Edison and Innovation Series
This series of essays draws on Edison’s personal and business letters, lab notebooks, drawings, advertising material, and modern and historic photos to reveal Edison the innovator. These interpretive materials are aimed at engaging young and lifetime learners by drawing on the primary documents in our online and book editions. Each essay tells a complete story with links and images to enhance your reading and learning experience.
The Education of an Inventor
Explore Edison’s boyhood in Milan and Port Huron, his years as an itinerant telegrapher in the 1860s and his first experiences as an inventor in Boston, New York and Newark, where he introduced improved stock tickers, new telegraph systems and the electric pen, his first invention sold directly to consumers.
The Invention Factory
Edison’s experience as a reliable telegraph inventor and the support of telegraph industry leaders gave him the resources to open his first R&D lab at Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he vowed to turn out a minor invention every six weeks and a major invention every six months.
The Tinfoil Phonograph
Edison’s 1877 invention of the tinfoil phonograph, the first machine that could record and reproduce sound, astonished the world and made him an international celebrity.
A Big Bonanza: Edison’s Electric Lighting System
Edison did more than invent a practical incandescent electric lamp at Menlo Park; he introduced an entire system of electric lighting. From his first central stations in London and New York’s Pearl Street to his display at the 1889 Paris Exposition, Edison’s companies pioneered the electric utility industry.
Edison in World War I
Edison kept busy during World War I. He became a vocal proponent of military preparedness, faced the challenges of rebuilding his West Orange factory after a disastrous fire, chaired the Naval Consulting Board and conducted research aimed at helping the U.S. Navy respond to submarine warfare.
From Menlo Park to West Orange
The 1880s were years of transition for Edison - the death of his first wife Mary, the purchase of his Fort Myers, Florida, winter home, his marriage to Mina Miller and his move to West Orange. Explore these events, Edison’s relationship with his family and the construction of the West Orange laboratory.
Battle of the Systems
The competition between Edison's direct-current (DC) central station system and new alternating current (AC) systems, especially the Westinghouse system using Nikola Tesla's important improvements, becomes intertwined with the debate over humane executions and the development of the electric chair.
A Phonograph in Every Home
Turning the tinfoil phonograph from a curiosity into a commercial product became a major project at West Orange. From the late 1880s to the 1920s Edison’s lab designed talking machines for office workers and produced phonographs and records that provided millions of consumers with pre-recorded music.
Edison’s 1888 idea of inventing an instrument “which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion” led to the creation of the movie industry. At West Orange, Edison and his team invented a motion picture camera, built studios to produce motion pictures and created companies to manufacture projectors and films.
Employing remarkable team work and persistence Edison spent much of the 1890s designing machinery to mine and process iron ore at his Ogdensburg, New Jersey, ore milling plant, a project that ultimately failed.