Wm. H. (William Henry) Meadowcroft.

The boy's life of Edison online

. (page 13 of 15)
Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 13 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Two very serious difficulties lay in the way,
however first, a sensitive surface of such
form and weight as could be successively
brought into position and exposed at a very
high rate; and, secondly, the making of a
camera capable of so taking the pictures.
Edison proved equal to the occasion, and,
after an immense amount of work and experi-
ment, continuing over a long period of time,
succeeded in producing apparatus that made
modern motion-pictures possible.

In his earliest experiments a cylinder about
the size of a phonograph record was used. It
was coated with a highly sensitized surface,
and microscopic photographs, arranged spi-
rally, were taken upon it. Positive prints
were made in the same way, and viewed
through a magnify ing-glass. Various forms
of this apparatus were made, but all were open
to serious objections, the chief trouble being
with the photographic emulsion.

During this experimental period the kodak


film was being developed by the Eastman
Company. Edison recognized that in this
product there lay the solution of that part of
the problem. At first the film was not just
what he required, but the Eastman Company
after a time developed and produced the
highly sensitized surface that Edison sought.

It then remained to devise a camera by
means of which from twenty to forty pictures
per second could be taken. Every user of a
film camera can appreciate the difficulty of
the problem. A long roll of film must pass
steadily behind the lens. At every inch it
must be stopped, the shutter opened for the
exposure, and then closed again. The film
must be advanced say an inch, and these
operations repeated twenty to forty times a
second throughout, perhaps, a thousand feet
of film.

Who but an Edison would assume that such
a device could be made, and with such exact-
ness that each picture should coincide with
the others? After much experiment, how-
ever, he finally accomplished it, and in the
summer of 1889 the first modern motion-
picture camera was made. From that day



to this the Edison camera has been the ac-
cepted standard for securing pictures of
objects in motion.

The earliest form of exhibiting apparatus
was known as the kinetoscope. It was a
machine in which a positive print from the
negative roll of film obtained in the camera
was exhibited directly to the eyes through a
peep-hole. About 1895 the pictures were
first shown through a modified form of magic
lantern, and have so continued to this day.
The industry has grown very rapidly, and at
the present time (1911) the principal Amer-
ican manufacturers of motion - pictures are
paying a royalty to Edison under his basic

The pictures made in the earliest days of
the art were simple and amusing, such as Fred
Ott's sneeze, Carmencita dancing, Italians and
their performing bears, fencing, trapeze stunts,
horsemanship, blacksmithing, and so on. No
attempt was made to portray a story or play.
The "boys" at the laboratory laugh when
they tell of a local bruiser who agreed to box
a few rounds with "Jim" Corbett in front of
the camera. When this local "sparring part-



ner " came to face Corbett he was so paralyzed
with terror he could hardly move.

These early pictures were made in the yard
of Edison's laboratory at Orange, in a studio
called the " Black Maria." It was made of
wood, painted black inside and out, and could
be swung around to face the sunlight, which
was admitted by a movable part of the roof.

This is all very different in these modern
days. The studios in which interior motion-
pictures are made are expensive and preten-
tious affairs. An immense building of glass,
with all the properties and stage settings of a
regular theater, are required. The Bronx
Park (New York) studio of the Edison Com-
pany cost at least one hundred thousand dol-
lars. The company has a second studio in
New York, but not so elaborate. Of course
many of the plays are produced out of doors,
in portions of the country suited to the story.

All the companies producing motion-pic-
tures employ regular stock companies of actors
and actresses, selected especially for their skill
in pantomime, although, as may be suspected,
in the actual taking of the pictures they are
required to carry on an animated dialogue as
is 271


if performing on the real stage. This adds
to the smoothness and perfection of the per-

Motion-picture plays are produced under
the direction of skilled stage-managers who
must be specially trained for this particular
business. Their work is far from being easy,
for an act in a picture-play must be exact and
free from mistakes, and must take place in a
very short time. For instance, an act in such
a play may take less than five minutes to per-
form, but it must be carefully rehearsed for
several weeks beforehand.

There is plenty of scope for patience and in-
genuity in taking motion-picture plays. If
trained children or animals are required they
must be found or trained; and all the re-
sources of trick and stop photography are
called upon from time to time as the occasion

Edison has always held to his idea of a com-
bination of the phonograph and motion-pic-
ture. Some time ago he said, " I believe that
in coming years, by my own work and that of
Dickson, Muybridge, Marey, and others who
will doubtless enter the field, grand opera can



be given at the Metropolitan Opera House in
New York without any material change from
the original, and with artists and musicians
long since dead."

This prediction has been partly fulfilled, for
Edison has already shown successful talking
motion-pictures, and at this writing the finish-
ing work is being done on the apparatus for
regularly placing them before the public.



JV A ANY an invention has been made as the
* * * result of some happy thought or in-
spiration, but most inventions are made by
men working along certain lines, who set out
to accomplish a desired result. It is rarely,
however, that a man starts out deliberately,
as Edison did, to invent an entirely new type
of such an intricate device as a storage bat-
tery, with only a vague starting point.

Previous to Edison's work the only type of
storage battery known was the one in which
lead plates and sulphuric acid were employed.
He had always realized the value of a storage
battery as such, but never believed that the
lead-acid type could fulfil all expectations
because of its weight and incurable defects.

About the time that he closed the magnetic
iron ore concentrating plant (in the beginning
of the present century) Edison remarked to


Tl ...


Mr. R. H. Beach, then of the General Electric
Company: "Beach, I don't think nature
would be so unkind as to withhold the secret
of a good storage battery if a real earnest hunt
for it is made. I'm going to hunt." And
before starting he determined to avoid lead
and sulphuric acid.

Edison is frequently asked what he con-
siders to be the secret of achievement. He
always replies, "Hard work, based on hard
thinking." He has consistently lived up to
this prescription to the utmost.

Of all his inventions it is doubtful whether
any one of them has called forth more original
thought, work, perseverance, ingenuity, and
monumental patience than the one we are
now dealing with. One of his associates who
has been through the many years of the
storage - battery drudgery with him said:
" If Edison's experiments, investigations, and
work on this storage battery were all that he
had ever done, I should say that he was not
only a notable inventor, but also a great man.
It is almost impossible to appreciate the
er iiious difficulties that have been over-




From a beginning which was made prac-
tically in the dark, it was not until he had com-
pleted more than ten thousand experiments
that he obtained any positive results what-
ever. Month after month of constant work
by day and night had not broken down Edi-
son's faith in success, and the failure of an
experiment simply meant that he had found
something else that would not do, thus bring-
ing him nearer the possible goal.

After this immense amount of preliminary
work he had obtained promising results in a
series of reactions between nickel and iron, and
was then all afire to push ahead. He there-
fore established a chemical plant at Silver
Lake, New Jersey, and, gathering around him
a corps of mechanics, chemists, machinists,
and experimenters, settled down to one of his
characteristic struggles for supremacy. To
some extent it was a revival of the old Menlo
Park days and nights.

The group that took part in these early
years of Edison's arduous labors included his
old-time assistant, Fred Ott, together with
his chemist, J. W. Aylsworth, as well as E. J.
Ross, Jr. ; W. E. Holland, and Ralph Arbogast,



and a little later W. G. Bee, all of whom have
grown up with the battery and still devote
their energies to its commercial development.

One of these workers, relating the strenuous
experiences of these few years, says: " It was
hard work and long hours, but still there were
some things that made life pleasant. One of
them was the supper-hour we enjoyed when we
worked nights. Mr. Edison would have sup-
per sent in about midnight, and we all sat
down together, including himself. Work was
forgotten for the time, and all hands were
ready for fun. I have very pleasant recol-
lections of Mr. Edison at these times. He
would always relax and help to make a good
time, and on some occasions I have seen him
fairly overflow with animal spirits, just like a
boy let out of school. He was very fond of
telling and hearing stories, and always ap-
preciated a joke. After the supper-hour was
over, however, he again became the serious,
energetic inventor, deeply immersed in the
work in hand."

Another interesting and amusing reminis^
cence of this period of activity has been told by
another of the family of experimenters:



" Sometimes when Mr. Edison had been work-
ing long hours he would want to have a
short sleep. It was one of the funniest things
I ever witnessed to see him crawl into an or-
dinary roll-top desk and curl up and take a
nap. If there was a sight that was still more
funny, it was to see him turn over on his other
side, all the time remaining in the desk. He
would use several volumes of Watts' Dictionary
of Chemistry for a pillow, and we fellows used
to say that he absorbed the contents during
his sleep, judging from the flow of new ideas
he had on waking."

Such incidents as these serve merely to
illustrate the lighter moments that relieved
the severe and arduous labors of the strenuous
five years of the early storage-battery work
of Edison and his associates. Difficulties
there were a-plenty, but these are what
Edison usually thrives on. As another co-
worker of this period says: " Edison seemed
pleased when he used to run up against a
serious difficulty. It would seem to stiffen
his backbone and make him more prolific of
new ideas. For a time I thought I was foolish
to imagine such a thing, but I could never get



away from the impression that he really ap-
peared happy when he ran up against a
serious snag."

It would be out of the question in a book
of this kind to follow Edison's trail in detail
through the innumerable twists and turns of
his experimentation on the storage battery,
for they would fill a big volume. The reader
may imagine how extensive they were from
the reply of one of his laboratory assistants,
who, when asked how many experiments were
made on the storage battery since the year
1900, replied: " Goodness only knows! We
used to number our experiments consecutively
from one to ten thousand, and when we got
up to ten thousand we turned back to one and
ran up to ten thousand again, and so on. We
ran through several series I don't know how
many, and have lost track of them now, but
it was not far from fifty thousand."

The mechanical problems in devising this
battery were numerous and intricate, but the
greatest difficulty that Edison had to over-
come was the proper preparation of nickel
hydrate for the positive and iron oxide for the
negative plate. He found that comparatively



little was known by manufacturing chemists
about these compounds. Hence it became
necessary for him to establish his own chem-
ical works and put them in charge of men
specially trained by himself.

After an intense struggle with these prob-
lems, lasting over several years, the storage
battery was at length completed and put on
the market. The public was ready for it and
there was a rapid sale.

Continuous tests of the battery were carried
on at the laboratory, as well as practical and
heavy tests in automobiles, which were kept
running constantly over all kinds of roads
under Edison's directions. After these tests
had been going on for some time the results
showed that occasionally a cell here and
there would fall short in capacity.

This did not suit Edison. He was deter-
mined to make his storage battery a complete
success, and after careful thought decided to
shut down until he had overcome the trouble.
The customers were satisfied and wanted to
buy more batteries, but he was not satisfied
and would sell no more until he had made the
battery perfect.



He therefore shut down the factory and
went to experimenting once more. The old
strenuous struggle set in and continued nearly
three years before he was satisfied beyond
doubt that the battery was right. In the
early summer of 1909 Edison once more
started to manufacture and sell the batteries,
and has since that time continued to sup-
ply them as quickly as they are made. At the
present writing the factory is running day
and night in attempting to keep up with

One of the principal troubles of the earlier
cells was a lack of conductivity between the
nickel hydrate and the metal tube in which it
was contained. Edison had used graphite
to obtain this conductivity, but this material
proved to be uncertain in some cases. After
a long course of study and experiment he
solved this problem in a satisfactory manner
by using flakes of pure nickel, which he ob-
tained by a most fascinating and ingenious

A metallic cylinder is electroplated with
alternate layers of copper and nickel, one
hundred of each. The combined sheet, which



is only as thick as a visiting-card, is stripped
off the cylinder and cut into tiny squares of
about one-sixteenth of an inch each. These
squares are put into a bath which dissolves
out the copper. This releases the layers of
nickel, so that each of these squares becomes
one hundred tiny sheets, or flakes, of pure
metallic nickel, so thin and light that when
they are dried they will float in the air.
These flakes are automatically pressed into
the positive tubes with the nickel hydrate in
an ingenious machine which had to be specially
invented for the purpose.

Not only was this machine specially in-
vented, but it was necessary to invent and
design practically all the other machinery that
it was necessary to use in manufacturing the
battery. Thus, we see that in this, as in
many other of Edison's inventions, it is not
only the thing itself that has been invented,
but also the special machinery and tools to
make it.

The principal use that Edison has had in
mind for his storage battery is the transporta-
tion of freight and passengers by truck, auto-
mobile, and street -car. Although at the



time of writing this book the improved bat-
tery has been on the market a little over two
years, great strides have been made in carrying
his ideas into effect.

The number of trucks and automobiles using
Edison's storage battery already run into the
thousands, with more orders than can be im-
mediately filled. The growth of the street-
car business has not been so rapid, but the
success of the cars so far put into use has been
so great that their numbers promise to in-
crease rapidly.



HTHUS far the history of Edison's career
* has fallen naturally into a series of
chapters each aiming to describe a group of
inventions in the development of some art.
This plan has been helpful to the writer and
probably useful to the reader.

It happens, however, that the process has
left a vast mass of discovery and invention
untouched, and it is now proposed to make
brief mention of a few of the hundreds of
things that have occupied Edison's attention
from time to time.

Beginning with telegraphy, we find that
Edison did some work on wireless transmis-
sion. He says: "I perfected a system of
train telegraphy between stations and trains
in motion, whereby messages could be sent
from the moving train to the central office;



and this was the forerunner of wireless
telegraphy. This system was used for a
number of years on the Lehigh Valley Rail-
road on their construction trains. The elec-
tric wave passed from a piece of metal on top
of the car across the air to the telegraph wires,
and then proceeded to the despatcher's
office. In my first experiments with this
system I tried it on the Staten Island Rail-
road and employed an operator named King
to do the experimenting. He reported results
every day, and received instructions by mail;
but for some reason he could send messages
all right when the train went in one direction,
but could not make it go in the contrary di-
rection. I made suggestions of every kind to
get around this phenomenon. Finally I tele-
graphed King to find out if he had any sugges-
tions himself, and I received a reply that the
only way he could propose to get around the
difficulty was to put the island on a pivot so it
could be turned around. I found the trouble
finally, and the practical introduction on the
Lehigh Valley road was the result. The sys-
tem was sold to a very wealthy man, and he
would never sell any rights or answer letters.



He became a spiritualist subsequently, which
probably explains it."

The earlier experiments with wireless teleg-
raphy were made at Menlo Park during the
first days of the electric light, and it was not
until 1886 that Edison had time to spare to
put the system into actual use. At that time
Ezra T. Gilliland and Lucius J. Phelps, who
had experimented on the same lines, became
associated with him in the work.

Although the space between the train and
the pole line was not more than fifty feet,
Edison had succeeded at Menlo Park in trans-
mitting messages through the air at a distance
of five hundred and eighty feet. Speaking of
this and of his other experiments with induc-
tion telegraphy by means of kites, he said,
recently: "We only transmitted about two
and one-half miles through the kites. What
has always puzzled me since is that I did not
think of using the results of my experiments
on 'etheric force* that I made in 1875. I
have never been able to understand how I
came to overlook them. If I had made use
of my own work I should have had long-
distance wireless telegraphy."



These experiments of 1875, as recorded in
Edison's famous note-books, show that in that
year he detected and studied some then un-
known and curious phenomena which made
him think he was on the trail of a new force.
His representative, Mr. Batchelor, showed
these experiments with Edison's apparatus,
including the "dark box," at the Paris Expo-
sition in 1 88 1. Without knowing it, for he
was far in advance of the time, Edison had
really entered upon the path of long-distance
wireless telegraphy, as was proven later when
the magnificent work of Hertz was published.

When Roentgen made the discovery of the
X-ray in 1895 Edison took up experimenta-
tion with it on a large scale. He made the
first fluoroscope, using tungstate of calcium
for the screen. In order to find other fluores-
cent substances he set four men to work and
thus collected upward of eight thousand dif-
ferent crystals of various chemical combina-
tions, of which about eighteen hundred would
fluoresce to the X-ray. He also invented a
new lamp for giving light by means of these
fluorescent crystals fused to the inside of the
glass. Some of these lamps were made and
19 287


used for a time, but he gave up the idea when
the dangerous nature of the X-ray became

It would be possible to go on and describe
in brief detail many more of the hundreds
of Edison's miscellaneous inventions, but the
limits of our space will not permit more than
the mere mention of a few, simply to illustrate
the wide range of his ideas and work. For
instance :

A dry process of separating placer gold;
the rapid disposal of heavy snows in cities.

Experiments on flying machines x with an
engine operated by explosions of guncotton.

The joint invention, with M. W. Scott Sims,
of a dirigible submarine torpedo operated by

Pyromagnetic generators for generating
electricity directly from the combustion of

Pyromagnetic motors operated by alternate
heating and cooling.

A magnetic bridge for testing the magnetic
qualities of iron.

A "dead-beat" galvanometer without coils
or magnetic needle.



The odoroscope, for measuring odors; pre-
serving fruit in vacua; making plate glass;
drawing wire.

Metallurgical processes for treatment of
nickel, gold, and copper ores.

From first to last Edison has filed in the
United States Patent Office more than fourteen
hundred applications for patents. Besides, he
filed some one hundred and twenty caveats,
embracing not less than fifteen hundred addi-
tional inventions. The caveat has now been
abolished in patent-office practice, but such
a document could formerly be filed by an in-
ventor to obtain a partial protection for a
year while completing his invention. As an
example of Edison's fertility and the endless
variety of subjects engaging his attention the
following list of matters covered by one of his
caveats is given. All his caveats are not
quite so full of " plums," but this is certainly
a wonder:

Forty-one distinct inventions relating to the
phonograph, covering various forms of re-
corders, arrangement of parts, making of
records, shaving tool, adjustments, etc.

Eight forms of electric lamps using in-


fusible earthy oxides and brought to high in-
candescence in vacuo by high potential cur-
rent of several thousand volts; same charac-
ter as impingement of X-rays on object in

A loud-speaking telephone with quartz
cylinder and beam of ultra-violet light.

Four forms of arc-light with special carbons.

A thermostatic motor.

A device for sealing together the inside part
and bulb of an incandescent lamp mechan-

Regulators for dynamos and motors.

Three devices for utilizing vibrations beyond
the ultra-violet.

A great variety of methods for coating in-
candescent lamp filaments with silicon, ti-
tanium, chromium, osmium, boron, etc.

Several methods of making porous fila-

Several methods of making squirted fila-
ments of a variety of materials, of which about
thirty are specified.

Seventeen different methods and devices
for separating magnetic ores.

A continuously operative primary battery.


A musical instrument operating one of
Helmholtz's artificial larynxes.

A siren worked by explosion of small
quantities of oxygen and hydrogen mixed.

Three other sirens made to give vocal
sounds or articulate speech.

A device for projecting sound-waves to a
distance without spreading, and in a straight
line, on the principle of smoke-rings.

A device for continuously indicating on a
galvanometer the depths of the ocean.

A method of preventing in a great measure
friction of water against the hull of a ship and
incidentally preventing fouling by barnacles.

A telephone receiver whereby the vibrations
of the diaphragm are considerably amplified.

Two methods of "space'* telegraphy at sea.

An improved and extended string telephone.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15

Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 13 of 15)