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

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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.

Additional Thomas Edison Resources:

Related Thomas Edison Articles:

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In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that some of your ancestors may have patented inventions—and finding the government records or newspaper descriptions of these inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

When we think of patented inventions (not to be confused with land patents), the more famous inventors—such as Thomas Edison (inventor of the phonograph and 1000+ other inventions)—overshadow lesser-known American inventors.

But take a moment to reflect on life before the Industrial Revolution, when our early American ancestors were left to their own ingenuity. The family stories may have become lost over the years, but perhaps some of your ancestors invented unique tools or machines—and finding information about their patented inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

Necessity was the driving force behind many of these historical inventions, creating devices to deal with problems that don’t concern us today.

Peter Zacharie’s Mud-Moving Machine

For example, mud was a large problem in the late 18th century. When you cleared a swamp, it was a back-breaking, labor-intensive chore, and undoubtedly the inspiration for Peter Zacharie’s (of Baltimore) mud-moving device, which is described in this 1792 newspaper article.

Peter Zacharie's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

His device allowed a person to walk in a hollow wheel and raise, with what must have been a large spoon, a ton of mud. As the first one went up, a corresponding spoon simultaneously went down to get another load, thereby allowing a single man to empty it in a minute. What a fantastic labor-saving invention!

Although no drawing has been located of Zacharie’s machine, List of Patents for Inventions and Designs Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1847 (Edmund Burke, Commissioner of Patents, 1847) on Google Books, described it as an “Excavator, mud machine.” I imagine it more as an early elliptical machine—as this would undoubtedly have kept the farmer in shape!

Obadiah Herbert’s Spinning Wheel

That same 1792 newspaper reported that Obadiah Herbert (of Mount Pleasant) had created a spinning wheel that could eliminate the need for a second person. As noted, “the advantages of such a machine were evident.”

Obadiah Herbert's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

Miss E. A. Judkins Lace Loom

You’ll find descriptions of other lesser-known American inventions in early newspapers, such as this one by Miss E. A. Judkins (of Portland), who invented a loom to weave lace, fringes, etc., eliminating the need for tatting and crocheting.

E. A. Judkins's patent, National Gazette newspaper article 2 July 1839

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 July 1839, page 1

Patent Protection in Early America

These early inventions received patent protection under the “Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts” of 10 April 1790. Protection under this act was granted:

“to such persons or petitioners, his, her or their heirs, administrators or assigns for any term not exceeding fourteen years, the sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used, the said invention or discovery.”

1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

There were various other stipulations, and the act included a statement that the issued patent “would be prima facia evidence that the said patentee or patentees, was or were the first and true inventor or inventors, discover or discovers of the thing so specified.” Filing fees were specified, which totaled $3.85:

    • 50¢ to receive and file the petition
    • 10¢ per copy-sheet containing one hundred words
    • $2.00 for making out the patent
    • $1.00 for affixing the great seal
    • 25¢ to endorse the day of delivering the same to the patentee
1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

Where to Find These Historical U.S. Patents?

Unfortunately for family historians searching government records, about 10,000 of the earliest patent documents were destroyed in an 1836 fire at the Post Office building. Luckily, many American patentees kept copies of their prized patents.

Known as the “X-Patents,” less than 1/3 of the documents destroyed in that fire have been restored to the United States Patent Office—mostly from personal collections or archives. One of the surviving early documents was Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin.

drawing of Eli Whitney's cotton gin

Credit: Wikipedia Commons image

If you find one of the missing X-Patents in your family archives, be sure to contact the U.S. Patent Office. They’ll be appreciative you contacted them so that they can save more of these missing historical patents.

To learn more about patented early American inventions search GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives, along with Google Books and Google Patents. You’ll also find a number of accounts and related reference material in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection.

photo of an 1871 advertising card for Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys

Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys advertising card, 1 January 1871

Also visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There you’ll learn that protection for patented inventions is not much longer than it was in 1790, but fees now run into thousands of dollars!

From their website:

“How long does patent protection last?

“For applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, utility and plant patents are granted for a term which begins with the date of the grant and usually ends 20 years from the date you first applied for the patent subject to the payment of appropriate maintenance fees. Design patents last 14 years from the date you are granted the patent. No maintenance fees are required for design patents.”

Recommended reading from the newspaper archives:

Do you have any American inventors in your family tree? Share with us in the comments!

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.