American Legends: The Life of Thomas Edison

AMERICAN LEGENDS: THE LIFE OF THOMAS EDISON
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In late the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended through Port Huron to Detroit, and Edison found employment as a "candy butcher," selling sweets, newspapers, and magazines. In that position he soon showed an entrepreneurial flair. He employed boys to sell vegetables and magazines in Port Huron and wrote, printed, and sold a newspaper on the train.

The Civil War was raging, and when the battle of Shiloh was reported in the Detroit Free Press, Edison talked the editor into giving him extra copies on credit and then had the headlines telegraphed ahead to the train's scheduled stops. The crowds were so large and the demand for the papers so great that he steadily increased the price at each station, selling all the papers at a handsome profit.

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It is clear that young Al had already learned valuable lessons about the power of the telegraph and the press. Edison continued his education while working on the train. He read in the Detroit Public Library during his daily layover, performed chemistry experiments in a baggage car, and learned the rudiments of telegraphy. When he was 15 he rescued the toddler son of telegraph operator James MacKenzie from the path of a rolling freight car, and MacKenzie rewarded him by giving him lessons. After practicing intensively all summer, Edison took a part-time telegraph job in Port Huron.

Within a year Edison had embarked on a four-year stint as an itinerant telegrapher, a path followed by many ambitious, technically oriented young men. During those years he advanced to the front rank of telegraphers, becoming an expert receiver known for his clear, rapid handwriting. He joined the elite press-wire operators, the men who handled the lengthy, important news dispatches. He associated with journalists and editors, frequenting their offices and joining their conversations into the early morning.

Some of his fellow operators later became newspaper reporters, and a few of them would help push Edison into the public eye. Edison worked in many of the larger cities of the Midwest, centers of technical as well as commercial and political sophistication. He read technical and scientific literature ranging from telegraph trade periodicals to Michael Faraday's Experimental Researches in Electricity, and he moved in an atmosphere heady with inventive progress, where new devices and ideas were discussed and tried.

Like all operators, Edison had to maintain his instruments and the batteries that powered the lines. He studied them and thought about ways to improve them, experimenting with discarded instruments. He purchased a small lathe and some other tools. By the time he headed home in , he was thoroughly familiar with the state of the science and art of telegraphy and had begun to learn the craft of invention.

A message from an operator friend induced Edison to travel to Boston in early , where he took a job with Western Union. In Boston he saw for the first time the complete telegraph community: not only expert operators, but leading inventors, major manufacturing shops with skilled experimental mechanics, important industry officials, and capitalists looking for promising inventors and inventions. Edison spent a year in the Western Union office.

During that time, inspired by the activity and potential of his surroundings, he worked on more than half a dozen telegraph devices. He found financial backers and mechanics able to help him realize his ideas. He acquired working space in the shop of Charles Williams, a leading telegraph manufacturer who also provided laboratory facilities to the prominent electrical inventor Moses Farmer. On January 30, , five days after signing the patent application for the latter, Edison resigned his operator's post to "devote his time to bringing out his inventions. In order to test one of these inventions, a "double transmitter" for sending two simultaneous telegraph messages on a single wire, Edison traveled to New York City in the spring of There he found the movers and shakers of the telegraph industry.

Western Union was headquartered in Manhattan, and the lawyers, bankers, and inventors at the heart of the business were collected there. Edison immediately fell in with Franklin Pope, a prominent telegraph engineer, with whom he formed a partnership. They formed three successful businesses based on a series of printing telegraphs which placed them at the center of a struggle to control the technology for the distribution of financial information.

With money from the facsimile contract, Edison and mechanic William Unger opened a small telegraph manufacturing shop in Newark, New Jersey. From that time on, Edison was never without a shop, a signature of his inventive style. When he had first arrived in New York he had written to his Boston capitalist, "What delays me here is awaiting the alteration of my instruments which on account of the piling up of jobs at the instrument makers have been delayed. Another key element of Edison's work was his propensity for working on several projects at once.

In the fall of , in addition to his printing and facsimile telegraphs, he began work on automatic telegraphy, a high-speed system using punched paper tape with mechanical transmitters and receivers, intended to compete with the standard manually keyed Morse telegraphy of Western Union. He never devoted his attention to a single project; later, during the most intensive work on electric lighting, which was itself a series of related problems, he developed a new telephone receiver and a method of ore separation.

One result of his multidirected activity was a constant cross-fertilization of ideas and insights. Edison tried methods and devices from one avenue of research in others. Often these imported concepts came from months or years earlier; some had worked in other contexts, some had not. It was this mode of working and thinking that contributed largely to Edison's ability to find solutions where others found none. During the first half of the s, Edison established himself as the foremost telegraph inventor in America. Several companies competed for control of his work.

In October , backed by the group of wealthy financiers who formed the Automatic Telegraph Company, Edison established the American Telegraph Works, a large shop equipped with new machine tools and highly skilled mechanics. In the fall of , after a trip to England to promote his automatic system there, he sold a British syndicate the rights to that system.

Under an oral arrangement with Western Union President William Orton, he developed multiple telegraphy systems in and As opened he became embroiled in an attempt by the financier Jay Gould to build a competing network to Western Union's, an association that led to years of litigation. A year after successfully developing a quadruplex four-message telegraph in , he agreed to a contract with Western Union that assigned all his work in multiple telegraphy to the company.

By , the nation's chief credit reporting agency, R. Orton and Marshall Lefferts, the president of Gold and Stock, were particularly important to Edison during these years. Not only did their companies provide crucial support for his inventive work, but both men served as mentors to the young inventor. Lefferts taught him important lessons about the patent system and the role of patents as a business tool. Edison's style of patenting to "cover the field" was learned from Lefferts, who followed that policy as president of Gold and Stock.

Logging out…. Logging out You've been inactive for a while, logging you out in a few seconds I'm Still Here! W hy's T his F unny? He mastered telegraphy quickly and for the next few years worked as a telegraph operator in towns throughout the Midwest. Instead of sleeping during the day he experimented with electrical currents. The first invention resulting from these experiments was a device for electronically recording voice votes taken by a legislative body.

Edison received his first patent for this device, which raised little interest on the market. Thereafter he operated as a freelance inventor. His first successful invention was the Edison Universal Stock Printer. There he produced stock tickers and high-speed printing telegraphs. His firm quickly employed 50 consulting engineers. During the next six years Edison was granted about new patents for inventions he and others made there. Here the "Wizard of Menlo Park" accomplished some of his most important work.

The phonograph

This included the phonograph , a primitive instrument in which sound vibrations were transferred by a steel stylus to a cylinder wrapped in tin foil. Despite enormous popular interest in Edison's new toy, which he actively promoted, the inventor did not envision its commercial potential right away and abandoned its development for 10 years.

Meanwhile he worked hard to invent an economical, practical, and durable incandescent lamp. On October 21, , Edison first demonstrated in public an incandescent light bulb made with charred cotton thread sealed in a vacuum that could burn for several hours. This time, Edison realized the immense implications of his discovery, and he spent the next few years adapting his invention for large-scale use. In his company began operating the world's first electric power station, which supplied power to incandescent lamps owned by 85 customers. The laboratory eventually employed 5, persons to produce a variety of new products, including improved phonographs that used wax records, mimeographs, alkaline-storage batteries, dictating machines, and motion picture cameras and projectors.

Edison's best known invention from this period was probably the kinetograph, a primitive moving picture. Edison produced The Great Train Robbery , one of the first movies ever made, using this technology. By he developed a prototype of the "talking picture. Navy Consulting Board and contributed many valuable discoveries to the war effort. Edison's inventions have had a profound effect on modern society. No other man has ever been responsible for inventing products with such influence on so many lives around the world.

In recognition of his accomplishments Edison was appointed Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in and promoted to Commander of the Legion in In he received the Congressional Gold Medal for "development and application of inventions that have revolutionized civilization in the last century. Edison married twice and was the father of six children. He died in West Orange on October 18, Automotive pioneer Henry Ford credited Edison with encouraging his early work on automobiles.

Ford purchased the Menlo Park Laboratory complex in , and moved it to his new historic park, Greenfield Village , in Dearborn, Michigan. Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York : Hyperion, Josephson, Matthew. Edison: A Biography. Reprint Edition. Millard, Andre. Edison and the Business of Innovation. Vanderbilt, Byron. Thomas Edison, Chemist. Washington, D. Economic History. Thomas Alva Edison , —, American inventor, b. Milan, Ohio. A genius in the practical application of scientific principles, Edison was one of the greatest and most productive inventors of his time, but his formal schooling was limited to three months in Port Huron, Mich.

For several years he was a newsboy on the Grand Trunk RR, and it was during this period that he began to suffer from deafness, which was to increase throughout his life. He later worked as a telegraph operator in various cities. Edison's first inventions were the transmitter and receiver for the automatic telegraph, the quadruplex system of transmitting four simultaneous messages, and an improved stock-ticker system. In he invented the carbon telephone transmitter see microphone for the Western Union Telegraph Company.

His phonograph patented was notable as the first successful instrument of its kind. In , Edison created the first commercially practical incandescent lamp with a carbon filament. For use with it he developed a complete electrical distribution system for light and power, including generators, motors, light sockets with the Edison base, junction boxes, safety fuses, underground conductors, and other devices. The crowning achievement of his work in this field was the Pearl St. He also built and operated an experimental electric railroad, and produced a superior storage battery of iron and nickel with an alkaline electrolyte.

Other significant inventions include the Kinetoscope, or peep-show machine. Edison later demonstrated experimentally the synchronization of motion pictures and sound, and talking pictures were based on this work. During World War I he helped to develop the manufacture in the United States of chemicals previously imported; he also served as head of the U. Edison later worked on the production of rubber from American plants, notably goldenrod. Edison held over 1, U. An Edison memorial tower and light was erected in Menlo Park, N.

See the autobiographical Diary and Sundry Observations ed. Runes, , repr. Jenkins, P. Israel, L. Carlat, et al. Silverberg ; W. Friedel and P. Edison, Thomas Alva — , prolific inventor, entrepreneur, and industrialist. A pioneer in team industrial research, Edison made significant innovations in communications technologies telegraph, telephone, phonograph, and motion pictures and in electric lighting and electric power systems.

Edison's laboratories in New Jersey and his worldwide acclaim as a successful inventor reinforced an aura of American industrial progress through research that fostered application of systemized research to military technology in the first half of the twentieth century. In , naval secretary Josephus Daniels enlisted Edison to organize and chair a Naval Consulting Board to provide technical counsel to the navy. Edison lent his name to board activities, personally engaged in sonic research for detection of submarines, and vigorously promoted creation of a Naval Research Laboratory.

His group was outflanked, however, by the National Academy of Science, representing younger, academically oriented scientists. They created a presidentially appointed National Research Council, led by the politically astute George Ellery Hale, which attained a power and influence that eclipsed the Edison group and ultimately led in World War II to establishment of Vannevar Bush 's powerful Office of Scientific Research and Development. Nevertheless, some of the Edison's companies were organized into the General Electric Company , which became a major defense contractor.

Reese V. Jenkins, et al. Edison, Thomas Alva — US inventor. With little formal education, Edison made many important inventions, such as the telegraph, phonograph , the first commercially successful electric light , and many improvements to the electricity distribution system. By the time of his death, he patented more than inventions.

Thomas Edison was one of the most productive inventors in American history. With 1, U. Edison's accomplishments were not always complete inventions but improvements made on technology already in place. Edison is best remembered as the inventor of the incandescent lightbulb a lightbulb powered by heat. In addition, he was an intelligent businessman and a successful manufacturer.

Young Al, as he was called, was the last of seven children, and he suffered from ill health throughout most of his childhood. As a result, he began school later than most children.

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Within three months, it became clear that he was not going to find success in a formal classroom setting. Edison's mother pulled him from school and homeschooled him. Edison always credited his mother for putting him in an educational environment that was better suited for him. In , the Edison family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where Sam found work in the lumber business. By the age of twelve, Edison was almost completely deaf. Despite several theories as to how his deafness developed, Edison himself claimed he lost his hearing because someone pulled him off the ground and into a train car by his ears.

The young salesman used the train's baggage car to set up a laboratory for chemistry experiments, but a resulting fire put a halt to mixing pleasure with work. Edison also had a printing press set up in the train. He published the Grand Trunk Herald, the first newspaper ever to be published on board a train. In , at the age of fifteen, Edison saved a three-year-old boy from being run over by a boxcar.

The boy's father, J. MacKenzie, was the station agent in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Grateful to Edison for his bravery, MacKenzie trained Edison as a telegraph operator. The telegraph is a communication system used to send messages from one location to another via electric wires, usually using a code of dots and dashes to represent letters. Edison took a job as a telegraph operator in Port Huron that winter and continued working on scientific experiments in his free time.

For the next five years, Edison traveled across the country, taking telegraph jobs in various cities. Edison moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in , where he worked for Western Union a company that sends money and messages electronically. He applied for his first patent that year, for an electric vote recorder. Always at work on at least one invention, Edison quit his job in to devote all his time to inventing. His first patent was awarded to him that year, but his joy was soon overshadowed by disappointment. Politicians were reluctant to use the machine for fear of inaccuracy.

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In the summer of that year, Edison moved to New York City. A friend and telegraph engineer, Franklin L. When Edison fixed a broken machine on the premises, he was hired to manage the maintenance of the company's printing machines. The businessmen promoted themselves as electrical engineers and builders of electrical devices. Edison was granted several patents to improve the telegraph.

Not only could his machine send messages electrically, it could now print as well. The company merged with Gold and Stock Telegraph Company in Next, Edison invented a simple copier machine, an early version of the modern facsimile fax machine. That same year, Edison joined forces with mechanic William Unger. Edison used the facility to conduct his many other sideline experiments. He would never be without a workshop again. Edison was devoted to his inventions, but he found time to marry in Though he had known her for only two months, Edison married sixteen-year-old Mary Stilwell. The couple eventually had one daughter and two sons.

That year was not entirely full of joy, however. Just before his wedding, Edison mourned the death of his mother. The loss of the person he loved most in the world may have influenced his decision to marry so quickly. His marriage, though based in love, was often difficult. Edison spent most of his time working in the lab, even sleeping there. Edison quietly established himself as the leading American inventor throughout the first half of the s. In , he sold a British company the rights to his automatic telegraph. He had an oral agreement with Western Union to develop multiple telegraphy systems throughout and In that last year, Edison invented the four-message telegraph, which landed him a contract with Western Union.

From that point on, all his work in multiple telegraphy would solely benefit Western Union. Although recognized as a genius by others in the telegraph industry, international fame would not come to Edison until , when he earned the title, "Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison bought a parcel of rural land in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in and set about building the laboratory of his dreams. According to The Edison Papers, the lab became known as the "invention factory. At just twenty-nine, Edison already had one hundred U. As America's telegraph expert, Edison was asked by Western Union to look into the possibility of a speaking telegraph. Such a machine had already been invented by Alexander Graham Bell — , but it left much room for improvement.

Sound traveled clearly but could not be transmitted at a great distance or in a noisy environment, as businesses tended to be. In , Edison unveiled his transmitter, a device that allowed telephones to transmit voices over long distances. That transmitter was used for almost one hundred years. Edison invented the phonograph somewhat by accident, yet it is the invention that thrust him into the spotlight and made him something of a celebrity.

While working on the telephone, which was supposed to be used by telegraph companies to transmit messages between operators, Edison noticed a problem. Speech was too fast to be written down, so there was no written record of messages. To remedy that, he figured out a way to record the vibrations of the receiving instrument. His recording method enabled them to be played back at a slower speed, thus allowing operators to write down the words. Edison kept notebooks full of notes and ideas and outcomes of all his inventions.

When he reread what he had written about the telephone, he realized he had found a way to record not just messages, but sound. In December , Edison and his employees unveiled their "talking machine" at the offices of Scientific American magazine in New York. Newspapers immediately published reports of the amazing invention.

Because it was impractical for anyone but trained technicians to operate it, however, the invention did not catch on with the public as anything but a novelty something of interest, but not necessary. Still, Edison's name made headlines. Since there was little interest in the phonograph, Edison turned his attention to the electric light system.

With financial backing from several investors, he founded the Edison Electric Light Company on November 15, Edison agreed to give the company all his patents in exchange for a large share of stock in the company. The inventor's experiments began as a search for a lamp that could replace gas lighting.

Work on this project continued into Edison wanted to develop not only an incandescent lightbulb but a complete electrical lighting system that cities across the country could support. The answer to the search for a long-lasting bulb lay in a tiny filament a threadlike fiber inside the bulb made of carbon. His first incandescent lamp burned for two days. With the discovery of the carbon filament, Edison was able to provide America with lightbulbs that were practical for home use. He did not invent the electric bulb; he improved upon it and made it available for homes.

He did invent the electric light system, which made electric light safe, practical, and economical. Because of his system, America's cities forever changed. Businesses could stay open longer, and nighttime no longer put an end to production in factories. Edison demonstrated his incandescent lighting on December 31, , in Menlo Park. Approximately sixty lamps were installed around the grounds of the lab, and the public was invited to view the spectacle that night.

Americans saw, for the first time, the power of electric light. On January 27, , Edison filed for a U. The patent office ruled that Edison's patent was based on the work of another inventor, William Sawyer, and was invalid. Finally, on October 6, , Edison's patent was ruled valid by a judge who declared that Edison's improvement of the filament was based on his own work, not that of someone else. Edison established a light factory in East Newark in The following year, he and his family moved to New York, where he set up another laboratory.

In , the first commercial electric light system was installed on Pearl Street in Manhattan.

Four hundred lamps were lit. Within a year's time, more than ten thousand lamps were being used by customers. The lighting system was exhibited at the Paris Lighting Exposition in France in and elsewhere throughout Europe. Soon, Edison established several companies to manufacture and operate these electrical systems, both in America and abroad. In , Edison's wife died, and for a short while, his work suffered. The thirty-nine-year-old inventor married nineteen-year-old Mina Miller in , and her support of his work allowed him to return full-time to his research.

The couple would have three children. By the time of his second marriage, he had moved back to New Jersey. In , he decided to build another laboratory. This new lab was larger than his first at Menlo Park, and it served as the research and development center for his many companies. In , Edison brought all his companies together to form Edison General Electric. His company merged with its main competitor, Thompson-Houston, in , and became known simply as General Electric. With that merger, Edison left the electric light industry and used his profits from the deal to fund research on a piece of equipment that still interested him: the phonograph.

Edison's lab included a phonograph department, and he had been trying to improve the apparatus since the lab was built. In , Edison established the National Phonograph Company in the hopes of attracting customers to buy his invention for home entertainment. Since first introducing the phonograph, Edison had worked to make necessary improvements. The phonograph initially played cylinders, not discs.

The early cylinders were made of wax and did not last longer than two or three plays. Around the turn of the century, Edison and his staff developed the disc phonograph. Discs were longer lasting, easier to play and store, and more economical. Edison went into the disc-making business in His discs were designed for use with Edison phonographs only. His success in this venture was seriously hampered by Edison putting himself in charge of choosing which musical groups his company would record. The nearly deaf Edison saw his discs earn the reputation of featuring low-quality musicians. Because of the choice of music and the competition provided by the newly invented radio, Edison's disc business came to an end in Although unsuccessful as a disc recorder, Edison was a leader in the disc-duplicating industry.

He used the profits from that business to finance two more innovations: a cement manufacturing process, and an electrical storage battery. The battery was intended to be used to power electric automobiles, but it found more use in various industries. Within a few years, the battery became the most profitable invention of Edison's various businesses. In , Edison began working on a motion-picture camera in his lab.

As pointed out by the Library of Congress 's Web site on the inventor, American Memories, Edison wrote, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear. Edison was not the actual inventor of the motion-picture camera. One of the researchers who worked in his lab, William K. Dickson — , invented the camera in October After Edison further refined the camera, he applied for a patent in for a device called a Kinetograph which would take photos for his next invention , and a motion-picture peephole viewer called a Kinetoscope.

The Kinetoscope's popularity was immediate, and Kinetoscope parlors opened up throughout New York and other major cities in In these establishments, customers could view short films featuring various singers, dancers, and other performers through the new Kinetoscope machines.

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It was a profitable business for Edison. Dickson eventually helped Edison's competitors develop a different peephole device and was fired for his actions. Dickson went on to form a company with three other men.

Famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison was Mexican?

Edison worked with two other inventors in his lab to develop the Vitascope, a movie projector. The Vitascope, like the Kinetoscope, was immediately popular when it debuted on April 23, Despite his success in films, it was never an industry that was as close to the inventor's heart as the phonograph inventions and innovations he had developed. In , he merged the two industries when he developed the Kinetophone kineto means "movement" , a device that synchronized sound on a phonograph to the picture shown through the movie projector. It was a flawed system, though, used for just two years before technicians gave up trying to get it to work properly.

Within three years, Edison removed himself from the movie business. As he aged, Edison had less to do with the day-to-day operation of his many companies. In , he reorganized all of them into one large company, Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated. Unlike in the earlier years, his mission was not to invent as many useful devices as possible but to remain on the market with the inventions he had already developed. During World War I —18 , Edison was involved in naval research and believed technology would be the future of war.

Although he was appointed head of the Naval Consulting Board in , he was frustrated by his position. He felt that the U. Navy was not open to many of his ideas and suggestions. Edison's health began to fail in the s. The highlight of the decade for him came on the fiftieth anniversary of the electric lamp, in Automobile manufacturer Henry Ford — hosted a huge celebration attended by such dignitaries as President Herbert Hoover —; served —33 , aviation pioneer Orville Wright — , and chemist Madame Curie — Edison reenacted the invention of his incandescent lamp at the gathering.

Edison died at age eighty-four on October 18, His remains, along with those of his second wife, are buried on his New Jersey estate, known as Glenmont. New York: Hyperion, Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago , Reprint, Delano, Marfe Ferguson. Thomas Edison: A Brilliant Inventor. New York: HarperCollins, Beals, Gerald. Thomas Edison's Home Page. Library of Congress. Thomas Alva Edison invented hundreds of devices, including the phonograph.

He also developed a method of organized scientific research that hastened advances in American technology. Thomas Edison was born on February 11, , in Milan, Ohio. Edison's father was a jack-of-all-trades, and his mother was a former teacher. As a child, Edison spent only three months in school. His mother educated him herself at home. At the age of twelve, he went to work, selling fruit, candy, and newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad. During his teens, Edison lost his hearing, possibly caused by the scarlet fever he had as a child.

In , Edison got an opportunity to learn telegraphy, a means of communicating over a great distance by using coded signals transmitted by wire. He soon mastered the art and for the next five years traveled throughout the country as a telegraph operator. During these years, he dreamed of becoming an inventor. He frequently purchased electrical gadgets or chemicals for his laboratory. Not long after Edison went to work for Western Union Telegraph Company in Boston, Massachusetts , in , he invented a device for electronically recording the voice votes taken in a legislative assembly.

For this machine, he obtained his first patent, a grant made by the U. The machine worked well, but no one was interested in buying it. He soon formed his own electrical engineering company and. The factory employed as many as eighty researchers, including chemists, physicists, and mathematicians.

It operated for six years, turning out a variety of inventions related primarily to improvements in stock tickers and telegraphy equipment. Over the next ten years, he produced many important inventions, including the phonograph and an improved incandescent lightbulb. Edison's most original and lucrative invention, the phonograph, or record player , was patented in The idea for the phonograph came to Edison while he was studying a telephone receiver. He attached a steel stylus a hard-pointed, pen-shaped instrument to the diaphragm a disk that vibrates to generate sound waves of the receiver so he could feel the sound vibrations with his finger as they were emitted.

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 a tinfoil-covered cylinder that was hand-cranked, while a needle traced a groove on it. By , his phonograph had become a motor-driven machine playing cylindrical wax records. Edison did not invent the incandescent lightbulb, but he designed one that worked well and was cheap enough for everyone to buy. The concept of the lightbulb was simple enough: When an electrical current passes through a thin wire, or filament, it encounters resistance that causes the wire to become hot enough to glow, that is, to reach incandescence.

The heat caused the wire to burn too quickly, so scientists encased the wire in a vacuum, a space devoid of matter.