Thomas Alva Edison
1847 - 1931
The man who lit up the world...
An appreciation by Barrie Blake-Coleman
Menlo Park – a sound investment
Becoming successful and celebrated, Edison needed room – an expansion of his domestic quarters (children were being born) and an expansion of his development facilities. Twenty-four miles from New York, on the New York and Philadelphia Railroad, there lay the peaceful and picturesque Menlo Park. Intuitively, Edison knew the factors which made an ideal environment for creative engineering and science. He was going to marshal them all at Menlo Park. In 1876 he committed.
Sinking nearly $250,000 into the venture, Menlo Park was equipped with every possible facility and service. A full library, machine shop, chemical laboratory, stores, messing rooms, kitchens and experimental electrical laboratories as well as an instrument calibration room, foundry, glass shop and an organ.
Though Menlo Park, because of its isolation, encouraged a somewhat slower pace, it was often frenetic. Edison was forever chasing ideas but sometimes they simply imposed themselves. Attempting to develop an embosser to amplify telephone signals Edison decided that the electro-motograph principle was worth pursuing. However, he first instructed Kruesi to make a flat disc of thin platinum which was to be rotated in contact with a stylus, itself driven by a diaphragm. Edison had felt vibrations through a diaphragm operated telephone transmitter and thought that a bigger disc would produce higher amplitudes which, if simultaneously read by another stylus, would repeat the signal at a greater level. Already aware of the smoke drum traces made by phonetecists for duplicating sound waves (the Phonautograph), Edison knew the principle was compelling.
The apocryphal tale of how Welster (Kruesi’s assistant) burst in on Edison on Christmas Eve to report that the embosser apparatus, in spinning too fast, had made wailing noises, may have foundation. So, too, the comment by Butler inspecting a microphone – “Now Edison, you must make something to record these sounds.” Add to this the vibrating stylus and wax paper once mentioned by Edison. Whatever the truth, everything was converging towards a method permanently to “emboss sounds” in order to replay them. Sometime in August 1877 Edison gave a sketch to Kruesi – “Build this” he said.
Illustrated was a hand-cranked cylinder whose frame carried moveable diaphragm and stylus. A small funnel concentrated sound on to the diaphragm. “Hello, hello” shouted Edison, and as the stylus was reset into the tinfoil groove of the cylinder and the handle turned, the silence of the crowd was broken by Edison’s tinny voice emanating from the diaphragm.
Many years’ work were to go into making the phonograph a viable commercial instrument. Edison filed for patents in December 1877 and the first was granted in February 1878. Perfection was far from coming. Poor materials and indifferent engineering exacerbated by commercial pressure forced
a number of design changes. Sibilants were a problem – months of work, with Edison repeatedly shouting “Mary had a little lamb – its fleece was white as…” had the diaphragm persistently lisping back “thnow” instead of “snow”.
Edison had lapses in his pursuit of the ideal phonograph. Phases of development were unavoidably postponed or abandoned. Charles Sumner Tainter, working with the Bell Volta Associates, eventually designed a very superior system, the Graphaphone. Edison, failing to renew his British master patent also failed to realise that this meant that the US patent automatically lapsed. In 1885 Bell, Sumner, Tainter et al filed five separate caveats (secret ‘provisional’ specifications) on the Graphaphone. Edison was subsequently embroiled in a 14-year legal battle with E.D. Easton, president of the American Graphaphone and Columbia Phonograph Company, which he eventually lost.
But on balance it was all a success and Edison milked it for all it was worth. The world at last got a complete demonstration. Phonographs came as manual or motor-driven, small phonographs for dolls, big ones for adults and music. Business got the Dictaphone. Edison got fame, Edison got money. Still, it made little difference. He refused bills for the rent of the Newark premises, his tailor wondered if he might have the $70 for the suit he made for Edison before the move to Menlo Park. A butcher sent his son to collect a two-year-old bill; Edison refused to see him.
A new light
Edison followed with electric pens and an assortment of other commercially-driven inventions. Less harassed by business and changing fortunes, Edison settled more into the Menlo Park routine of experimentation and expansion. He was hearing about arc lights and reading about incandescent filaments. It wasn’t new. He had seen a demonstration of an incandescent light by Moses Farmer in 1859. Indeed, J. W. Starr had used carbon and platinum in an evacuated glass globe as early as 1845, Draper used platinum in 1847 while Staite tried iridium filaments in 1859 in an attempt to emulate and surpass De Moylens, who had used the platinum strip as early as 1841. J.W. Swan in Newcastle, had spent 12 years experimenting with incandescent filaments only to give up in disgust in 1860 because he concluded that he could never achieve a satisfactory vacuum and that batteries could never provide a sufficiently economic electricity supply. Depretz tried carbon in nitrogen in 1849 as did Lodyguine, in St Petersburg, during 1873. None lasted, none was commercially viable.
Edison recalled his fascination at the glowing Moses Farmer lamp, exhibited in the shop window of Charles Williams in Boston. It had an operating life of less than one hour. Nevertheless, he thought he could do better and he started experimenting in the spring of 1877. A glass globe, a refractory filament with the right properties and a hard vacuum was all that was required. Some weeks into his initial tinkering with platinum filaments, Professor George Barker, known to Edison through the American Association for the Advancement of Science, advised Edison that he had made arrangements for them to visit Ansonia, Connecticut, there to see one William Wallace, who had equipped his factory with a water-driven turbine coupled to a dynamo to drive a complete arc lighting system and some experimental incandescent lamps. Edison, unusually subdued, meditated all day. As he departed he said to Wallace: “I think you’re on the wrong track.” Later, Barker asked Edison what he had meant. Edison, still taciturn, muttered something about a vacuum. Barker, detecting a confidence, probed further. Edison declaimed. “All right,” said Barker, “but I’ll expect you to do better.”
Convincing a consortium (led by Grosvenor P. Lowrey, a long-time associate) that he could make a commercially viable lighting system based on incandescence, Edison signed a rights and remuneration agreement which formed the nucleus of what was to become the Edison Electric Light Company. All he had to do was make it happen. The newspapers believed he already had and Edison was happy to sustain the fantasy.
In fact, nothing was going right. Batchelor was learning globe-making and others were struggling to understand how to best use the Sprengel mercury vacuum pump. Everything that might act as a filament was tried. Platinum/iridium filaments, insulated with zirconium or magnesium oxide, did work but were too expensive and didn’t seem to last for long. Carbonisation of woods and cards appeared to produce a reasonably durable lamp but, in the end, few lasted for more than four or five hours. Explorers brought back different types of bamboo for carbonisation – a hair from Batchelor’s beard was moderately successful. Weeks passed, progress was poor. Edison was under too much pressure. Seeking a respite he found a safe haven in an under-stairs cupboard and after taking a dose of morphine, Edison went to sleep for 36 hours.
The world’s press were sniggering and investors were getting jumpy. Edison, though inundating the US Patent Office with caveats every few months, failed to provide an impressive demonstration. A good filament was hardly ever coupled to a good vacuum. Bulbs shattered, nickel and noble metal supports sagged or cracked in their seals and the durability when both were reasonable turned out to be illusory. Incandescence could sometimes be maintained for many hours, but never twice with the same bulb.
Two things had changed, however, the earlier arrival of Francis Upton at Menlo Park (December 13, 1878) and Edison’s acceptance that trial and error could only go so far. Upton, a cultured Bostonian with a strong physics and mathematical background, had training in Helmholtz’ laboratory in Berlin (just two years before H. Hertz). Upton revitalised everything. He used Macloud vacuum gauges to standardise evacuation, redesigned the dynamos for better efficiency and, more importantly, he made Edison think harder about what he was doing. Likewise, Edison discovered that Upton’s education was oddly flawed; his weakness was Ohm’s Law. The two began to teach each another. From that point a wary relationship became a strong bond of mutual respect. But, for all this, Edison et al were running out of time. Swan had resurrected his experiments and William Sawyer and Albon Mann had already demonstrated a nitrogen-filled carbon filament lamp. To cap it all, Charley, Edison’s much-liked nephew, died in Paris after a binge.
Getting a high resistance and mechanically-durable filament, a constant output from the dynamos, a good vacuum, a heat-proof bulb and seal, all continually eluded them. Unwashed, grubby and worn out, Edison drove on, never sparing himself or others. The weeks passed and for days at a time not a man went home. The platinum-iridium lamp was beginning to look technically and economically unreachable. Carbon was the only answer and on October 21, 1879 a carbon filament survived for 16 hours, but it was hit and miss. Finally, Batchelor persuaded Edison to use a cardboard horseshoe filament previously boiled in sugar and alcohol and then kilned at an ever increasing temperature.
On Wednesday November 12, 1879, Edison applied a Bunsen flame to the base of a new globe made by the recently hired (and irascible) Prussian glass-blower – Ludwig Bohm. As the two Francis’s, Jehl and Upton, slowly dripped mercury down the primary tube of the now combined Sprengel-Geissler vacuum pump (Bohm made, S.D. Mott designed), Edison flushed out the last vestiges of air with his flame.
Jehl, noting a hard vacuum, motioned to Batchelor who began switching out the series resistances between the dynamo output terminals and the lamp.
Twenty-plus assorted souls, amassed in the increasingly cramped, food strewn and smelly laboratory, held their breath. The filament became dull red, then bright red and finally, at the pre-set voltage, a glowing incandescent yellow. The room, bathed now in an un-flickering yellow-white light, suddenly became hallowed ground. Nobody spoke. They simply watched.
With the lamp still glowing unwaveringly after six hours, many drifted off or bedded down on the floor for the night. When Edison awoke, the lamp had been burning for 16 hours. At 40 hours Edison, ever prepared to go for broke, removed one after another of the remaining resistance elements. The lamp turned to a burning actinic brilliance. After some 20 minutes on full power the lamp flashed and then gave out. Edison shrugged – now he had all the answers. The next lamp would be better. Two months later, using an ultra-thin bulb, platinum lead wires and a bamboo-based horseshoe filament, the life expectancy had been increased to 600 hours with double the experimental bulbs luminous output. They were not to know that J.W. Swan in England, helped by Stearn (an expert in high vacuum) and Topham (a glass blower), had already enjoyed the same experience almost 12 months before. However, out of naiveté, Swan hadn’t attempted to patent any part of his method until early January 1880.
Hordes of visitors came to Menlo Park to marvel at the lines of twinkling lights creating unprecedented daylight out of darkness. But, for Edison at least, the battle had only just begun. Those blind because they could not, or would not see, refused to believe that Edison had succeeded and publicly poured scorn on his supposed achievement. After so many false starts it was inevitable.
Claim and counter-claim for originality began, initiating more than a decade of patent litigation. In 1888/9 Justice Bradley in the US Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings that Sawyer and Man had priority over Edison in incandescent patents – likewise it wasn’t until February 1889 that the appeals court in England upheld Justice Butt’s lower court ruling that Swan had no priority on a “carbon Filament”. Nevertheless, despite failed litigation against Edison, Westinghouse in total defiance sold lamps supposedly under the Sawyer/Mann patents. Brush Electric acquired rights to the Swan lamp and Swan’s highly effective hot filament evacuation (flashing) method and Maxim distributed lighting in the US, based on a design provided by Bohm (who had left Edison, aggrieved at his treatment by colleagues).
Nevertheless, the period after 1880 marks not the end of Edison’s rise, but the point where his inventive and business activities took on a certain inevitability. Feted by financiers, adored by the proletariat, Edison epitomised the American success story. Yet rivals and detractors were many. Indeed those equal to Edison (Westinghouse, Maxim, Brush, Thomson, Berliner, Bell, Sumner, Tainter) had little or no regard for his ethics, abilities or approach. But it was difficult not to admire his tenacity and technical competence. As the years followed, inventions and business dealings advanced apace.
Edison made mistakes on a grand scale – an ore-crushing process cost him $3,000,000 – but his innovation and enterprise machine was difficult to stop. He risked all in developing powerful DC generators and inaugurated and operated the first central electricity and electric lighting system (Pearl Street, New York and Holborn Viaduct, London). Allied to this was the development of electrical distribution and metering systems. Later he perfected an alkaline storage battery (enabling electric cars to become a common sight), had patents in cement processing and some 35 other miscellaneous ideas, including X-rays and railway locomotion. He was the first to synchronise sound with moving pictures and employed sound detection of submarines in the First World War.
Edison and his machine became a force majeur which sparked many famous names. N. Tesla (AC induction motors etc.), J.A. Fleming (who investigated the “Edison Effect” and developed the thermionic diode), Arthur Kennelly (AC and electro-magnetic studies), S. Bergmann (who later developed a huge electrical equipment business), F. Sprague (renowned electrical engineer), M.R. Hutchinson (talented inventor), H. Fessenden (of radio fame), etc., all came under Edison’s spell.
Only in one regard was Edison’s foresight seriously misguided. He never believed, nor wanted, alternating current supply to triumph. Much of this was to do with disrupting the progress of his main rival, Westinghouse, a strong champion of alternating current. Edison hoped to alienate people from the idea of AC by highlighting its dangerous aspects. Edison’s culpable hand in allowing H.P. Brown to employ Kennelly, Batchelor and laboratory facilities in the development of the electric chair (as a method of execution) stands as its own comment. Suffice it to say that all of Edison’s attempts to stop Westinghouse’s inexorable supremacy on long-distance electrical supply failed. Much to Edison’s chagrin it was his ex-employee, Tesla, who gave Westinghouse an important part of the technology which came to undermine the Edison DC system.
Though the greater number of Edison’s inventions were either electrical or mechanical in nature, he was a better chemist than engineer and exploited this ability constantly. The Edisonian method was to assume that intuition (in the absence of established data) could reduce trial and error to reasonable proportions – though it seldom did. In chemistry, however, Edison was the patient methodical researcher. As a result of this his chemical and electro-chemical successes were impressive (e.g. the Nickel-iron alkaline battery). Moreover, there was no vanity in his methods – he never claimed nor presumed total originality and once remarked that if his library failed to produce any analysis on a subject, he merely assumed that he had the wrong books and did the experiment anyway.
Utterly pragmatic, his vision was usually piercingly clear – once he identified an objective he instantly knew what needed to be done to bring the idea to fruition. He understood the physical and intellectual processes that turned creativity into solid products. Understanding the essential fact that inventive ideas were sterile without the machinery and environment to make them a reality, at Menlo Park Edison created the first product-oriented research and development facility in the world.
The Edison inventive era spanned some 65 years. Jehl spoke of Edison as “in reality a collective noun and the work of many men”. Edison’s prowess then became the focal point for many other talented people. Indeed, a good few associated with Edison (such as Batchelor who was by far the most important of Edison’s co-inventors) retired wealthy men. Yet he was often indifferent to loyalty and callous to friends. The curious blend of brilliance and intellectual honesty that was Edison could also be uncouth, selfish, outrageously unethical, miserly towards needy past compatriots and particularly neglectful of his own family.
Edison has so polarised posthumous opinion that an impartial assessment might still appear wanting. Edison elicits strong views simply because he at once embodied all that was worthy and all that was to be deplored in a man. He embodied virtually all human failings and all human strengths simultaneously. It was touch and go which one would prevail at any particular moment.
That Edison portrayed a character multifarious in nature – indefatigable, capricious and inconsistent in relationships, coldly selfish in business and invention, generous to his vices – speaks only of the traits necessary to make him successful in the context of his era.
Regardless of how his personal qualities might be scrutinised or perceived retrospectively, one clear fact stands. Edison was highly accomplished and did become a legend in his own time. Much of this can be attributed to his innate ability to understand the need to defuse ignorance and instil trust through good public relations. He was personable, often charming. Though not always an ethical businessman, people were prepared to invest their money in Thomas Edison. In him, they smelt success.
The latter third of the 19th Century was ready for greater public appreciation of science and technology. Heroes were made by, or helped make, a new heroic age of technology. Publicity and image manipulation enhanced not only Edison’s own public standing but was central to the changing of popular attitudes about invention.
Edison died on Sunday October 18, 1931, a short time after he had been the honoured guest at a massive nationwide celebration of his achievements. Four hundred dignitaries attended his memorial service at Independence Hall, including President Hoover, John Rockefeller, Lee De Forest, Harvey Firestone, Marie Curie, George Eastman, Walter Chrysler, Henry Ford and others. Tens of thousands were to file past his coffin in final tribute. No other American has been so publicly mourned and no other did more to win respect for invention and inventors. Edison helped create the idea of the American dream. For all his faults, he remains an inspiration for inventors and innovators, even today.
Edison's Menlo Park
The Menlo Park Laboratory - Recreated at the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan, USA.
Edison surrounded by his crew at Menlo Park. Charles Batchelor is on the left of him.
There were extravagant displays to celebrate the coming of electric light. This was in Tennessee, 1897.
original sketch of the Phonograph
© Barrie Blake-Coleman/Inventricity
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