The success of his electric light propelled Edison to new heights of fame and wealth as electricity spread throughout the world. Edison’s various electric companies continued to grow until in 1889 they were united to form Edison General Electric. Despite the use of Edison in the company title, however, Edison never controlled this company. The massive amount of capital required to develop the incandescent lighting industry had required the involvement of investment bankers such as J.P. Morgan When Edison General Electric merged with its main competitor Thompson-Houston in 1892, Edison was dropped from the name and the company became simply General Electric.
This period of success was marred by the death of Edison’s wife, Mary, in 1884. Edison’s involvement in the business side of the electrical industry meant that Edison spent less time in Menlo Park. After Mary’s death, Edison was there even less, living instead in New York City with his three children. A year later, while on vacation at a friend’s house in New England, Edison met Mina Miller and fell in love. The couple married in February 1886 and moved to West Orange, New Jersey, where Edison had purchased a farm, Glenmont, for his girlfriend. Thomas Edison lived here with mine until his death.
When Edison moved to West Orange, he was doing experimental work on makeshift installations at his electric lamp factory in nearby Harrison, New Jersey. However, a few months after his marriage, Edison decided to build a new laboratory in West Orange, less than a mile from his home. Edison possessed both the resources and the experience at the time to build, “the largest and best equipped laboratory in existence, and facilities superior to any other for the rapid and economical development of an invention.” The new laboratory complex consisting of five buildings opened in November 1887. A three-story main laboratory building contained a power plant, machine shops, storerooms, experimental rooms, and a large library. four smaller one-story buildings built perpendicular to the main building contained a physics laboratory, chemistry laboratory, metalworking laboratory, pattern shop, and chemical warehouse. The large size of the lab not only allowed Edison to work on any type of project, it also allowed him to work on ten to twenty projects at a time. Facilities were added to the laboratory or modified to meet Edison’s changing needs as he continued to work at this complex until his death in 1931. Over the years, factories were built around the laboratory to manufacture Edison’s inventions. The entire laboratory and factory complex eventually covered more than twenty acres and employed 10,000 people at its peak during World War I (1914-1918).
After opening the new laboratory, Edison began work on the phonograph again, having put aside the project to develop the electric light in the late 1870s. In the 1890s, Edison began making phonographs for domestic and commercial use. Like electric light, Edison developed everything needed to have a phonograph job, including records to play, equipment to record the records, and equipment to make the records and machines. In the process of making the phonograph practical, Edison created the recording industry. The development and improvement of the phonograph was an ongoing project, continuing almost until Edison’s death.
While working on the phonograph, Edison began work on a device that, “does to the eye what the phonograph does to the ear,” this would be made into movies. Edison first showed films in 1891 and began commercial production of “films” two years later in a peculiar-looking structure built on the laboratory grounds known as the Black Maria. Like the electric light and phonograph before it, Edison developed a complete system, developing everything needed to shoot and show movies. Edison’s early work in motion pictures was pioneering and original. However, many people became interested in this third new industry created by Edison and worked to further improve Edison’s early film work. Thus, there were many contributors to the rapid development of the films beyond Edison’s early work. By the late 1890s, a thriving new industry was firmly established, and by 1918, the industry had become so competitive that Edison left the movie business altogether.
The success of the phonograph and motion pictures in the 1890s helped offset the biggest failure of Edison’s career. Throughout the decade, Edison worked in his laboratory and in the old iron mines of northwestern New Jersey to develop methods of extracting iron ore to feed the insatiable demand of Pennsylvania steel mills. To finance this work, Edison sold all of his shares in General Electric. Despite ten years of work and millions of dollars spent on research and development, Edison was never able to make the process commercially practical, and he lost all the money he had invested. This would have spelled financial ruin if Edison had not continued to develop the phonograph and motion pictures at the same time. As he was, Edison entered the new century still financially secure and ready to take on another challenge.
edison’s new challenge was to develop a better storage battery for use in electric vehicles. Edison greatly enjoyed automobiles and owned several different types during his lifetime, powered by gasoline, electricity, and steam. Edison thought that electric propulsion was clearly the best method of running automobiles, but he realized that conventional lead-acid storage batteries were not up to the job. Edison began developing an alkaline battery in 1899. It turned out to be Edison’s most difficult project, as it took him ten years to develop a practical alkaline battery. By the time Edison introduced his new alkaline battery, the gasoline-powered automobile had improved so much that electric vehicles were becoming less common and were used primarily as delivery vehicles in cities. However, Edison’s alkaline battery proved useful for lighting railroad cars and signals, sea buoys, and miners’ lamps. Unlike iron ore mining, the large investment Edison made for ten years paid off handsomely, and the storage battery eventually became Edison’s most profitable product. In addition, Edison’s work paved the way for the modern alkaline battery.
In 1911, Thomas Edison had built a large industrial operation in West Orange. Numerous factories had been built over the years around the original laboratory, and the staff for the entire complex had numbered in the thousands. To better manage operations, Edison brought together all the companies he had started to manufacture his inventions into one corporation, Thomas A. edison incorporated, with edison as president and director. Edison was sixty-four years old at the time and his role in the company and in his life began to change. Edison left more of the day-to-day operations of both the laboratory and the factories to others. The lab itself did less original experimental work, and instead worked more on perfecting existing Edison products such as the phonograph. Although Edison continued to apply for and receive patents for new inventions, the days of developing new products that changed lives and created industries are long gone.
in 1915, edison was asked to head the naval advisory board. With the United States inching toward participation in World War I, the Naval Advisory Board was an attempt to organize the talents of America’s leading scientists and inventors for the benefit of the American military. Edison favored the preparation and accepted the appointment. The junta made no notable contribution to the final victory of the allies, but it served as a precedent for future successful cooperation between scientists, inventors, and the United States military. During the war, at the age of seventy, Edison spent several months in Long Island Sound on a borrowed Navy ship experimenting with techniques for detecting submarines.
edison’s role in life began to change from inventor and industrialist to cultural icon, a symbol of american ingenuity, and a true story of horatio alger. In 1928, in recognition of a lifetime of achievement, the United States Congress voted Edison a Special Medal of Honor. in 1929 the nation celebrated the golden jubilee of incandescent light. The celebration culminated in an edison banquet hosted by henry ford at greenfield village, ford’s new museum of american history, which included a complete restoration of the menlo park laboratory. Attendees included President Herbert Hoover and many of America’s leading scientists and inventors.
The last experimental work of Edison’s life was done at the request of Edison’s good friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in the late 1920s. They asked Edison to find an alternative source of rubber to use on car tires. The natural rubber used for tires up to that point came from the rubber tree, which does not grow in the United States. raw rubber had to be imported and it was getting more and more expensive. With his usual energy and thoroughness, Edison tested thousands of different plants to find a suitable substitute, eventually finding a type of goldenrod grass that could produce enough rubber to be feasible. Edison was still working on this at the time of his death.
during the last two years of his life, edison was in increasingly failing health. Edison spent more time outside of the lab, working at Glenmont. The trips to the family’s vacation home in Fort Myers, Florida, got longer. Edison was in his eighties and suffered from a number of ailments. in august 1931 edison collapsed in glenmont. Essentially confined to his house from that point on, Edison steadily declined until at 3:21 a.m. m. on October 18, 1931, the great man died.