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Thomas Alva Edison

 

By Garth Hall

For the News-Item

Thomas Alva Edison, the seventh child of Samuel Ogden Edison, Jr. and Nancy Mathews Elliott was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. 

Thomas did not learn to speak until he was four years old and therefore had a late start in school.  At age seven, after spending twelve weeks in a noisy one-room schoolhouse with thirty eight other students of all ages, Tom’s overworked and short tempered teacher finally lost his patience with the child’s persistent questioning and seemingly self-centered behavior.  Noting that Tom’s forehead was unusually broad and his head was considerably larger than average, he made no secret of his belief that the youngster’s brains were “addled” or scrambled.

When his mother became aware of the situation, she promptly withdrew Tom from school.  His mother, an accomplished educator in her own right, was convinced that her son’s slightly unusual demeanor and physical appearance were merely outward signs of his remarkable intelligence and she accepted the responsibility of schooling her son.  Later in life, Edison not only credited his mother with teaching him to read and experiment, but stated, “My mother was the making of me.  She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”        

When Thomas was twelve years old, he became almost completely deaf.  According to Edison, he went deaf because he was pulled up to a train car by his ears. 

After the family moved to Michigan, Thomas sold candy and newspapers on trains running from Port Huron to Detroit.  One day the stationmaster’s young son wandered in front of an on-coming boxcar.  Tom leaped into action.  Luckily, as they tumbled away from its oncoming wheels, they ended up being only slightly injured.  The child’s father, station agent J. U. Mackenzie of Mount Clemens, Michigan, was so grateful that he trained Thomas as a telegraph operator.  Later, Franklin Leonard, a fellow telegrapher and inventor, allowed sixteen year old Edison to live and work in the basement of his Elizabeth, N.J. home.

On Christmas day 1871, Edison married then 16 year old Mary Stilwell.  They had three children: Marion Estelle Edison (known as “Dot”), Thomas Alva Edison, Jr. (known as “Dash”) and William Leslie Edison.  Mary Edison died on 9 August 1884. 

On February 24, 1886, Edison married 19 year old Mina Miller.  They also had three children: Madeleine Edison, Charles Edison who took over the company upon his father’s death and who later was elected Governor of New Jersey and Theodore Edison.

The Wizard of Menlo Park

Although Edison began his career as the inventor of the automatic repeater telegraphic device, he became famous with his invention of the phonograph in 1877.  This “magical” invention dubbed him as “The Wizard of Menlo Park” in New Jersey. 

Edison’s was not the first to develop a light bulb.  Several variations of light bulbs had been designed over the preceding half century but none were remotely capable of providing illumination for practical use.

Edison tested over 3000 filaments before his successful development of the carbonized filament incandescent electric light bulb. Perhaps this was the inspiration that led to his famous quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” 

However, as shocking as it may seem, the perfection of the incandescent light bulb, was not his greatest invention.  Edison’s design and construction of the first safe and economically viable power generating and distribution system provided light and power world-wide and has been recognized by many as the scientific “Miracle of the Millennium”.

At Menlo Park, Edison assembled a team and developed the first industrial research complex to produce technological innovations and improvements.  Francis Jehl, who joined the staff in 1879, later produced a three volume book, “Menlo Park Reminiscences”.  He recalls that the world’s first two-wire electric street lighting was located along the length of Christie Street at the center of the village and that in 1880, Mrs. Jordan’s Boarding House, where Edison and his staff resided, was the first dwelling house ever lighted by electricity. 

Due to Edison’s early beginnings as a telegrapher, his eldest two children Marion and Thomas, Jr. became fondly known as “Dot” & “Dash”.

Manhattan Demonstration

Edison began operations at a warehouse on Pearl St. in Manhattan and demonstrated his Menlo Park Prototype two-wire Incandescent Illumination System in a one block section of New York City.  Although the system demonstrated potential for lighting communities, the two-wire system was flawed.  Large diameter wiring was required due to transmission line voltage loss with variable loads.

Three-wire Prototype System

Edison overcame the system deficiencies by developing a three-wire Prototype System at a facility located in Brockton, Massachusetts which incorporated a standardized grid featuring equal-diameter feeders.  Edison invented and developed the seven system distributions elements necessary for the practical industrial use of electricity and electric lights to replace gas lights that were prevalent at the time.  These elements were a durable light bulb, the parallel circuit, an improved dynamo, the underground conductor network, devices for maintaining constant voltage, safety fuses and insulating materials and light sockets with on-off switches.   Even though the Brockton prototype initially used less power than would now be required to light the bulbs on a modern Christmas tree, its technology stunned the handful of scientists who first witnessed it.  The Brockton system proved that his system could provide the public with safe, stable and efficient electrical power.     

Shamokin’s Edison Electrical Illuminated Company

Shamokin Capitalists recognized the significance of Edison’s marvelous invention, and notified the “Boy Wizard” of Menlo Park that they were ready to back their confidence in his new carbon filament lamp by supplying  all the money necessary to erect a central power station in Shamokin under his immediate supervision.

 

In early fall of 1882, at the age of 32, Thomas Edison arrived in Shamokin.  Edison had already spent over $40,000 in developing his electric lamp for commercial use.  Samuel Insul, representing an English syndicate sponsoring Edison’s invention, acted as his private secretary. 

 

The meeting with the inventor and his secretary was held in the second floor offices of the Sterling Colliery Company at the corner of Sunbury and Washington Streets.  Oscar Kubach, colliery clerk and amateur thespian, jotted down the minutes of the meeting.  In addition to the two distinguished visitors, the following persons were present: William H. Douty, Holden Chester, John Mullen, C. C. Leader, William Beury, George O. Martz and W. C. McConnell of Shamokin and Andrew Robertson Sr. of Pottsville.
 
At that meeting and joint conference, the Edison Electrical Illuminated Company of Shamokin was organized.  A Pennsylvania charter of incorporation was granted in November 1882 as certified by the Pennsylvania State Department of Internal Affairs.  Shamokin had the first Edison incandescent illuminating company in the world wherein the money invested was supplied entirely by local capital. 
 
The electric company purchased two lots now occupied by the Jones Hardware Company, the former Knights of Columbus building.  The lots were low-lying and swampy during the early period of their transformation, the habitat of frogs, lizards, and mosquitoes.  A very substantial brick plant was placed on the north end of the property, abutting on a spur of the Pennsylvania Railroad and displacing old coal storage bins and chutes.
 
Construction of the Shamokin central station was completed and operation began on September 22, 1883.  Mr. Edison was present at the Shamokin Plant and issued the order to the plant foreman to throw the switch delivering electrical power for the first time in history to three Shamokin buildings. 
 
A large crowd followed the inventor to the home of Kitty McConnell.  "Aunt Kitty" was an enthusiastic supporter and financial investor in the new lighting plans and consented to have her mansion at Sunbury and Orange Streets wired with the Edison system. With rumors afloat that the electrically charged wires were a fire menace, "Aunt Kitty" cautiously stipulated that the first wiring be run on the wall surface and only the kitchen was to be wired.  The McConnell mansion became Shamokin’s first residential property to utilize the electric power.  

 

The crowd continued its march a few blocks away to a commercial building owned by the Illumination Company president and financier, William Douty.  President William Douty had his business property, "Brownstone Front," wired on the first floor where Abe Strouse, pioneer merchant, ran a store.  When the electric current was switched on the first night from the Independence Street plant, Edison was here watching the test.  Summoned to the scene, he threw the controlling lever that set each lamp filament glowing with a steady light that excited the wonder and admiration of friends and skeptics alike.  This building became Shamokin’s first commercial structure to be wired for lighting. The building is still standing and is located on the corner of Rock and Sunbury Streets in Shamokin. The second and third floors of the building were used by Edison to house his laboratory until the plant laboratory was completed.  
 

The crowd was then lead to the third and most celebrated structure to be illuminated that evening.  Saint Edwards Catholic Church on Shamokin Street has the historical distinction of being the first church in the world to be lighted by electricity. 

 

The Davies Brother who advertised their electrical contracting company as “Davies Brothers Incandescent House Wiring, Electroliers, and Supplies” wired all three buildings.

 

During his stay in Shamokin, Edison resided in housing on Station Row just west of Myron Thomas’s Photographic Studio on Independence Street. 
 
Similar to the experience, in many other communities when electric lighting was first introduced, the public exhibited considerable timidity about having its businesses and homes wired.  Installations were made without any considerations for decorative effect.  The officers of the company, glad to make the change from coal oil lamps, volunteered to blaze the trail to a new and happier medium of lighting.
 
Favorite Portrait
 
While in Shamokin, Edison was persuaded by William Brock to visit the photographic studio of Myron Thomas then located on Sunbury Street, a few doors east of Shamokin Street.  The success of the pioneer Shamokin photographer was acclaimed by Edison in flattering terms.  For several decades, many copies of Edison’s favorite portrait were made by Mr. Thomas at the request of the famous inventor, who autographed the photographic portraiture and sent them to friends throughout the world.
 
Sunbury – First Electrical Service
 
William Brock, first superintendent of the Shamokin plant and esteemed by Edison as an associate pioneer in electric lighting explained why Shamokin was not the first in providing electrical servicing.  “It is safe to assume that because of the vast difference in the character of construction, superior and far more extensive equipment, work on the Shamokin plant antedated the starting of work on the Sunbury equipment.” 
 
However, the Sunbury generating plant was completed in June of 1883, three months before the Shamokin plant.  A three-wire line was extended from the Sunbury plant to the City Hotel and on the night of July 4, 1883, Edison switched on the current to a 100-candle power light over the City Hotel Entrance.  The City Hotel, later renamed The Edison Hotel, became the first hotel in the world to be illuminated by Edison’s system.  On the same day, Edison wired the Railroad Station on Second Street in Sunbury.
 
Writing from Orange, New Jersey, August 5, 1914, Thomas Edison says in part: "As a matter of fact, Sunbury was the first three-wire electric light station in the world where overhead conductors were used throughout the streets.  It was started in operation July 4, 1883.  Shamokin was the second station of this kind.  
 
Mount Carmel – Historical System     
 
On November 17, 1883, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Mount Carmel was founded.  This was the first isolated electrical plant in the world; i.e. Mount Carmel was the first town lighted exclusively by electricity.
 
Eastern Pennsylvania Companies
 
Edison Companies spread throughout eastern Pennsylvania.  Besides those located in Shamokin, Sunbury and Mount Carmel, additional local electric companies were licensed in Ashland, Catasauqua, Harrisburg, Tamaqua, Hazleton, Lancaster, Pottsville, Easton and Williamsport.
 
Tributes to Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison died on October 18, 1931 at West Orange, New Jersey.  During his lifetime, Thomas Alva Edison registered 1093 United States patents and some two hundred more in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.  On the night after his funeral, Americans dimmed their lights as a tribute to the “man who lit up the world”.  

Life Magazine’s 2000 Millennium edition placed Edison first in the list of “100 Most Important People in the Last 1000 Years”, noting that his light bulb “lit up the world”.  

Thomas Edison ranked thirty-fifth on Michael H. Hart’s list of the most influential figures in history.

In recognition of the enormous contribution inventors make to the nation and the world, the Congress, pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 140 (Public Law 97 – 198), has designated February 11th, the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Alva Edison, as “National Inventor’s Day”.