Thomas Alva Edison
In Menlo Park, NJ
HIS LIFE AND INVENTIONS
FRANK LEWIS DYER
GENERAL COUNSEL FOR THE EDISON LABORATORY
AND ALLIED INTERESTS
THOMAS COMMERFORD MARTIN
EX-PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE
OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS
Published in New York by Harper Brothers, 1929
EDISON'S METHOD IN INVENTING
WHILE the world's progress depends largely upon their ingenuity, inventors are not usually persons who have adopted invention as a distinct profession, but, generally speaking, are otherwise engaged in various walks of life. By reason of more or less inherent native genius they either make improvements along lines of present occupation, or else evolve new methods and means of accomplishing results in fields for which they may have personal predilections.
Now and then, however, there arises a man so greatly endowed with natural powers and originality that the creative faculty within him is too strong to endure the humdrum routine of affairs, and manifests itself in a life devoted entirely to the evolution of methods and devices calculated to further the world's welfare. In other words, he becomes an inventor by profession. Such a man is Edison. Notwithstanding the fact that nearly forty years ago (not a great while after he had emerged from the ranks of peripatetic telegraph operators) he was the owner of a large and profitable business as a manufacturer of the telegraphic apparatus invented by him, the call of his nature was too strong to allow of profits being laid away in the bank to accumulate. As he himself has said, he has "too sanguine a temperament to allow money to stay in solitary confinement." Hence, all superfluous cash was devoted to experimentation. In the course of years he grew more and more impatient of the shackles that bound him to business routine, and, realizing the powers within him, he drew away gradually from purely manufacturing occupations, determining deliberately to devote his life to inventive work, and to depend upon its results as a means of subsistence.
All persons who make inventions will necessarily be more or less original in character, but to the man who chooses to become an inventor by profession must be conceded a mind more than ordinarily replete with virility and originality. That these qualities in Edison are superabundant is well known to all who have worked with him, and, indeed, are apparent to every one from his multiplied achievements within the period of one generation.
If one were allowed only two words with which to describe Edison, it is doubtful whether a close examination of the entire dictionary would disclose any others more suitable than "experimenter--inventor." These would express the overruling characteristics of his eventful career. It is as an "inventor" that he sets himself down in the membership list of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. To attempt the strict placing of these words in relation to each other (except alphabetically) would be equal to an endeavor to solve the old problem as to which came first, the egg or the chicken; for although all his inventions have been evolved through experiment, many of his notable experiments have called forth the exercise of highly inventive faculties in their very inception. Investigation and experiment have been a consuming passion, an impelling force from within, as it were, from his petticoat days when he collected goose-eggs and tried to hatch them out by sitting over them himself. One might be inclined to dismiss this trivial incident smilingly, as a mere childish, thoughtless prank, had not subsequent development as a child, boy, and man revealed a born investigator with original reasoning powers that, disdaining crooks and bends, always aimed at the centre, and, like the flight of the bee, were accurate and direct.
It is not surprising, therefore, that a man of this kind should exhibit a ceaseless, absorbing desire for knowledge, and an apparently uncontrollable tendency to experiment on every possible occasion, even though his last cent were spent in thus satisfying the insatiate cravings of an inquiring mind.
During Edison's immature years, when he was flitting about from place to place as a telegraph operator, his experimentation was of a desultory, hand-to-mouth character, although it was always notable for originality, as expressed in a number of minor useful devices produced during this period. Small wonder, then, that at the end of these wanderings, when he had found a place to "rest the sole of his foot," he established a laboratory in which to carry on his researches in a more methodical and practical manner. In this was the beginning of the work which has since made such a profound impression on contemporary life.
There is nothing of the helter-skelter, slap-dash style in Edison's experiments. Although all the laboratory experimenters agree in the opinion that he "tries everything," it is not merely the mixing of a little of this, some of that, and a few drops of the other, in the HOPE that SOMETHING will come of it. Nor is the spirit of the laboratory work represented in the following dialogue overheard between two alleged carpenters picked up at random to help on a hurry job.
"How near does she fit, Mike?"
"About an inch."
A most casual examination of any of the laboratory records will reveal evidence of the minutest exactitude insisted on in the conduct of experiments, irrespective of the length of time they occupied. Edison's instructions, always clear cut and direct, followed by his keen oversight, admit of nothing less than implicit observance in all details, no matter where they may lead, and impel to the utmost minuteness and accuracy.
To some extent there has been a popular notion that many of Edison's successes have been due to mere dumb fool luck--to blind, fortuitous "happenings." Nothing could be further from the truth, for, on the contrary, it is owing almost entirely to the comprehensive scope of his knowledge, the breadth of his conception, the daring originality of his methods, and minuteness and extent of experiment, com- bined with unwavering pertinacity, that new arts have been created and additions made to others already in existence. Indeed, without this tireless minutiae, and methodical, searching spirit, it would have been practically impossible to have produced many of the most important of these inventions.
Needless to say, mastery of its literature is regarded by him as a most important preliminary in taking up any line of investigation. What others may have done, bearing directly or collaterally on the subject, in print, is carefully considered and sifted to the point of exhaustion. Not that he takes it for granted that the conclusions are correct, for he frequently obtains vastly different results by repeating in his own way experiments made by others as detailed in books.
"Edison can travel along a well-used road and still find virgin soil," remarked recently one of his most practical experimenters, who had been working along a certain line without attaining the desired result. "He wanted to get a particular compound having definite qualities, and I had tried in all sorts of ways to produce it but with only partial success. He was confident that it could be done, and said he would try it himself. In doing so he followed the same path in which I had travelled, but, by making an undreamed-of change in one of the operations, succeeded in producing a compound that virtually came up to his specifications. It is not the only time I have known this sort of thing to happen."
In speaking of Edison's method of experimenting, another of his laboratory staff says: "He is never hindered by theory, but resorts to actual experiment for proof. For instance, when he conceived the idea of pouring a complete concrete house it was universally held that it would be impossible because the pieces of stone in the mixture would not rise to the level of the pouring-point, but would gravitate to a lower plane in the soft cement. This, however, did not hinder him from making a series of experiments which resulted in an invention that proved conclusively the contrary."
Having conceived some new idea and read everything obtainable relating to the subject in general, Edison's fertility of resource and originality come into play. Taking one of the laboratory note-books, he will write in it a memorandum of the experiments to be tried, illustrated, if necessary, by sketches. This book is then passed on to that member of the experimental staff whose special training and experience are best adapted to the work. Here strenuousness is expected; and an immediate commencement of investigation and prompt report are required. Sometimes the subject may be such as to call for a long line of frequent tests which necessitate patient and accurate attention to minute details. Results must be reported often--daily, or possibly with still greater frequency. Edison does not forget what is going on; but in his daily tours through the laboratory keeps in touch with all the work that is under the hands of his various assistants, showing by an instant grasp of the present conditions of any experiment that he has a full consciousness of its meaning and its reference to his original conception.
The year 1869 saw the beginning of Edison's career as an acknowledged inventor of commercial devices. From the outset, an innate recognition of system dictated the desirability and wisdom of preserving records of his experiments and inventions. The primitive records, covering the earliest years, were mainly jotted down on loose sheets of paper covered with sketches, notes, and data, pasted into large scrap- books, or preserved in packages; but with the passing of years and enlargement of his interests, it became the practice to make all original laboratory notes in large, uniform books. This course was pursued until the Menlo Park period, when he instituted a new regime that has been continued down to the present day. A standard form of note-book, about eight and a half by six inches, containing about two hundred pages, was adopted. A number of these books were (and are now) always to be found scattered around in the different sections of the laboratory, and in them have been noted by Edison all his ideas, sketches, and memoranda. Details of the various experiments concerning them have been set down by his assistants from time to time.
These later laboratory note-books, of which there are now over one thousand in the series, are eloquent in the history they reveal of the strenuous labors of Edison and his assistants and the vast fields of research he has covered during the last thirty years. They are overwhelmingly rich in biographic material, but analysis would be a prohibitive task for one person, and perhaps interesting only to technical readers. Their pages cover practically every department of science. The countless thousands of separate experiments recorded exhibit the operations of a master mind seeking to surprise Nature into a betrayal of her secrets by asking her the same question in a hundred different ways. For instance, when Edison was investigating a certain problem of importance many years ago, the note-books show that on this point alone about fifteen thousand experiments and tests were made by one of his assistants.
A most casual glance over these note-books will illustrate the following remark, which was made to one of the writers not long ago by a member of the laboratory staff who has been experimenting there for twenty years: "Edison can think of more ways of doing a thing than any man I ever saw or heard of. He tries everything and never lets up, even though failure is apparently staring him in the face. He only stops when he simply can't go any further on that particular line. When he decides on any mode of procedure he gives his notes to the experimenter and lets him alone, only stepping in from time to time to look at the operations and receive reports of progress."
The history of the development of the telephone transmitter, phonograph, incandescent lamp, dynamo, electrical distributing systems from central stations, electric railway, ore-milling, cement, motion pictures, and a host of minor inventions may be found embedded in the laboratory note-books. A passing glance at a few pages of these written records will serve to illustrate, though only to a limited extent, the thoroughness of Edison's method. It is to be observed that these references can be but of the most meagre kind, and must be regarded as merely throwing a side-light on the subject itself. For instance, the complex problem of a practical telephone transmitter gave rise to a series of most exhaustive experiments. Combinations in almost infinite variety, including gums, chemical compounds, oils, minerals, and metals were suggested by Edison; and his assistants were given long lists of materials to try with reference to predetermined standards of articulation, degrees of loudness, and perfection of hissing sounds. The note-books contain hundreds of pages showing that a great many thousands of experiments were tried and passed upon. Such remarks as "N. G."; "Pretty good"; "Whistling good, but no articulation"; "Rattly"; "Articulation, whispering, and whistling good"; "Best to-night so far"; and others are noted opposite the various combinations as they were tried. Thus, one may follow the investigation through a maze of experiments which led up to the successful invention of the carbon button transmitter, the vital device to give the telephone its needed articulation and perfection.
The two hundred and odd note-books, covering the strenuous period during which Edison was carrying on his electric-light experiments, tell on their forty thousand pages or more a fascinating story of the evolution of a new art in its entirety. From the crude beginnings, through all the varied phases of this evolution, the operations of a master mind are apparent from the contents of these pages, in which are recorded the innumerable experiments, calculations, and tests that ultimately brought light out of darkness.
The early work on a metallic conductor for lamps gave rise to some very thorough research on melting and alloying metals, the preparation of metallic oxides, the coating of fine wires by immersing them in a great variety of chemical solutions. Following his usual custom, Edison would indicate the lines of experiment to be followed, which were carried out and recorded in the note-books. He himself, in January, 1879, made personally a most minute and searching investigation into the properties and behavior of plating-iridium, boron, rutile, zircon, chromium, molybdenum, and nickel, under varying degrees of current strength, on which there may be found in the notes about forty pages of detailed experiments and deductions in his own handwriting, concluding with the remark (about nickel): "This is a great discovery for electric light in the way of economy."
This period of research on nickel, etc., was evidently a trying one, for after nearly a month's close application he writes, on January 27, 1879: "Owing to the enormous power of the light my eyes commenced to pain after seven hours' work, and I had to quit." On the next day appears the following entry: "Suffered the pains of hell with my eyes last night from 10 P.M. till 4 A.M., when got to sleep with a big dose of morphine. Eyes getting better, and do not pain much at 4 P.M.; but I lose to-day."
The "try everything" spirit of Edison's method is well illustrated in this early period by a series of about sixteen hundred resistance tests of various ores, minerals, earths, etc., occupying over fifty pages of one of the note-books relating to the metallic filament for his lamps.
But, as the reader has already learned, the metallic filament was soon laid aside in favor of carbon, and we find in the laboratory notes an amazing record of research and experiment conducted in the minute and searching manner peculiar to Edison's method. His inquiries were directed along all the various roads leading to the desired goal, for long before he had completed the invention of a practical lamp he realized broadly the fundamental requirements of a successful system of electrical distribution, and had given instructions for the making of a great variety of calculations which, although far in advance of the time, were clearly foreseen by him to be vitally important in the ultimate solution of the complicated problem. Thus we find many hundreds of pages of the note-books covered with computations and calculations by Mr. Upton, not only on the numerous ramifications of the projected system and comparisons with gas, but also on proposed forms of dynamos and the proposed station in New York. A mere recital by titles of the vast number of experiments and tests on carbons, lamps, dynamos, armatures, commutators, windings, systems, regulators, sockets, vacuum-pumps, and the thousand and one details relating to the subject in general, originated by Edison, and methodically and systematically carried on under his general direction, would fill a great many pages here, and even then would serve only to convey a confused impression of ceaseless probing.
It is possible only to a broad, comprehensive mind well stored with knowledge, and backed with resistless, boundless energy, that such a diversified series of experiments and investigations could be carried on simultaneously and assimilated, even though they should relate to a class of phenomena already understood and well defined. But if we pause to consider that the commercial subdivision of the electric current (which was virtually an invention made to order) involved the solution of problems so unprecedented that even they themselves had to be created, we cannot but conclude that the afflatus of innate genius played an important part in the unique methods of investigation instituted by Edison at that and other times.
The idea of attributing great successes to "genius" has always been repudiated by Edison, as evidenced by his historic remark that "Genius is 1 per cent. inspiration and 99 per cent. perspiration." Again, in a conversation many years ago at the laboratory between Edison, Batchelor, and E. H. Johnson, the latter made allusion to Edison's genius as evidenced by some of his achievements, when Edison replied:
"Stuff! I tell you genius is hard work, stick-to-it- iveness, and common sense."
"Yes," said Johnson, "I admit there is all that to it, but there's still more. Batch and I have those qualifications, but although we knew quite a lot about telephones, and worked hard, we couldn't invent a brand-new non-infringing telephone receiver as you did when Gouraud cabled for one. Then, how about the subdivision of the electric light?"
"Electric current," corrected Edison.
"True," continued Johnson; "you were the one to make that very distinction. The scientific world had been working hard on subdivision for years, using what appeared to be common sense. Results worse than nil. Then you come along, and about the first thing you do, after looking the ground over, is to start off in the opposite direction, which subsequently proves to be the only possible way to reach the goal. It seems to me that this is pretty close to the dictionary definition of genius."
It is said that Edison replied rather incoherently and changed the topic of conversation.
This innate modesty, however, does not prevent Edison from recognizing and classifying his own methods of investigation. In a conversation with two old associates recently (April, 1909), he remarked: "It has been said of me that my methods are empirical. That is true only so far as chemistry is concerned. Did you ever realize that practically all industrial chemistry is colloidal in its nature? Hard rubber, celluloid, glass, soap, paper, and lots of others, all have to deal with amorphous substances, as to which comparatively little has been really settled. My methods are similar to those followed by Luther Burbank. He plants an acre, and when this is in bloom he inspects it. He has a sharp eye, and can pick out of thousands a single plant that has promise of what he wants. From this he gets the seed, and uses his skill and knowledge in producing from it a number of new plants which, on development, furnish the means of propagating an improved variety in large quantity. So, when I am after a chemical result that I have in mind, I may make hundreds or thousands of experiments out of which there may be one that promises results in the right direction. This I follow up to its legitimate conclusion, discarding the others, and usually get what I am after. There is no doubt about this being empirical; but when it comes to problems of a mechanical nature, I want to tell you that all I've ever tackled and solved have been done by hard, logical thinking." The intense earnestness and emphasis with which this was said were very impressive to the auditors. This empirical method may perhaps be better illustrated by a specific example. During the latter part of the storage battery investigations, after the form of positive element had been determined upon, it became necessary to ascertain what definite proportions and what quality of nickel hydrate and nickel flake would give the best results. A series of positive tubes were filled with the two materials in different proportions--say, nine parts hydrate to one of flake; eight parts hydrate to two of flake; seven parts hydrate to three of flake, and so on through varying proportions. Three sets of each of these positives were made, and all put into separate test tubes with a uniform type of negative element. These were carried through a long series of charges and discharges under strict test conditions. From the tabulated results of hundreds of tests there were selected three that showed the best results. These, however, showed only the superiority of cer- tain PROPORTIONS of the materials. The next step would be to find out the best QUALITY. Now, as there are several hundred variations in the quality of nickel flake, and perhaps a thousand ways to make the hydrate, it will be realized that Edison's methods led to stupendous detail, for these tests embraced a trial of all the qualities of both materials in the three proportions found to be most suitable. Among these many thousands of experiments any that showed extraordinary results were again elaborated by still further series of tests, until Edison was satisfied that he had obtained the best result in that particular line.
The laboratory note-books do not always tell the whole story or meaning of an experiment that may be briefly outlined on one of their pages. For example, the early filament made of a mixture of lampblack and tar is merely a suggestion in the notes, but its making afforded an example of Edison's pertinacity. These materials, when mixed, became a friable mass, which he had found could be brought into such a cohesive, putty-like state by manipulation, as to be capable of being rolled out into filaments as fine as seven-thousandths of an inch in cross-section. One of the laboratory assistants was told to make some of this mixture, knead it, and roll some filaments. After a time he brought the mass to Edison, and said:
"There's something wrong about this, for it crumbles even after manipulating it with my fingers."
"How long did you knead it?" said Edison.
"Oh! more than an hour," replied the assistant.
"Well, just keep on for a few hours more and it will come out all right," was the rejoinder. And this proved to be correct, for, after a prolonged kneading and rolling, the mass changed into a cohesive, stringy, homogeneous putty. It was from a mixture of this kind that spiral filaments were made and used in some of the earliest forms of successful incandescent lamps; indeed, they are described and illustrated in Edison's fundamental lamp patent (No. 223,898).
The present narrative would assume the proportions of a history of the incandescent lamp, should the authors attempt to follow Edison's investigations through the thousands of pages of note-books away back in the eighties and early nineties. Improvement of the lamp was constantly in his mind all those years, and besides the vast amount of detail experimental work he laid out for his assistants, he carried on a great deal of research personally. Sometimes whole books are filled in his own handwriting with records of experiments showing every conceivable variation of some particular line of inquiry; each trial bearing some terse comment expressive of results. In one book appear the details of one of these experiments on September 3, 1891, at 4.30 A.M., with the comment: "Brought up lamp higher than a 16-c.p. 240 was ever brought before--Hurrah!" Notwithstanding the late hour, he turns over to the next page and goes on to write his deductions from this result as compared with those previously obtained. Proceeding day by day, as appears by this same book, he follows up another line of investigation on lamps, apparently full of difficulty, for after one hundred and thirty-two other recorded experiments we find this note: "Saturday 3.30 went home disgusted with incandescent lamps." This feeling was evidently evanescent, for on the succeeding Monday the work was continued and carried on by him as keenly as before, as shown by the next batch of notes.
This is the only instance showing any indication of impatience that the authors have found in looking through the enormous mass of laboratory notes. All his assistants agree that Edison is the most patient, tireless experimenter that could be conceived of. Failures do not distress him; indeed, he regards them as always useful, as may be gathered from the following, related by Dr. E. G. Acheson, formerly one of his staff: "I once made an experiment in Edison's laboratory at Menlo Park during the latter part of 1880, and the results were not as looked for. I considered the experiment a perfect failure, and while bemoaning the results of this apparent failure Mr. Edison entered, and, after learning the facts of the case, cheerfully remarked that I should not look upon it as a failure, for he considered every experiment a success, as in all cases it cleared up the atmosphere, and even though it failed to accomplish the results sought for, it should prove a valuable lesson for guidance in future work. I believe that Mr. Edison's success as an experimenter was, to a large extent, due to this happy view of all experiments."
Edison has frequently remarked that out of a hundred experiments he does not expect more than one to be successful, and as to that one he is always suspicious until frequent repetition has verified the original results.
This patient, optimistic view of the outcome of experiments has remained part of his character down to this day, just as his painstaking, minute, incisive methods are still unchanged. But to the careless, stupid, or lazy person he is a terror for the short time they remain around him. Honest mistakes may be tolerated, but not carelessness, incompetence, or lack of attention to business. In such cases Edison is apt to express himself freely and forcibly, as when he was asked why he had parted with a certain man, he said: "Oh, he was so slow that it would take him half an hour to get out of the field of a microscope." Another instance will be illustrative. Soon after the Brockton (Massachusetts) central station was started in operation many years ago, he wrote a note to Mr. W. S. Andrews, containing suggestions as to future stations, part of which related to the various employees and their duties. After outlining the duties of the meter man, Edison says: "I should not take too young a man for this, say, a man from twenty- three to thirty years old, bright and businesslike. Don't want any one who yearns to enter a laboratory and experiment. We have a bad case of that at Brockton; he neglects business to potter. What we want is a good lamp average and no unprofitable customer. You should have these men on probation and subject to passing an examination by me. This will wake them up."
Edison's examinations are no joke, according to Mr. J. H. Vail, formerly one of the Menlo Park staff. "I wanted a job," he said, "and was ambitious to take charge of the dynamo-room. Mr. Edison led me to a heap of junk in a corner and said: `Put that to- gether and let me know when it's running.' I didn't know what it was, but received a liberal education in finding out. It proved to be a dynamo, which I finally succeeded in assembling and running. I got the job." Another man who succeeded in winning a place as assistant was Mr. John F. Ott, who has remained in his employ for over forty years. In 1869, when Edison was occupying his first manufacturing shop (the third floor of a small building in Newark), he wanted a first-class mechanician, and Mr. Ott was sent to him. "He was then an ordinary-looking young fellow," says Mr. Ott, "dirty as any of the other workmen, unkempt, and not much better dressed than a tramp, but I immediately felt that there was a great deal in him." This is the conversation that ensued, led by Mr. Edison's question:
"What do you want?"
"Can you make this machine work?" (exhibiting it and explaining its details).
"Are you sure?"
"Well, you needn't pay me if I don't."
And thus Mr. Ott went to work and succeeded in accomplishing the results desired. Two weeks afterward Mr. Edison put him in charge of the shop.
Edison's life fairly teems with instances of unruffled patience in the pursuit of experiments. When he feels thoroughly impressed with the possibility of accomplishing a certain thing, he will settle down composedly to investigate it to the end.
This is well illustrated in a story relating to his invention of the type of storage battery bearing his name. Mr. W. S. Mallory, one of his closest associates for many years, is the authority for the following: "When Mr. Edison decided to shut down the ore- milling plant at Edison, New Jersey, in which I had been associated with him, it became a problem as to what he could profitably take up next, and we had several discussions about it. He finally thought that a good storage battery was a great requisite, and decided to try and devise a new type, for he declared emphatically he would make no battery requiring sulphuric acid. After a little thought he conceived the nickel-iron idea, and started to work at once with characteristic energy. About 7 or 7.30 A.M. he would go down to the laboratory and experiment, only stopping for a short time at noon to eat a lunch sent down from the house. About 6 o'clock the carriage would call to take him to dinner, from which he would return by 7.30 or 8 o'clock to resume work. The carriage came again at midnight to take him home, but frequently had to wait until 2 or 3 o'clock, and sometimes return without him, as he had decided to continue all night.
"This had been going on more than five months, seven days a week, when I was called down to the laboratory to see him. I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: `Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?' Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: `Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won't work.'
"At that time he sent me out West on a special mission. On my return, a few weeks later, his experiments had run up to over ten thousand, but he had discovered the missing link in the combination sought for. Of course, we all remember how the battery was completed and put on the market. Then, because he was dissatisfied with it, he stopped the sales and commenced a new line of investigation, which has recently culminated successfully. I shouldn't wonder if his experiments on the battery ran up pretty near to fifty thousand, for they fill more than one hundred and fifty of the note-books, to say nothing of some thousands of tests in curve sheets."
Although Edison has an absolute disregard for the total outlay of money in investigation, he is particular to keep down the cost of individual experiments to a minimum, for, as he observed to one of his assistants: "A good many inventors try to develop things life- size, and thus spend all their money, instead of first experimenting more freely on a small scale." To Edison life is not only a grand opportunity to find out things by experiment, but, when found, to improve them by further experiment. One night, after receiving a satisfactory report of progress from Mr. Mason, superintendent of the cement plant, he said: "The only way to keep ahead of the procession is to experiment. If you don't, the other fellow will. When there's no experimenting there's no progress. Stop experimenting and you go backward. If anything goes wrong, experiment until you get to the very bottom of the trouble."
It is easy to realize, therefore, that a character so thoroughly permeated with these ideas is not apt to stop and figure out expense when in hot pursuit of some desired object. When that object has been attained, however, and it passes from the experimental to the commercial stage, Edison's monetary views again come into strong play, but they take a diametrically opposite position, for he then begins immediately to plan the extreme of economy in the production of the article. A thousand and one instances could be quoted in illustration; but as they would tend to change the form of this narrative into a history of economy in manufacture, it will suffice to mention but one, and that a recent occurrence, which serves to illustrate how closely he keeps in touch with everything, and also how the inventive faculty and instinct of commercial economy run close together. It was during Edison's winter stay in Florida, in March, 1909. He had reports sent to him daily from various places, and studied them carefully, for he would write frequently with comments, instructions, and suggestions; and in one case, commenting on the oiling system at the cement plant, he wrote: "Your oil losses are now getting lower, I see." Then, after suggesting some changes to reduce them still further, he went on to say: "Here is a chance to save a mill per barrel based on your regular daily output."
This thorough consideration of the smallest detail is essentially characteristic of Edison, not only in economy of manufacture, but in all his work, no matter of what kind, whether it be experimenting, investigating, testing, or engineering. To follow him through the labyrinthine paths of investigation contained in the great array of laboratory note-books is to become involved in a mass of minutely detailed searches which seek to penetrate the inmost recesses of nature by an ultimate analysis of an infinite variety of parts. As the reader will obtain a fuller comprehension of this idea, and of Edison's methods, by concrete illustration rather than by generalization, the authors have thought it well to select at random two typical instances of specific investigations out of the thousands that are scattered through the notebooks. These will be found in the following extracts from one of the note-books, and consist of Edison's instructions to be carried out in detail by his experimenters:
"Take, say, 25 lbs. hard Cuban asphalt and separate all the different hydrocarbons, etc., as far as possible by means of solvents. It will be necessary first to dissolve everything out by, say, hot turpentine, then successively treat the residue with bisulphide carbon, benzol, ether, chloroform, naphtha, toluol, alcohol, and other probable solvents. After you can go no further, distil off all the solvents so the asphalt material has a tar-like consistency. Be sure all the ash is out of the turpentine portion; now, after distilling the turpentine off, act on the residue with all the solvents that were used on the residue, using for the first the solvent which is least likely to dissolve a great part of it. By thus manipulating the various solvents you will be enabled probably to separate the crude asphalt into several distinct hydrocarbons. Put each in a bottle after it has been dried, and label the bottle with the process, etc., so we may be able to duplicate it; also give bottle a number and describe everything fully in note-book."
" Destructively distil the following substances down to a point just short of carbonization, so that the residuum can be taken out of the retort, powdered, and acted on by all the solvents just as the asphalt in previous page. The distillation should be carried to, say, 600 degrees or 700 degrees Fahr., but not continued long enough to wholly reduce mass to charcoal, but always run to blackness. Separate the residuum in as many definite parts as possible, bottle and label, and keep accurate records as to process, weights, etc., so a reproduction of the experiment can at any time be made: Gelatine, 4 lbs.; asphalt, hard Cuban, 10 lbs.; coal-tar or pitch, 10 lbs.; wood-pitch, 10 lbs.; Syrian asphalt, 10 lbs.; bituminous coal, 10 lbs.; cane-sugar, 10 lbs.; glucose, 10 lbs.; dextrine, 10 lbs.; glycerine, 10 lbs.; tartaric acid, 5 lbs.; gum guiac, 5 lbs.; gum amber, 3 lbs.; gum tragacanth, 3 Lbs.; aniline red, 1 lb.; aniline oil, 1 lb.; crude anthracene, 5 lbs.; petroleum pitch, 10 lbs.; albumen from eggs, 2 lbs.; tar from passing chlorine through aniline oil, 2 lbs.; citric acid, 5 lbs.; sawdust of boxwood, 3 lbs.; starch, 5 lbs.; shellac, 3 lbs.; gum Arabic, 5 lbs.; castor oil, 5 lbs."
The empirical nature of his method will be apparent from an examination of the above items; but in pur- suing it he leaves all uncertainty behind and, trusting nothing to theory, he acquires absolute knowledge. Whatever may be the mental processes by which he arrives at the starting-point of any specific line of research, the final results almost invariably prove that he does not plunge in at random; indeed, as an old associate remarked: "When Edison takes up any proposition in natural science, his perceptions seem to be elementally broad and analytical, that is to say, in addition to the knowledge he has acquired from books and observation, he appears to have an intuitive apprehension of the general order of things, as they might be supposed to exist in natural relation to each other. It has always seemed to me that he goes to the core of things at once."
Although nothing less than results from actual experiments are acceptable to him as established facts, this view of Edison may also account for his peculiar and somewhat weird ability to "guess" correctly, a faculty which has frequently enabled him to take short cuts to lines of investigation whose outcome has verified in a most remarkable degree statements apparently made offhand and without calculation. Mr. Upton says: "One of the main impressions left upon me, after knowing Mr. Edison for many years, is the marvellous accuracy of his guesses. He will see the general nature of a result long before it can be reached by mathematical calculation." This was supplemented by one of his engineering staff, who remarked: "Mr. Edison can guess better than a good many men can figure, and so far as my experience goes, I have found that he is almost invariably correct. His guess is more than a mere starting- point, and often turns out to be the final solution of a problem. I can only account for it by his remarkable insight and wonderful natural sense of the proportion of things, in addition to which he seems to carry in his head determining factors of all kinds, and has the ability to apply them instantly in considering any mechanical problem."
While this mysterious intuitive power has been of the greatest advantage in connection with the vast number of technical problems that have entered into his life-work, there have been many remarkable instances in which it has seemed little less than prophecy, and it is deemed worth while to digress to the extent of relating two of them. One day in the summer of 1881, when the incandescent lamp-industry was still in swaddling clothes, Edison was seated in the room of Major Eaton, vice-president of the Edison Electric Light Company, talking over business matters, when Mr. Upton came in from the lamp factory at Menlo Park, and said: "Well, Mr. Edison, we completed a thousand lamps to-day." Edison looked up and said "Good," then relapsed into a thoughtful mood. In about two minutes he raised his head, and said: "Upton, in fifteen years you will be making forty thousand lamps a day." None of those present ventured to make any remark on this assertion, although all felt that it was merely a random guess, based on the sanguine dream of an inventor. The business had not then really made a start, and being entirely new was without precedent upon which to base any such statement, but, as a matter of fact, the records of the lamp factory show that in 1896 its daily output of lamps was actually about forty thousand.
The other instance referred to occurred shortly after the Edison Machine Works was moved up to Schenectady, in 1886. One day, when he was at the works, Edison sat down and wrote on a sheet of paper fifteen separate predictions of the growth and future of the electrical business. Notwithstanding the fact that the industry was then in an immature state, and that the great boom did not set in until a few years afterward, twelve of these predictions have been fully verified by the enormous growth and development in all branches of the art.
What the explanation of this gift, power, or intuition may be, is perhaps better left to the psychologist to speculate upon. If one were to ask Edison, he would probably say, "Hard work, not too much sleep, and free use of the imagination." Whether or not it would be possible for the average mortal to arrive at such perfection of "guessing" by faithfully following this formula, even reinforced by the Edison recipe for stimulating a slow imagination with pastry, is open for demonstration.
Somewhat allied to this curious faculty is another no less remarkable, and that is, the ability to point out instantly an error in a mass of reported experimental results. While many instances could be definitely named, a typical one, related by Mr. J. D. Flack, formerly master mechanic at the lamp factory, may be quoted: "During the many years of lamp experimentation, batches of lamps were sent to the photometer department for test, and Edison would examine the tabulated test sheets. He ran over every item of the tabulations rapidly, and, apparently without any calculation whatever, would check off errors as fast as he came to them, saying: `You have made a mistake; try this one over.' In every case the second test proved that he was right. This wonderful aptitude for infallibly locating an error without an instant's hesitation for mental calculation, has always appealed to me very forcibly."
The ability to detect errors quickly in a series of experiments is one of the things that has enabled Edison to accomplish such a vast amount of work as the records show. Examples of the minuteness of detail into which his researches extend have already been mentioned, and as there are always a number of such investigations in progress at the laboratory, this ability stands Edison in good stead, for he is thus enabled to follow, and, if necessary, correct each one step by step. In this he is aided by the great powers of a mind that is able to free itself from absorbed concentration on the details of one problem, and instantly to shift over and become deeply and intelligently concentrated in another and entirely different one. For instance, he may have been busy for hours on chemical experiments, and be called upon suddenly to determine some mechanical questions. The complete and easy transition is the constant wonder of his associates, for there is no confusion of ideas resulting from these quick changes, no hesitation or apparent effort, but a plunge into the midst of the new subject, and an instant acquaint- ance with all its details, as if he had been studying it for hours.
A good stiff difficulty--one which may, perhaps, appear to be an unsurmountable obstacle--only serves to make Edison cheerful, and brings out variations of his methods in experimenting. Such an occurrence will start him thinking, which soon gives rise to a line of suggestions for approaching the trouble from various sides; or he will sit down and write out a series of eliminations, additions, or changes to be worked out and reported upon, with such variations as may suggest themselves during their progress. It is at such times as these that his unfailing patience and tremendous resourcefulness are in evidence. Ideas and expedients are poured forth in a torrent, and although some of them have temporarily appeared to the staff to be ridiculous or irrelevant, they have frequently turned out to be the ones leading to a correct solution of the trouble.
Edison's inexhaustible resourcefulness and fertility of ideas have contributed largely to his great success, and have ever been a cause of amazement to those around him. Frequently, when it would seem to others that the extreme end of an apparently blind alley had been reached, and that it was impossible to proceed further, he has shown that there were several ways out of it. Examples without number could be quoted, but one must suffice by way of illustration. During the progress of the ore-milling work at Edison, it became desirable to carry on a certain operation by some special machinery. He requested the proper person on his engineering staff to think this matter up and submit a few sketches of what he would propose to do. He brought three drawings to Edison, who examined them and said none of them would answer. The engineer remarked that it was too bad, for there was no other way to do it. Mr. Edison turned to him quickly, and said: "Do you mean to say that these drawings represent the only way to do this work?" To which he received the reply: "I certainly do." Edison said nothing. This happened on a Saturday. He followed his usual custom of spending Sunday at home in Orange. When he returned to the works on Monday morning, he took with him sketches he had made, showing FORTY-EIGHT other ways of accomplishing the desired operation, and laid them on the engineer's desk without a word. Subsequently one of these ideas, with modifications suggested by some of the others, was put into successful practice.
Difficulties seem to have a peculiar charm for Edison, whether they relate to large or small things; and although the larger matters have contributed most to the history of the arts, the same carefulness of thought has often been the means of leading to improvements of permanent advantage even in minor details. For instance, in the very earliest days of electric lighting, the safe insulation of two bare wires fastened together was a serious problem that was solved by him. An iron pot over a fire, some insulating material melted therein, and narrow strips of linen drawn through it by means of a wooden clamp, furnished a readily applied and adhesive insulation, which was just as perfect for the purpose as the regular and now well-known insulating tape, of which it was the forerunner.
Dubious results are not tolerated for a moment in Edison's experimental work. Rather than pass upon an uncertainty, the experiment will be dissected and checked minutely in order to obtain absolute knowledge, pro and con. This searching method is followed not only in chemical or other investigations, into which complexities might naturally enter, but also in more mechanical questions, where simplicity of construction might naturally seem to preclude possibilities of uncertainty. For instance, at the time when he was making strenuous endeavors to obtain copper wire of high conductivity, strict laboratory tests were made of samples sent by manufacturers. One of these samples tested out poorer than a previous lot furnished from the same factory. A report of this to Edison brought the following note: "Perhaps the ---- wire had a bad spot in it. Please cut it up into lengths and test each one and send results to me immediately." Possibly the electrical fraternity does not realize that this earnest work of Edison, twenty-eight years ago, resulted in the establishment of the high quality of copper wire that has been the recognized standard since that time. Says Edison on this point: "I furnished the expert and apparatus to the Ansonia Brass and Copper Company in 1883, and he is there yet. It was this expert and this company who pioneered high-conductivity copper for the electrical trade."
Nor is it generally appreciated in the industry that the adoption of what is now regarded as a most ob- vious proposition--the high-economy incandescent lamp--was the result of that characteristic foresight which there has been occasion to mention frequently in the course of this narrative, together with the courage and "horse-sense" which have always been displayed by the inventor in his persistent pushing out with far-reaching ideas, in the face of pessimistic opinions. As is well known, the lamps of the first ten or twelve years of incandescent lighting were of low economy, but had long life. Edison's study of the subject had led him to the conviction that the greatest growth of the electric-lighting industry would be favored by a lamp taking less current, but having shorter, though commercially economical life; and after gradually making improvements along this line he developed, finally, a type of high-economy lamp which would introduce a most radical change in existing conditions, and lead ultimately to highly advantageous results. His start on this lamp, and an expressed desire to have it manufactured for regular use, filled even some of his business associates with dismay, for they could see nothing but disaster ahead in forcing such a lamp on the market. His persistence and profound conviction of the ultimate results were so strong and his arguments so sound, however, that the campaign was entered upon. Although it took two or three years to convince the public of the correctness of his views, the idea gradually took strong root, and has now become an integral principle of the business.
In this connection it may be noted that with remarkable prescience Edison saw the coming of the modern lamps of to-day, which, by reason of their small consumption of energy to produce a given candle-power, have dismayed central-station managers. A few years ago a consumption of 3.1 watts per candle-power might safely be assumed as an excellent average, and many stations fixed their rates and business on such a basis. The results on income when the consumption, as in the new metallic- filament lamps, drops to 1.25 watts per candle can readily be imagined. Edison has insisted that central stations are selling light and not current; and he points to the predicament now confronting them as truth of his assertion that when selling light they share in all the benefits of improvement, but that when they sell current the consumer gets all those benefits without division. The dilemma is encountered by central stations in a bewildered way, as a novel and unexpected experience; but Edison foresaw the situation and warned against it long ago. It is one of the greatest gifts of statesmanship to see new social problems years before they arise and solve them in advance. It is one of the greatest attributes of invention to foresee and meet its own problems in exactly the same way.
Return to the Thomas A Edison in Menlo Park index
Return to The Metuchen Edison History Features index
Return to J Halpin CPA page
Last updated by Jim Halpin on 9/17/99.