A couple of years ago, I wrote a birthday tribute to Thomas Edison for the late and semi-lamented Tech Goes Strong. Since that site is kaput, I present that Edison tribute here, along with some photos of my 2004 visit to Edison’s birthplace in Milan, Ohio (click on each photo for a larger version).
We nationally celebrate the birthdays of presidents, we venerate veterans and workers, we celebrate the nation’s birthday, we have assigned days acknowledging the earth, trees, the flag, pagan worship of love and of the dead, of mothers and of fathers, varying ethnic groups, and a day for pure thankfulness.
But considering our technologically-filled lives and society, it’s surprising that few people even know we have a day set aside to say thank-you to the scientists, inventors and engineers responsible for our modern world. But we do. In 1983, President Reagan proclaimed February 11 as National Inventors’ Day. Why February 11? It’s the birthday of Thomas Edison.
“That old guy?” you’re saying to yourself. “What does Thomas Edison have to do with modern stuff like computers and cell phones and social networking?”
Look around the room you’re in. I’ll bet your eyes have alighted on at least a half dozen items that wouldn’t be if not for Edison.
Yes, incandescent light bulbs, duh. But, you say, you’ve replaced all those hot incandescents with more energy efficient compact fluorescent or LED lights. But the metal threaded bottom and the sockets you screw them into? They’re still called Edison Bases. The light technology may have changed, but Edison invented the way we continue to screw the bulbs in.
Then there are the electrical outlets. Edison knew his bulbs wouldn’t work unless you had power, so he invented the first electrical power generating and distribution station at Pearl Street in Manhattan.
Then he needed to manufacturer the bulbs and lamps and sockets and power stations, so Edison founded General Electric – yes, that General Electric, and I’m willing to bet you own stock in, do business with or have something in your house made by GE.
So, when you flip on the lights, say “Thank-you, Mr. Edison.”
Edison sound & vision
Now you want to listen to music. Sure, we mostly plug in an iPod. But when Edison invented the phonograph, he also invented the entire idea of sound recording, a concept few thought was even possible – on par with the idea of recording our dreams – much less worth attempting. And without audio recording, there would be no video recording.
Want to watch a movie? Yup, Edison again, taking George Eastman’s rolling film and, with W.K.L. Dickson, invented motion pictures.
Using the phone? Yes, Alexander Graham Bell (or Elisha Gray) invented the telephone. But to use it, you had to shout into the transmitter, an annoyance that limited the telephone’s early commercialization. So Edison invented a new carbon transmitter and – no more shouting. Edison’s carbon transmitter was used for nearly a century.
Edison also didn’t invent the radio, television or the computer – just the basic technology behind each. When mucking with the incandescent light, Edison noticed a strange electron flow within his experimental bulbs. Since Edison was more a gifted tinkerer than an educated scientist he didn’t know what that electron flow indicated, so he simply made a note of it. Two decades later, engineers including as John A. Fleming and, later, Lee De Forest turned the Edison Effect into the electron or vacuum tube, the foundation upon which radio, television, the computer and all modern electronics was based.
So, when you listen to music or watch TV or turn on your PC, say “Thank-you, Mr. Edison.”
Yes, the Tesla electric car is named for Nikola Tesla, the “inventor” of alternating current, (and there’s no reason to be either a Tesla fan or an Edison fan – it’s okay to admire both) but it was Edison who provided the first practical batteries for the electric car a century ago, which became the basis for all modern batteries.
Ever attend a game at the old Yankee Stadium? It was built using cement developed by Edison.
Do you sport body ink? Edison’s responsible for your tattoo as well – he invented an electronic stenciling pen that was slightly modified to become the modern tattooing tool.
Finally, and most importantly of all, with his Menlo Park, N.J., labs and, later, his labs a few miles away at West Orange (around the block from where I lived for a time in the early 1980s and to which I was a regular visitor) Edison invented the research lab, a place where engineers could work on nothing but creating new technologies and gadgets, a precursor to Bell Labs and the hundreds of other private, corporate and university research facilities currently churning out iPads, flat screen HDTVs, cell phones and all our modern digital wonders.
Is it any wonder the symbol for a great idea is still a light bulb?
Yes, every day I say, “Thank-you Mr. Edison,” and today I add, “Happy birthday!”
A close up of the road sign.
His birth bed.
And a statue of Edison the boy in a park along Main Street in Milan.