Invention Factory

Supporting the Laboratory

A year after building his laboratory, Edison needed more money to keep it operating. Because most of his experimental work was on improving telegraph and telephone technology for Western Union, wizardhe wrote to company president William Orton to ask for help. He explained that "the cost of running my machine shop including coal kerosene & labor is about 15 per day or 100 per week; at present I have no source of income which will warrant continuing my machine shop and I shall be compelled to close it unless I am able to provide funds for continuing the same and keep my skilled workmen." After describing the "unusual facilities which I have for perfecting any kind of Telegraphic invention," Edison promised that he would give Western Union "every invention that I can make during that time which is applicable to commercial telegraphy."

Western Union agreed to pay for all patent expenses and to give him additional royalties for any successful inventions including the telephone. Edison’s first successful invention for Western Union was the carbon-button transmitter. But it was the tinfoil phonograph that made Edison’s reputation as the Wizard of Menlo Park! Because Western Union did not want the phonograph invention, a group of investors connected to the Bell Telephone Company helped form the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to promote the new invention and gave Edison $10,000 to improve the exciting new technology.

But before he could develop a commercial phonograph, Edison turned to a new challenge—electric lighting. After announcing in the press in September 1878 that he had solved the problem of the electric light, a group of Western Union investors decided to form the Edison Electric Light Company. Over the next two and a half years they provided Edison with $130,000 for his experiments (about $2.3 million in today's currency).