Thomas Edison, one of the most famous and prolific inventors of all time, died 80 years ago today. The distribution of electricity and the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera are all counted among his contributions to, what is often called, ‘modern life’. Although not known as a diarist, he did - for a few days in the summer of 1885 - keep a journal; and this document is considered to be the only document he left behind with thoughts and feelings of a personal nature.
Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, but the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, when he was seven, where he spent the rest of his childhood. At some point, he suffered from a disease which left him hard of hearing for the rest of his life. While still a young teenager, he sold sweets and newspapers on trains, and then became a roving telegraph operator. In 1868, he was employed as a night operator for Western Union; and, by the following year, he had moved to New York City, where, in his spare time, he worked on inventions. After repairing the telegraphic gold price indicator for Western Union, it then commissioned him to improve the stock ticker, which led to the Edison Universal Stock Printer.
In 1871, Edison married Mary Stilwell, only 16 at the time, and they had three children, before she died in 1884. With the proceeds from the sale of his patents to Western Union, he set up his own company, manufacturing stock tickers and printing telegraphs. By 1876, though, he had sold the company so as to have funds to build an industrial research laboratory, the first of its kind, at Menlo Park, New Jersey.
The following year Edison invented the phonograph, the first machine that could record the sound of someone’s voice and play it back. And the year after that, he began work on the idea of a light bulb, and he launched the Edison Electric Light Company. He demonstrated his carbon filament lamp in 1879. By the mid-1880s, Menlo Park had expanded to occupy two city blocks, and Edison and his team had invented, among other things, a system for electricity distribution and a carbon microphone. After the death of Mary, Edison met and married Mina Miller (with whom he would have three more children) and moved to Llewellyn Park in West Orange. Here he built a new laboratory, far larger than the facility at Menlo Park.
Edison was always much engaged with commercialising his products. Chief among these was electricity and its delivery - by 1887, there were well over 100 Edison power stations delivering direct current (DC) electricity. But he also became increasingly engaged in a very public battle with George Westinghouse who was promoting the distribution of alternating current (AC), which was more efficient to distribute. Edison continued working until his death on 18 October 1931. Among many other achievements, his organisation made major developments with the phonograph, x-rays, storage batteries, and motion pictures. Further information is available from The Library of Congress, ThomasEdison.com, and The Thomas Edison Papers.
Edison is not known to have kept a diary through his life, but for one short period, in July 1885, he did write one - indeed, this manuscript is the only known volume kept by him specifically to record thoughts and feelings of a personal nature. It includes observations on art, literature, and religion, along with comments about his dreams, his health, and his feelings toward his future wife, Mina Miller. It was first edited by Dagobert Runes and published by the Philosophical Library, New York, in 1948, as The Diary and Sundry observations of T A Edison. In 1971, The Chatham Press published The Diary of Thomas A Edison with an introduction By Kathleen L McGuirk.
Photographs of the diary’s pages (46 images) can be viewed online at The Thomas Edison Papers website (which currently has 175,000 of Edison’s papers digitalised), hosted by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and the transcribed text can be read at the Ayn Rand Institute website. Here is one full day’s entry.
19 July 1885
‘Slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine. Donned a boiled and starched emblem of respectability. Eat food for breakfast. Weather delightful. Canary seed orchestra started up with same old tune, ancestor of this bird sang the self same tune 6,000 years ago to Adam down on the Euphrates, way back when Abel got a situation as the first angel. Read Sunday Herald, learned of John Roach’s failure - am sorry - he has been pursued with great malignity by newspapers and others, from ignorance I think. Americans ought to be proud of Roach, who started in life as a day laborer and became giant of industry and the greatest shipbuilder in the United States, employing thousands of men and feeding innumerable families. What has he now for this 40 years of incessant work and worry. People who hound such men as these I would invent a special Hades, I would stricken them with the chronic sciatic neuralgia and cause them to wander forever stark naked within the arctic circle.
Saw in same paper account of base ball match. This struck me as something unusual. Read more about that immeasurable immensity of tact and beauty Madame Recamier. I would like to see such a woman. Nature seems to be running her factory on another style of goods nowdays and won’t switch back until long after I’m baldheaded. Damon went out to assist the tide in. Daisy told me something about a man who kept livery stable in Venice. In afternoon went out in yacht. On first trip all our folks, and lot of smaller people, sailed around for an hour. Returned and landed the abbreviated people. Started for Cottage Park where we took on board the charming Mrs Roberts brevet Recamier, and a large lady friend whose name has twice got up and jumped out of my mind. Then sailed away for Rock buoy, and for some occult reason Damon didn’t stop and change his mind but headed for Liverpool. Went out two miles in ocean, undulations threatened to disturb the stability of the dinner of divers persons, returned at 7 p.m. Then Damon took out a boat load of slaves of the kitchen.
Damon and I after his return study plans for our Floridian bower in the lowlands of the peninsular Eden, within that charmed zone of beauty, where wafted from the table lands of the Oronoco and the dark Carib sea, perfumed zephyrs forever kiss the gorgeous flora. Rats! Damon took the plans to Boston to place them into the hands of an archetectualist to be reduced to a paper reality. Damon promised to ascertain probable cost chartering schooner to plough the Spanish main loaded with our hen coops. Dot came in and gave us a lot of girlish philosophy which amused us greatly. Oh dear, this celestial mud ball has made another revolution and no photograph yet received from the Chataquain Paragon of Perfection. How much longer will Hope dance on my intellect? Miss Igoe told me of a picture she had taken on a rock at Panama NY. There were several others in the group, interpolated so as to dilute the effect of Mina’s beauty. As she stated the picture was taken on a rock I immediately brought my scientific imagination to work to ascertain how the artist could have flowed collodion over a rock and put so many people inside his camera. Miss Igoe kindly corrected her explanation by stating that a picture was taken by a camera of a group on a rock. Thus my mind was brought back from a suspicion of her verbal integrity to a belief in the honesty of her narrative.
After supper Mrs G, Daisy and Louise with myself as an incidental appendage walked over to the town of Ocean Spray, went into a drug store and bought some alleged candy, asked the gilded youth with the usual vacuous expression, if he had any nitric peroxide, he gave a wild stare of incomhensability. Then I simplified the name to nitric acid, which I hoped was within the scope of his understanding. A faint gleam of intelligence crept over his face whereupon he went into another room from which he returned with the remark that he didn’t keep nitric acid. Fancy a drug store without nitric acid. A drug store nowdays seems to consist of a frontage of red, blue and green demijohns, a soda fountain, case with candy and toothbrushes, a lot of almost empty bottles with death and stomachatic destruction written in Latin on them, all in charge of a young man with a hatchet shaped head, hair laid out by a civil engineer, and a blank stare of mediocrity on his face that by comparison would cause a gum indian in the Eden Musée [to] look intellectual. On our return I carried the terrealbian gum drops.
Moon was shining brightly. Girls called my attention several times to beauty of the light from said moon shining upon the waters, couldn’t appreciate it, was so busy taking a mental triangleation of the moon, the two sides of said triangle meeting the base line of the earth at Woodside and Akron Ohio. Miss Igoe told us about her love of ancient literature, how she loved to read Latin, but couldn’t. I told her I was so fond of Greek that I always rushed for the comedies of Aristophanes to read whenever I had the jumping toothache. Bed - Mina, morning.’