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Episode
257

Thomas Edison: The Greatest Inventor In The World?

Apr 26, 2022
History
-
23
minutes

He was the world's first "celebrity inventor", and was credited with inventing the incandescent light bulb, phonograph and even a talking doll.

But how much of Edison's work was real "invention", and how much was building on what had come before?

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Thomas Edison, the famous inventor. This is actually going to be part one of a three-part series about the electrification of the United States in the late 19th century. 

[00:00:39] Today it’s Edison, next up we’ll talk about the War of the Currents, a battle in which Edison played a vital role, and finally we’ll have an episode on Nikola Tesla, the visionary genius best known for inventing the AC motor.

[00:00:58] OK then, let’s get this electric mini-series cracking and learn about the man who started it all, Thomas Edison.

[00:01:08] If you ask 100 people in America who is the world’s most famous inventor, there will be one name you are guaranteed to hear: Thomas Edison.

[00:01:20] With a record number of 1,093 registered patents, Edison was certainly one of the most prolific inventors of all time. 

[00:01:31] But the question we will try to answer in this episode, or at least give you the information so that you can answer it yourself, is whether he was the greatest inventor in the world.

[00:01:45] Thomas Alva Edison was born in 1847 in Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children.

[00:01:54] In 1854, the family moved to Michigan for a better life, where Edison’s father found work in the timber industry, transforming trees into usable wood. 

[00:02:08] As a young boy Thomas Edison did not do very well at school, and he was considered slow and even stupid by his teachers. 

[00:02:18] Indeed, he only went to school for a few months before his mother, a retired school teacher, decided to teach him at home instead, believing she would be able to help the young boy better than the teachers could.

[00:02:34] While Edison’s intelligence is unquestionable, it appears that he wasn’t suited to methods used in formal education at the time. 

[00:02:45] From an early age, Edison displayed an intense interest in all things mechanical, as well as an early eye on how to make money. 

[00:02:56] These will be two traits, two characteristics, that will serve him well later on in life.

[00:03:03] In fact, they served him well from childhood.

[00:03:08] When he was just 12 he got his first job selling confectionery and newspapers on board a train. With this money, Edison would buy equipment for his electrical and chemical experiments.

[00:03:23] He even set up a small laboratory and printing press in the train’s luggage wagon. The newspaper he printed and sold was the first ever newspaper to be printed on a train.

[00:03:37] Clearly, the young Edison had plenty of potential and this was despite losing most of his sense of hearing by his 12th birthday, most probably after having got scarlet fever

[00:03:51] Later on in life, he would refer to his hearing loss as being more of an asset than a disability, allowing him to concentrate more completely on his work with fewer distractions

[00:04:05] In 1862, when he was 15, an important event would help to change the course of Edison’s life forever. 

[00:04:14] He picked up and saved a three-year old child from the railway tracks where he was about to be run over by a freight train.

[00:04:24] The child’s grateful father, who worked at the station, offered to teach Edison railway telegraphy as a reward

[00:04:34] The railway telegraph system allowed train operations to be controlled by sending electric telegraph signals through wires.

[00:04:44] The electrical telegraph was what’s called a point-to-point messaging system. 

[00:04:51] Telegraph operators would spell out text messages in Morse code - a series of dots and dashes that were assigned to each letter of the alphabet. 

[00:05:03] Learning telegraphy was an important springboard for Edison. He went on to take numerous telegraphy jobs working from city to city, including working in the Western Union office in Boston, where he would listen out for messages on the Associated Press news wire.

[00:05:23] However, Edison did not really focus much on his telegraph work, preferring to spend his time reading and conducting experiments. 

[00:05:33] He was actually sacked from Western Union after he spilled sulfuric acid from a lead-acid battery that he was working on while he was on duty, while he was meant to be working. The acid dripped through the floorboards and onto his boss's desk in the room below. 

[00:05:52] After leaving Western Union, Edison decided to devote himself entirely to his experiments and studies. In 1869, he obtained his very first patent and learned an invaluable lesson.

[00:06:08] Edison’s first patent was for his invention of the electric vote recorder. This recorder allowed politicians to cast their votes on laws via an electrical device. This device would automatically keep count of how many votes had been made for and against a motion, saving many hours spent voting and counting. 

[00:06:33] It might sound like a good idea, but when he tried to get politicians to use it, they didn’t even want to try, and the invention was a complete flop, it went nowhere.

[00:06:46] Edison swore to himself that from now on, he would not waste anymore time inventing things that people simply didn't want, and instead, he would focus on things that he knew people needed. 

[00:07:02] But in order to move on with his inventions, Edison needed cash, he needed money. He moved to New York and was put up by a fellow telegrapher and inventor friend, Franklin Pope.

[00:07:17] When Edison fixed a broken machine for Pope, he was given a job managing and improving the printer machines at the Gold Indicator Company. 

[00:07:27] During this period, Edison formed numerous partnerships and was involved in multiple projects all relating to the telegraph. Most notably, he set up an electrical engineering and invention company, Pope, Edison & Co and formed the American Telegraph Works, looking to develop an automatic telegraph system.

[00:07:51] Then, in 1874, when he was 27, Edison got his first big break, his first big financial success. He had invented the quadruplex telegraph. This type of telegraph allowed two signals to be sent in each direction, so four messages to be sent at the same time.

[00:08:15] Now, for you and me it might be hard to imagine a world in which communication was this difficult, and where being able to send dots along an electrical wire was such a groundbreaking achievement. 

[00:08:30] You probably have a smartphone, you can send messages to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And not just text messages - you can send long text, pictures, video, audio. We can do anything, and indeed there are an estimated 100 billion messages sent on WhatsApp every single day.

[00:08:55] But when Edison was growing up, sending just one series of beeps was complicated and expensive.

[00:09:03] And that was Edison’s opportunity, that was where there was money to be made.

[00:09:09] This first invention, the quadruplex telegraph, was important because it allowed telegraph companies to increase their efficiency and productivity. 

[00:09:21] Edison sold the rights to his invention to Western Union and pocketed $10,000, today’s equivalent of around $200,000. 

[00:09:33] Another invention, what he called the electric pen, followed hot on the quadruplex’s heels in 1875.

[00:09:42] Now, you might be wondering what an “electric pen” was, and why we don’t all use them today.

[00:09:49] The electric pen was actually a basic, early, but not very effective version of the photocopier.

[00:09:58] It did seem like magic, though, and was just the start of Edison’s prolific career as an inventor.

[00:10:05] Indeed, Edison was the first person to take the idea of being an inventor to a completely new level. He wanted to industrialise the process of invention, and in 1876 he set up an “invention factory” - his innovative research and development facility, called the Menlo Park Laboratory. 

[00:10:30] There, Edison employed a large team of people who carried out research under his direction.

[00:10:39] The idea was to churn out, to produce, a constant supply of new inventions in all manner of fields, with Edison very much at the helm

[00:10:51] Reportedly his vision was for the laboratory to make one minor breakthrough every 10 days and a major breakthrough once a month.

[00:11:02] Edison was legally credited with most of the lab’s inventions, it was his name on the patents, even though it was certainly a team effort, it was literally an invention factory, but only one man took the credit

[00:11:18] This approach to invention was extremely novel for the era. 

[00:11:23] If you compare Edison’s approach to that of solitary geniuses, such as Nikola Tesla, who mainly worked alone, you can see why Edison’s more business-like approach to invention was more productive and ultimately financially successful.

[00:11:42] We’re doing to be going deep into the life of Nikola Tesla in a couple of episodes’ time, in episode 259, so keep your eyes peeled for that one.

[00:11:52] What Edison managed to do was turn invention into a career, turn the career of inventor into a glamorous and desirable one, and in so doing, turned himself into the country’s first celebrity inventor.

[00:12:10] Critics, mainly afterwards but even to a certain extent at the time, remarked that Edison was taking a lot of credit for inventing things that he didn’t actually invent, that he didn’t actually have all that much to do with.

[00:12:26] In many cases, Edison and his many companies were essentially refining and perfecting already discovered inventions, taking new technologies and improving upon them to come up with working items that were both affordable and desirable.

[00:12:44] This doesn’t mean that Edison did not come up with his very own inventions too. 

[00:12:49] Also, he had his failures. But it’s safe to say that for the most part Edison and his employees at Menlo Park worked to improve rather than completely invent from scratch.

[00:13:03] Rather than making an exhaustive chronological overview of Edsion’s many, many inventions, I’m going to focus upon some of the most important ones, as well as a couple of failures, just for good measure

[00:13:17] After all, being successful is as much about how you deal with your setbacks as well as your achievements. 

[00:13:25] Aside from improvement to the telegraph system, Edison made headway in improving the telephone, as well as inventing something called the phonograph - a type of early recording and playback device. 

[00:13:40] Edison’s phonograph, which he released in 1877 when he was only 30 years old, made the young man a celebrity overnight

[00:13:50] While the phonograph itself had limitations, the fact that Edison was able to record and playback his own voice with it was almost bordering on magic for most people.

[00:14:04] The phonograph earned Edison the nickname, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, and the Washington Post labelled him a “genius”.

[00:14:14] But his most important invention was still to come.

[00:14:18] When you think of Thomas Edison, perhaps you think of the man who invented the light bulb. Now strictly speaking, he didn’t actually invent the light bulb, rather he improved upon previous versions to create a better model that was also commercially and economically viable.

[00:14:37] Unlike previous light bulbs, Edison's light bulb was the first one that was long-lasting enough to make it a practical choice for widespread use. 

[00:15:02] But he wasn’t content with just inventing the light bulb. He wanted to create and control the electrical system that would power these lights. However, while Edison’s light bulb was a resounding success, his electrical distribution system came up against stiff competition.

[00:15:11] This battle to dominate the electricity distribution market would become known as the “War of the Currents”, a topic we’ll cover in detail in the next episode. 

[00:15:22] This “war” pitted Edison, with his firm belief in something called DC supply, against George Westinghouse, amongst others, who advocated for the use of AC current.

[00:15:37] In short, Edison’s DC supply system had several disadvantages compared to AC. 

[00:15:45] Mainly, AC could travel further, so it was more suitable for supplying the vast majority of customers and it didn’t require power plants on every street corner.

[00:15:57] Edison’s DC system was really only practical in very densely populated areas, and he eventually lost the battle for his DC system to be the standard electrical system in America. 

[00:16:12] Now, as I said, we’ll cover this in great detail in the next episode, but this “War of the Currents” was a pivotal period where Edison’s true character really comes to light

[00:16:25] He was a fierce competitor, not afraid to play dirty and smear his rivals, and this unwillingness to give in or admit defeat would eventually result in his losing control of his company.

[00:16:41] In other areas, when Edison got it wrong, he wasn’t afraid to make a quick U-turn

[00:16:49] For example, his short-lived foray into the toy market, when he created talking dolls.

[00:16:56] Edison created smaller versions of his phonograph and placed them inside dolls. However, the end results didn’t go to plan. 

[00:17:06] The dolls’ mechanisms were too fragile, they broke easily, and Edison had to take them off the market after a few short weeks.

[00:17:17] Now, it’s hard to be the most prolific inventor in the world if you spend too much time sitting around chatting to your friends, and for all of the potential criticisms one could make of Thomas Edison, you can’t say that he didn’t have a pretty formidable work ethic

[00:17:35] He would work long hours at his laboratory and often stay up into the night, working away. 

[00:17:41] One of his most famous quotes refers to his invention of the electric light bulb, which reportedly took him 10,000 attempts.

[00:17:51] He said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

[00:18:08] This gives us some insight into Edison’s mind and what made him so successful. 

[00:18:15] Unlike some geniuses with flashes of inspiration, such as Nikola Tesla, Edison was not afraid to plod away meticulously at his projects.

[00:18:27] This work ethic might have provided the country, and indeed the world, with some important inventions, but it certainly didn’t lead to a happy family life.

[00:18:38] He had a wife and a family, but his long days and nights at his laboratory, indeed often sleeping at the laboratory, meant that he rarely saw his family, and his first wife died of unknown causes, thought to be linked to stress and loneliness, before her 30th birthday. 

[00:18:59] Following his first wife’s death, Edison continued to miss both lunch and dinner at home with his second wife and family, and continued to work long hours even right into his final days. 

[00:19:13] In short, he was a complete workaholic

[00:19:17] He even invented his own technique of power napping, a technique that he used to spend less time sleeping and more working. 

[00:19:27] Edison would hold a heavy object in his hands and try to fall asleep while he was holding it. As he nodded off, as he started to fall asleep, the object would crash to the floor waking him up.

[00:19:42] Edison believed that the simple act of falling asleep very briefly would revive him, allowing him to jump back into action, inspired and ready to start working again.

[00:19:56] Aside from doggedly working away at his inventions and seeking inspiration in strange ways, Edison also used all means available to ensure that his business ventures succeeded, including mergers, and taking a lot of legal action and when necessary discrediting his rivals.

[00:20:16] So, was Thomas Edison the greatest inventor in the world?

[00:20:22] He was certainly one of the most prolific

[00:20:24] What’s more, he was also one of the most business-minded. Unlike many other inventors of his time, notably Nikola Tesla who died penniless and in debt, Edison died a rich man. 

[00:20:39] Upon his death in 1931, he left a $31 million estate, estimated at approximately €500 million in today’s money. 

[00:20:50] Now, in the era of oligarchs and billionaires, €500 million might not sound like that much, but it would have made him one of the richest men in the country.

[00:21:03] Setting up his Menlo Park Laboratory or so called “invention factory” was certainly an inspirational and highly innovative venture that helped Edison to rise ahead of his rivals

[00:21:17] Throughout his life, we can see how his ambition grew from his small beginnings selling newspapers and confectionery on trains to forming huge companies that are still around today, such as General Electric. 

[00:21:32] Ultimately, Edison’s genius was to take all of these new, upcoming technologies, to build on and improve them to make better, more user-friendly and affordable products.

[00:21:44] It is without question that his inventions shaped the world we live in, perhaps more so than any other inventor of his era. 

[00:21:54] I’ll leave you to decide whether this makes him the greatest inventor in the world.

[00:22:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Thomas Edison.

[00:22:07] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned some interesting details on one of the most prolific inventors ever to have lived.

[00:22:15] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:22:19] Do you think Thomas Edison was the greatest inventor in the world? 

[00:22:22] Which do you think was most important, his hard work ethic or ingenuity?

[00:22:28] How instrumental do you think Edison’s early years were to his success ? 

[00:22:33] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:22:37] The place you can go for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:22:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:49] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Thomas Edison, the famous inventor. This is actually going to be part one of a three-part series about the electrification of the United States in the late 19th century. 

[00:00:39] Today it’s Edison, next up we’ll talk about the War of the Currents, a battle in which Edison played a vital role, and finally we’ll have an episode on Nikola Tesla, the visionary genius best known for inventing the AC motor.

[00:00:58] OK then, let’s get this electric mini-series cracking and learn about the man who started it all, Thomas Edison.

[00:01:08] If you ask 100 people in America who is the world’s most famous inventor, there will be one name you are guaranteed to hear: Thomas Edison.

[00:01:20] With a record number of 1,093 registered patents, Edison was certainly one of the most prolific inventors of all time. 

[00:01:31] But the question we will try to answer in this episode, or at least give you the information so that you can answer it yourself, is whether he was the greatest inventor in the world.

[00:01:45] Thomas Alva Edison was born in 1847 in Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children.

[00:01:54] In 1854, the family moved to Michigan for a better life, where Edison’s father found work in the timber industry, transforming trees into usable wood. 

[00:02:08] As a young boy Thomas Edison did not do very well at school, and he was considered slow and even stupid by his teachers. 

[00:02:18] Indeed, he only went to school for a few months before his mother, a retired school teacher, decided to teach him at home instead, believing she would be able to help the young boy better than the teachers could.

[00:02:34] While Edison’s intelligence is unquestionable, it appears that he wasn’t suited to methods used in formal education at the time. 

[00:02:45] From an early age, Edison displayed an intense interest in all things mechanical, as well as an early eye on how to make money. 

[00:02:56] These will be two traits, two characteristics, that will serve him well later on in life.

[00:03:03] In fact, they served him well from childhood.

[00:03:08] When he was just 12 he got his first job selling confectionery and newspapers on board a train. With this money, Edison would buy equipment for his electrical and chemical experiments.

[00:03:23] He even set up a small laboratory and printing press in the train’s luggage wagon. The newspaper he printed and sold was the first ever newspaper to be printed on a train.

[00:03:37] Clearly, the young Edison had plenty of potential and this was despite losing most of his sense of hearing by his 12th birthday, most probably after having got scarlet fever

[00:03:51] Later on in life, he would refer to his hearing loss as being more of an asset than a disability, allowing him to concentrate more completely on his work with fewer distractions

[00:04:05] In 1862, when he was 15, an important event would help to change the course of Edison’s life forever. 

[00:04:14] He picked up and saved a three-year old child from the railway tracks where he was about to be run over by a freight train.

[00:04:24] The child’s grateful father, who worked at the station, offered to teach Edison railway telegraphy as a reward

[00:04:34] The railway telegraph system allowed train operations to be controlled by sending electric telegraph signals through wires.

[00:04:44] The electrical telegraph was what’s called a point-to-point messaging system. 

[00:04:51] Telegraph operators would spell out text messages in Morse code - a series of dots and dashes that were assigned to each letter of the alphabet. 

[00:05:03] Learning telegraphy was an important springboard for Edison. He went on to take numerous telegraphy jobs working from city to city, including working in the Western Union office in Boston, where he would listen out for messages on the Associated Press news wire.

[00:05:23] However, Edison did not really focus much on his telegraph work, preferring to spend his time reading and conducting experiments. 

[00:05:33] He was actually sacked from Western Union after he spilled sulfuric acid from a lead-acid battery that he was working on while he was on duty, while he was meant to be working. The acid dripped through the floorboards and onto his boss's desk in the room below. 

[00:05:52] After leaving Western Union, Edison decided to devote himself entirely to his experiments and studies. In 1869, he obtained his very first patent and learned an invaluable lesson.

[00:06:08] Edison’s first patent was for his invention of the electric vote recorder. This recorder allowed politicians to cast their votes on laws via an electrical device. This device would automatically keep count of how many votes had been made for and against a motion, saving many hours spent voting and counting. 

[00:06:33] It might sound like a good idea, but when he tried to get politicians to use it, they didn’t even want to try, and the invention was a complete flop, it went nowhere.

[00:06:46] Edison swore to himself that from now on, he would not waste anymore time inventing things that people simply didn't want, and instead, he would focus on things that he knew people needed. 

[00:07:02] But in order to move on with his inventions, Edison needed cash, he needed money. He moved to New York and was put up by a fellow telegrapher and inventor friend, Franklin Pope.

[00:07:17] When Edison fixed a broken machine for Pope, he was given a job managing and improving the printer machines at the Gold Indicator Company. 

[00:07:27] During this period, Edison formed numerous partnerships and was involved in multiple projects all relating to the telegraph. Most notably, he set up an electrical engineering and invention company, Pope, Edison & Co and formed the American Telegraph Works, looking to develop an automatic telegraph system.

[00:07:51] Then, in 1874, when he was 27, Edison got his first big break, his first big financial success. He had invented the quadruplex telegraph. This type of telegraph allowed two signals to be sent in each direction, so four messages to be sent at the same time.

[00:08:15] Now, for you and me it might be hard to imagine a world in which communication was this difficult, and where being able to send dots along an electrical wire was such a groundbreaking achievement. 

[00:08:30] You probably have a smartphone, you can send messages to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And not just text messages - you can send long text, pictures, video, audio. We can do anything, and indeed there are an estimated 100 billion messages sent on WhatsApp every single day.

[00:08:55] But when Edison was growing up, sending just one series of beeps was complicated and expensive.

[00:09:03] And that was Edison’s opportunity, that was where there was money to be made.

[00:09:09] This first invention, the quadruplex telegraph, was important because it allowed telegraph companies to increase their efficiency and productivity. 

[00:09:21] Edison sold the rights to his invention to Western Union and pocketed $10,000, today’s equivalent of around $200,000. 

[00:09:33] Another invention, what he called the electric pen, followed hot on the quadruplex’s heels in 1875.

[00:09:42] Now, you might be wondering what an “electric pen” was, and why we don’t all use them today.

[00:09:49] The electric pen was actually a basic, early, but not very effective version of the photocopier.

[00:09:58] It did seem like magic, though, and was just the start of Edison’s prolific career as an inventor.

[00:10:05] Indeed, Edison was the first person to take the idea of being an inventor to a completely new level. He wanted to industrialise the process of invention, and in 1876 he set up an “invention factory” - his innovative research and development facility, called the Menlo Park Laboratory. 

[00:10:30] There, Edison employed a large team of people who carried out research under his direction.

[00:10:39] The idea was to churn out, to produce, a constant supply of new inventions in all manner of fields, with Edison very much at the helm

[00:10:51] Reportedly his vision was for the laboratory to make one minor breakthrough every 10 days and a major breakthrough once a month.

[00:11:02] Edison was legally credited with most of the lab’s inventions, it was his name on the patents, even though it was certainly a team effort, it was literally an invention factory, but only one man took the credit

[00:11:18] This approach to invention was extremely novel for the era. 

[00:11:23] If you compare Edison’s approach to that of solitary geniuses, such as Nikola Tesla, who mainly worked alone, you can see why Edison’s more business-like approach to invention was more productive and ultimately financially successful.

[00:11:42] We’re doing to be going deep into the life of Nikola Tesla in a couple of episodes’ time, in episode 259, so keep your eyes peeled for that one.

[00:11:52] What Edison managed to do was turn invention into a career, turn the career of inventor into a glamorous and desirable one, and in so doing, turned himself into the country’s first celebrity inventor.

[00:12:10] Critics, mainly afterwards but even to a certain extent at the time, remarked that Edison was taking a lot of credit for inventing things that he didn’t actually invent, that he didn’t actually have all that much to do with.

[00:12:26] In many cases, Edison and his many companies were essentially refining and perfecting already discovered inventions, taking new technologies and improving upon them to come up with working items that were both affordable and desirable.

[00:12:44] This doesn’t mean that Edison did not come up with his very own inventions too. 

[00:12:49] Also, he had his failures. But it’s safe to say that for the most part Edison and his employees at Menlo Park worked to improve rather than completely invent from scratch.

[00:13:03] Rather than making an exhaustive chronological overview of Edsion’s many, many inventions, I’m going to focus upon some of the most important ones, as well as a couple of failures, just for good measure

[00:13:17] After all, being successful is as much about how you deal with your setbacks as well as your achievements. 

[00:13:25] Aside from improvement to the telegraph system, Edison made headway in improving the telephone, as well as inventing something called the phonograph - a type of early recording and playback device. 

[00:13:40] Edison’s phonograph, which he released in 1877 when he was only 30 years old, made the young man a celebrity overnight

[00:13:50] While the phonograph itself had limitations, the fact that Edison was able to record and playback his own voice with it was almost bordering on magic for most people.

[00:14:04] The phonograph earned Edison the nickname, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, and the Washington Post labelled him a “genius”.

[00:14:14] But his most important invention was still to come.

[00:14:18] When you think of Thomas Edison, perhaps you think of the man who invented the light bulb. Now strictly speaking, he didn’t actually invent the light bulb, rather he improved upon previous versions to create a better model that was also commercially and economically viable.

[00:14:37] Unlike previous light bulbs, Edison's light bulb was the first one that was long-lasting enough to make it a practical choice for widespread use. 

[00:15:02] But he wasn’t content with just inventing the light bulb. He wanted to create and control the electrical system that would power these lights. However, while Edison’s light bulb was a resounding success, his electrical distribution system came up against stiff competition.

[00:15:11] This battle to dominate the electricity distribution market would become known as the “War of the Currents”, a topic we’ll cover in detail in the next episode. 

[00:15:22] This “war” pitted Edison, with his firm belief in something called DC supply, against George Westinghouse, amongst others, who advocated for the use of AC current.

[00:15:37] In short, Edison’s DC supply system had several disadvantages compared to AC. 

[00:15:45] Mainly, AC could travel further, so it was more suitable for supplying the vast majority of customers and it didn’t require power plants on every street corner.

[00:15:57] Edison’s DC system was really only practical in very densely populated areas, and he eventually lost the battle for his DC system to be the standard electrical system in America. 

[00:16:12] Now, as I said, we’ll cover this in great detail in the next episode, but this “War of the Currents” was a pivotal period where Edison’s true character really comes to light

[00:16:25] He was a fierce competitor, not afraid to play dirty and smear his rivals, and this unwillingness to give in or admit defeat would eventually result in his losing control of his company.

[00:16:41] In other areas, when Edison got it wrong, he wasn’t afraid to make a quick U-turn

[00:16:49] For example, his short-lived foray into the toy market, when he created talking dolls.

[00:16:56] Edison created smaller versions of his phonograph and placed them inside dolls. However, the end results didn’t go to plan. 

[00:17:06] The dolls’ mechanisms were too fragile, they broke easily, and Edison had to take them off the market after a few short weeks.

[00:17:17] Now, it’s hard to be the most prolific inventor in the world if you spend too much time sitting around chatting to your friends, and for all of the potential criticisms one could make of Thomas Edison, you can’t say that he didn’t have a pretty formidable work ethic

[00:17:35] He would work long hours at his laboratory and often stay up into the night, working away. 

[00:17:41] One of his most famous quotes refers to his invention of the electric light bulb, which reportedly took him 10,000 attempts.

[00:17:51] He said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

[00:18:08] This gives us some insight into Edison’s mind and what made him so successful. 

[00:18:15] Unlike some geniuses with flashes of inspiration, such as Nikola Tesla, Edison was not afraid to plod away meticulously at his projects.

[00:18:27] This work ethic might have provided the country, and indeed the world, with some important inventions, but it certainly didn’t lead to a happy family life.

[00:18:38] He had a wife and a family, but his long days and nights at his laboratory, indeed often sleeping at the laboratory, meant that he rarely saw his family, and his first wife died of unknown causes, thought to be linked to stress and loneliness, before her 30th birthday. 

[00:18:59] Following his first wife’s death, Edison continued to miss both lunch and dinner at home with his second wife and family, and continued to work long hours even right into his final days. 

[00:19:13] In short, he was a complete workaholic

[00:19:17] He even invented his own technique of power napping, a technique that he used to spend less time sleeping and more working. 

[00:19:27] Edison would hold a heavy object in his hands and try to fall asleep while he was holding it. As he nodded off, as he started to fall asleep, the object would crash to the floor waking him up.

[00:19:42] Edison believed that the simple act of falling asleep very briefly would revive him, allowing him to jump back into action, inspired and ready to start working again.

[00:19:56] Aside from doggedly working away at his inventions and seeking inspiration in strange ways, Edison also used all means available to ensure that his business ventures succeeded, including mergers, and taking a lot of legal action and when necessary discrediting his rivals.

[00:20:16] So, was Thomas Edison the greatest inventor in the world?

[00:20:22] He was certainly one of the most prolific

[00:20:24] What’s more, he was also one of the most business-minded. Unlike many other inventors of his time, notably Nikola Tesla who died penniless and in debt, Edison died a rich man. 

[00:20:39] Upon his death in 1931, he left a $31 million estate, estimated at approximately €500 million in today’s money. 

[00:20:50] Now, in the era of oligarchs and billionaires, €500 million might not sound like that much, but it would have made him one of the richest men in the country.

[00:21:03] Setting up his Menlo Park Laboratory or so called “invention factory” was certainly an inspirational and highly innovative venture that helped Edison to rise ahead of his rivals

[00:21:17] Throughout his life, we can see how his ambition grew from his small beginnings selling newspapers and confectionery on trains to forming huge companies that are still around today, such as General Electric. 

[00:21:32] Ultimately, Edison’s genius was to take all of these new, upcoming technologies, to build on and improve them to make better, more user-friendly and affordable products.

[00:21:44] It is without question that his inventions shaped the world we live in, perhaps more so than any other inventor of his era. 

[00:21:54] I’ll leave you to decide whether this makes him the greatest inventor in the world.

[00:22:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Thomas Edison.

[00:22:07] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned some interesting details on one of the most prolific inventors ever to have lived.

[00:22:15] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:22:19] Do you think Thomas Edison was the greatest inventor in the world? 

[00:22:22] Which do you think was most important, his hard work ethic or ingenuity?

[00:22:28] How instrumental do you think Edison’s early years were to his success ? 

[00:22:33] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:22:37] The place you can go for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:22:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:49] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Thomas Edison, the famous inventor. This is actually going to be part one of a three-part series about the electrification of the United States in the late 19th century. 

[00:00:39] Today it’s Edison, next up we’ll talk about the War of the Currents, a battle in which Edison played a vital role, and finally we’ll have an episode on Nikola Tesla, the visionary genius best known for inventing the AC motor.

[00:00:58] OK then, let’s get this electric mini-series cracking and learn about the man who started it all, Thomas Edison.

[00:01:08] If you ask 100 people in America who is the world’s most famous inventor, there will be one name you are guaranteed to hear: Thomas Edison.

[00:01:20] With a record number of 1,093 registered patents, Edison was certainly one of the most prolific inventors of all time. 

[00:01:31] But the question we will try to answer in this episode, or at least give you the information so that you can answer it yourself, is whether he was the greatest inventor in the world.

[00:01:45] Thomas Alva Edison was born in 1847 in Ohio. He was the youngest of seven children.

[00:01:54] In 1854, the family moved to Michigan for a better life, where Edison’s father found work in the timber industry, transforming trees into usable wood. 

[00:02:08] As a young boy Thomas Edison did not do very well at school, and he was considered slow and even stupid by his teachers. 

[00:02:18] Indeed, he only went to school for a few months before his mother, a retired school teacher, decided to teach him at home instead, believing she would be able to help the young boy better than the teachers could.

[00:02:34] While Edison’s intelligence is unquestionable, it appears that he wasn’t suited to methods used in formal education at the time. 

[00:02:45] From an early age, Edison displayed an intense interest in all things mechanical, as well as an early eye on how to make money. 

[00:02:56] These will be two traits, two characteristics, that will serve him well later on in life.

[00:03:03] In fact, they served him well from childhood.

[00:03:08] When he was just 12 he got his first job selling confectionery and newspapers on board a train. With this money, Edison would buy equipment for his electrical and chemical experiments.

[00:03:23] He even set up a small laboratory and printing press in the train’s luggage wagon. The newspaper he printed and sold was the first ever newspaper to be printed on a train.

[00:03:37] Clearly, the young Edison had plenty of potential and this was despite losing most of his sense of hearing by his 12th birthday, most probably after having got scarlet fever

[00:03:51] Later on in life, he would refer to his hearing loss as being more of an asset than a disability, allowing him to concentrate more completely on his work with fewer distractions

[00:04:05] In 1862, when he was 15, an important event would help to change the course of Edison’s life forever. 

[00:04:14] He picked up and saved a three-year old child from the railway tracks where he was about to be run over by a freight train.

[00:04:24] The child’s grateful father, who worked at the station, offered to teach Edison railway telegraphy as a reward

[00:04:34] The railway telegraph system allowed train operations to be controlled by sending electric telegraph signals through wires.

[00:04:44] The electrical telegraph was what’s called a point-to-point messaging system. 

[00:04:51] Telegraph operators would spell out text messages in Morse code - a series of dots and dashes that were assigned to each letter of the alphabet. 

[00:05:03] Learning telegraphy was an important springboard for Edison. He went on to take numerous telegraphy jobs working from city to city, including working in the Western Union office in Boston, where he would listen out for messages on the Associated Press news wire.

[00:05:23] However, Edison did not really focus much on his telegraph work, preferring to spend his time reading and conducting experiments. 

[00:05:33] He was actually sacked from Western Union after he spilled sulfuric acid from a lead-acid battery that he was working on while he was on duty, while he was meant to be working. The acid dripped through the floorboards and onto his boss's desk in the room below. 

[00:05:52] After leaving Western Union, Edison decided to devote himself entirely to his experiments and studies. In 1869, he obtained his very first patent and learned an invaluable lesson.

[00:06:08] Edison’s first patent was for his invention of the electric vote recorder. This recorder allowed politicians to cast their votes on laws via an electrical device. This device would automatically keep count of how many votes had been made for and against a motion, saving many hours spent voting and counting. 

[00:06:33] It might sound like a good idea, but when he tried to get politicians to use it, they didn’t even want to try, and the invention was a complete flop, it went nowhere.

[00:06:46] Edison swore to himself that from now on, he would not waste anymore time inventing things that people simply didn't want, and instead, he would focus on things that he knew people needed. 

[00:07:02] But in order to move on with his inventions, Edison needed cash, he needed money. He moved to New York and was put up by a fellow telegrapher and inventor friend, Franklin Pope.

[00:07:17] When Edison fixed a broken machine for Pope, he was given a job managing and improving the printer machines at the Gold Indicator Company. 

[00:07:27] During this period, Edison formed numerous partnerships and was involved in multiple projects all relating to the telegraph. Most notably, he set up an electrical engineering and invention company, Pope, Edison & Co and formed the American Telegraph Works, looking to develop an automatic telegraph system.

[00:07:51] Then, in 1874, when he was 27, Edison got his first big break, his first big financial success. He had invented the quadruplex telegraph. This type of telegraph allowed two signals to be sent in each direction, so four messages to be sent at the same time.

[00:08:15] Now, for you and me it might be hard to imagine a world in which communication was this difficult, and where being able to send dots along an electrical wire was such a groundbreaking achievement. 

[00:08:30] You probably have a smartphone, you can send messages to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And not just text messages - you can send long text, pictures, video, audio. We can do anything, and indeed there are an estimated 100 billion messages sent on WhatsApp every single day.

[00:08:55] But when Edison was growing up, sending just one series of beeps was complicated and expensive.

[00:09:03] And that was Edison’s opportunity, that was where there was money to be made.

[00:09:09] This first invention, the quadruplex telegraph, was important because it allowed telegraph companies to increase their efficiency and productivity. 

[00:09:21] Edison sold the rights to his invention to Western Union and pocketed $10,000, today’s equivalent of around $200,000. 

[00:09:33] Another invention, what he called the electric pen, followed hot on the quadruplex’s heels in 1875.

[00:09:42] Now, you might be wondering what an “electric pen” was, and why we don’t all use them today.

[00:09:49] The electric pen was actually a basic, early, but not very effective version of the photocopier.

[00:09:58] It did seem like magic, though, and was just the start of Edison’s prolific career as an inventor.

[00:10:05] Indeed, Edison was the first person to take the idea of being an inventor to a completely new level. He wanted to industrialise the process of invention, and in 1876 he set up an “invention factory” - his innovative research and development facility, called the Menlo Park Laboratory. 

[00:10:30] There, Edison employed a large team of people who carried out research under his direction.

[00:10:39] The idea was to churn out, to produce, a constant supply of new inventions in all manner of fields, with Edison very much at the helm

[00:10:51] Reportedly his vision was for the laboratory to make one minor breakthrough every 10 days and a major breakthrough once a month.

[00:11:02] Edison was legally credited with most of the lab’s inventions, it was his name on the patents, even though it was certainly a team effort, it was literally an invention factory, but only one man took the credit

[00:11:18] This approach to invention was extremely novel for the era. 

[00:11:23] If you compare Edison’s approach to that of solitary geniuses, such as Nikola Tesla, who mainly worked alone, you can see why Edison’s more business-like approach to invention was more productive and ultimately financially successful.

[00:11:42] We’re doing to be going deep into the life of Nikola Tesla in a couple of episodes’ time, in episode 259, so keep your eyes peeled for that one.

[00:11:52] What Edison managed to do was turn invention into a career, turn the career of inventor into a glamorous and desirable one, and in so doing, turned himself into the country’s first celebrity inventor.

[00:12:10] Critics, mainly afterwards but even to a certain extent at the time, remarked that Edison was taking a lot of credit for inventing things that he didn’t actually invent, that he didn’t actually have all that much to do with.

[00:12:26] In many cases, Edison and his many companies were essentially refining and perfecting already discovered inventions, taking new technologies and improving upon them to come up with working items that were both affordable and desirable.

[00:12:44] This doesn’t mean that Edison did not come up with his very own inventions too. 

[00:12:49] Also, he had his failures. But it’s safe to say that for the most part Edison and his employees at Menlo Park worked to improve rather than completely invent from scratch.

[00:13:03] Rather than making an exhaustive chronological overview of Edsion’s many, many inventions, I’m going to focus upon some of the most important ones, as well as a couple of failures, just for good measure

[00:13:17] After all, being successful is as much about how you deal with your setbacks as well as your achievements. 

[00:13:25] Aside from improvement to the telegraph system, Edison made headway in improving the telephone, as well as inventing something called the phonograph - a type of early recording and playback device. 

[00:13:40] Edison’s phonograph, which he released in 1877 when he was only 30 years old, made the young man a celebrity overnight

[00:13:50] While the phonograph itself had limitations, the fact that Edison was able to record and playback his own voice with it was almost bordering on magic for most people.

[00:14:04] The phonograph earned Edison the nickname, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, and the Washington Post labelled him a “genius”.

[00:14:14] But his most important invention was still to come.

[00:14:18] When you think of Thomas Edison, perhaps you think of the man who invented the light bulb. Now strictly speaking, he didn’t actually invent the light bulb, rather he improved upon previous versions to create a better model that was also commercially and economically viable.

[00:14:37] Unlike previous light bulbs, Edison's light bulb was the first one that was long-lasting enough to make it a practical choice for widespread use. 

[00:15:02] But he wasn’t content with just inventing the light bulb. He wanted to create and control the electrical system that would power these lights. However, while Edison’s light bulb was a resounding success, his electrical distribution system came up against stiff competition.

[00:15:11] This battle to dominate the electricity distribution market would become known as the “War of the Currents”, a topic we’ll cover in detail in the next episode. 

[00:15:22] This “war” pitted Edison, with his firm belief in something called DC supply, against George Westinghouse, amongst others, who advocated for the use of AC current.

[00:15:37] In short, Edison’s DC supply system had several disadvantages compared to AC. 

[00:15:45] Mainly, AC could travel further, so it was more suitable for supplying the vast majority of customers and it didn’t require power plants on every street corner.

[00:15:57] Edison’s DC system was really only practical in very densely populated areas, and he eventually lost the battle for his DC system to be the standard electrical system in America. 

[00:16:12] Now, as I said, we’ll cover this in great detail in the next episode, but this “War of the Currents” was a pivotal period where Edison’s true character really comes to light

[00:16:25] He was a fierce competitor, not afraid to play dirty and smear his rivals, and this unwillingness to give in or admit defeat would eventually result in his losing control of his company.

[00:16:41] In other areas, when Edison got it wrong, he wasn’t afraid to make a quick U-turn

[00:16:49] For example, his short-lived foray into the toy market, when he created talking dolls.

[00:16:56] Edison created smaller versions of his phonograph and placed them inside dolls. However, the end results didn’t go to plan. 

[00:17:06] The dolls’ mechanisms were too fragile, they broke easily, and Edison had to take them off the market after a few short weeks.

[00:17:17] Now, it’s hard to be the most prolific inventor in the world if you spend too much time sitting around chatting to your friends, and for all of the potential criticisms one could make of Thomas Edison, you can’t say that he didn’t have a pretty formidable work ethic

[00:17:35] He would work long hours at his laboratory and often stay up into the night, working away. 

[00:17:41] One of his most famous quotes refers to his invention of the electric light bulb, which reportedly took him 10,000 attempts.

[00:17:51] He said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

[00:18:08] This gives us some insight into Edison’s mind and what made him so successful. 

[00:18:15] Unlike some geniuses with flashes of inspiration, such as Nikola Tesla, Edison was not afraid to plod away meticulously at his projects.

[00:18:27] This work ethic might have provided the country, and indeed the world, with some important inventions, but it certainly didn’t lead to a happy family life.

[00:18:38] He had a wife and a family, but his long days and nights at his laboratory, indeed often sleeping at the laboratory, meant that he rarely saw his family, and his first wife died of unknown causes, thought to be linked to stress and loneliness, before her 30th birthday. 

[00:18:59] Following his first wife’s death, Edison continued to miss both lunch and dinner at home with his second wife and family, and continued to work long hours even right into his final days. 

[00:19:13] In short, he was a complete workaholic

[00:19:17] He even invented his own technique of power napping, a technique that he used to spend less time sleeping and more working. 

[00:19:27] Edison would hold a heavy object in his hands and try to fall asleep while he was holding it. As he nodded off, as he started to fall asleep, the object would crash to the floor waking him up.

[00:19:42] Edison believed that the simple act of falling asleep very briefly would revive him, allowing him to jump back into action, inspired and ready to start working again.

[00:19:56] Aside from doggedly working away at his inventions and seeking inspiration in strange ways, Edison also used all means available to ensure that his business ventures succeeded, including mergers, and taking a lot of legal action and when necessary discrediting his rivals.

[00:20:16] So, was Thomas Edison the greatest inventor in the world?

[00:20:22] He was certainly one of the most prolific

[00:20:24] What’s more, he was also one of the most business-minded. Unlike many other inventors of his time, notably Nikola Tesla who died penniless and in debt, Edison died a rich man. 

[00:20:39] Upon his death in 1931, he left a $31 million estate, estimated at approximately €500 million in today’s money. 

[00:20:50] Now, in the era of oligarchs and billionaires, €500 million might not sound like that much, but it would have made him one of the richest men in the country.

[00:21:03] Setting up his Menlo Park Laboratory or so called “invention factory” was certainly an inspirational and highly innovative venture that helped Edison to rise ahead of his rivals

[00:21:17] Throughout his life, we can see how his ambition grew from his small beginnings selling newspapers and confectionery on trains to forming huge companies that are still around today, such as General Electric. 

[00:21:32] Ultimately, Edison’s genius was to take all of these new, upcoming technologies, to build on and improve them to make better, more user-friendly and affordable products.

[00:21:44] It is without question that his inventions shaped the world we live in, perhaps more so than any other inventor of his era. 

[00:21:54] I’ll leave you to decide whether this makes him the greatest inventor in the world.

[00:22:01] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Thomas Edison.

[00:22:07] I hope it’s been an interesting one, and you’ve learned some interesting details on one of the most prolific inventors ever to have lived.

[00:22:15] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:22:19] Do you think Thomas Edison was the greatest inventor in the world? 

[00:22:22] Which do you think was most important, his hard work ethic or ingenuity?

[00:22:28] How instrumental do you think Edison’s early years were to his success ? 

[00:22:33] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:22:37] The place you can go for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com.

[00:22:43] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:49] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]