Politician, businessman, philanthropist
Born: August 3, 1890, in West Orange, New Jersey
Died: July 31, 1969, in New York City
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2023: Public Service
The best-known and most-accomplished of Thomas Edison’s six children, Charles Edison began his career in the family business, but then invented a life of his own.
Charles was Thomas Edison’s fifth child and second from his marriage to Mina Miller. He attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a degree in electrical engineering in 1913. He went to work at the Edison Illuminating Company, an operation created by his father to construct electrical generating stations in major cities, initially New York.
The younger Edison rose through the ranks to become manager of the Edison Phonograph Company and the Edison Storage Battery Company. By 1916, at the age of 26, Charles was appointed chairman of all the Edison-related industries. Ten years later, he assumed the presidency of Thomas A. Edison Inc. He ran the company until its merger with McGraw Electric in 1957, after which he served as chairman of the newly merged company until his retirement in 1961.
Edison began his parallel career in public service when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him as a member of the Depression-era New Jersey State Recovery Board. He also served as state director of the National Emergency Council; as a member of the National Industrial Recovery Board; and as a regional director of the Federal Housing Administration.
In 1937, Roosevelt chose Edison as assistant secretary of the Navy, a position once occupied by Roosevelt himself. Edison was elevated to secretary of the Navy in 1940, serving briefly until resigning to run for governor of New Jersey. Breaking with family tradition, he ran as a Democrat.
During his single term as governor from 1941-1945, Edison worked to update the state constitution. Voters rejected his plan in a referendum, but his proposal would inspire the state’s passage of a modern constitution before the decade was out. That document is still in place.
Edison’s advocacy for large Iowa-class battleships while with the Navy department led to the construction of the USS New Jersey at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The New Jersey was christened in 1943 by Edison’s wife, Carolyn; after decades of valuable service around the globe, the battleship was decommissioned in 1991 and now resides on the Camden waterfront where it lives on as a floating museum.
Moving on from politics, Edison established the Charles Edison Fund (originally called the Brook Foundation) in 1948. The fund was created to support the legacy of Edison’s father, and to encourage innovations in medical research, science, technology and historic preservation.
Later in life, Edison was one of the founders of the Conservative Party in New York State, and founded the Charles Edison Youth Fund, now the Fund for American Studies, which promotes the ideals of liberty, limited government and free markets.