Edison’s Laboratory

by Paul Israel

Photograph of Edison Machine Works in New York City, 1881. (GLC07616.05)Thomas Edison’s death in October 1931 seemed to mark the passing of an era. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Waldemar Kaempffert, the editor of a two-volume Popular History of Invention, expressed the common view that Edison was the last of the great heroic inventors and that the “future belongs to the organized, highly trained physicists and chemists of the corporation research laboratory.” The seminal inventions of the nineteenth century, including Edison’s electric light, were seen as the work of lone geniuses drawing on innate Yankee ingenuity.

In fact, rather than being an enterprise of lone individuals, nineteenth-century invention involved communities of skilled operatives, machinists, superintendents, and manufacturers who drew on practical experience to design, build, and refine new technology. They worked in manufacturing and experimental machine shops that served as their research laboratories. This kind of shop invention went well beyond the simple method of “cut-and-try” experimentation that is often attributed to nineteenth-century inventors. Inventors not only kept abreast of scientific and technical research that might contribute to their work, but frequently undertook experiments designed to give them more general knowledge that might prove crucial to their success.

When Edison created the first industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876, he was seeking to extend, not replace, this shop tradition. Nonetheless, the Menlo Park laboratory prefigured a new model of research, as Edison merged the shop tradition with laboratory research. In addition, Edison turned increasingly to teams of researchers in order to develop all aspects of his inventions and move them rapidly into commercialization. By the early 1880s, Edison had transformed his “invention factory” into a true research and development laboratory, and, by doing so, he laid the cornerstone of modern industrial research.

Edison began his career as an inventor in the late 1860s while working as a telegraph operator, and by the early 1870s he had achieved a reputation as one of the industry’s leading “electromechanicians.” This term captured both the mechanical character of nineteenth-century electrical technology—like stock tickers—and the role that machine shops and skilled machinists played in the inventive process. Early in his career Edison took advantage of his success as an inventor to open a telegraph manufacturing shop in Newark, New Jersey, which provided not only another source of income for himself but also steady work for the skilled machinists who assisted him with his inventions.

Edison’s work as a contract inventor for the leading telegraph companies, including Western Union, provided income from patent royalties as well as research and development money. Edison also enjoyed income from manufacturing many of the instruments he invented for these companies at his Newark shop. By the spring of 1875, he was able to make his expanding laboratory entirely independent of the manufacturing shop and turned to invention full-time. With the skilled workmen and tools from his Newark telegraph shops adapted solely to inventive work, Edison could rapidly construct, test, and alter experimental devices. At the end of 1875, Edison built his now famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, which was designed to be an “invention factory” where he planned to produce “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.”

Edison was not alone in his efforts to develop more sophisticated laboratories for invention. Electrical and chemical laboratories could be found in a number of American telegraph shops. Edison had seen inventor Moses Farmer’s small laboratory above Charles Williams’s shop in Boston with its “immense quantity of valuable electrical and experimental apparatus,” and he conducted some of his own experiments in the shop. A few years later, Alexander Graham Bell met Thomas Watson, the young machinist who became his chief experimental assistant, when he brought his instruments to Williams’s shop. After arriving in New Jersey, Edison experimented in Dr. Leverett Bradley’s telegraph shop in Jersey City, where he found a fine electrical laboratory used by Bradley in designing and manufacturing the first American-made galvanometer. Western Electric Manufacturing Company, where rival inventor Elisha Gray conducted his experiments, had a laboratory with “ample accommodations for electrical, chemical, and other scientific investigations.” What set Edison’s effort apart from those of his contemporaries was its scale and scope. The laboratory he built in Menlo Park was probably the best equipped private laboratory in the United States and certainly the largest devoted to invention. Over the course of the next five years, Edison would turn his invention factory into a true research and development laboratory and produce some of the most important new technologies of his time.

In order to support his expanding laboratory, Edison needed to find additional financing. Writing to Western Union president William Orton, he described the advantages of his new laboratory, which “with machinery & apparatus cost about $40,000.” Noting that this provided him with “unusual facilities” for “perfecting any kind of Telegraphic invention,” Edison proposed that Western Union pay the “running expenses of my [machine] shop,” which “including coal kerosene & labor is about 15 per day or 100 per week.” Orton agreed to Edison’s proposal, and on March 22, 1877, they signed a new agreement that included much of Edison’s language justifying the company’s support for his laboratory. In exchange Western Union would acquire all of Edison’s inventions, including any that resulted from his work to improve upon Bell’s new telephone.

Edison soon made a signal contribution to telephone technology when he developed the carbon-button transmitter in 1877–78. Edison’s decision to use carbon drew on his efforts to understand the subtleties of the cable telegraph system he had seen while visiting England in 1873. His automatic telegraph system was designed to transmit messages at high speed and record them automatically on chemically treated paper. However, while testing it on a submarine cable, he was astonished to discover that a simple dot was recorded as a twenty-seven foot mark. Soon after his return Edison began equipping a new laboratory at his Newark shop with electrical and chemical equipment. He also devised and built a high-resistance rheostat made of carbon-filled glass tubes so that he could conduct bench-top experiments on cable telegraphy. Although he found this artificial cable to be unstable because the motion and noise of the machinery caused the resistance of the carbon to change erratically, it was just this kind of sensitive variable resistance that he later required for transmitting the varying sound waves of the human voice over a telephone circuit.

While working on the telephone, Edison thought about the need to record messages in order to automatically repeat them over long distances and also to provide a permanent record. Thus in July 1877 he conducted his first experiment recording sound by putting a needle on a telephone diaphragm and using it to emboss waxed paper. Finding that the sound “vibrations are indented nicely,” he concluded, “there’s no doubt that I shall be able to store up & reproduce automatically at any future time the human voice perfectly.” Never lacking for confidence, six months later he successfully recorded “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on his new cylinder phonograph. In January 1878 Edison was able to convince investors connected with the Bell Telephone Company to form the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company and invest $10,000 in research and development of the phonograph. Although he spent the first half of 1878 working to improve the tinfoil phonograph, it remained a novelty. Not until Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter developed wax recording at Bell’s Volta laboratory in the 1880s did Edison again take up sound recording. By the end of the century, using the resources of his research laboratory, he successfully improved the technology of sound recording and turned it into a commercially viable industry.

By the spring of 1878, funding from Western Union and from Edison Speaking Phonograph enabled Edison to increase his staff from the original small group who accompanied him from Newark to around twenty-five men. This included four experimenters, a couple of general laboratory assistants, six machinists, a patternmaker, a general handyman, a watchman, a bookkeeper, and a private secretary.

Over the next two years, Edison turned to research on electric lighting, funded primarily from Western Union investors. Their support enabled Edison not only to increase his staff but to greatly expand his laboratory. He built a separate and larger brick machine shop, which enabled him to expand his electrical laboratory on the ground floor as well as add a photometric laboratory. In addition, he built a two-story brick office and library building and stocked it with an impressive collection of technical and scientific books and journals. These new laboratory resources, combined with his greatly augmented staff, enabled Edison to turn Menlo Park into a true research and development laboratory.

Between the fall of 1878 and the fall of 1879 Edison added additional staff, including several experimenters. Most notable was Francis Upton, who had received the first Master of Science degree from Princeton and then did post-graduate work with Herman von Helmholtz. He also hired several chemists, including two with German PhDs, and a German lamp-blower who had worked for a scientific instrument maker. Although a few experimenters, like Charles Clarke and Julius Hornig, were hired because of their formal training as engineers, most were ambitious young men attracted by the aura surrounding Edison and his laboratory and who learned on the job. Edison now had teams of researchers who could work simultaneously on all elements of the electric lighting system. This enabled him to rapidly leapfrog past his competitors and to develop not just a laboratory prototype of a lamp or generator but a complete commercial system of electric lighting.

Edison’s great success at the Menlo Park laboratory made it a model for others. Alexander Graham Bell was influenced by what he called Edison’s “celebrated laboratory at Menlo Park” when he set up his own Volta Laboratory in Washington, DC, in 1881. Other electrical inventors, such as Edward Weston, were also inspired by Edison’s example as they set up laboratories of their own. The Bell Telephone Company likewise drew on the example of Edison’s laboratory when it established an experimental shop in 1883. The influence of the laboratory even extended to the scientific community as American and European scientists visited and found it better equipped than their own laboratories. Menlo Park also provided the model for the even larger laboratory Edison built in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887, which he planned to be the “best equipped & largest Laboratory extant, and the facilities incomparably superior to any other for rapid & cheap development of an invention, & working it up into commercial shape with models patterns special machinery.” Having developed a process of research and development at Menlo Park, Edison applied it at West Orange to a wide variety of technologies.

Thomas Edison made fundamental contributions to many of the technologies we associate with our modern, technological society. He founded three key industries: electric light and power, sound recording, and motion pictures. He also made important contributions to many other industries, including telecommunications, mining technology, cement manufacture, and storage batteries. But his most important contribution was a new method of invention that was part of a larger system of innovation. Edison created the first industrial research laboratory devoted to developing new technologies by taking traditional shop invention and grafting onto it modern chemical and electrical laboratories. In the process he devised a method of team research that made invention more regular and predictable and demonstrated to corporate leaders that support for research could be of long-term benefit to their companies. While often thought of as the leading symbol of a mythic American past in which an unschooled empirical genius could astound the world through hard work and persistence, Edison should instead be remembered as the founder of modern industrial research and as an innovator of new industries and new technologies.

Paul Israel is director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University and author of Edison: A Life of Invention (1998), which received the Dexter Prize, and From Machine Shop to Industrial Laboratory Telegraphy and the Changing Context of American Invention, 1830–1920 (1992).

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