"Keep on the lookout for novel ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea has to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you’re working on." – Thomas Edison
Much of what the public knows about America’s most celebrated inventor is riddled with misconceptions. Among other things, the shrewed businessman Thomas Alva Edison, did not invent the light bulb. Following is a list of inventions that are often attributed to Edison, but were in fact not his making.
1. The Electric Bulb or Incandescent Lamp
Ask any child who invented the light bulb, and the answer is likely to be "Thomas Edison". Contrary to what schools have taught for years, the American icon, Thomas Edison, neither invented the light bulb, nor held the first patent to the modern design of the light bulb. In reality, light bulbs used as electric lights existed 50 years prior to Thomas Edison’s 1879 patent date. In fact, Edison lost all patent rights to the light bulb both in Britain and the United States.
2. The Electric Chair
The first practical electric chair was invented by Harold P. Brown. Brown was an employee of Thomas Edison, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and for the development of the electric chair. Since Brown worked for Edison, and Edison promoted Brown’s work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself. Furthermore, Brown’s design was based on George Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC), which was then just emerging as the rival to Edison’s less transport-efficient direct current (DC), which was further along in commercial development.
3. The Movie Camera
As with the Electric chair, the invention of the movie camera should accurately be attributed to William Dickson, an Edison employee. Edison had absolutely no concept of how the movie industry would take off. Interestingly, even before Edison’s work on movies, the basic idea had already been developed by a British photographer named Eadward Muybridge. He wanted to prove that when a horse ran, all four of its legs could be up in the air at once. By taking several photos very fast, Muybridge proved his point.
4. The Power Generator
In the early 1880s, Nikola Tesla invented the AC generator, which allowed electricity to be transmitted over greater distances than could be done with DC power, which required a generator every few miles. Edison was making good money off of DC power, and didn’t want to change, or worse, have someone else move in on his turf. Not surprisingly, Tesla and Edison had a long standing feud over this and many other inventions . Edison did not invent the first electrical power station. Ultimately, though, he did improve the designs of existing generators and regulators to create the first commercially successful power station capable of delivering affordable power for electric lighting.
5. X-Ray Photographs (fluoroscope)
In 1887, Nikola Tesla, not Edison, was among the first to investiage the nature of X-Ray’s using designs based on the Cathode Ray Tube. Eight years later, Thomas Edison began investigating materials’ ability to fluoresce when exposed to x-rays. The fluoroscope he developed became the standard for medical X-ray examinations. Nevertheless, Edison dropped X-ray research around 1903 after the death of Clarence Madison Dally, one of his glassblowers. Dally had a habit of testing X-ray tubes on his hands, and acquired a cancer in them so tenacious that both arms were amputated in a futile attempt to save his life.
6. The Storage Battery
What invention made Edison the most money? The alkaline storage battery. Ironically, though, Edison did not invent the first storage battery, but combined new materials to create a storage battery suitable for practical use. By the time he perfected the alkaline storage battery, electric-powered cars had lost out in the competition with gas-powered cars that could be driven far greater distances. A failure as the motive force for automobiles, the alkaline storage battery was ultimately a great commercial success as the power source for train lights, marine appliances, and miners’ lamps. Prior to this invention, miners used candles or small oil lamps attached to their hard hats as their light source.
7. The Record Player
Thomas Edison did not invent the record player. Rather, he invented the phonograph, which was intended for making recordings. The phonograph was first marketed as a dictation machine and only later modified for use in musical devices. The ability to record sounds had been invented much before Edison’s phonograph. The gramophone, invented by Emile Berliner, was actually the first record player as we know it. To compete with the success of the record player, Edison and his company later devised the "disk" phonograph.
8. Wax Paper
Although Edison claimed to have invented wax paper, he did not. Waxed paper was invented by Gustave Le Gray in 1851. Used for hand-colouration, it allowed the colour from the back of the photograph to be seen from the front. The wax paper revolutionized photography and also became a commercially successful household product for, among other things, wrapping food.
9. The Telegraph
The telegraph had been invented while Edison was still a child. Due to his partial deafness, Edison learned the art of telegraph at an early age. And later on, spent a considerable time devising inventions that relied on the telegraph system, such as the stock ticker. Nevertheless, he did not invent the telegraph. To his credit, he did invent the first duplex and multiplex telegraphy systems, enabling telegraphs to send and receive messages at the same time over the same wire.
Thomas Edison himself did not invent major breakthroughs. He often took credit for the ideas and inventions of others and most of his patents were little more than improvements on already existing products. He was an astute businessman, and as such, had greater impact on innovating existing products than inventing new ones. To quote himself, "I always invent to obtain money to go on inventing."
Received an email from Greg Farmer: “Near the end, you say that Edison did invent the first duplex and multiplex telegraphy systems. Not so. Moses G. Farmer demonstrated duplex telegraphy between New York and Philadelphia in 1856 and patented a duplex telegraph in 1859. Edison patented an “improved duplex telegraph” in 1874, 15 years after Farmer. There are other internet articles claiming that Edison invented duplex telegraphy, but they are all based on misconceptions caused by the huge publicity that surrounded Edison’s inventions.”
1: When it was clear that AC power was a threat, Edison started a propaganda campaign against AC power, claiming that it was much more dangerous than DC power. Besides distributing pamphlets, he also set up demonstrations where he electrocuted dogs and cats to show the power of AC. He also convinced the authorities at Sing Sing to carry out death sentences not by hanging, but by AC power. Despite all of this, AC power ‘won’, and is what we use today.