Thomas Edison's Patents

Week 10 Dataset and Historical Background

Posted by David Velleca on May 10, 2018

Historical Background

With 1,093 patents, Thomas Alva Edison is the most prolific inventor the world has ever seen. No one matches him in the sheer number of patents, and it is quite possible that no one has, or ever will, match Edison in his innovative spirit. Born in Ohio in 1847, his curiosity, inventiveness and drive to innovate were evident at an early age. Despite lacking much by the way of formal education (he was homeschooled by his mother, a teacher by trade), he tended to learn by doing.

At the age of 12, Edison began working for the local railroad, selling sundries and supplies, running his own newspaper, and establishing a chemistry lab in a baggage car. It was while working with the railroad that Edison was introduced to the telegraph. He was immediately struck by the technology, and pursued a job as a telegraphist.

His 4 years as a telegraphist would definitely shape his future - Edison was immersed in the technology, providing plenty of chances for him to identify areas to innovate. It is no coincidence that most of his early patents have to do with telegraphy and telephony. Edison's early years as an independent inventor (beginning in 1868, at the end of his job as a telegraphist), saw him work with multiple companies before he struck out on his own.

In 1876, Edison established a research facility in Menlo Park, New Jersey, revitalizing the area and constructing labs and workshops tailored to his work. It was in Menlo Park that Edison focused his efforts on the telephone and the incandescent light. Additionally, while working on a telephone that could compete with Alexander Graham Bell's invention, Edison and his team invented the phonograph. The phonograph was hailed as a technology that would change the world.

Edison's work with incandescent lighting also had a profound impact on the world. The concept of the light bulb was not Edison's, but he happily tackled the problem with the filaments. The filaments of early bulbs would illuminate for seconds (or minutes at best) before burning out. Work in the Edison labs at Menlo Park was dedicated to finding a material that would be resilient enough to serve as a long lasting filament. His work here culminated in illuminating a block of buildings in New York City.

The progress and innovation in the electric light bulb and direct current provided plenty of opportunities for Edison and his company. Following his success, he opened an additional laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. Around this time, Edison went toe to toe with Nikola Tesla and others in a debate on the merits of direct current vs alternating current. Despite the longevity of many of Edison's inventions, this is one area where he lost out - alternating current proved to be the more effective method for electrifying the world.

Edison continued inventing through the end of his life, finding success in batteries, motion pictures, support for the US Navy during World War I, and continuing to innovate until his death in 1931. Edison's legacy is still felt today, and many consider him to be America's greatest inventor.

With this background and dataset, what can you visualize? After posting your visualization to Tableau Public, be sure to post to Twitter, tagging @TThrowbackThurs.

Data Notes

Some of Edison's patents deal with multiple subject areas. For the purposes of this datasource, I chose the most appropriate, and included it in the datasource as the 'Primary Subject Matter.' These subjects were gleaned from the Rutgers site cited below.

Data Source

This week's data source comes from Rutgers University's School of Arts and Sciences Thomas A. Edison Papers. This site was also used for information in this historical background.