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November 2017


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U.S. Census Bureau History: Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison with his Cylinder Phonograph

Thomas A. Edison filed for a patent on his cylinder phonograph 140 years ago
this month. The inventor accumulated more than 1,000 U.S. patents, but always
considered the phonograph to be his favorite invention.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

November marks the anniversary of two important milestones in Thomas A. Edison's inventing career—the announcement that he invented a cylinder phonograph and development of a practical and long-lasting incandescent light bulb.

Thomas A. Edison was born in Milan, OH, in 1847, and grew up in Port Huron, MI. As a child, Edison received little formal education. His mother instructed him at home and he was an avid reader of books about nature and the sciences. As a teenager, while selling newspapers to train passengers, he was introduced to the stations' telegraph systems. During the Civil War, he worked as an itinerant telegrapher before accepting a permanent position with telegraph giant Western Union. His years as a telegrapher influenced some of his earliest inventions, including a stock "ticker" and voting machine.

In 1870, Edison established a workshop in Newark, NJ, and moved to Menlo Park, NJ, in 1876. While attempting to improve components of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone at his Menlo Park lab, Edison developed what he considered one of his greatest inventions (his "baby")—the cylinder phonograph. The phonograph reproduced the human voice for the first time by transferring vibrations from a speaker's voice through a stylus and on to foil cylinders which could be amplified and played repeatedly. Edison announced the cylinder phonograph on November 21, 1877, and played "Mary had a Little Lamb" on one of the invention's foil cylinders. He submitted a patent application for the phonograph on December 24, 1876, and received approval (Patent No. 200,521) on February 19, 1878.

Edison next turned his attention to developing an economical electric light bulb that would rival candles, gas, and lighting oils. Borrowing from previous electric light bulb research, he sought to improve the durability and quality of existing bulbs and materials. He spent months examining materials, including metal wire, human hair, and even coconut husks, before settling upon a carbon filament. After successfully using a carbon filament to light a bulb for 13 1/2 hours on October 22, 1879, Edison made additional improvements and filed for a patent on November 4, 1879. Edison announced a public display of his improved light bulbs on New Year's Eve 1879. The announcement was so enthusiastically received that the Pennsylvania Railroad chartered special trains to Menlo Park to satisfy the crowds of people eager to see the strings of bulbs Edison's employees hung between the labratory's buildings.

In the decades following these events, Edison would receive more than 1,000 U.S. patents for inventions that continue to impact the way we live more than 8 decades since his death in 1931. You can learn more about Thomas Edison using data and records collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies. For example:

  • Thomas Edison was born in Milan, OH, a village in Erie and Huron Counties, on February 11, 1847. In 1850, Erie County, OH's population was 18,568 and Huron County counted 26,203. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated the population of the two counties at 75,107 and 58,439, respectively.
  • Approximately two decades after Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first telegraphic message in 1844, Thomas Edison worked as a telegraph operator. He based two of his earliest inventions—an electric vote recorder (Patent No. 90,646) and stock "ticker" (Patent No. 140,488)—on telegraph technology.
  • Thomas Edison moved to Newark, NJ, in 1870. In that year, Newark's population was 105,059. At its peak in 1930, the city was home to 442,337. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated its population at 281,764.
  • During the 1860 Census, Thomas Edison's profession was "news boy." He identified himself as a "scientist" during the 1880 Census. In 1900, 1910, and 1920, the census and much of the world knew Edison simply as an "inventor."
  • The Census Bureau's sister agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce—the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—maintains the records related to Thomas Edison's patent submissions. Some of these patents include his 1878 stencil-pen (Patent No. 196,747), the 1880 electric lamp (Patent No. 223,898), and the 1897 kinetographic camera (Patent No. 589,168).
  • Less than 1 year after the light bulb's public unveiling in 1879, Thomas Edison established the Edison Illuminating Company. The company opened electric generating stations to supply electricity for home and street lighting in New York City, NY, and Shamokin, PA, in 1882; and Sunbury, PA, Brockton, MA, and Mount Caramel, PA, in 1883. In 1907, 8 percent of all dwellings had electrical service. The total nearly doubled by 1912, and by 1956, 99.2 percent of all urban and rural nonfarm dwellings had electrical service.
  • Thomas Edison relied upon the many gifted employees he hired to assist him at his Menlo Park laboratory. Some of these employees included chemist, Jonas Walter Aylsworth; machinist John Ott; electrician and chemist Reginald Fessenden; recording expert Walter Miller; electrical engineers William J. Hammer and John W. Howell; and physicist and mathematician Francis Robbins Upton.
  • Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931, in Llewellyn Park, West Orange, NJ. Henry Ford, a close friend of Thomas Edison, convinced Edison's son Charles Edison (later Secretary of the Navy from 1939–1940, and 42nd New Jersey Govenor from 1941–1944) to capture his father's last breath Link to a non-federal Web site in a test tube. The test tube is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI.
  • On November 10, 1954, Raritan Township officially changed its name to Edison Township in honor of Thomas Edison and the laboratory he built in its Menlo Park neighborhood. Four years after Edison established his laboratory, the 1880 Census counted 3,789 people in Raritan Township. Following the 1960 Census (the first after its 1954 name change), Edison Township's population was 44,799. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated Edison Township's population was 101,996.
  • Data from the 2015 the Annual Survey of Manufacturing reported that there were 4,305 people employed in "Electric lamp bulb and part manufacturing" (NAICS 335110).
  • Learn more about Edison's incandescent light bulb using census data by visiting the U.S. Census Bureau's Stats for Stories: The Incandescent Light Bulb. Stats for Stories provide links to timely story ideas highlighting the Census Bureau's newsworthy statistics that relate to current events, observances, holidays, and anniversaries.

Edison Phonograph Advertisement

While working on improvements to the telegraph and the telephone in 1877, Edison discovered a method for recording sound on foil cylinders. When
Edison spoke into the mouthpiece of the phonograph, the sound vibrations created by his voice caused a needle to etch the machine's rotating foil cylinder.
In 1878, Edison established the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to sell his new invention. He would continue tinkering with his beloved phonograph
for the rest of his life.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.




Edison's First Patent
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Voting Machines


On June 1, 1869, Thomas Edison received his first patent for improvements to "electrographic vote-recording."

A demonstration of the device to Congress by one of Edison's investors failed to win support for its use in U.S. elections.

In 1892, Lockport, NY, was first to use an electronic voting machine in an American election.



























Hollerith Tabulator

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Did You Know


Soon after Edison electrified Washington, DC's street lights in 1881, Census Bureau employee Herman Hollerith began studying the power source as a means to improve data tabulation.

The resulting Hollerith Tabulator used electrically operated components to capture and process 1890 Census data stored on paper punch cards.

In 1924, Thomas J. Watson renamed the conglomerate of companies that included Hollerith's Tabulating Machine Company to the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).


















Census Flashback


November 30 marks the 182nd birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens—the author better known as Mark Twain.

A 1910 Census enumerator interviewed Clemens at his Redding, CT, home hours before he died on April 21, 1910.

Learn more about Clemens and his "final interview" at our November 2015 Web page commemorating his life and work.




Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: January 28, 2019