Edison was granted a patent for the motion picture camera or "Kinetograph". He did the electromechanical design while his employee William Kennedy Dickson, a photographer, worked on the photographic and optical development. Much of the credit for the invention belongs to Dickson. In 1891, Thomas Edison built a Kinetoscope or peep-hole viewer. This device was installed in penny arcades, where people could watch short, simple films. The kinetograph and kinetoscope were both first publicly exhibited May 20, 1891.
In April 1896, Thomas Armat's Vitascope, manufactured by the Edison factory and marketed in Edison's name, was used to project motion pictures in public screenings in New York City. Later, he exhibited motion pictures with voice soundtrack on cylinder recordings, mechanically synchronized with the film.
Officially the kinetoscope entered Europe when wealthy American Businessman Irving T. Bush (1869–1948) bought from the Continental Commerce Company of Frank Z. Maguire and Joseph D. Baucus a dozen machines. Bush placed from October 17, 1894, the first kinetoscopes in London. At the same time, the French company Kinétoscope Edison Michel et Alexis Werner bought these machines for the market in France. In the last three months of 1894, the Continental Commerce Company sold hundreds of kinetoscopes in Europe (i.e. the Netherlands and Italy). In Germany and in Austria-Hungary, the kinetoscope was introduced by the Deutsche-österreichische-Edison-Kinetoscop Gesellschaft, founded by the Ludwig Stollwerck of the Schokoladen-Süsswarenfabrik Stollwerck & Co of Cologne.
The first kinetoscopes arrived in Belgium at the Fairs in early 1895. The Edison's Kinétoscope Français, a Belgian company, was founded in Brussels on January 15, 1895, with the rights to sell the kinetoscopes in Monaco, France and the French colonies. The main investors in this company were Belgian industrialists.
On May 14, 1895, the Edison's Kinétoscope Belge was founded in Brussels. Businessman Ladislas-Victor Lewitzki, living in London but active in Belgium and France, took the initiative in starting this business. He had contacts with Leon Gaumont and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. In 1898, he also became a shareholder of the Biograph and Mutoscope Company for France.
Edison's film studio made nearly 1,200 films. The majority of the productions were short films showing everything from acrobats to parades to fire calls including titles such as Fred Ott's Sneeze (1894), The Kiss (1896), The Great Train Robbery (1903), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1910), and the first Frankenstein film in 1910. In 1903, when the owners of Luna Park, Coney Island announced they would execute Topsy the elephant by strangulation, poisoning, and electrocution (with the electrocution part ultimately killing the elephant), Edison Manufacturing sent a crew to film it, releasing it that same year with the title Electrocuting an Elephant.
As the film business expanded, competing exhibitors routinely copied and exhibited each other's films. To better protect the copyrights on his films, Edison deposited prints of them on long strips of photographic paper with the U.S. copyright office. Many of these paper prints survived longer and in better condition than the actual films of that era.
In 1908, Edison started the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was a conglomerate of nine major film studios (commonly known as the Edison Trust). Thomas Edison was the first honorary fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, which was founded in 1929.
Edison said his favorite movie was The Birth of a Nation. He thought that talkies had "spoiled everything" for him. "There isn't any good acting on the screen. They concentrate on the voice now and have forgotten how to act. I can sense it more than you because I am deaf." His favorite stars were Mary Pickford and Clara Bow.
Starting in the late 1870s, Edison became interested and involved with mining. High-grade iron ore was scarce on the east coast of the United States and Edison tried to mine low-grade ore. Edison developed a process using rollers and crushers that could pulverize rocks up to 10 tons. The dust was then sent between three giant magnets that would pull the iron ore from the dust. Despite the failure of his mining company, the Edison Ore Milling Company, Edison used some of the materials and equipment to produce cement.
In 1901, Edison visited an industrial exhibition in the Sudbury area in Ontario, Canada and thought nickel and cobalt deposits there could be used in his production of electrical equipment. He returned as a mining prospector and is credited with the original discovery of the Falconbridge ore body. His attempts to mine the ore body were not successful, and he abandoned his mining claim in 1903. A street in Falconbridge, as well as the Edison Building, which served as the head office of Falconbridge Mines, are named for him.
In the late 1890s, Edison worked on developing a lighter, more efficient rechargeable battery (at that time called an "accumulator"). He looked on them as something customers could use to power their phonographs but saw other uses for an improved battery, including electric automobiles. The then available lead acid rechargeable batteries were not very efficient and that market was already tied up by other companies so Edison pursued using alkaline instead of acid. He had his lab work on many types of materials (going through some 10,000 combinations), eventually settling on a nickel-iron combination. Besides his experimenting Edison also probably had access to the 1899 patents for a nickel–iron battery by the Swedish inventor Waldemar Jungner.
Edison obtained a US and European patent for his nickel–iron battery in 1901 and founded the Edison Storage Battery Company and by 1904 it had 450 people working there. The first rechargeable batteries they produced were for electric cars, but there were many defects with customers complaining about the product. When the capital of the company was spent, Edison paid for the company with his private money. Edison did not demonstrate a mature product until 1910: a very efficient and durable nickel-iron-battery with lye as the electrolyte. The nickel–iron battery was never very successful, by the time it was ready electric cars were disappearing and lead acid batteries had become the standard for turning over gas powered car starter motors.
At the start of World War I, the American chemical industry was primitive. Most chemicals were imported from Europe. The outbreak of war in August 1914 resulted in an immediate shortage of imported chemicals. One of particular importance to Edison was phenol, which was used to make phonograph records—presumably as phenolic resins of the Bakelite type.
At the time, phenol came from coal as a by-product of coke oven gases or manufactured gas for gas lighting. Phenol could be nitrated to picric acid and converted to ammonium picrate, a shock resistant high explosive suitable for use in artillery shells. A telling of the phenol story is found in The Aspirin Wars. Most phenol had been imported from Britain, but with war, Parliament blocked exports and diverted most to production of ammonium picrate. Britain also blockaded supplies from Germany.
Edison responded by undertaking production of phenol at his Silver Lake facility using processes developed by his chemists. He built two plants with a capacity of six tons of phenol per day. Production began the first week of September, one month after hostilities began in Europe. He built two plants to produce raw material benzene at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and Bessemer, Alabama, replacing supplies previously from Germany. Edison also manufactured aniline dyes, which previously had been supplied by the German dye trust. Other wartime products include xylene, p-phenylenediamine, shellac, and pyrax. Wartime shortages made these ventures profitable. In 1915, his production capacity was fully committed by midyear.
Phenol was a critical material because two derivatives were in high growth phases. Bakelite, the original thermoset plastic, had been invented in 1909. Aspirin, too was a phenol derivative. Invented in 1899 had become a block buster drug. Bayer had acquired a plant to manufacture in the US in Rensselaer, New York, but struggled to find phenol to keep their plant running during the war. Edison was able to oblige.
Bayer relied on Chemische Fabrik von Heyden, in Piscataway, New Jersey, to convert phenol to salicylic acid, which they converted to aspirin. (See Great Phenol plot.) It is said that German companies bought up supplies of phenol to block production of ammonium picrate. Edison preferred not to sell phenol for military uses. He sold his surplus to Bayer, who had it converted to salicylic acid by Heyden, some of which was exported.
Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, later lived a few hundred feet away from Edison at his winter retreat in Fort Myers. Ford once worked as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit and met Edison at a convention of affiliated Edison illuminating companies in Brooklyn, NY in 1896. Edison was impressed with Ford's internal combustion engine automobile and encouraged its developments. They were friends until Edison's death. Edison and Ford undertook annual motor camping trips from 1914 to 1924. Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs also participated.
In 1928, Edison joined the Fort Myers Civitan Club. He believed strongly in the organization, writing that "The Civitan Club is doing things—big things—for the community, state, and nation, and I certainly consider it an honor to be numbered in its ranks." He was an active member in the club until his death, sometimes bringing Henry Ford to the club's meetings.
Edison was active in business right up to the end. Just months before his death, the Lackawanna Railroad inaugurated suburban electric train service from Hoboken to Montclair, Dover, and Gladstone, New Jersey. Electrical transmission for this service was by means of an overhead catenary system using direct current, which Edison had championed. Despite his frail condition, Edison was at the throttle of the first electric MU (Multiple-Unit) train to depart Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken in September 1930, driving the train the first mile through Hoboken yard on its way to South Orange.
This fleet of cars would serve commuters in northern New Jersey for the next 54 years until their retirement in 1984. A plaque commemorating Edison's inaugural ride can be seen today in the waiting room of Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, which is presently operated by New Jersey Transit.
Edison was said to have been influenced by a popular fad diet in his last few years; "the only liquid he consumed was a pint of milk every three hours". He is reported to have believed this diet would restore his health. However, this tale is doubtful. In 1930, the year before Edison died, Mina said in an interview about him, "Correct eating is one of his greatest hobbies." She also said that during one of his periodic "great scientific adventures", Edison would be up at 7:00, have breakfast at 8:00, and be rarely home for lunch or dinner, implying that he continued to have all three.
Edison became the owner of his Milan, Ohio, birthplace in 1906. On his last visit, in 1923, he was reportedly shocked to find his old home still lit by lamps and candles.
Edison died of complications of diabetes on October 18, 1931, in his home, "Glenmont" in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey, which he had purchased in 1886 as a wedding gift for Mina. Rev. Stephen J. Herben officiated at the funeral; Edison is buried behind the home.
Edison's last breath is reportedly contained in a test tube at The Henry Ford museum near Detroit. Ford reportedly convinced Charles Edison to seal a test tube of air in the inventor's room shortly after his death, as a memento. A plaster death mask and casts of Edison's hands were also made. Mina died in 1947.
On December 25, 1871, at the age of 24, Edison married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell (1855–1884), whom he had met two months earlier; she was an employee at one of his shops. They had three children:
Mary Edison died at age 29 on August 9, 1884, of unknown causes: possibly from a brain tumor or a morphine overdose. Doctors frequently prescribed morphine to women in those years to treat a variety of causes, and researchers believe that her symptoms could have been from morphine poisoning.
Edison generally preferred spending time in the laboratory to being with his family.
On February 24, 1886, at the age of 39, Edison married the 20-year-old Mina Miller (1865–1947) in Akron, Ohio. She was the daughter of the inventor Lewis Miller, co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution, and a benefactor of Methodist charities. They also had three children together:
Mina outlived Thomas Edison, dying on August 24, 1947.
Wanting to be an inventor, but not having much of an aptitude for it, Thomas Edison's son, Thomas Alva Edison Jr., became a problem for his father and his father's business. Starting in the 1890s, Thomas Jr. became involved in snake oil products and shady and fraudulent enterprises producing products being sold to the public as "The Latest Edison Discovery". The situation became so bad that Thomas Sr. had to take his son to court to stop the practices, finally agreeing to pay Thomas Jr. an allowance of $35 (equivalent to $996 in 2019) per week, in exchange for not using the Edison name; the son began using aliases, such as Burton Willard. Thomas Jr., suffering from alcoholism, depression and ill health, worked at several menial jobs, but by 1931 (towards the end of his life) he would obtain a role in the Edison company, thanks to the intervention of his brother.
Historian Paul Israel has characterized Edison as a "freethinker". Edison was heavily influenced by Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Edison defended Paine's "scientific deism", saying, "He has been called an atheist, but atheist he was not. Paine believed in a supreme intelligence, as representing the idea which other men often express by the name of deity." In 1878, Edison joined the Theosophical Society in New Jersey, but according to its founder, H. P. Blavatsky, he was not a very active member. In an October 2, 1910, interview in the New York Times Magazine, Edison stated:
Edison was accused of being an atheist for those remarks, and although he did not allow himself to be drawn into the controversy publicly, he clarified himself in a private letter:
He also stated, "I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence I do not doubt."
Nonviolence was key to Edison's moral views, and when asked to serve as a naval consultant for World War I, he specified he would work only on defensive weapons and later noted, "I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill." Edison's philosophy of nonviolence extended to animals as well, about which he stated: "Nonviolence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages." He was a vegetarian but not a vegan in actual practice, at least near the end of his life.
In 1920, Edison set off a media sensation when he told B. C. Forbes of American Magazine that he was working on a "spirit phone" to allow communication with the dead, a story which other newspapers and magazines repeated. Edison later disclaimed the idea, telling the New York Times in 1926 that "I really had nothing to tell him, but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke."
Thomas Edison was an advocate for monetary reform in the United States. He was ardently opposed to the gold standard and debt-based money. Famously, he was quoted in the New York Times stating "Gold is a relic of Julius Caesar, and interest is an invention of Satan."
In the same article, he expounded upon the absurdity of a monetary system in which the taxpayer of the United States, in need of a loan, can be compelled to pay in return perhaps double the principal, or even greater sums, due to interest. His basic point was that, if the Government can produce debt-based money, it could equally as well produce money that was a credit to the taxpayer.
He thought at length about the subject of money in 1921 and 1922. In May 1922, he published a proposal, entitled "A Proposed Amendment to the Federal Reserve Banking System". In it, he detailed an explanation of a commodity-backed currency, in which the Federal Reserve would issue interest-free currency to farmers, based on the value of commodities they produced. During a publicity tour that he took with friend and fellow inventor, Henry Ford, he spoke publicly about his desire for monetary reform. For insight, he corresponded with prominent academic and banking professionals. In the end, however, Edison's proposals failed to find support and were eventually abandoned.
The President of the Third French Republic, Jules Grévy, on the recommendation of his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire, and with the presentations of the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, Louis Cochery, designated Edison with the distinction of an Officer of the Legion of Honour (Légion d'honneur) by decree on November 10, 1881; Edison was also named a Chevalier in the Legion in 1879, and a Commander in 1889.
In 1887, Edison won the Matteucci Medal. In 1890, he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The Philadelphia City Council named Edison the recipient of the John Scott Medal in 1889.
In 1899, Edison was awarded the Edward Longstreth Medal of The Franklin Institute.
He was named an Honorable Consulting Engineer at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's fair in 1904.
In 1908, Edison received the American Association of Engineering Societies John Fritz Medal.
In 1915, Edison was awarded Franklin Medal of The Franklin Institute for discoveries contributing to the foundation of industries and the well-being of the human race.
In 1920, the United States Navy department awarded him the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.
In 1923, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers created the Edison Medal and he was its first recipient.
In 1927, he was granted membership in the National Academy of Sciences.
On May 29, 1928, Edison received the Congressional Gold Medal.
In 1983, the United States Congress, pursuant to Senate Joint Resolution 140 (Public Law 97–198), designated February 11, Edison's birthday, as National Inventor's Day.
Life magazine (USA), in a special double issue in 1997, placed Edison first in the list of the "100 Most Important People in the Last 1000 Years", noting that the light bulb he promoted "lit up the world". In the 2005 television series The Greatest American, he was voted by viewers as the fifteenth greatest.
In 2008, Edison was inducted in the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
In 2010, Edison was honored with a Technical Grammy Award.
In 2011, Edison was inducted into the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame and named a Great Floridian by the governor and cabinet of Florida.
Several places have been named after Edison, most notably the town of Edison, New Jersey. Thomas Edison State University, nationally known for adult learners, is in Trenton, New Jersey. Two community colleges are named for him: Edison State College (now Florida SouthWestern State College) in Fort Myers, Florida, and Edison Community College in Piqua, Ohio. There are numerous high schools named after Edison (see Edison High School) and other schools including Thomas A. Edison Middle School. Footballer Pelé's father originally named him Edison, as a tribute to the inventor of the light bulb, but the name was incorrectly listed on his birth certificate as "Edson".
The small town of Alva just east of Fort Myers took Edison's middle name.
In 1883, the City Hotel in Sunbury, Pennsylvania was the first building to be lit with Edison's three-wire system. The hotel was renamed The Hotel Edison upon Edison's return to the city on 1922.
In 1954, Lake Thomas A Edison in California was named after Edison to mark the 75th anniversary of the incandescent light bulb.
Edison was on hand to turn on the lights at the Hotel Edison in New York City when it opened in 1931.
Three bridges around the United States have been named in Edison's honor: the Edison Bridge in New Jersey, the Edison Bridge in Florida, and the Edison Bridge in Ohio.
In space, his name is commemorated in asteroid 742 Edisona.
Mount Edison in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska was named after him in 1955.
In West Orange, New Jersey, the 13.5 acres (5.5 hectares) Glenmont estate is maintained and operated by the National Park Service as the Edison National Historic Site, as is his nearby laboratory and workshops including the reconstructed "Black Maria"—the world's first movie studio. The Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower and Museum is in the town of Edison, New Jersey. In Beaumont, Texas, there is an Edison Museum, though Edison never visited there. The Port Huron Museum, in Port Huron, Michigan, restored the original depot that Thomas Edison worked out of as a young news butcher. The depot has been named the Thomas Edison Depot Museum. The town has many Edison historical landmarks, including the graves of Edison's parents, and a monument along the St. Clair River. Edison's influence can be seen throughout this city of 32,000.
In Detroit, the Edison Memorial Fountain in Grand Circus Park was created to honor his achievements. The limestone fountain was dedicated October 21, 1929, the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the light bulb. On the same night, The Edison Institute was dedicated in nearby Dearborn.
He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1969.
A bronze statue of Edison was placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol in 2016, with the formal dedication ceremony held on September 20 of that year. The Edison statue replaced one of 19th-century state governor William Allen that had been one of Ohio's two allowed contributions to the collection.
The Edison Medal was created on February 11, 1904, by a group of Edison's friends and associates. Four years later the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), later IEEE, entered into an agreement with the group to present the medal as its highest award. The first medal was presented in 1909 to Elihu Thomson. It is the oldest award in the area of electrical and electronics engineering, and is presented annually "for a career of meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering or the electrical arts".
In the Netherlands, the major music awards are named the Edison Award after him. The award is an annual Dutch music prize, awarded for outstanding achievements in the music industry, and is one of the oldest music awards in the world, having been presented since 1960.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers concedes the Thomas A. Edison Patent Award to individual patents since 2000.
The United States Navy named the USS Edison (DD-439), a Gleaves class destroyer, in his honor in 1940. The ship was decommissioned a few months after the end of World War II. In 1962, the Navy commissioned USS Thomas A. Edison (SSBN-610), a fleet ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarine.
Thomas Edison has appeared in popular culture as a character in novels, films, comics and video games. His prolific inventing helped make him an icon and he has made appearances in popular culture during his lifetime down to the present day. Edison is also portrayed in popular culture as an adversary of Nikola Tesla.
On February 11, 2011, on what would have been Thomas Edison's 164th birthday, Google's homepage featured an animated Google Doodle commemorating his many inventions. When the cursor was hovered over the doodle, a series of mechanisms seemed to move, causing a light bulb to glow.
The following is a list of people who worked for Thomas Edison in his laboratories at Menlo Park or West Orange or at the subsidiary electrical businesses that he supervised.