During his lifetime, Thomas Edison patented more than 1,000 inventions--a number that no one else has ever approached. Among these were crucial innovations such as the phonograph, the motion picture, and the incandescent light bulb. Yet despite Edison's reputation as a prodigy, his success resulted as muchfrom hard work as from natural intelligence. Edison's self-confidence and determination helped him to overcome poverty, physical handicap, and disastrousfinancial setbacks. Like many strong-willed people, Edison therefore steppedon some toes along the way, especially by aggressively patenting improvementsto other people's work. One longstanding conflict cost him the Nobel Prize.Edison, who was born on February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, but grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, went to school for a total of only three months. His teacher, failing to relate to the way Edison's mind worked, dismissed him as being"addled," or retarded. Luckily, Edison's mother was a teacher too, and she was happy to supervise his education at home, especially since his health wasdelicate. Under the guidance of his mother for the next four years, Edison flourished. He began to read voraciously, and became interested in science, especially chemistry and electricity. Edison even put together a makeshift laboratory in the basement of the family house. Edison was also fascinated by locomotives and railroads, and began to spend a great deal of time at the machineshop operated by the Grand Trunk Railroad in Port Huron. When a job sellingnewspapers and candy on the Detroit-Port Huron train became available, he eagerly snatched it up. He worked hard, often earning ten dollars a day, and spent the long afternoon stopovers in Detroit devouring book after book in the large public library there. With his earnings, Edison bought some used printing equipment so that he could publish and sell his own newspaper on the train.By the age of twelve, he was employing other boys. He bought more laboratoryequipment and received permission to construct a lab in the baggage car of the train, where he performed experiments until, some time later, a jar of phosphorus fell from a shelf and set off a fire there and the angry conductor "evicted" Edison from the baggage car. Though Edison developed a broad range ofknowledge, he was never able to master mathematics. He later said that one major mathematical work, Isaac Newton's Principia , "gave me a distastefor mathematics from which I have never recovered." Around this time, Edisonbegan to grow deaf--a condition that would worsen through his life until hecould hear only a loud shout. After Edison bravely pulled a stationmaster's son from certain death before an oncoming train in 1862, the boy's grateful father offered to teach Edison telegraphy in appreciation. At the time, the telegraph was the principal means of communication and the demand for skilled operators was high. He picked up telegraphy so well that, for the next severalyears, Edison was able to roam the country, living very roughly but making good money while building a reputation as one of the best and fastest telegraphers in the country. He also continued to study; he bought the collected worksof Michael Faraday, an English physicist and pioneer in electricity, who greatly impressed Edison because "he used no mathematics." Edison's first invention, an electric vote- recording machine patented in 1869 for use in legislative chambers, was unsuccessful because politicians were not interested in speeding up the voting process. From then on, Edison swore, he would invent onlythose products that he knew people would want. He formed a small company inBoston to produce an improved stock ticker he had invented, but was soon bought out by a telegraph company, with little to show for his efforts. After hisattempt to demonstrate a new telegraphy system failed, Edison, with not a dime in his pocket, departed for New York to seek his fortune. The gold-marketscandals of the day caught Edison's attention when he took a job at the GoldIndicator Company soon after coming to New York. As he observed the havoc ofthe gold panic on "Black Friday," September 24, 1869, Edison realized that hecould capitalize on the gold traders' need for information, so he used whathe had learned about stock tickers to build an improved "gold printer," whichhe and his partners sold to Western Union for $15,000. Though his share wasonly $5,000, the invention yielded Edison a position on Western Union's technical staff, and within a few weeks, Edison had devised a revolutionary stockticker, for which the president of Western Union paid Edison $40,000. Edison,who had always been uninterested in accumulating wealth, didn't even know how to cash the check and was fooled by a mischievous bank teller into accepting payment in huge stacks of small bills. Edison parlayed the sum into his projects. At the age of twenty-three, he set up his own engineering firm that, besides manufacturing his stock tickers, began churning out numerous inventions including the mimeograph, improvements to the typewriter, and an improved telegraph that could send four messages at once on a single wire. He married Mary Stilwell, who had assisted him with the invention of paraffin paper, in 1871. Thanks to his flourishing business, Edison was now in a position to realize his dream of establishing an "invention factory" that would focus on practical products. Abandoning the monotonous task of manufacturing, he moved toMenlo Park, New Jersey in 1876, where he set up a huge industrial research laboratory, the first of its kind. Edison made it his goal to produce a new invention every ten days, and during one four-year period, he obtained an average of one new patent every five days, earning him the nickname "the Wizard ofMenlo Park." Just a few of the inventions Edison's lab produced during this time were major improvements to Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, including a"carbon button" microphone, which enhanced its sound quality. Emile Berlinerhad invented a similar device in Germany, and Edison was drawn into a lawsuit over primacy for the invention. Fourteen years later, Berliner won his case. Edison's favorite project, and perhaps his most original invention, was thephonograph, or record player. The idea for the phonograph came to Edison while he was studying a telephone receiver. He attached a point to the diaphragmof the receiver so he could feel the sound vibrations with his finger as they were emitted. It dawned on him that the vibrations were so strong that thepoint might "etch" them onto a piece of moving tinfoil. He reasoned that a similar point could then trace the grooves left on the foil and pass the vibrations onto another diaphragm to produce sound. His original phonograph used atin-foil covered cylinder that was hand-cranked while a needle traced a groove on it. The "talking machine" created a sensation, and others quickly beganintroducing improvements to it. Although the phonograph underwent a century of technological improvement after Edison, its essential principle remains thesame today. By now Edison had earned a reputation for being able to do justabout anything he put his mind to. When he announced that he intended to produce an electric light that would compete with gaslight, the stock prices of gaslight companies tumbled as their executives panicked. Many people, most notably Sir Joseph Swan, had tried to invent an electric light using an incandescent filament, or wire, enclosed in a glass bulb, but had not been able to create a filament that could withstand intense heat over long enough periods oftime to be practical. Even Edison had a tough time of it, going through a long, trial-and-error process in which he tested thousands of materials. Undaunted by failures, Edison finally found that a scorched cotton thread would work best. When heated in a vacuum, it produced a white glow without melting, evaporating, or breaking. Although Swan came up with a similar light bulb around the same time, Edison patented his idea more aggressively, promoted his product more effectively, and sketched out a practical system of power supply which could support its use on a large scale. On New Year's Eve of 1879, Edisongave a public demonstration of the new bulb, lighting up his laboratory anda half mile of streets in Menlo Park before of thousands of spectators. Edison had not only invented an economical light source, but developed an entire system for generating and distributing electricity from a central power station. By 1881, Edison's Pearl Street station in New York was supplying about 400outlets for eighty-five customers using a parallel wiring system that made it possible to switch off individual bulbs without turning off others. Eventually, Edison's electric business became the General Electric Company. Though he never considered himself a theoretical scientist, while he tinkered with his incandescent light bulb in 1883, Edison inadvertently made a tremendously important scientific discovery. He inserted a small metal plate near the filament of a light bulb, and found that the plate drew a current when he connected it to the positive terminal of the light bulb circuit--even though the plate was not touching the filament. Puzzled by the phenomenon, he put it aside.When J. J. Thomson discovered the electron over a decade later, one of Edison's assistants, John Ambrose Fleming , realized that the long-forgotten "Edison Effect" was caused by electrons boiling off of the filament and streaming onto the positively- charged plate. This led him to invent the vacuum tube, adevice that would become essential to radio, television, and electronics. In1884, Edison's wife died of typhoid fever. Two years later, he married twenty-year-old Mina Miller, the daughter of a successful Ohio inventor. Edison hadnow accumulated millions of dollars to pursue new ideas. In 1887, he moved to a new, much larger lab in West Orange, New Jersey. Through the 1880s and '90s, Edison continued to produce major innovations such as the motion picturecamera and a viewer which he called the kinetoscope. Although the invention of motion pictures cannot be credited to Edison alone, Edison (with the help of his assistant William Dickson) made the crucial discovery that the images could be advanced by sprocketed wheels inserted in holes along the sides of the film. Edison opened his first kinetoscope parlor in 1894, and then was persuaded to team with Thomas Armat, who had invented a movie projector in 1895 that made it possible to show films before groups of people. Everywhere, vacant shops were converted to five-cent theaters, or "nickelodeons" using the "Edison Projection Kinetoscope," as it was called. Edison built a film studio toproduce movies for the nickelodeons and kinetoscope parlors. He also experimented with adding sound to his films by combining his kinetoscope with a phonograph to make the kinetophone , which produced moving images with sound--a kind of crude " talking picture." But Edison never fully appreciated the importance of sound to the future of motion pictures, and left the creation of " talkies" to others. Though his ability to create seemed almost magical by thistime, Edison would soon be humbled by his worst financial disaster. In 1890,he had sunk two million dollars--an incredible sum at the time--into developing a process for producing iron from ore using magnetic separation. Edison'sprocess was a technical success, and he created some of the most awesome machinery yet seen by civilization to carry it out. But in 1900, a tremendous reserve of cheap iron ore was discovered in Minnesota, making Edison's technique uncompetitive overnight. Even though he was left deeply in debt, he simplyclosed the project, made sure his creditors were paid off, and went on to tackle other problems. His next development was a new type of storage battery, which Edison hoped would replace conventional batteries in the rapidly growingautomobile industry. It is typical of him that even after his first 8,000 experiments failed, he said, "Well, at least we know 8,000 things that don't work." Although Edison's battery turned out to be unsuitable for cars, it did succeed in railroad and marine shipping applications, which required batterieswith longer life and greater durability. During this period he also worked on an electric railroad, the manufacture and use of concrete, and various kinds of office machinery. In 1912, Edison was proposed as a co-winner of the Nobel Prize with Nikola Tesla. Tesla had been employed in Edison's lab in the late 1880s, but soon quit after a disagreement with Edison, and went on to achieve great success on his own. The root of their hostility was their disagreement about how to supply electricity to the public. Tesla favored using a system of alternating current (AC) he had helped to develop, while Edison favoreddirect current (DC). Even when the superior AC system began to take hold around the country, Edison stubbornly resisted, something the temperamental Tesla never forgot. When he refused to share the Nobel Prize with Edison, the committee awarded the prize to someone else. By the time a fire destroyed most of Edison's laboratory complex in 1914, his stamina had been running thin andhe was devoting less time to inventing. He spent time camping each summer with his friends Henry Ford , Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs. Though he felt repulsed by the idea of war, Edison, out of a sense of patriotic obligation, turned his attention to naval research on torpedoes, periscopes, and flamethrower during World War I. He suggested that the Navy create a permanent scientific laboratory, which it has since established. Edison's final project,begun in 1927, was a far-sighted attempt to find a cheap domestic source of rubber. Although Edison tested 17,000 plants, he never found an ideal source.Edison lived to take part in the "golden jubilee of light"--a celebration commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his invention of the light bulb. Two years later, on October 18, 1931, he died peacefully at his home in West Orange, New Jersey, at the age of 84.