Thomas Edison, GE Global Research, Schenectady, NY
What problems was he trying to solve?
Thomas Edison investigated electric lighting and studied the possibilities of an incandescent system, hoping to replace the gas-light system that was then in common use. After initial studies, he came to the conclusion that what had been done with gas illumination (distributing the illuminating element and its subdivision into many small burners) could be matched in every particular in electrical illumination. Edison set about developing such a system.
What was his biggest accomplishment?
Thomas Edison said his biggest accomplishment was, “the incandescent electric light and power system…It is indeed a remarkable growth that has taken place since those days. From the rather crude but successful central station in Pearl Street, New York, where incandescent lighting was first produced as a commercial proposition, to the nation-wide system of central stations, many of them gigantic in size, which serve the American people to-day, is surely a phenomenal advance.”
What prompted him to embark on a technical career?
Edison’s mother Nancy had been a teacher and instilled a love of reading into him at an early age. She gave him his first science book School of Natural Philosophy, and he excitedly completed all of the experiments in the book. As a result, his mother bought him a science dictionary and new books detailing experiments. Edison began working for a railroad at the age of twelve, set up a chemistry lab in the baggage car of the train, and began learning about telegraphy. One day while working Edison saved the life of a telegraph operator’s son. In gratitude, he received detailed lessons in the telegraph. Edison started his electrical career as a part-time telegraph operator in Port Huron, Michigan.
How did he enjoy spending his time outside of work?
One of Edison’s favorite pursuits was camping with his fellow “vagabonds,” Henry Ford, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone. During these camping trips, Edison and Ford would build small dams in streams and explore old mills and calculate their power output. Some of the camping trips also included naturalist Luther Burbank and President Warren G. Harding.
What was his biggest hope for the future?
In 1911, Edison predicted that in 100 years, the steam engine would be replaced with high-speed electric trains. But, most travelers would fly through the air “at a speed of two hundred miles an hour, in colossal machines.” House furnishings would be made entirely of light steel, a baby would be rocked in a steel cradle, and families will sit in steel chairs at steel dining tables. Furniture could be made to look like wood using varnishes and would be so light it would be as easy to move a steel sideboard as a typical wooden chair. He believed books would be printed on thin pages of nickel, so thin and light that a two-inch book would contain 40,000 pages and still be held in the palm of the hand. He finally believed that the secret of transmuting metals would be discovered, that gold would be easily made from iron, and be as cheap and plentiful as steel. He also believed motion pictures would replace books in schools.