|11 The Wizard of Menlo Park 1876
HE TAMED both lightning and thunder in a tiny lab in New Jersey. Born in small-town Ohio in 1847, Thomas Alva Edison parlayed an early fascination with chemistry and telegraphy into a string of business successes that enabled him in 1876 to build a boxy, two-story building in Menlo Park. It was the first factory in the world designed to produce nothing but inventions. The next year he and a colleague created a machine that translated recorded vibrations into a representation of sound--the phonograph. Then, in November 1879, the Menlo Park team tested a carbonized cardboard filament that could glow for days on end. After more than 1,000 trials, Edison had done it: He had given birth to a useful incandescent lamp. His goal had not been to invent electric light--that had been done decades earlier--but to create a lightbulb that would be long-lasting and inexpensive, along with a system, from power station to screw-in socket, that would render it viable on a large scale. Before Edison, the artificial light that people had to live in was harsh, flickering, ephemeral and dangerous.
In 1903 Edison produced an important early motion picture, The Great Train Robbery, to accompany his many other advances, such as his telephone transmitter, stock ticker, fluoroscope, storage battery and the "Edison effect" lamp (it would lead to the tubes used in radio and television). In all, he held more than 2,000 patents, many of them from Menlo Park. It is difficult to overestimate their significance. The can-do intelligence in that little lab let us see and let us hear.
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