This timeline was originally created for the 1995 American Experience documentary Edison's Miracle of Light.

Milan, Ohio
Edison National Historical Site

Milan, Ohio
February 11, 1847

Thomas Edison is born in Milan, Ohio.


1854

The Edison family moves to Port Huron, Michigan.


Edison as a young boy
Edison National Historical Site

Edison as a young boy
1859

Edison gets a job as a trainboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad, selling newspapers and candy.  He sets up a chemistry lab and a printing press on the train.


1863-1867

Edison works as a telegraph operator in various cities of the Midwest, becoming a first-class press-wire operator and experimenting with telegraph instruments.


1868

Edison becomes a telegraph operator in the main Western Union office in Boston and files his first patent application for an automatic vote recorder for legislatures.


1869

Edison retires as a telegraph operator to devote his time to invention.  He patents several telegraph devices and moves to New York City, where he works for the Laws Gold Indicator Company.


1870

Edison moves to Newark, New Jersey, and with money from a contract with the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, he opens a telegraph manufacturing shop where he also conducts his inventive work.


Mary Stillwell
National Park Service

Mary Stillwell
December 25, 1871

Edison marries Mary Stillwell, one of his employees, before heading back to the lab to continue work on important improvements in stock ticker technology, several of which he has devised this year.


1874

Edison invents the quadruplex telegraph for Western Union, which transmits four messages simultaneously (two in each direction).


1875

Edison separates his laboratory from the manufacturing shop.  He invents the electric pen, an early copying device, and works on various telegraph inventions.  He also announces the discovery of "etheric force," not realizing that he has observed the behavior of radio waves; his controversial claim is not accepted by the scientific community.


Edison's research lab
Edison National Historical Site

Edison's research lab
1876

Edison moves to Menlo Park, New Jersey, and establishes his first full-scale industrial research laboratory, combining electrical and chemical laboratories with an experimental machine shop.


Demonstrating the phonograph
Edison National Historical Site

Demonstrating the phonograph
1877

Edison invents the carbon transmitter, a crucial improvement in telephone technology, and the phonograph, which he demonstrates at the offices of Scientific American on December 7.


1879

Edison invents the carbon-filament lamp and a direct-current generator for incandescent electric lighting.  A New Year's Eve demonstration of his system is held for the public at Menlo Park.


The electric light bulb
Edison National Historical Site

The electric light bulb
1880

Edison hires a larger staff to help him develop the components of his electric lighting system for commercial use and sets up a factory for the manufacture of electric lamps at Menlo Park.


1881

Edison leaves Menlo Park and opens new offices in New York City.  He establishes factories to make various parts of the electric light and power system and begins construction of the first permanent central power station, on Pearl Street, which opens in September 1882.


1883-1884

Edison spends a year promoting the installation of central stations for small manufacturing cities and towns and establishes a company to build the stations.


1884

Mary (Stillwell) Edison dies.


Mina Miller
National Park Service

Mina Miller
1886

Edison marries Mina Miller. Charles Tainter, working in Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory, develops an improved wax-recording phonograph called the graphophone.


1887

Edison moves into a new laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey.


Thomas Edison
Edison National Historical Site

Thomas Edison
1888

Spurred by the graphophone, Edison develops his "perfected" phonograph.  

Edison engages in a "war of the currents" with George Westinghouse as he challenges the safety of the new alternating-current electric systems with evidence from animal electrocutions conducted at his laboratory.


1890

William Kemmler becomes the first man executed with an electric chair.


1892

The Thomson-Houston Company and Edison General Electric merge to form General Electric.  Edison leaves electric lighting and spends the rest of the decade attempting to develop a method for processing low-grade iron for use by eastern smelters, which fails after the discovery of rich new mines in the Midwest.


1893

The Columbian Exposition in Chicago is powered by alternating-current and the Niagara Falls Commission approves AC as the system for the first large-scale electrical generator in the world.

Edison demonstrates his system for making and showing motion pictures.


1896

Introduces the Home Phonograph, an inexpensive, spring-motor phonograph.


Edison in his lab
Edison National Historical Site

Edison in his lab
1900

General Electric organizes the first modern research-and-development laboratory. 

Edison begins work on a storage battery for use in electric cars.


1909

Edison markets his alkaline storage battery, which is used extensively in a host of commercial applications after the market for electric automobiles declines.


With Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels
Edison National Historical Site

With Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels
1915

Influenced by a New York Times interview with Edison, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels convinces Edison to head a Naval Consulting Board to investigate new military technology.


1916

Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone begin a tradition of vacationing together and are followed by the press everywhere they go.


1927

Edison begins an effort to find a natural substitute for rubber that can be grown and processed quickly in case of shortages caused by war, eventually settling on goldenrod as the best material.


1929

Edison re-enacts the invention of the incandescent light at the Golden Jubilee celebration in Dearborn, Michigan, where Henry Ford has reconstructed the Menlo Park laboratory.


Thomas Edison
Edison National Historical Site

Thomas Edison
October 18, 1931

Edison dies in Llewellyn Park, New Jersey.  The nation dims its light bulbs for one minute on the day of his funeral.


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The late 1800s and early 1900s were exciting years for American innovation and technology. What is the most significant or impactful invention in American history during that time?