This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Concrete Furniture and Tattoos


February 11, 1847:

Thomas Alva Edison is Born

Edison was an American inventor and businessman. He developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park” by a newspaper reporter, he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork to the process of invention, and because of that, he is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.

Edison_bulb patent_drawing

Edison is the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. He is credited with numerous inventions that contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures.

10 Fascinating Edison Facts

By Alex Santoso

1. Teacher Thought Edison was “Addled”

Edison was an inquisitive child but a poor student as his mind often wandered. The youngest of 7 siblings, “Al” as he was called in his youth, was deemed “addled” by his school teacher.

When she found out, Edison’s mother was angry and pulled him out of school after only three months of formal education. She home schooled him instead. Edison later recounted “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.


2. Edison Built His First Lab at the Age of 10

When Edison turned 9, his mother gave him an elementary science book on how to do chemistry experiments at home. Edison was hooked: he did every experiment in the book and soon spent all his spare money buying chemicals.

At the tender age of 10, Edison built his first science laboratory in the basement of his family’s home. His father tried to bribe him with a penny if only Edison would get out of the basement and go read a book. This he did, but he also used the penny to buy more chemicals for experiments. And to make sure no one took his prized chemicals, he labeled all his bottles “poison.”

3. Edison Was Deaf and He Liked It That Way!

At around the age of 12, Edison started to lose his hearing. One legend has it that a train conductor smacked him in the ears after he started a fire in a boxcar by doing experiments. Edison himself said that he was injured when the conductor picked him up by the ears onto a moving train. Others had said that it caused by a bout of scarlet fever during childhood. In all likelihood it was a genetic condition as both Edison’s father and one of his brothers also suffered from hearing loss.

But one thing’s for sure: Edison actually liked being deaf (technically, he was hard of hearing, not completely deaf). He said that it made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments.


4. Edison Saved a Boy From a Runaway Train

At the Grand Trunk Railroad, 14-year-old Edison saved 3-year-old Jimmie MacKenzie from a runaway boxcar. Jimmie’s father, station agent J.U. MacKenzie was so grateful that he taught Edison how to operate the telegraph machine.

Later, Edison became a telegraph operator for Western Union. He requested the night shift so he could have more time for his experiments. One day he accidentally spilled sulphuric acid while experimenting on a battery. The acid ran between the floorboards and onto his boss’ desk below. Needless to say, Edison was fired the next morning.

5. Edison’s First Patented Invention was a Flop

In 1869, when Edison was just 22 years old, he got his first patent for a telegraphic vote-recording machine for the legislature. Each legislator would move a switch on Edison’s machine that would record his vote on a particular bill.

When a business partner brought the invention to Washington D.C., this is what Congress had to say about it:

The chairman of the committee, unimpressed with the speed with which the instrument could record votes, told him that “if there is any invention on earth that we don’t want down here, that is it.” The slow pace of roll call voting in Congress and other legislatures enabled members to filibuster legislation or convince others to change their votes. Edison’s vote recorder was never used. (Source: The Edison Papers)

From then on, Edison decided that he would only invent something if there was a market for it.


Vote Recorder

6. Edison Proposed Marriage … by Morse Code!

On Christmas Day in 1871, at the age of 24, Edison married his 16-year old employee Mary Stilwell, after meeting her just two months earlier. By February, Edison was exasperated at his wife’s inability to invent that he wrote in his diary “Mrs Mary Edison My wife Dearly Beloved Cannot invent worth a Damn!!” and “My Wife Popsy Wopsy Can’t Invent.” Mary gave birth to three children, the first two Edison nicknamed “Dot” and “Dash.”

Two years after Mary died, Edison met and married 20-year-old Mina Miller. The story of how the two met is quite interesting: After Mary’s death, Edison regularly went to Boston and stayed with his friends Mr. and Mrs. Gilliard. The Gilliards made sure that some eligible young lady was “visiting” at the same time. Edison, who was half-deaf, bug-eyed, plagued with halitosis and bad dandruff, would stick his face very close to the girl’s in order to hear her words. This naturally creeped them all out!

One day, the Gilliards introduced Edison to Mina Miller, to whom Edison was immediately smitten:

Edison found his own version of paradise in Fort Myers, then a small village, and apparently decided that he must do three things: build a winter home in Florida, marry Mina, and bring her to his tropical Eden. Once back in New York, Edison–normally a workaholic–was obsessed with his new love. He wrote in his diary at this time: “Saw a lady who looked like Mina. Got thinking about Mina and came near being run over by a streetcar. If Mina interferes much more will have to take out an accident policy.” (Source: Anatomy of Some Celebrated Marriages by D. Wallechinsky and I. Wallace, The People’s Almanac)

Edison taught Mina Morse code so they could communicate in secret by tapping into each other’s hands when her family was around. One day, Edison asked .– — ..- .-.. -.. -.– — ..- — .- .-. .-. -.– — (would you marry me). and Mina replied -.– . … (yes)


Mina Edison

7. Edison Has a Mysterious Tattoo on His Arm

According to a 1911 policy with the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, Edison had five dots tattooed on his left forearm. No one knew what the dots meant.

Interestingly, Edison was credited for inventing the basic tattoo machine. In 1876, he patented the Stencil-Pens, an engraving device that many years later was modified by Samuel O’Reilly to make the world’s first tattoo machine.

Though it would’ve been a neat thing, there was simply no evidence that Edison used his invention to give himself a tattoo.



8. The Edison Invention That Killed

After Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, Edison directed his employee, a glassblower named Clarence Dally to develop a fluoroscope (then called the Edison X-ray focus tube). The device was a commercial success and ultimately became the basis of modern fluoroscopy used in hospitals today.

At the time, X-rays were not believed to be dangerous and Clarence had a habit of testing X-ray tubes on his hands. In 1900, he had developed lesion on his wrist that wouldn’t heal after several skin grafts and was so tenacious that his hand had to be amputated. Edison kept Dally on his payroll, even when he was so sick that he couldn’t work anymore. Clarence’s condition worsened and even after the amputations of both of his arms, he died of cancer.

Shaken, Edison stopped all work on fluoroscopes as revealed in a New York World interview in 1903:

“Don’t talk to me about X-rays,” he said. “I am afraid of them. I stopped experimenting with them two years ago, when I came near to losing my eyesight and Dally, my assistant practically lost the use of both of his arms. I am afraid of radium and polonium too, and I don’t want to monkey with them.” (Source: New York World)

9. Edison’s Quirky Invention: the Concrete House

Edison decided to get into the cement business. He noticed that one could mold concrete into a wide variety of shapes and thought that he could build a house by pouring concrete into a single, giant mold! And not only the house: “everything from bathtubs, windowsills, staircases, and picture frames to electrical conduits and reinforcing rods would be molded right in.” (Source: American Heritage)


Edison, who grew up poor, thought that he could solve New York’s housing problem and clear out the slums by mass producing affordable working man’s houses. But first, he needed a model: Edison hired a high-profile architecture firm to create a two-story, two-family house “in the style of Francis I.” At Edison’s request (he didn’t want to be known as “the father of ugly houses”), the model came with a large front porch and intricate exterior moldings.

This, of course, turned out to be impractical – so Edison downscaled his plan and casted his first concrete house on Hixon Street in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1911 (it was later demolished to make way for a supermarket and a parking lot).

10. Electrocuting an Elephant

In the late 1880s, Edison was embroiled in the “War of Currents” with George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Edison had promoted the use of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution, whereas Westinghouse and Tesla wanted to use alternating current (AC).

At the time, Edison had over one hundred power stations in the United States that delivered DC electricity to consumers. But because of a power loss due to resistance of the wire during transmission, the power station had to be located within a mile of the consumers. Edison’s then-employee, a brilliant Serbian engineer named Nikola Tesla proposed that AC could solve this problem but Edison didn’t listen.

Indeed, Edison had previously asked Tesla to improve his electrical power stations with $50,000 ($1 million in 2006 US dollar, Tesla’s wages were just $18 a week back then) as a reward. After Tesla delivered, Edison reneged on his offer and thus created bad blood between the two.

Back to the War of Currents: to demonstrate that his DC system was better and “safer,” Edison noted that AC had a lethal potential and could be used to electrocute. Though he was against capital punishment, Edison (and a hired employee named Harold P. Brown) developed the electric chair.

In 1903, a circus elephant named Topsy at Coney Island’s Luna Park went berserk and killed three people including an abusive trainer, who tried to feed her a lighted cigarette.

The elephant was considered a threat and the owners wanted it executed. When animal advocates protested the proposed method of hanging, Edison saw a publicity opportunity and suggested electrocution with AC.

Topsy was fed carrots laced with cyanide and then electrocuted with 6,000-volts AC. She died “without a trumpet or a groan” within seconds.

Topsy’s execution was a public spectacle: about 1,500 people attended and Edison even filmed the event:

Despite of Edison’s publicity campaign (he tried to popularize the term for being electrocuted as being “Westinghoused”), Tesla’s AC system won out in the end.

Memorial to Topsy



Edison inventions timeline

Edison’s 2332 patents

ThomasEdison Thomas-Edison-2


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