Thomas Edison and the world’s brightest idea

Photo by Damaine Vonada

It took thousands of experiments before 32-year-old Thomas Edison finally succeeded in creating the first practical incandescent lightbulb. His eureka moment came 140 years ago, on Oct. 21, 1879, when he used electricity to heat a carbonized cotton thread housed in a glass vacuum bulb. The filament glowed continuously for 13.5 hours before burning out, and on New Year’s Eve 1879, Edison gave the first public demonstration of his “electric-lamp” at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey — dazzling visitors with his bright idea and telling a newspaper reporter, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”

Edison’s lightbulb would sever humanity’s dependence on daylight for work and play. It extinguished the age-old link between light and flames by rendering candles, kerosene, whale oil, and gaslights obsolete. After Edison patented the lightbulb in January 1880, his next stroke of genius was devising an efficient, cost-effective electrical distribution system to make it feasible to use. Edison opened the first American station for generating and delivering electricity in New York City in 1882, which sparked not only the electrical utility industry but also the power grid that energized the world.

Although he was acclaimed as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” Edison was an Ohioan. He was born in 1847 to Samuel and Nancy Edison in a modest red brick house that his father built in the then-booming canal town of Milan. Designed for schooners, the short but deep Milan Canal went directly to Lake Erie, and it turned Milan into an important lake port and shipbuilding center.

“Just down the hill from the Edisons’ house was a canal basin with warehouses and shipyards, and farmers came to town with wagons filled with grain and produce,” says Edison Birthplace Museum director Lois Wolf. “It had to be a fascinating place for a little kid like Thomas Edison.”

When he was 7, his parents moved the family to Michigan, but decades later, Edison bought back the house where he first saw the light of day. After he died in 1931, his second wife, Mina, and daughter Madeleine turned Edison’s birthplace into a museum. As its first administrator, Madeleine Edison Sloane acquired many of its artifacts, with a goal to inspire others. “She wanted people to know Edison as being not just a famous inventor, but as someone who had initiative, persistence, and endless curiosity about the world around him,” says Wolf.

Since the Edison Birthplace highlights his early childhood, its remarkable collection includes items ranging from the family Bible to household furnishings. Tour guides highlight the small bedroom off the family sitting room where Edison was born, and they often tell visitors stories about the inquisitive boy who tried to hatch chicken eggs by sitting on a nest, tumbled into the canal and nearly drowned, and set fire to a barn just to see what would happen. “Milan,” notes Wolf, “was really Edison’s first laboratory.”

The Edison Birthplace exhibits also include numerous examples of the prodigious array of inventions — including the phonograph, motion picture camera, alkaline storage battery, and of course, lightbulb — that his incessant experimenting produced. “Edison had 1,093 U.S. patents and hundreds of European patents, too,” says Wolfe.

During his last visit to Milan in 1923, the inventor of the lightbulb made an astonishing discovery — his birthplace was still illuminated with candles. “Edison immediately ordered the person living there to get electric lighting,” says Wolf. “It was certainly one of the great ironies of history.”