February 11, 2008 - 4:58 am - Posted by iDunzo
February 11, 1847: Thomas Alva Edison is born.
Edison is front and center in the pantheon of prolific inventor-entrepreneur-opportunists. Alone or jointly, he held 1,093 patents, a record unlikely to be approached, let alone surpassed.
Thomas Edison received his first patent in 1869, at the age of 23. It was for an “electrographic vote recorder,” which allowed a legislator to cast a vote for or against an issue by turning a switch either left or right. It was a complete flop, ironically because it was too efficient and interfered with the ability of pols to lobby for vote-switching — something that was commonly done during the time it took to count votes by hand.
Edison’s extensive background in telegraphy influenced the direction his inventing would go, and he spent a lot of time ignoring his day jobs and concentrating on his moonlighting projects.
It was his development of an improved stock ticker and the sale of its patent for $40,000 (around $600,000 in today’s money) that gave Edison some financial independence and allowed him to turn to full-time inventing. Talk about opening the flood gates.
Over the course of his career, these were just a few of the things Edison either invented or had a hand in developing: the carbon transmitter (which made a practical telephone possible), the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, the kinetoscope (forerunner of the modern film projector), the dictaphone and the mimeograph machine, along with a mighty host of lesser-known things.
He built the first functioning central power station (in Brockton, Massachusetts), and his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, is generally acknowledged as the world’s first true research-and-development center.
There were some failures along the way: Edison came out on the losing end of the battle over direct current versus alternating current with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, and his attempt to marry audio to silent film — which resulted in The Great Train Robbery in 1903 — wasn’t a success. A few ideas were just loony: a concrete piano, for example.
But nothing is perfect, not even genius, and while Edison’s genius is indisputable, history has judged him less kindly in ethical matters. If his personal ambition didn’t exceed his intellect, it certainly came very close to matching it.
In an era characterized by its ruthless, cutthroat business tactics, Edison was at the head of the pack. He didn’t care whom he stepped on or exploited to achieve his ends, and he muscled in on lesser-known inventors to make some dubious patent claims.
Edison was a man with many colleagues, subordinates, competitors and even admirers, but few friends. He had a family, which he largely ignored. He was a very old man, sidelined by poor health, before bothering to stop and smell the roses.
His payoff is that he remains the iconic American success story, with all that it means.