Thomas Edison is one of America’s most well-known inventors. He is most famous for the invention of the light bulb, but there are hundreds of various discoveries attributed to him.
The history of Edison and his inventions, however, are not as straightforward as it seems. A look into events suggests that there is more to the story. While he did contribute an astonishing number of technologies to the world, perhaps Edison does not deserve quite as much credit as we give him.
Thomas Edison’s Patents
Over his life, Edison acquired an astounding 1,093 patents for various technological innovations. Among these patents were: 389 for electric light and power, 150 for the telegraph, 195 for the phonograph, 149 for storage batteries, and 34 for the telephone.
He did create many of those inventions by himself. Many were also created jointly with people he worked with or hired. People even claim that he outright stole some of “his” designs.
1. The Fluoroscope
The fluoroscope is a device that helps make taking x-rays possible. We may give Edison credit for the fluoroscope, but a German physicist named Wilhelm Roentgen discovered how to take x-rays several years earlier. Roentgen was experimenting with tubes filled with gas and electricity.
The story goes that one day, Roentgen noticed a green fluorescent light emanating from one of the tubes wrapped in black paper. A week later, Roentgen managed to take an x-ray of his wife’s hand. This early x-ray showed her bones and wedding ring. The image circulated the world until Edison saw it and used it as a basis to recreate the process.
2. The Phonograph
Edison is recognized with the invention of the phonograph, a precursor to the record player. The phonograph recorded sound using tin-foiled cylinders. Edison originally had two different machines: one that recorded the voice and one that played it back.
However, the first person to ever record sound was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in the 1850s. He called it a “phonautograph.” Nearly two decades later, in 1877, Thomas Edison recorded and played his first sounds on the phonograph. Edison never mentioned the contributions of Scott when marketing his device.
3. Motion Pictures
Edison has often been regarded by history as the “father of motion picture,” but this is very far from true. The real inventor of motion pictures was Louis Le Prince from France. He created the very first motion picture camera in the late 1880s while working in Leeds, England. While there, he shot several short films, including the famous Roundhay Garden Scene.
Le Prince was scheduled to show his work at an exhibition in New York City and was going to apply for a patent in England. Call it a conspiracy, but one day he got on a train and disappeared along with his luggage.
After his disappearance, his family continued to pursue patent rights. His son testified in a lawsuit against Thomas Edison and then was mysteriously shot and killed two years later. Edison ended up filing patents for the motion picture devices.
Whether nefarious happenings caused the events remains a mystery.
4. The Lightbulb
Yes, even this holy grail of inventions was not solely invented by Edison.
The first glowing lamp using electricity was created by a British chemist named Joseph Swan. Swan was experimenting with carbon filaments in the 1850s and 60s, attempting to make a lightbulb. He just could not generate enough of a vacuum. More effective pumps to remove air became available in the 1870s, and in 1879 he debuted a working lightbulb at a lecture in Newcastle.
Although Swan had invented the first working lightbulb, the light produced lasted only long enough for a demonstration, not for commercial use. Edison changed the type of filament used to a thinner and more resistant one, ensuring it didn’t burn up as quickly.
With this, he was able to create lightbulbs that burned from 150 hours up to 600 hours. He was thus credited with the invention of the first (practical) lightbulb.
Although Thomas Edison should certainly receive accolades for the significant amount of contributions he made to the modern technological world, it is clear that he was not necessarily the most ethical and honest man. He was a highly intelligent man, no doubt, but often he took the foundation of others’ work and transformed it into something amazing. As much as we recognize those who gave Edison a leg up, their names will never hold the rights to the patents.