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Washington D.C., 1800

President Jefferson
in the White House

A Duel At Dawn, 1804

The Death of Lord Nelson, 1805

Fulton's First Steamboat Voyage, 1807

"Shanghaied," 1811

"Old Ironsides" Earns its Name, 1812

The British Burn Washington, 1814

Dolley Madison Flees the White House, 1814

The Battle of New Orleans, 1815

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Napoleon Exiled to St. Helena, 1815

The Inauguration of
President Andrew
Jackson, 1829

Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829

America's First Steam Locomotive, 1830

A Portrait of America, 1830

Traveling the National Road, 1833

A Slave's Life

Traveling the Erie Canal, 1836

Victoria Becomes Queen, 1837

Escape From Slavery, 1838

A Flogging at Sea, 1839

P.T. Barnum Discovers "Tom Thumb" 1842

Living among the Shakers, 1843

Visit to the "Red Light" District, 1843

The Irish Potato Famine, 1847

Aboard a Whaling Ship, 1850

the Forbidden City
of Mecca, 1853

Life on a Southern Plantation, 1854

Return of a Fugitive Slave, 1854

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854

Livingstone Discovers Victoria Falls, 1855

Andrew Carnegie Becomes a Capitalist, 1856

Slave Auction, 1859

Good Manners for Young Ladies, 1859

The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868

The Ku Klux Klan, 1868

Building the Brooklyn Bridge, 1871

Stanley Finds Livingstone, 1871

The Baseball Glove
Comes to Baseball,

The Death of President
Garfield, 1881

A Portrait of Thomas Edison

College Football, 1884

Opulence in the Gilded Age, 1890

Death of a Child, 1890

Corbett Knocks Out Sullivan, 1892

Hobo, 1894

Leaving Home for the "Promised Land", 1894

America's First Auto Race, 1895

1st to Sail Around the World Alone, 1895

The United States Declares War on Spain, 1898

The Battle of Manila Bay, 1898

The Rough Riders Storm San Juan Hill, 1898

A Portrait of Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison's inventions changed the world. Very few people have had such a profound influence on his own and future generations as he did. His inspirations include the light bulb, phonograph and motion picture - technological inovations that continue to touch the lives of millions around the globe. A prolific inventor, he was issued a total of 1,093 US patents - the largest number held by any individual.

Edison in his lab, 1888
His beginnings were inauspicious. As a young student, he did not do well in school. - prompting his teachers to suspect he was "slow." He lost the majority of his hearing when he was twelve - a condition that isolated him from those around him, but also allowed him to focus on the task at hand.

In 1862, at the age of fifteen, he became a telegraph operator. By 1868, he had made his way to Boston where he quit his job to devote his time to developing his own inventions. He soon moved to New Jersey and in 1876 he opened his research lab in Menlo Park where a number of his greatest inventions were produced.

"I'm not a scientist. I'm an inventor."

Alfred O. Tate was Edison's associate and private secretary. He offers insight into the personality of America's greatest inventor:

"Edison certainly at times employed methods that might be regarded as unorthodox, but it would be wrong to assume that he was not abreast of science. He not only subscribed to but read all the scientific journals. He had a thoroughly modern scientific library which constantly was augmented and which did not remain unread.

No one but himself could know to what extent he drew upon science and theory. He must have employed theory, because no forward step can be taken in experimentation unless the mind is projected ahead of it. Science may be described as 'systemized knowledge.' It has many branches, but in those which Edison pursued he unquestionably was familiar with all 'systemized knowledge' associated with them, and demonstrated at times his ability to project it.

In the year 1875 he discovered the waves that now enter every household 'through the air' to provide entertainment. They were called the 'Edison Effect' or 'Etheric Force,' and a number of patents were issued to him covering devices designed to utilize them.

Edison was not a mathematician. He had a method of his own of solving mathematical problems. His lack of knowledge of this science never seemed to be a handicap. His mind seemed to alight on the answer in one swift flight which perhaps he himself could not explain. It has been said that Newton never could demonstrate a problem in Euclid. The answers were to him so obvious that he could not restrain his mental processes long enough to follow the steps of a demonstration. That is the way Edison's mind seemed to work. His esteem for mathematicians could not be described as extravagant. He had been subjected to the ridicule of these scientists in his earlier days when he was conducting his "empirical" experiments on the incandescent lamp. They lived to regret it.."

"I got it.": Edison's Empirical Approach:

"...I recall one of Edison's empirical experiments. He wanted to find a solvent of hard rubber, Science had not discovered it. Theory was helpless. So he resorted to empiricism. He had a storeroom of scientific chemicals that was complete. He immersed in vials containing one of each of these chemicals a small section of hard rubber. I do not recall how many there were, but it was an impressive collection. Later on I asked him how the experiment had turned out. 'I got it,' he said...

On one of these occasions when I was sitting beside him, he passed a clipping over to me in which he was referred to as a scientist. Then he said, 'That's wrong! I'm not a scientist. I'm an inventor. Faraday was a scientist. He didn't work for money. Said he hadn't time. But I do. I measure everything I do by the size of a silver dollar [silver dollars were current coin then]. If it don't come up to that standard then I know it's no good.'

His meaning was clear. If his work would sell, if the public would buy and pay their silver dollars for it, then he would know that it was useful. And that was his vocation - the production of new and useful inventions. He was a utilitarian inventor, and money was the only barometer that could be employed to indicate success."

Edison and Money

Two stills from a film strip documenting
Edison's attempt to marry sound
with film, 1895
"One evening we were dining together at Delmonico's [in New York City]...After dinner, when the bill was presented, Edison took a roll of notes out of his pocket, flattened it on the table, and began to pick at it. He disarranged it. Then he patted it around the edges, smoothed it out, and began to pick at it again. Then in disgust he pushed the pile across the table to me and said: 'Here, Tate! You take the damn thing. Stick it in your pocket and pay our bills tonight.'

The reason for this was that he never, or very seldom, carried money, and while he made large sums, little of it passed through his hands in the form of currency. At his laboratory in Orange, if he had occasion to go to New York, I had carefully to see that he was provided with money. Otherwise he would have started without any. He derived no pleasure from the expenditure of money for personal gratification.

But in the expenditure of money for experimentation he never stopped to count the cost. It made no difference to him what the cost might be when he had an objective in view. This factor never entered his mind. He evaluated money not as something to be conserved or accumulated but as a vehicle essential to the progress of his work. If beyond this a surplus was accumulated, he was gratified, not because it represented wealth, but because it constituted tangible evidence of the utility of his inventions."

    This eyewitness account appears in: Tate, Alfred, O., Edison's Open Door: The Life Story of Thomas A. Edison (1938); Josephson, Matthew, Edison, a Biography (1959).

How To Cite This Article:
"A Portrait of Thomas Edison", EyeWitness to History, (2006).

In 1862, young Edison saved a three-year-old boy from disaster by pulling the child from the path of an on-coming train. In gratitude, the child's father took Edison under his wing and taught the fifteen-year-old the then leading-edge technological skill of telegraphy.
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