Sixteen months of embarrassingly public false starts and failed attempts led to the rarest of things from Thomas Edison: silence. He was going to allow his results to speak for themselves for once. When he and his invention were ready on December 31, 1879, Thomas Edison invited the public to his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to witness electric lights being turned on and off for the first time.
In September 1878, Edison had convinced himself that he was so close to an electric light that he announced it to the press. “I have it now! When the brilliancy and cheapness of the lights are made known to the public, illumination by carburated hydrogen gas will be discarded,” he told the New York Sun. Gas lamps inside and outside the house, with their many inherent dangers, were about to be a thing of the past.
Like many great inventors before and after him, Edison was almost as a good a salesman as inventor. He certainly was an inventor, one of the most accomplished in American history, but he was also a self-inventor. To this day, the image we associate with Edison and the image we associate with the word “inventor” are very close: that of an obsessed tinkerer in his garage or workshop, testing and refining different materials and different systems until success reveals itself.
Think of the quotes from Edison one still encounters when looking for sayings about success: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Or, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Or, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Or, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
When he spoke to the Sun, he was already famous and becoming wealthy for inventing the phonograph and powerfully refining the telegraph, so dozens of investors in his electric light project came forward with enough capital to create the new Edison Electric Light Company, which is now General Electric. They knew what it would mean to be on board financially with the man who would bring electric light to every street and each house on those streets. A new world was about to be created. But it was not going to arrive in 1878.
The investments helped. Edison was able to hire technicians and expand his lab at Menlo Park. It might have taken longer than four months for him to realize that a light bulb, a vacuum-sealed glass enclosure, was key. In March 1879, Edison once again announced that he was e…v…e…n closer to success. The historian Mark Essig quotes a skeptical newspaper article, from an impatient New York Daily Graphic writer:
Day after day, week after week, and month after month passes and Mr. Edison does not illumine Menlo Park with his electric light. The belief has become rather general in this country and in England that for once the great inventor has miscalculated his inventive resources and utterly failed.
(And we think the 24/7 Twitter/Facebook/Insta-everything news media we live in now is impatient. It has been impatient a long time.)
When all the experiments and tinkering resulted in a successful product, Edison and his assistants knew it. They had a light bulb that was emitting more energy than was being put into it.
And for once he remained quiet. He wrote one friend, “It is an immense success. Say nothing.”
He put out the word that he was ready by inviting the public to his famous lab in northern New Jersey. (This was a century before Steve Jobs’ stage shows.) The demand for rail tickets became so great that the rail companies added cars to the routes west into New Jersey. The crowd was estimated to be over three thousand, and no one in attendance was disappointed. Not even the newspaper reporters.
Edison did not provide entertainment or work the crowd up with delays and announcements or speeches about the grand era to come; instead, he turned the light on and off, again and again, and allowed members of the public to do the same. The grand new era was here, and by September 1882, Edison’s company was providing electricity and light to customers in lower Manhattan.
(Mark Essig’s 2003 book, “Edison and the Electric Chair,” does a great job explaining the science behind the false starts; it is also a great work of history about the legal battle between Edison and Westinghouse and AC versus DC power distribution.)
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