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Invention Mysteries TM
Self-syndicated weekly newspaper column

Meet Thomas Edison,
the greatest inventor of all time,
with 1,093 U.S. patents

By Paul Niemann

"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." -- Thomas Alva Edison

[JUNE 19, 2003]  The greatest American inventor of all time was born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio. Thomas Edison was issued more than 1,000 patents during his lifetime. Some of his inventions -- such as the incandescent light bulb and the phonograph -- even led to the creation of brand-new industries.


"Genius is 99 percent perspiration and
1 percent inspiration."

Of all of Edison's important inventions, he is best known for the incandescent light bulb, which he created in 1878. Edison wasn't the only inventor to invent a light bulb, though; a British inventor named Joseph Swan developed a different version a year earlier. Trying to find the right filament to make the bulb work was the biggest obstacle Edison faced. His idea for the light bulb was the 1 percent inspiration part of the equation, while the thousands of experiments and the marketing of the light bulb made up the 99 percent perspiration. The main difference between Edison and Swan was that Edison was able to create an entire industry around his light bulb, which replaced candles and gas lamps as the primary sources of light.

There are several interesting facts about Thomas Edison that many people do not know. For example:

--Edison went to school only until the third grade; then his mother taught him at home. One of Edison's teachers showed how badly she had misunderstood the 6-year-old Edison when she sent a note home with him stating, "He is too stupid to learn."


--Edison suffered from a hearing loss. This may have helped his career, though, because it allowed him to concentrate better and avoid many of the distractions in his lab.

--Edison once worked 60 hours straight, stopping only for 15-minute catnaps and snacks.

In 1869, Edison was approached by a wealthy businessman about selling one of his products, an improved stock ticker tape machine. Rather than stating an asking price, Edison asked the man to make him an offer. The man offered him $40,000 for it (which was equivalent to about $700,000 in today's dollars). This turned out to be a lot more than Edison thought it was worth, and the money helped finance future inventions.

"If we could do all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves."

[to top of second column in this article]

The incandescent light bulb was Edison's greatest invention. In addition to the light bulb, his 1,093 patents included:

  • Vote recorder (1868)
  • Printing telegraph (1869)
  • Stock ticker (1869)
  • Automatic telegraph (1872)
  • Electric pen (1876)
  • Carbon telephone transmitter (1877)
  • Phonograph (1877)
  • Dynamo (1879)
  • Incandescent electric lamp (1879)
  • Electric motor (1881)
  • Talking doll (1886)
  • Projecting kinetoscope film projector (1897)
  • Storage battery (1900)

Source: Smithsonian Institution


"I have not failed. I have merely found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Even the greatest inventor of all time had a few failures. According to the Inventors.about.com website, Edison's failures included motion pictures with sound, his inability to create a practical way to mine iron ore, and an electric vote recorder. Even though the electric vote recorder worked, it was a commercial failure and led Edison to remark, "I only want to invent things that will sell."

The electric industry that Edison formed led to the creation of what is known today as General Electric, and his Menlo Park invention lab became the model that the labs of many innovative companies were patterned after. While Edison's greatest invention was the incandescent light bulb, his greatest contribution is probably the fact that nearly every civilized society on earth has benefited positively from one or more of his inventions.

Next week: Meet Jerome Lemelson, the most prolific inventor of the modern era, with 583 U.S. patents

[Paul Niemann]

To test your "invention IQ," visit www.InventionMysteries.com. Paul Niemann can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

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Last week's column in LDN: Necessity is the mother of invention, so celebrate Father's Day with these 'fathers of invention'


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