The Spark of Genius
Thomas Edison created the first light bulb 125 years ago. But he was not only America's greatest inventor. He was also a master entrepreneur
Edison fixed the machine.
He was now the golden boy in the dizzily evolving telegraph world. When he went before the directors of a Western Union subsidiary to present a device that aligned stock tickers in outside offices with the central station, they offered an astounding $30,000. His confidence, already sublime, came to border on the reckless.
He boldly contracted to deliver private telegraph machines and electrical equipment as well as 1,200 sped-up stock tickers for Western Union, manufacturing them with a machinist in Newark. By working 16 hours at a stretch, living on coffee, apple pie, and cigars, he delivered all the machines, though his bookkeeping mixed up the accounts of rival companies. Then he bought out his machinist partner. He was now his own man. He acted as foreman of 50 or more pieceworkers in the Newark factory, but this was a secondary preoccupation. He set up a laboratory equipped with the latest scientific equipment. One of his associates described seeing him go through a 5-foot-high pile of journals from Europe, eating and sleeping in his chair over six weeks, and conducting hundreds of experiments.
Most important, in the early 1870s, he recruited three men who would be crucial: Charles Batchelor, an English textile machinist; John Kruesi, a Swiss clockmaker; and Edward Johnson, a voluble railroad and telegraph engineer. Batchelor would render a rough Edison sketch into a precise drawing, Kruesi would make a model that could be entered into an application for a patent, and Johnson would organize patent applications, contracts, and payroll. Edison had an instinct for the kind of people he needed to stimulate and service his fertile imagination, and the right people were drawn like moths to his creative flame. His journal of February 1872 had more than 100 sketches; with the help of Batchelor and Krusei, he won 34 patents in that single year.
In 1875 Edison gave his 71-year-old father an assignment. Sam had an eye for property, and it was he who found the pasture in New Jersey and oversaw the building of the curiously shaped house where Edison set up his laboratory in March 1876. Thomas Hughes describes Menlo Park as a cross between Camelot and a monastic cloister. Every downstairs room in the lab had a needling quotation from the English painter Joshua Reynolds: "There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking." Every clock had its spring removed to show that the place would not be a slave to time as measured by a machine; the length of the days would be fixed by Edison, who would often work for 24 hours, with tiny naps stretched out on floor or bench, and then sleep for 18.
His happy band of brothers knew something big was brewing at the end of August 1878 when a well-tanned Edison bounced into the lab wearing a big black sombrero. His exuberance was so different from July when, sick and exhausted, he had gone off by himself to the Rockies for a vacation, watching the total eclipse of the sun with a group of scientists. One of the scientists, George Barker of the University of Pennsylvania, had enthused about a system of lights the inventor Moses Farmer had installed at an Ansonia, Conn., foundry. They were arc lights, so called because the light was an arch of elongated sparks reaching between two carbon electrodes. Bright as searchlights, they had been familiar since the '60s in British and American lighthouses and a few places of public assembly but were too blinding (and hazardous) for domestic use.