The first phonograph - 1879.
Thomas Edison's first phonograph - 1879.

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When Thomas Edison was born, railroads were still new, most Americans lived on farms, and millions of people still lived as slaves in the southern United States.

By the time he died the airplane and automobile had been invented, a Civil War and a World War had been fought, and most Americans lived in cities lit by Edison's electric lights.

The following is a brief time line of a very busy life:




Samuel Morse perfects his telegraph, a machine that could send messages thousands of miles through wires.
Thomas Alva Edison is born in Milan, Ohio on February 11. His parents are Samuel and Nancy Elliott Edison.
The United States and Mexico go to war. Mexico loses a third of its territory to the United States, including what is now the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico.
The Edison family moves to Port Huron, Michigan.
"Al," as he was called, organizes his first chemistry laboratory in his cellar. His father later said, "He spent the greater part of his time in the cellar."
around 1855
Al goes to school for a short time. His teachers think that he is not very bright. His mother spends time teaching him at home. He also begins to read and to teach himself.
around 1859
Young Al Edison loses much of his hearing. He thought it was from an accident, but no one really knows how Edison became deaf. In 1885 he wrote, "I haven't heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old."
The Civil War begins when Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12.
Edison, by now a teenager, saves a little boy from being hit by a train. The boy's father, a station master, thanks him by teaching him how to use the telegraph. Edison gets work as a "tramp" telegraph operator, holding several jobs and moving thousands of miles. Since this is during the Civil War, telegraphers like Edison also send messages for the Union Army.
Civil War ends on April 9. Five days later, President Lincoln is assassinated.
Edison moves to Boston, Massachusetts, to work as a telegrapher. He amuses himself by taking things apart and seeing how they work, even making a device to kill cockroaches with electricity. The next year he files his first patented invention, the electrical vote recorder, but no one wants to buy it. Edison tells himself that from now on he will only invent things people want to buy.
After making his improved stock ticker, Edison opens a shop in Newark, New Jersey. He hires men to manufacture and sell his stock tickers. Some of these workers, or "muckers," help Edison all his life. During this time, he improves the telegraph many times.
On Christmas Day Edison marries Mary Stilwell, who works in his Newark shop. They will have three children: daughter Marion and sons Thomas Alva, Jr., and William.
In March, Edison moves to a new laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Many of his workers go with him.
In early December Edison wraps a piece of tin foil around a cylinder and recites "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The first phonograph plays his words back to him. Later, he calls the phonograph his favorite invention, "This is my baby and I expect it to grow up and be a big feller and support me in my old age." It does. Edison make many changes and sells phonographs for many decades.
In late summer, Edison and his team of "muckers" start work on an electric light. At the same time, they develop all the other inventions to make the light work--dynamos, wires, switches and fuses. This is called the electric light system.
After hundreds of experiments, Edison and his team of muckers make a light bulb that lasts for more than thirteen hours. (Some books say this was on October 21-22, 1879, but new research shows that these dates are wrong.) Now they work on ways to bring their incandescent lights into many homes.
Booker T. Washington founds Tuskegee Institute, a college for African-Americans. It is now a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service.
On September 4, Edison opens the first commercial electric power station for incandescent lighting in the United States at 255-257 Pearl Street, New York City.
Mary Stilwell Edison dies on August 9 at the age of 29.
Two years after his first wife dies, Edison marries Mina Miller in Akron, Ohio, on February 24. They move into Glenmont, a 13-1/2 acre estate with a 29-room home, in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison lives at Glenmont with his family for the rest of his life. Three children are born at Glenmont: Madeleine, Charles and Theodore. Also in 1886, he buys a winter home in Fort Myers, Florida.
Edison opens his new laboratory at West Orange, close to his new home. During his 44 years there, Edison invents the motion picture camera and improves the phonograph. His inventions become products that are manufactured in factories which surround the laboratory buildings. Along with Glenmont, the laboratory is now part of Edison National Historic Site and is run by the National Park Service.
Edison spends most of his time at his iron ore mine in Ogdensburg, New Jersey, where he tries to invent a method of separating the ore from rock. The mine is his biggest failure. He loses millions of dollars. But the success of his phonograph and motion pictures keeps him in business.
The first public showing of motion pictures takes place on April 14 with the opening of a "peephole" Kinetoscope parlor at 1155 Broadway, New York City. People pay a nickel to look through a small hole at a very short movie. A few years later, people watch movies in theaters on big movie screens.
The Spanish-American War is fought. Edison films show soldiers leaving to fight.
Like many other Americans around this time, Edison discovers the automobile. On Sundays, he and his family go on road trips throughout New Jersey. Meanwhile, Edison spends most of the decade working on an improved storage battery for electric cars. In fact, most of his batteries are used on railroads and in mines. It becomes Edison's biggest money maker.
President Theodore Roosevelt gives aid to a revolution in Panama. As a result, work begins in earnest on the Panama Canal, which opens in 1914. Ships could get from New York to California by passing through the Canal instead of going around South America.
On December 9, fire sweeps through most of the factories all around the West Orange laboratories. Edison says, "I am 67, but I'm not too old to make a fresh start." Workers fix up the factories and Edison goes back to work.
With World War I already going on in Europe, Edison works with the United States Navy to invent weapons. The United States enters the war in April 1917.
Famous friends go with Edison on the first of several camping trips. The friends include car manufacturer Henry Ford, tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs.
World War I ends November 11. Also, influenza epidemic kills over half a million people in the U.S and up to 20 million worldwide. Also, World War I ends on November 11.
The Nineteenth Amendment passes. For the first time, women all over the United States could vote.
For the first time, half of all households in the United States have electric power.
The inventor begins his last major work, trying to find a new source of natural rubber. Edison works on this until his death in 1931.
On May 21, the United States Congress awards Edison a Congressional gold medal.
On October 21, 1929, Edison visits the grand opening of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. His close friend Ford has rebuilt the wooden Menlo Park laboratory, even moving the dirt from the original lab site in New Jersey. That same week, the New York Stock Exchange "crashed." The Great Depression had begun.
Edison dies at his home, Glenmont, on October 18, at the age of 84.

On September 5, the National Park Service combines Edison's home and laboratory into a single national park called Edison National Historic Site.


Designated "Thomas Edison National Historical Park" by the Omnibus Public Land Act of 2009 - Public Law 111-11

Last updated: July 8, 2016

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