Famous Inventors: Thomas Edison

An argument can be made that Benjamin Franklin may be the most famous American inventor, but without a doubt the most prolific and influential American inventor was Thomas Alva Edison. It is indeed difficult to imagine the modern world without scientific contributions and inventions of Edison. Nevertheless, Edison did have failures, including his failed support of DC power over AC power, but Edison never let failure stand between him and success. Known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, Edison received over one thousand US patents, the first of which was filed on October 13, 1868, when he was the tender age of 21. Perhaps Edison’s most famous inventions were the phonograph, motion pictures and the light-bulb. Truth be told, however, he really didn’t “invent” the lightbulb, but rather he improved upon the technology by developing a light-bulb that used a lower current electricity, a small carbonized filament, and an improved vacuum inside the globe. Edison’s invention lead to a reliable, long-lasting source of light.

» Selected Inventions of Edison

1868 Edison executed a patent application for his electric vote recorder, for which he later is issued his first patent.

1874 Edison invents the quadruplex telegraph, ownership of which is disputed by Western Union and Jay Gould’s Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company.

1875 Edison invents an “autographic press” kit, to be used to assist businesses in making copies of documents. The kit included an electric pen, a small battery, a press, ink, and supplies.

1877 Edison worked on a telephone transmitter that greatly improved on Alexander Graham Bell’s work with the telephone. His transmitter made it possible for voices to be transmitted at higer volume and with greater clarity over standard telephone lines.

1879 Using lower current electricity, a small carbonized filament, and an improved vacuum inside the globe, Edison was able to produce a reliable, long-lasting source of light.

1880 The commercial production of electric lamps begins at the Edison Lamp Works in Menlo Park.

1881 Edison executes twenty-three patent applications on electric lighting.

1882 During the spring and summer Edison executed fifty-three patent applications covering electric lighting, electric railways, and secondary batteries. An additional thirty-four patent applications covering electric lighting and electric railways were executed by Edison during the fall.

1885 Edison executed seventeen patent applications covering various embodiments of hi telegraph and telephone inventions. He also executes the first of four major patent caveats for the kinetoscope and kinetograph.

1888 Edison executes twenty-two patent applications for phonographs and cylinder records.

1891 Executes patent applications for the kinetoscope and kinetograph.

1896 Edison introduces the Edison Home Phonograph, an inexpensive, spring motor driven phonograph.

1900 Edison executes a patent application on a method of mass producing cylinder phonograph records.

1902 Successfully conducts the first road tests of electric vehicles equipped with Edison storage batteries and initiates production of alkaline storage battery.

1906 Edison receives a gold medal from the Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden for his inventions in connection with the phonograph and the incandescent light.

» Additional Resources

The Lifeof Thomas A. Edison (Library of Congress) – One of the most famous and prolific inventors of all time, Thomas Alva Edison exerted a tremendous influence on modern life, contributing inventions such as the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. This page contains a brief sketch of an enormously active and complex life full of projects often occurring simultaneously.

The Inventions of Thomas Edison (About.com) – This site has a tremendous amount of information, and covers more than just the inventions of Thomas Edison. This site has numerous links to other information available on the Intenret, details Edison’s inventions and his life as well. Those familiar with About.com will know that it is an excellent source of information, but difficult to navigate. Additionally, you will have to deal with annoying pop-up ads, but all this trouble will be worth your while.

Thomas A. Edison Papers (Rutgers University) – The Thomas A. Edison Papers is a documentary editing project sponsored by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, and the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Edison, His Life and Inventions (University of Virginia) – This is an online book. The authors explain in the introduction that the “desire on the part of the public for a definitive biography of Edison” was the motivation for this project.

Here are a number of excellent pages, containing a wealth of information about Thomas Edison, hosted in the IEEE Virtual Museum.


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Join the Discussion

6 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for benechin]
    April 16, 2010 12:50 am

    A biography http://amzn.to/9qKmBk, lavishly illustrated with tinted photographs, splendidly written in a style for even the youngest readers. This short treatise does a remarkable job of tying in the vastness of Thomas Edison’s gift to society: it fills in many areas of endeavor often overlooked, to wit: his designed and built gigantic ore-crushing machines, conveyor belts, huge cement manufacturing plants, concrete cast houses, electric power plants with underground cable placement for safety, improved batteries, and not forgetting the typewriter though now nearly replaced by computer keyboards but functionally unchanged, and so importantly, his concept of specialized research laboratories – a forerunner of JPL, NASA, Bell Labs, NRL, and Los Alamos that were patterned after his Menlo Park work center. We also become privy to this scientist’s personality, his hearing loss, his marriages, children, his hired technicians (“the Boys”), and his association with Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, and studies of x-ray fluoroscope usefulness and dangers, etc. His inventiveness in such diverse areas is unequaled – and we have much to learn from him, and to be indebted to him, for his wisdom, curiosity and perseverance.

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    May 22, 2009 10:41 am

    I believe in any time of past history most ideas were “ground breaking” because note, nothing like them had been created. It is in our time over the past 35+ years, that patents have gained a place in the lives and work of people as never before. Edison had the advantage of being “free” to think and work, different from today. Trolls are in my opinion those that try and do patent underpinning ideas that are bases to technologies, Edison ?, no. Edison’s work was in large specific as I recall, because let us remember that world in time Edison lived, there were no markets to protect or gain for new technologies seeing most did not even have power much the mindset to use something new and different. I believe context is important when viewing the past work of others …most important, Edison.

  • [Avatar for Andrew Grove (former Intel CEO)]
    Andrew Grove (former Intel CEO)
    May 20, 2009 07:54 pm

    Edison shouldn’t be celebrated — he should be reviled as America’s first patent troll!

  • [Avatar for OldTimer]
    May 18, 2009 02:57 pm

    I agree with Gene. Very few of the inventions we consider to be groundbreaking would be patentable under a strict application of KSR. Electric lighting was known; Edison contributed a slightly better filament and better vacuum techniques. Ditto for the Wright brothers and the airplane. Ditto for penicillin, jet engines, transistors, the microprocessor, and the list goes on and on. Absent Congressional intervention to overturn KSR, the US patent system will shrivel and die over the course of the next 10 years. With it will go funding for investments in technology-based startup companies.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    May 16, 2009 11:54 am


    We were just talking about that the other day. I think it is fair to say that if KSR existed and strictly applied, the overwhelming majority of Edison’s inventions would have been unpatentable. That is a sad statement about how badly the Supreme Court has screwed up patent law.


  • [Avatar for breadcrumbs]
    May 16, 2009 11:14 am

    In today’s world, how many of the thousand patents would have been found obvious as applying well known ideas along with the use of electricity (parallel electricity to computers)?