Well known for having invented the lightbulb, Thomas Edison, aka the “wizard of Menlo Park,” was also a telecommunications pioneer. Of the more than 1,000 US patents issued to Edison, 150 were related to the telegraph and another 34 for the telephone. He was also issued patents for 195 phonograph and 141 storage battery inventions. The next time you marvel at the technology neatly bundled into your smartphone, pause and remember the contributions of men like Thomas Edison.
Edison’s Early Years and Failures
At the tender age of 12, Edison left home to work on the railroad. At one point, he saved the life of a toddler, preventing him from being struck by a runaway train. The boy’s grateful father happened to be a station agent who then trained the teenaged Edison to become a telegraph operator. His tenure at Western Union didn’t last long due to his preoccupation with experimenting. One experiment involving a lead acid battery spill cost him his job.
His first patented invention, a high speed vote recorder, was a flop. Though much more efficient than traditional roll call voting, a congressional committee rejected it for being too efficient. During the tedious and time-consuming process of recording votes by roll call, legislators had the opportunity to plead their cases with other members, trying to convince them to change their votes.
Learning from Mistakes
After his first voting machine failed because he didn’t understand the actual needs of legislators (the need to lobby their colleagues during voting), Edison realized he needed to understand customers. He once said, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”
This approach worked. One of his early “needs first” inventions was the Edison Electric Pen and Press, which came about after watching insurance clerks tediously duplicating insurance policy documents by hand. His invention could make up to 5,000 copies of one document. This was followed by Edison’s mimeograph machine, a device that automated document duplication.
Edison improved upon the telegraph via numerous inventions, one of which allowed for multiple telegraphy. His quadraplex system transmitted four messages simultaneously over a single wire (two messages each way).
His printing telegraph, US Patent # 91527, was a simple, inexpensive device which eliminated the need for an attendant on the receiving end.
Another telegraphic improvement invented by Thomas Edison was a special chemical paper which would be less susceptible to drying, cracking, deterioration, and other damage once it dried.
The Wizarding World of an Invention Factory
In 1876, Edison opened the first industrial research lab, or “invention factory” as he shrewdly called it, where he and his staff worked on numerous inventions. One of his projects was a machine designed to transcribe telegraphic messages by indenting a paper tape which could then be transmitted repeatedly over a telegraph. Ever the experimenter, Edison thought perhaps a telephone message could be recorded in a similar fashion with sound vibrations making indentations in the rapidly moving paper. He was right, and the phonograph was born.
Edison’s phonograph caught the world by surprise, earning him the nickname, “the wizard of Menlo park.” A savvy marketer who was cognizant of his own personal brand, Edison would likely fit in just fine on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Edison foresaw several applications for his device including:
● Stenographer-free dictation
● Audio books for the blind
● Music reproduction
● Family “legacy” voice recordings
● Music boxes
● Talking clocks that announced the time or offered reminders
● Education – note taking and lessons
● Telephone recording
More than a century later, these applications are commonly just a tap or voice command away on a smartphone.
World War I Experiments with the Navy
In Edison’s later years, he was called into service as the chairman of the Naval Consulting Board during World War I. He was recruited after the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, read Thomas Edison’s comments in a New York Times article. Edison had said, “The Government should maintain a great research laboratory…. In this could be developed…all the technique of military and naval progression without any vast expense.”
Edison conducted a variety of experiments for the Navy, working on dozens of projects such as using sound to locate gun positions, detecting submarines, and anti-roll platforms for ships.
Despite his innovative work, none of his ideas were implemented. However, his work did lead to the creation of the Naval Research Laboratory, which ushered in a permanent commitment to government research and development. In turn, this has led to many of the inventions widely used today including the Internet and GPS.
With more than 1,000 patents issued in the United States, and many more issued worldwide, Thomas Edison was an inventor for the ages. His work helped to shape the telecommunications industry (and several other industries for that matter) and many of his visions are commonplace technologies used every day.
Edison First Patent Vote Recorder
Printing Telegraph Patent Drawing