Thomas Edison Invented the Smart Phone

Thomas Edison Invented the Smart Phone

I know what you are thinking.  Thomas Edison could not have possibly invented the smart phone considering he passed away on October 18, 1931 well before the first true smart phone became commercially available in 1994.  You would be correct to say the Simon Personal Communicator introduced by BellSouth was the first cellular phone to incorporate other features such as email access, calendars, and a calculator [1].  However, I would argue the most popular features on today’s smart phones would not exist if it were not for the inventions of Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931).  Those inventions include advancements to the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, electric lighting, motion picture, and the battery.

Telegraphy = Text Messaging

Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of electrical signals for the purposes of sending and receiving text messages.  The first commercial electric telegraph system was installed in 1838 between two train stations in London, England.  The first American system was installed in 1844 between Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland.  Thomas Edison was an accomplished telegraph operator and inventor.  Over 300 patents were issued to Edison for advancements to telegraphy beginning in 1869.  The electric telegraph was the primary form of long-distance communication until the turn of century with the invention of the telephone and later the radio.  Many systems remained in use well into the 2000’s.  In 1942, a man by the name of Harry Turner became the world champion hand key telegraph operator.  Mr. Turner was capable of producing 35 w.p.m. using the International Morse Code [2].  Today, a quarter million text messages are sent and received every second from smart phones.  That works out to more than six-trillion text messages per year.

Telephone = Cellular Phone

The telephone was the most intuitive technology to be developed from the telegraph.  Known at the time as acoustic telegraphy, Edison was again not the first but perhaps the most prolific inventor working on the telephone.  Edison’s most important contribution was the invention and development of the carbon transmitter.  This technology allowed the telephone to become commercially viable and was used by most telephone manufacturers through the 1980’s.  It was his work on the telephone that inspired Edison to invent the phonograph.  Initially, Edison’s concept of the phonograph was as a way to record telephone messages for future play-back.  It is estimated there are over one billion landline telephones still in use around the world today.  However, cellular phone technology is rapidly outpacing the use of landline telephones.  Over 90 percent of adults in the United States use a mobile cell phone with approximately 60 percent of those phones being a smart phone [3].

Phonograph = Digital Audio Player

The invention of the phonograph was perhaps the most important of Thomas Edison’s career.  The sound reproducing machine was a marvel to both the scientific community and the public at large.  It was this invention alone that transformed Thomas Edison into America’s first true celebrity as the “Wizard of Menlo Park” [4]. The earliest machines were both recorders and players.  Eventually, the mass production of “records” would make the phonograph one of the most popular household appliances.  Digital audio recordings became commercially available in the early 1990’s.  Thousands of digital audio files can be stored on a single smart phone.  According to Mac Daily News, Apple’s iTunes Store passed 35 billion digital songs sold in May of 2014 [5]. The popularity of digital music cannot be overstated.

Electric Lighting = Smart Phone Flash Light

The incandescent lamp is the invention Thomas Edison is most associated with.  Edison became famous for his “trial and error” approach when developing a new product.  It is believed that Edison’s team tested more than 6,000 plant fibers to find a suitable material for his new lamp.  In late 1879, Edison settled on a spiral bamboo carbon-filament lamp design that would become the first practical and commercially viable electric lamp [4].  Many of today’s smart phones have a LED flash light that can be turned on and off by the user and also serves as the camera flash feature.  The smart phone flash light is remarkably bright with a few models producing up to 10 lumens at less than watt of power.

Motion Picture = Digital Video Recording

In 1891, Thomas Edison began work on developing the motion picture industry.  Several inventions would soon follow including the kinetograph, kinetoscope, and kinetophone.  Edison also received the very first motion picture copyright in the United States [6].  Edison Studios made close to 1,200 short films and at least 54 feature length movies [7].  The modern smart phone can record and display hours of digital video.  In 2014, an 88-minute long feature film became the first movie shot entirely on a smart phone [8].

Storage Battery = Lithium-Ion Battery

The battery is one of the earliest developments in the history of electricity.  It is believed that Benjamin Franklin himself first used the term “battery” to describe the storage of electrical energy in a device.  Thomas Edison began to develop, manufacture and sell rechargeable storage batteries in 1901.  By 1914, the Edison Battery was used in approximately 25 percent of the total electric vehicle market but was the primary power source for over 50 percent of the electric trucks manufactured by that year [4].  The lithium-ion battery is used in most smart phones manufactured today.  While extremely small and efficient, the smart phone lithium-ion battery can produce up to 6 watt-hours of energy at 3.8 volts.  Some models claim up to 300 hours of smart phone use on a single charge.

At the time of his death in 1931, Thomas Edison held 1,093 United States patents in his name.  Many of these inventions can be found and used on today’s smart phone.  The next time you send a text, make a phone call, listen to a song, use the flashlight to read a menu, watch a video, or plug in your smart phone for a quick charge; try to remember it all started with the brilliant innovation and prolific inventions of Thomas Alva Edison.

[1] Sager, Ira (June 29, 2012). “Before IPhone and Android Came Simon, the First Smartphone”. Bloomberg Businessweek.

[2] McEwan, Neal (September 11, 2004). “A Tribute to Morse Telegraphy and Resource for Wire and Wireless Telegraph Key Collectors and Historians”.

[3] Mobile Technology Fact Sheet. (December 27, 2013). Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

[4] Israel, Paul (1998). “Edison – A life of Invention”. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[5] Mac Daily News. (May 29, 2014). “Apple’s iTunes Store passes 35 billion songs sold milestone, iTunes Radio now has 40 million listeners”.

[6] Hendricks, Gordon (1966). “The Kinetoscope: America’s First Commercially Successful Motion Picture Exhibitor”.

[7] Conot, Robert (1979). “Thomas A. Edison, a streak of luck”. New York, NY. Da Capo Press.

[8] Thornhill, Ted (March 4, 2014). “First ever feature film shot entirely on an iPhone”.

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