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Thomas Edison had invented what he called a 'tasimeter,' an instrument that could measure heat at a distance so accurately, according to him, that it could measure differences in temperature to the nearest millionth of a degree Fahrenheit.
On July 29, 1878, when Thomas was 30 years old, a total eclipse of the sun was expected, and he wanted to measure the temperature of the sun's corona with his tasimeter. Or maybe he was looking more for a vacation, since he had been working as an inventor for ten years straight. During that ten years he transitioned from obscurity to one of the most famous people in the world.
He decided to go west with a group of learned men, university professors, astronomers, physicists, and such, who planned to study the eclipse with their various instruments in the best possible location, Rawlins, Wyoming. Rawlings was a small town with a small train station including a locomotive shop, and a single small hotel. Tom and his associates had to double up since there were not enough rooms. Well, let's let Mr. Edison tell the story from here:
"My room-mate was Fox, the correspondent of the New York Herald. After we retired and were asleep a thunderous knock on the door awakened us. Upon opening the door a tall, handsome man with flowing hair dressed in western style entered the room. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was somewhat inebriated. He introduced himself as 'Texas Jack' - Joe Chromondo - and said he wanted to see Edison, as he had read about me in the newspapers. Both Fox and I were rather scared, and didn't know what was to be the result of the interview. The landlord requested him not to make so much noise, and was thrown out into the hall. Jack explained that he had just come in with a party which had been hunting and that he felt fine. He explained, also, that he was the boss pistol-shot of the West; that it was he who taught the celebrated Doctor Carver how to shoot. Then suddenly pointing to a weather-vane on the freight depot, he pulled out a Colt revolver and fired through the window, hitting the vane. The shot awakened all the people and they rushed in to see who was killed. It was only after I told him I was tired and would see him in the morning that he left. Both Fox and I were so nervous we didn't sleep any that night.
"We were told in the morning that Jack was a pretty good fellow, and was not one of the 'bad men,' of whom they had a good supply. They had one in the jail, and Fox and I went over to see him. A few days before he had held up a Union Pacific train and robbed all the passengers. In the jail also was a half-breed horse-thief. We interviewed the bad man through bars as big as railroad rails. He looked like a 'bad man.' The rim of his ear all around came to a sharp edge and was serrated. His eyes were nearly white, and appeared as if made of glass and set in wrong, like the life-size figures of Indians in the Smithsonian Institution. His face was also extremely irregular. He wouldn't answer a single question. I learned afterward that he got seven years in prison, while the horse-thief was hanged. As horses ran wild, and there was no protection, it meant death to steal one."
Upon arrival, the first thing the scientists did was to try to figure out the best place to set up their instruments. Their calculations turned out to be much more accurate than those of the people who built the little town, because they found it was twelve miles away from where it was shown on the map.
Since everything was all set up a couple of days before the eclipse, Tom decided to do a little hunting. While in town at the train station with a fairly large number of people around - townsfolk, astronomers and cattlemen, all wanting to rub shoulders with, or at least watch the famous man, he borrowed a Winchester rifle and asked about hunting specifics. He was told that jackrabbits were plentiful. At that moment, in front of everyone, he saw one on the outskirts of town, and shot at it. But it didn't seem fazed. So he shot at it again. That's when he discovered that it was a stuffed jackrabbit that had been placed there for amusement.
The big day came, and during the eclipse, his instrument proved to be so sensitive, again according to Tom, that it was unable to make any useful measurements.
Thomas Alva Edison lived 1,015 months, or 30,902 days. (84 years). In two marriages, he had six children.
He was known popularly as 'The Wizard of Menlo Park.' Menlo Park is a town in New Jersey where he set up his laboratories.
He invented many contraptions that we take for granted today, and improved others. He was the first to make a practical record player (the first sort of machine that could record and play back speech and music), the first to make an electric light bulb that wouldn't burn out after a few minutes, or require constant adjustment, and the first to make a practical movie camera. He also contributed a huge improvement to telephones - the carbon disk microphone, without which the quality of sound reproduction would have been too low to be commercially practical.
His typical approach was to assemble large teams of men to use brute force to tackle a problem. For instance, the first record players were hand-cranked and had to be turned at just the right speed to match the speed at which a recording was made. Therefore, music sounded terrible. One of his men came up with a spring motor and governor system to make record players practical. He and his men also figured out a better way to make records. The first ones were cylinders covered with tin foil. As you might imagine, they lasted for only a few playbacks.
When it came to the lightbulb problem, they tried more than 8,000 different materials as filaments, even things like camel hairs imported from Africa.
Thomas Edison built the first electric generating station in Manhattan, New York. It wasn't perfect. Most things aren't at the beginning. (Take computers, which as we all know, are still problematic.) The problem was he wanted to use direct current (DC) electricity, which requires thick wires and can only be carried a few miles before the power dissipates. One of his hired men, Nikola Tesla, thought alternating current (AC) would be a better idea. AC can be converted to a high voltage for transport over great distances in relatively thin wires, and then stepped back down to a safe, low voltage for use. Edison spent years resisting that idea.
Edison offered Nikola Tesla a large sum of money if he could solve a problem in his generating station. Nikola did. Tom said his offer was 'a joke,' and refused to pay Nikola, who then quit working for Edison.
Some time later, Nikola was publicizing the idea of alternating current, which ultimately became what we all use in our homes.
But Edison took such offense to the idea of AC that he held a public exhibition in which he electrocuted a number of dogs, and even an elephant with DC, much to the disgust of the crowd. He claimed that DC was less safe, but actually both AC (at high voltages) and DC (because it locks muscles) can be safe or unsafe depending on how it is handled.
In his later years, Edison became a pacifist, and would never dream of harming animals again. When asked to contribute his talents to World War I technology, he refused to invent anything that would kill, working instead only on defensive equipment.
His religious belief, based on a letter he wrote in 1910, indicates that he believed that nature was God, and that while nature was a supreme intelligence, it was not especially kind or good.
It was Edison, or his team, that invented a practical car battery. Until then, cars had to be started with a crank, which looks easy in the movies, but was quite a chore if the engine wasn't adjusted well so it would start right away.
Let's step just for a moment into modern times to talk about DC electrocution just a bit more. Car batteries were initially six volts. Very safe. Won't electrocute anyone. Most modern cars now use 12 volts, because the wires can be smaller, and bad connections aren't as bad, so the cars are more reliable. Twelve volts is still very safe. Hybrids, such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius use 12 volts for their lights and accessories, but over 200 volts for their propulsion systems. Emergency crews are often afraid to help people out of hybrid wrecks, because they are afraid they'll be electrocuted by the broken, sometimes shorted-out cars.
1,093 US patents were issued to Thomas Edison, plus many more in Europe.
Tom grew up in Port Huron, Michigan with six older brothers and sisters.
He attended school for a total of three months. His teacher said his attention wandered and that he'd never amount to much of anything.
When he was around 12 years old, he had set up his own business of selling newspapers on a commuter train. It was not uncommon in his era for youngsters at that age to do what they could to earn money.
Since he loved chemistry at that time, and had some spare time on the train between stations, he set up a little chemistry lab in an unused area in the baggage car. One day, he spilled some phosphorus on the floor. Big mistake. When pure phosphorus is exposed to air, it immediately bursts into flames. He didn't burn down the whole train, but there was a brief, alarming fire in the baggage car. According to one version of the story that Thomas tells, the train's conductor was so mad that he clapped him hard on the ears. In another version, the conductor lifted the boy off the train by his ears, and threw out his chemistry apparatus behind him. Tom says he heard something snap in his head, and from that time through the end of his life, he was hard of hearing. Today, it might be called legally deaf. We don't know how true that story is. Some historians believe his hearing loss was due to a bout of scarlet fever and later inner ear infections.
While still in his early teens, Thomas started printing his own newspaper, selling upwards of 200 copies a day. Shortly after that, he took an interest in telegraphy, the only means of distant communication in his time. He became very good at working the telegraph key, and interpreting the dots and dashes back into English. Having become a telegrapher, it was inevitable that among his earliest inventions were improvements to the telegraph system such as a way to send four messages at once on the same wires, and a stock ticker based on telegraphy that printed out a record of current stock prices.
And it's a good thing he started inventing, too, because the phosphorus wasn't the only thing he spilled. At age 20, while working at the Associated Press, he was experimenting with a battery one day, and spilled sulfuric acid on the floor. It leaked through and into the room below, where it burned a hole in the boss's desk. Fired again!
Many historians think his first wife, Mary, who he married when he was 24 and she was 16, died of morphine poisoning. They had been married approximately 13 years, and she was 29 years old. Back then, doctors used to prescribe morphine for all sorts of things like menstrual cramps, and it was not uncommon to lose a patient to an overdose. At age 39, he married a second time, to Mina Miller, who was the daughter of Chiutauqua Institution co-founder and fellow inventor, Lewis Miller.
We tend to think of Edison as a practical man, evidently more practical than his rival, Nikola Tesla, who never could manage money. However, one wonders when thinking about his last scientific pursuit. He had become convinced that he could invent a means of communicating with the dead, and put quite a bit of effort into that in his later years. He died of diabetes, without ever solving the communicating with the dead thing.
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