Schoolchildren around the USA are taught at an early age that Thomas Alva Edison was probably the greatest inventor who ever lived. And there is no argument that he did create some of the most spectacular technology the world has ever seen, and he did hold more than 1,000 patents. But a little research seems to indicate that he would go to any lengths to claim credit for inventions of other people’s work and creativity.
Did Thomas Edison steal inventions?
Here are three examples.
Edison is credited with the fluoroscope, which first made x-rays possible. Needless to say, the use of x-rays has been a huge boon to medical science, and the distribution of these devices added to Edison’s growing wealth. The problem is that the actual inventor of a device to see the bones of a human was a German scientist named Wilhelm Rontgen, who took an x-ray of his wife’s hand several years prior to Edison’s fluoroscope. If people confused this mistaken time gap, Edison was more than happy not to correct the error and essentially padded his bank account at Rontgen’s expense.
Another concept Edison is given credit for is creating devices for recording speech and other forms of sound. A French printer and bookseller named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville created his “phonautograph” more than 15 years before Edison’s 1877 “invention” of the phonograph. Again, Edison made no mention of de Martinville when marketing his own device.
The most sinister story about Edison involves the invention of motion pictures. He is popularly regarded as the father of motion pictures, but a very strong argument could be made that Louis Le Prince, a French inventor, invented working motion pictures before Edison. Whoever got the patents for motion picture technology would become very wealthy indeed. In 1890, Le Prince was taking a trip to patent his invention in England and then would sail to America to exhibit and patent it. He got on a train on September 13, 1890, and was never seen again. His luggage vanished as well. The family continued with the patent quest. Unfortunately, in 1892, while Le Prince’s son was testifying in a patent trial against Edison, the son was mysteriously shot to death by an unknown assailant. This murder was never solved.
Edison may have had nothing to do with the Le Prince puzzles, but there is no doubt his business dealings were questionable. One story goes that when filmmaker Georges Méliès’s masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” was spreading like wildfire throughout London, Edison obtained a copy from a shady theater owner. Edison then made numerous copies and took them back to America with him. He showed the pirated film across the USA and reaped huge amounts of money by showing the film, although Méliès didn’t get a cent from these showings. When Méliès finally arrived in America to show the film, at a great personal cost, everybody had already seen it. This caused Méliès an enormous financial loss that may have directly led to his infamous bankruptcy.
There is no question that Thomas Edison was a brilliant man, and some of his 1,000+ inventions have shaped our lives. But he was hardly the saint of science we were originally taught to believe.
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“Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville” Wikipedia, pulled 10-Feb-12
“Wilhelm Rontgen” Wikipedia, pulled 10-Feb-12
“Louis Le Prince” Wikipedia, pulled 10-Feb-12