ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno
Thomas Alva Edison has gone down in history for marking a before and after in electric lighting. Although the American scientist was not the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, he was a pioneer in inventing and marketing a commercially viable model outside the laboratory. But his legacy goes far beyond that, as he held more than 1,000 patents in the United States. His inventions include an electronic vote recorder, the phonograph, the kinetoscope and an alkaline battery for electric cars.
An electronic vote recorder
Edison, who as a teenager spent much of his free time reading scientific and technical books, applied for his first patent in 1868, when he was only 21 years old. He invented an electronic vote recorder to speed up decision-making in the US Congress. But it turned out to be a commercial failure, criticised by the congressmen of the time. "Young man, if there is any invention on earth that we don’t want down here, that is it. One of our main interests is to prevent voting fraud, and your device would do nothing but favour it," commented one congressman, according to the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office.
Although the invention did not succeed at the time, today many countries invest in machines and technologies that automatically count votes. Moreover, this device marked a turning point in the inventor's career: he decided that from then on he would only focus on inventions that people really needed. Therefore, before devoting time to a new project, he would study the demand for it.
Edison's electronic vote recorder was a commercial failure criticised by congressmen at the time. Credit: Museum of Innovation and Science, New York.
The first machine to record and play back sound
One of Edison's first great inventions, which helped him achieve international fame, was the tinfoil phonograph. It was the first machine that could reproduce pre-recorded sound in grooves on a surface. This was revolutionary at the time and marked a turning point in the music industry. Edison gave a sketch of the machine to his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build, which supposedly took about 30 hours. The vibrating waves of sound were originally recorded on a tinfoil wrapped rotating cylinder. According to Edison, the first recording, in 1877, was the nursery rhyme Mary had a little lamb spoken by Edison himself.
Edison then took his new invention to the offices of Scientific American magazine in New York City, which would immortalise the moment in an issue published in December 1877: "Thomas A. Edison recently came into this office, placed a little machine on our desk, turned a crank and the machine inquired as to our health, and asked how we liked the phonograph, informed us that it was very well and bid us a cordial good night." Today we might recognise that as the style of 21st century virtual assistants. Edison toured the United States with the device and was invited to the White House to show it to President Rutherford Birchard Hayes in 1878.
Edison's phonograph marked a before and after in the music industry. Credit: National Museum of American History.
A precursor to the film projector
While working on the phonograph, Edison began to create a device that would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear". The result was the Kinetoscope. In its interior, a strip of film passed rapidly between a lens and an electric bulb as the viewer looked through a peephole. Behind it was a rotating wheel with a narrow slit that acted as a shutter, allowing 46 frames per second to be displayed. This provided a realistic representation of people and objects in motion.
The kinetoscope, which could only be viewed by one person at a time, was soon replaced by screen projectors that showed the film to an entire room of people at once. Edison and his assistant, William Dickson, set up the Black Maria, the world’s first motion picture studio, where they produced between 200 and 300 films. "What do you think Edison would say if he saw Star Wars or Titanic?" asks the Library of Congress.
With the kinetoscope, a realistic representation of people and objects in motion was achieved. Credit: US Library of Congress.
A battery for electric cars
Edison owned a number of different vehicles during his life, powered by gasoline, electricity and steam. The inventor believed that electric propulsion was the best method for automobiles, but he noticed a drawback: most relied on heavy, bulky lead-acid batteries. So he set about creating a lighter, more reliable and more powerful battery. This turned out to be one of his most difficult projects. It would take him about 10 years to develop a practical alkaline battery.
In fact, by the time he introduced it, petrol cars had improved so much that electric cars were becoming less common and were mainly used as delivery vehicles in cities. Nevertheless, Edison's alkaline battery proved useful for lighting railway cars and signals, maritime buoys and miners' lamps, and became one of his most successful products. In addition, his work paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.
Edison was committed to electric propulsion for automobiles and tried to develop practical alkaline batteries. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Edison's inventiveness and entrepreneurship knew no bounds. He also founded several companies dedicated to the processing of minerals and the manufacture of cement and encouraged the use of reinforced concrete to the United States. Although his idea was to build houses made entirely of concrete, he encountered several technical problems that prevented him from fulfilling his dream. In total, the American inventor left more than 4,000 notebooks and other drawings and sketches of his ideas, according to the Edison Innovation Foundation, which records, in Edison's own words, his modus operandi: "I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it."
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.