devices wouldn’t exist without him.

photo of Thomas Edison with his phonograph (second model), c.1878

Photo: Thomas Edison with his phonograph (second model), c.1878. Credit: Levin C. Handy; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Edison’s Early Years

Born on 11 February 1847 in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison was the youngest of seven children born to Samuel and Nancy (Elliott) Edison. His mother died in 1871 and his father died in 1896 at the age of 91. According to Samuel Edison’s obituary below, the family’s ancestors arrived in North America long before the American Revolution. There’s a good chance many of our readers, including myself through his Beach and Merriman lines, are distant cousins of Thomas Edison. (See famouskin.com and Thomasedison.org.)

obituary for Samuel Edison, New York Tribune newspaper article 27 February 1896

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 27 February 1896, page 7

Home Schooling – and Deafness

Thomas Edison had little formal schooling. After his teachers reported him to be a slow learner, his mother decided that home schooling was a better method to educate her son.

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For someone who made so many inventions involving sound, it is startling to learn that Edison was almost completely deaf. At the age of 12, he either contracted scarlet fever or had an accident which left him severely hearing-impaired. The National Park Service’s Thomas Edison page reports that Edison once wrote: “I have not heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old.” Another story, which Edison himself told, was that he “was picked up by the ears to keep from falling out of a train” and this caused something to pop inside his ears.

The genius behind so many amazing inventions never attended college or technical school. He learned through his mother’s home schooling, his own voracious reading, and constant experimentation. His inventions amazed our ancestors and they continue to impact us today. No wonder he was called the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” the location in New Jersey where he built a laboratory in 1876.

Inventions and Patents

Despite his genius and remarkable inventions, however, most children today are not taught much about Thomas Edison other than a few lines in a history book. Nor can many young people identify his inventions, even though Edison achieved 1,093 or more patents (some report 1,368) in his lifetime.

According to the History Channel’s Thomas Edison page, many of his patents addressed telephony, telecommunications and electricity – so imagine where we’d be without them.

Here are some of his many achievements:

  • 195 patents for telephony, the phonograph, and their improvements, starting in 1876
  • 34 patents for the telephone, beginning in 1878
  • 389 patents for electric light and power, including the first commercially-successful incandescent light bulb in 1879

This is his patent for the telephone of 1883.

drawing of the telephone design patented to Thomas Edison on 27 March 1883

Illustration: telephone design, patented to Thomas Edison on 27 March 1883. Source: Google Patents.

Invention of the Phonograph

In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph – a device to record people’s voices that greatly amazed the public. At that time, people could hardly imagine a machine that can record your voice now, so that your ancestors hundreds of years later can hear what your voice sounded like! It seemed as though Edison was truly a wizard. As this newspaper article reports:

Speech has become, as it were, immortal.

article about Thomas Edison inventing the phonograph, Vermont Phoenix newspaper article 20 November 1877

Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 November 1877, page 2

For his own first recording, Edison recited the beloved children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It is wonderful and almost magical, even in our own age of technological marvels, to hear Edison’s own voice from so very long ago. You can hear him reciting the poem here.

Controversies

Edison arrived at some of his invention ideas simultaneously with others, and in some cases his inventions were based on the breakthroughs of his predecessors. Consequently, you’ll find various reports objecting to giving Edison credit for some of his inventions – controversies that erupted during Edison’s lifetime and in some cases continue today.

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For example, the invention of the light bulb is often credited to Edison, although Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914) and at least 22 other inventors came up with the idea before him. Where they failed to perfect their ideas, however, Edison succeeded, as he always strove to use superior materials and clever marketing to materialize and promote his inventions. His incandescent light bulb can truly be said to be the father of modern lights.

article about who really invented the electric light bulb, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 29 November 1929

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 29 November 1929, page 7

Another controversy involving Edison resulted from patents pertaining to the movie industry. As seen in this article, Edison strongly protected his inventions in the courts in 1908. In the end, he won.

article about Thomas Edison and legal controversies regarding motion picture inventions, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 25 March 1908

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 25 March 1908, page 3

More Breakthrough Edison Inventions

I could literally write a book about Thomas Alva Edison’s inventions. Many of his inventions that should be common knowledge include these:

  • An early stock ticker machine, around 1869
  • The “Improvement in Phonograph or Speaking Machine,” in 1878
  • A motion picture camera called the Kinetograph, in 1891
  • The Kinetophone, or talking motion picture, in 1912
  • The first steel alkaline storage batteries, 1900-1910
  • The battery which was introduced on the Model T for Henry Ford, in 1908
  • The telescribe, which allowed for recording both sides of a telephone conversation, in 1914
  • Various military devices during World War I, including detection devices for airplanes, submarines, periscopes and guns by sound ranging, as well as ship camouflaging

However, there is one product he didn’t create – and why he didn’t do so is one of the greatest mysteries of all time.

Mysterious Invention Oversight

With his nearly complete hearing loss, why didn’t Edison invent a hearing aid?

The stories of how he coped with his damaged hearing are heart-wrenching. In order to improve the clarity of sound, his method was to place his ear against a phonograph cabinet and bite on wood. Surprisingly, this seemed to improve his hearing. While raising our family in Fort Myers, Florida, we’d often visit Edison’s Winter Estate – and we all remember viewing furniture with his bite marks.

Apparently, Edison’s poor hearing bothered the people around him more than himself. Some theorize he preferred silence over distracting noises. In 1914, his wife Mina located a physician who had hopes of fully restoring Edison’s hearing. He agreed to undergo the procedure, but on the day of the operation Edison told his personal assistant:

By the way, will you telephone that doctor and tell him he is not to come over today: I am not going to have the operation.

article about Thomas Edison refusing an operation to restore his hearing, Boston Herald newspaper article 19 July 1914

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 19 July 1914, page 41

Perhaps Thomas Edison truly preferred to concentrate in a world of near-silence.

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Nikola Tesla, Electrical Genius, Inventor & Eccentric, Dies

Ask most people who was the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ electrical genius and master of inventions, and they will answer: Thomas Edison. However, on 7 January 1943, all alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel in New York City, an eccentric 86-year-old man died who was the true wizard of electricity: Nikola Tesla. Not only was Nikola Tesla the father of modern radio, he perfected alternating current (AC) electrical power, invented the Tesla coil, and made breakthroughs in a staggering array of fields including radar, X-rays, robotics and nuclear physics.

photo of Nikola Tesla in 1890, age 34

Photo: Nikola Tesla in 1890, age 34. Credit: Napoleon Sarony; Wikimedia Commons.

At the height of his powers Nikola Tesla was recognized as the equal of Thomas Edison (the two once worked together, but became bitter rivals), but in his later years he became so strange that the public increasingly ignored him, contributing to his lack of fame and recognition today. There is no doubt Tesla was a genius, fluent in eight languages, with an astonishing ability to receive visions in which he saw inventions so specifically that every detail was clear in his mind before he ever set pen to paper.

There is also no doubt that the man grew increasingly bizarre, obsessed by such things as the number 3 (he would walk around a block three times before entering a building), pigeons, and a deathly fear of having contact with dirt. Despite making over 700 inventions in his lifetime and some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of science, Nikola Tesla died broke and heavily in debt. He was the very definition of the eccentric genius, or “mad scientist,” yet modern life is dependent on many of the brilliant ideas that sprang from this strange man’s mind.

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This old newspaper obituary gives many details of Tesla’s life, career and numerous inventions, and includes this comment from the “Wizard of Electricity”:

There are too many distractions in this life for quality of thought, and it’s quality of thought, not quantity, that counts. ~ Nikola Tesla

obituary for Nikola Tesla, Seattle Times newspaper article 8 January 1943

Seattle Times (Seattle, Washington), 8 January 1943, page 26

Tesla’s obituary reads:

New York, Jan. 8.—Nikolai [sic] Tesla, 86 years old, the electrical genius who discovered the fundamental principle of modern radio, was found dead in his hotel room last night. He died in bed sometime yesterday. Gaunt in his best years, he had lately been wasting away.

Tesla was never married. He had always lived alone, and it is not believed he had any near relatives.

Despite his more than 700 inventions, Tesla was not wealthy. He cared little for money; as long as he could experiment he was happy. Much of the time he did not even have a laboratory, and worked where he lived.

Tesla was the first to conceive an effective method of utilizing alternating current, and in 1888 patented the induction motor which converted electrical energy into mechanical energy more effectively and economically than by direct current. Among his other principal inventions are lighting and the Tesla coil.

“The radio, I know I’m its father, but I don’t like it,” Tesla once said. “I just don’t like it. It’s a nuisance. I never listen to it. The radio is a distraction and keeps you from concentrating. There are too many distractions in this life for quality of thought, and it’s quality of thought, not quantity, that counts.”

Evidently, he did a lot of thinking that never materialized. It was his custom on his birthday—July 10—to announce to reporters the shape of things to come.

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On his 76th birthday, he announced: “The transmission of energy to another planet is only a matter of engineering. I have solved the problem so well I don’t regard it as doubtful.”

On another birthday, Tesla predicted that power would soon be projected without wires through the stratosphere.

When he was 78, Tesla announced he had perfected a “death beam” that would bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy planes 250 miles from a nation’s borders and make millions of soldiers drop dead in their tracks. His beam, he said, would make war impossible.

Tesla was born at Smiljan, Croatia, when it was part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. His first electrical invention was the telephone repeater, which he perfected in 1881 while working for the Austrian government.

Three years later, Tesla came to the United States, became a citizen and an associate of the late Thomas A. Edison. Later he established the Tesla Laboratory in New York and devoted himself to research.

Tesla had lived at the hotel where he died for years, and amused himself by feeding pigeons in the nearest park. Several years ago, he hired a boy to take five pounds of corn twice a day and feed it to the pigeons. He said he had found it “more convenient” to use the boy.

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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Today in History: Bizarre Yet Brilliant Inventor Nikola Tesla Born

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla!

When most people think about an electrical genius who was a master inventor, they think of Thomas Edison. However, when Edison was working his magic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he had a rival who was every bit his equal in brains if not lasting fame: Nikola Tesla. Today marks the 156th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth on July 10, 1856. In remembrance and celebration of Tesla’s legacy on his birthday we explore his uncommon life.

A Brief Biography of Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born in the village of Smiljan, present-day Croatia, but became an American citizen. In his eventful 86-year life Tesla proved to be a real wizard of electricity: he perfected alternating current (AC) electrical power; made breakthroughs in radar, X-rays and robotics; invented the Tesla coil; and made many important discoveries that justify calling him the “father of modern radio.”

Unquestionably a genius, Tesla spoke eight languages fluently. He experienced astonishing visions in which he saw inventions so clearly that every detail was already sharp in his mind before he ever set them down on paper. At the height of his fame the public marveled at his inventions and recognized him as the equal of fellow inventor Thomas Edison.

Sadly, that fame was not to last. As he aged he became increasingly strange, with ever-more bizarre behavior. He was obsessed by many things, including pigeons and a deathly fear of dirt. The number 3 haunted him: for example, he always walked around a block three times before entering any building. The public lost its fascination with him, and his life ended without acquiring the lasting fame that Thomas Edison enjoys to this day.

Nikola Tesla died broke and all alone in a New York City hotel room on Jan. 7, 1943. Despite making more than 700 inventions in his lifetime and many of science’s most important breakthroughs, he died deeply in debt, unnoticed and forgotten—perhaps the archetype of the “mad scientist.”

He may have been bizarre, but Tesla was not crazy—and many of the devices and procedures we use today sprang from the mind of this baffling, incredibly inventive man.

Tesla's Latest: The Electrician Illustrates Three New Discoveries, Plain Dealer, 9 April 1897

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8

Published in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8.

The above old newspaper article was written when Tesla enjoyed great renown.

The article begins: “After many months of silence, Nikola Tesla spoke night before last at the Academy of Science, and, as always happens on such occasions, the scientific knowledge of the world was the richer thereby. Mr. Tesla, without going deeply into the details of his methods, announced three discoveries he has made, and gave practical illustrations of them. One will revolutionize the present methods of electric lighting, will exert a tremendous influence upon a hundred different things, and will open to the investigator an infinite number of highways of research, and will end, Mr. Tesla says, in bringing about that sought-for end of all electricians: the transmission of information through space without the agency of wires now needed.”

A collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, provides tremendous information to help with your family history research—and also contains stories about the times and leading figures that influenced your ancestors’ lives such as this remarkable inventor. You can explore thousands of articles to learn more about the curious life of Nikola Tesla in our online archives.

Unusual Obituaries: Sir Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell

Speaking of unusual obituaries.
See this one from GenealogyBank – published in today’s (3 April 2009) Boston Globe.

Sir Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell, son of the late Sir George Sitwell (author of The History of the Fork and inventor of a revolver for shooting wasps).

Boston Globe, (MA) – April 3, 2009
Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell; restored hall of eccentric clan
LONDON – Sir Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell, who restored the stately home of his famously eccentric family to its former glory, has died at age 81.


Sir Reresby Sitwell died in a London hospital Tuesday, his family said. He had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2005.

In 1965, Sir Reresby Sitwell inherited Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, the family seat since 1625.

At the time, the rambling three-story, battlemented house near Chesterfield had neither central heating nor electricity, and Sir Reresby Sitwell and his wife, Penelope, were said to retreat to the warmth of their car after breakfast.

The couple restored the house as well as the Italianate garden laid out by his grandfather in 1895. The garden’s attractions now include the National Collection of Yuccas, the succulent genus native to the Southwestern United States.

“His greatest legacy would be the revival of Renishaw Hall, where he resurrected the estate to the former glories of the Georgian era,” said Timothy Morgan Owen, who supervises exhibitions at the house.

Sir Reresby Sitwell was the elder son of Sacheverell Sitwell, who with his brother, Osbert, and sister, Edith, were famed for their literary talent and their quirks.

The trio’s oddity no doubt was influenced by their father, George, who was Sir Reresby Sitwell’s grandfather. He delighted in telling guests: “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”

George Sitwell dined alone, in full evening dress, exclusively on a diet of roast chicken; he invented a revolver for shooting wasps and wrote a book on “The History of the Fork.”

Author: Robert Barr Associated Press
Page: 12Copyright (c) 2009 Globe Newspaper Company