Wm. H. (William Henry) Meadowcroft.

The boy's life of Edison online

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Devices and method of talking through
water for a considerable distance.

An audiphone for deaf people.

Sound-bridge for measuring resistance of
tubes and other materials for conveying sound.

A method of testing a magnet to ascertain
the existence of flaws in the iron or steel com-
posing the same.



Method of distilling liquids by incandescent
conductor immersed in the liquid.

Method of obtaining electricity direct from

An engine operated by steam produced by
the hydration and dehydration of metallic

Device and method of telegraphing photo-

Carbon crucible kept brilliantly incandes-
cent by current in vacua for obtaining reaction
with refractory metals.

Device for examining combinations of odors
and their changes by rotation at different

It must be borne in mind that the above
and hundreds of others are not merely ideas
put in writing, but represent actual inventions
upon which Edison worked and experimented.
In many cases the experiments ran into the
thousands, requiring months for their per-

To describe Edison's mere ideas and sug-
gestions for future work would of itself fill a
volume. These are written in his own hand-
writing in a number of large record -books



which he has shown to the writer. Judging
from a hasty inspection, there is enough ma-
terial in these books to occupy the lifetime of
several persons.

The immense range of Edison's mind and
activities cannot well be described in cold
print, but can only be adequately compre-
hended by those who have been closely asso-
ciated with him for a length of time, and who
have had opportunity of studying his volumi-
nous records.



TF one were allowed only two words with
* which to describe Edison it is doubtful
whether a close examination of the entire dic-
tionary would disclose any others more suit-
able than "experimenter- inventor." These
would express the overruling characteristics
of his eventful career.

His life as child, boy, and man has revealed
the born investigator with original reasoning
powers, unlimited imagination, and daring
method. It is not surprising, therefore, that
a man of this kind should exhibit a ceaseless,
absorbing desire for knowledge, willing to
spend his last cent in experimentation to
satisfy the cravings of an inquiring mind.

There is nothing of the slap-dash style in
Edison's experiments. While he " tries every-
thing, " 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. On the contrary, his instructions are
always clear-cut and direct, and must be fol-
lowed out systematically, exactly, and mi-
nutely, no matter where they lead nor how
long the experiment may take.

Unthinking persons have had a notion that
some of Edison's successes have been due to
mere dumb fool luck to fortunate " happen-
ings." Nothing could be farther from the
truth, for, on the contrary, it is owing almost
entirely to his comprehensive knowledge, the
breadth of his conception, the daring origi-
nality of his methods, and minuteness and
extent of experiment, combined with patient,
unceasing perseverance, that new arts have
been created and additions made. to others
already in existence.

One of the first things Edison does in be-
ginning a new line of investigation is to master
the literature of the subject. He wants to
know what has been done before. Not that
he considers this as final, for he often obtains
vastly different results by repeating in his
own way the experiments of others.

" Edison can travel along a well-used road


and still find virgin soil," remarked one of his
experimenters recently, who had been trying
to make a certain compound, but with poor
success. Edison tried it in the same way, but
made a change in one of the operations and

Another of the experimental staff says:
"Edison is never hindered by theory, but
resorts to actual experiment for proof. For
instance, when he conceived the idea of pour-
ing a complete concrete house it was univer-
sally 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 re-
sulted 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. He will write in
one of the laboratory note-books a memoran-
dum of the experiments to be tried, and, if
necessary, will illustrate by sketches.



This book is then given to one of the large
staff of experimenters. Here strenuousness
and a prompt carrying on of the work are
required. The results of each experiment
must be recorded in the note-book, and daily
or more frequent reports are expected. Edi-
son does not forget what is going on, but in
his daily tours through the laboratory keeps
in touch with the work of all the experiment-
ers. His memory is so keen and retentive
that he is as fully aware of the progress and
details of each of the numerous experiments
constantly going on as if he had made them
all himself.

The use of laboratory note-books was begun
early in the Menlo Park days and has con-
tinued ever since. They are plain blank-
books, each about eight and a half by six
inches, containing about two hundred pages.
At the present time there are more than one
thousand of these books in the series. On
their pages are noted Edison's ideas, sketches,
and memoranda, together with records of
countless thousands of experiments made by
him or under his direction during more than
thirty years.



These two hundred thousand or more pages
cover investigations into every department
of science, showing the operations of a master
mind seeking to surprise Nature into a be-
trayal of her secrets by asking her the same
question in a hundred different ways. The
breadth of thought, thoroughness of method,
infinite detail, and minuteness of investiga-
tion proceeding from the workings of one
mind would surpass belief were they not
shown by this wonderful collection of note-

A remark made by one of the staff, who has
been experimenting at the laboratory for over
twenty years, is suggestive. He said : ' ' Edi-
son 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 farther on that particular line. When
he decides on any mode of procedure he gives
his notes to the experimenter and lets him
alone, only stopping in from time to time to
look at the operations and receive reports of



The idea of attributing great successes to
"genius" has always been repudiated by
Edison, as evidenced by his historic remark
that "genius is one per cent, inspiration and
ninety-nine per cent, perspiration." Again,
in a conversation many years ago between
Edison, Batchelor, and E. H. Johnson, the
latter made allusion to Edison's genius, 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 (Jid 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 sub-
division 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 in-
coherently and changed the topic of conversa-

This innate modesty, however, does not pre-
vent Edison from recognizing and classifying
his own methods of investigation. In a con-
versation 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 in-
dustrial 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 hun-
dreds 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 th ink-
ing. " The intense earnestness and emphasis
with which this was said were very impressive
to the auditors.

If, in following out his ideas, an experiment
does not show the results that Edison wants,
it is not regarded as a failure, but as some-
thing learned. This attitude is illustrated by
his reply to Mr. Mallory, who expressed regret
that the first nine thousand and odd experi-
ments on the storage battery had been with-



out results. Edison replied, with a smile:
" Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of
results ! I have found several thousand things
that won't work."

Edison's patient, plodding methods do not
always appear on the note-books. For in-
stance, a suggestion in one of them refers to a
stringy, putty-like mass being made of a mix-
ture of lampblack and tar. Some years after-
ward one of the laboratory assistants was told
to make some and roll it into filaments. After
a time he brought the mass to Edison and

"There's something wrong about this, for
it crumbles even after manipulating it with
my fingers/'

"How long did you knead it?" said Ed-

"Oh, more than an hour," was the re-

" Well, keep on for a few hours more and it
will come out all right," was the rejoinder.
And this proved to be correct.

With the experimenter or employee who
exercises thought Edison has unbounded
patience, but to the careless, stupid, or lazy



person he is a terror for the short time they
remain around him. Once, when 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

Edison's practical way of testing a man's
fitness for special work is 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 together and
let me know when it is running.' I didn't
know what it was, but received a liberal educa-
tion in finding out. It proved to be a dynamo,
which I finally succeeded in assembling and
running. I got the job."

A somewhat similar experience is related
by Mr. John F. Ott, who, in 1869, applied for
work. This is the conversation that took
place, led by Edison's question:

"What do you want?"


"Can you make this machine work?" (ex-
hibiting it and explaining its details).
20 303



"Are you sure?"

"Well, you needn't pay me if I don't."

And thus Mr. Ott went to work and accom-
plished the results desired. Two weeks after-
ward Edison put him in charge of the shop.
Although this was more than forty-one years
ago, Mr. Ott is still a valued member of Mr.
Edison's staff at the laboratory.

Examples without number could be given
of Edison's inexhaustible fund of ideas, but
one must suffice by way of example. In the
progress of the ore-concentrating work one of
the engineers submitted three sketches of a
machine for some special work. They were
not satisfactory. He remarked that it was
too bad there was no other way to do the
work. Edison said, "Do you mean to say
that these drawings represent the only way
to do this work?" The reply was, "I cer-
tainly do." Edison said nothing, but two
days afterward brought in his own sketches
showing forty-eight other ways of accomplish-
ing the result, and laid them on the engineer's
desk without a word. One of these ideas, with
slight changes, was afterward adopted.



This chapter could be continued to great
length, but must now be closed in the hope
that in the foregoing pages the reader may
have caught an adequate glance of Mr. Edison
at work.



IF Longfellow's youth "Who through an
Alpine village passed" had been Edison,
the word upon his banner would probably not
have been " Excelsior " but "Experiment."
This seems to be the watchword of his life,
and is well illustrated by a remark made to
Mr. Mason, the superintendent of the cement
works: "You must experiment all the time;
if you don't the other fellow will, and then he
will get ahead of you."

For some years after closing the little labo-
ratory in his mother's cellar Edison made a
laboratory of any nook or corner and ex-
perimented as long as he had a dollar in his
pocket. The first place he began to do larger
things was in Newark, where he established
his first shops.

While life there was very strenuous, he tells
of some amusing experiences: "Some of my



assistants in those days were very green in the
business. One day I got a new man and told
him to conduct a certain experiment. He
got a quart of ether and started to boil it
over a naked flame. Of course it caught fire.
The flame was about four feet in diameter and
eleven feet high. The fire department came
and put a stream through the window. That
let all the fumes and chemicals out and over-
came the firemen.

" Another time we experimented with a tub-
ful of soapy water and put hydrogen into it
to make large bubbles. One of the boys, who
was washing bottles in the place, had read in
some book that hydrogen was explosive, so he
proceeded to blow the tub up. There was
about four inches of soap in the bottom of the
tub, which was fourteen inches high, and he
filled it with soap-bubbles up to the brim.
Then he took a bamboo fish-pole, put a piece
of lighted paper at the end and touched it off.
It blew every window out of the place."

We have seen that Edison moved to Menlo
Park, where he had a very complete labo-
ratory, in which he brought out a large num-
ber of important inventions. After a time,



however, this establishment was outgrown and
lost many of its possibilities, and he began to
plan a still greater one which should be the
most complete of its kind in the world.

The Orange laboratory, as was originally
planned, consisted of a main building two
hundred and fifty feet long and three stories
in height, together with four other structures,
each one hundred by twenty-five feet and
only one story in height. All these were sub-
stantially built of brick. The main building
was divided into five chief divisions the
library, office, machine-shops, experimental
and chemical rooms, and stock-rooms. The
smaller buildings were to be used for various

A high picket fence, with a gate, surrounded
these buildings. A keeper was stationed at
the gate with instructions to admit no strang-
ers without a pass. On one occasion a new
gateman was placed in charge, and, not
knowing Edison, refused to admit him until
he could get some one to come out and
identify him.

The library is a spacious room about forty
by thirty-five feet. Around the sides of the



room run two tiers of gallery. The main
floor and the galleries are divided into alcoves,
in which, on the main floor, are many thou-
sands of books. In the galleries are still more
books and periodicals of all kinds, also cab-
inets and shelves containing mineralogical
and geological specimens and thousands of
samples of ores and minerals from all parts of
the world. In a corner of one of the galleries
may be seen a large number of magazines
relating to electricity, chemistry, engineering,
mechanics, building, cement, building ma-
terials, drugs, water and gas power, auto-
mobiles, railroads, aeronautics, philosophy,
hygiene, physics, telegraphy, mining, metal-
lurgy, metals, music, and other subjects; also
theatrical weeklies, as well as the proceedings
and transactions of various learned and tech-
nical societies. All of these form part of Mr.
Edison's current reading. At one end of the
main floor of the library, which is handsomely
and comfortably furnished, is Mr. Edison's
desk, at which he may usually be seen for a
while in the early morning hours looking over
his mail.

In the center of the room is a fine model of


the first type of the Edison poured cement
house, which stands in a miniature artificial
lawn upon a special table prepared for it.
Directly opposite to the entrance-door is a
beautiful marble statue representing the su-
premacy of electric light over gas. This statue
was purchased by Mr. Edison at the Paris
Exposition in 1889.

A glance at the book-shelves affords a
revelation of the subjects in which Edison is
interested, for the titles of the volumes include
astronomy, botany, chemistry, dynamics, elec-
tricity, engineering, forestry, geology, geog-
raphy, mechanics, mining, medicine, metal-
lurgy, magnetism, philosophy, psychology,
physics, steam, steam-engines, telegraphy,
telephony, and many others. These are not
all of Edison 's books by any means, for he has
another big library in his house on the hill.

Turning to pass out of the library, one's at-
tention is arrested by a cot standing in one of
the alcoves near the door. Sometimes during
long working hours Mr. Edison will throw
himself down for a nap. He has the ability
to go to sleep instantly, and, being deaf, noises
do not disturb his slumber. The instant he



awakes he is in full possession of his faculties
and goes "back to the job*' without a mo-
ment's hesitation.

Immediately outside the library is the
famous stock-room, about which much has
been written. Edison planned to have in this
stock-room some quantity, great or small, of
every known substance not easily perishable,
together with the most complete assortment
of chemicals and drugs that experience and
knowledge could suggest. His theory was,
and is, that he does not know in advance what
he may want at any moment, and he planned
to have anything that could be thought of
ready at hand.

Thus, the stock-room is not only a museum,
but a sample-room of nature, as well as a
supply department. At first glance the col-
lection is bewildering, but when classified is
more easily comprehended.

The classification is natural, as, for instance,
objects pertaining to various animals, birds,
and fishes, such as skins, hides, hair, fur,
feathers, wool, quills, down, bristles, teeth,
bones, hoofs, horns, tusks, shells; natural
products such as woods, barks, roots, leaves,



nuts, seeds, gums, grains, flowers, meals, bran;
also minerals in great assortment; mineral
and vegetable oils, clay, mica, ozokerite, etc.
In the line of textiles, cotton and silk threads
in great variety, with woven goods of all kinds,
from cheese-cloth to silk plush. As for paper,
there is everything in white and color, from
thinnest tissue up to the heaviest asbestos,
even a few newspapers being always on hand.
Twines of all sizes, inks, wax, cork, tar, rosin,
pitch, asphalt, plumbago, glass in sheets and
tubes, and a host of miscellaneous articles are
revealed on looking around the shelves, as well
as an interminable collection of chemicals
including acids, alkalies, salts, reagents, every
conceivable essential oil, and all the think-
able extracts. It may be remarked that this
collection includes the eighteen hundred or
more fluorescent salts made by Edison during
his experiments for the best material for a
fluoroscope in the early X-ray period. All
known metals in form of sheet, rod, and tube,
and of great variety in thickness, are here
found also, together with a most complete
assortment of tools and accessories for ma-
chine-shop and laboratory work.




The list above given is not by any means
complete. In detail it would stretch out to a
rather large catalogue. It is not by any
means an idle collection, for a stock clerk is
kept busy all the day answering demands
upon him.

Beyond the stock-room is a good-sized
machine-shop, well equipped, in which the
heavier class of models and mechanical de-
vices are made. Attached to these are the
engine-room and boiler-room. Above, on the
second floor, is another machine-shop, in
which is carried on work of greater precision
and fineness in the construction of tools and
experimental models.

There are many experimental rooms on the
second and third floors of the -laboratory
building. In these the various experimenters
are at work carrying out the ideas of Mr.
Edison on the great variety of subjects to
which he is constantly devoting his attention.
One cannot go far in the upper floors without
being aware that efforts are being made to
improve the phonograph, for the sounds of
vocal and instrumental music can be heard
from all sides.



On the third floor the visitor may see a
number of glass-fronted cabinets containing a
multitude of experimental incandescent lamps,
and an immense variety of models of phono-
graphs, motors, telegraph and telephone ap-
paratus, and a host of other inventions, upon
which Mr. Edison's energies have at one time
or other been bent. Here are also many
boxes of historical instruments and models.
In fact, this hallway, with its variety of con-
tents, may well be considered a scientific attic.

In the early days of the Orange laboratory
some of the upper rooms contained cots for
the benefit of the night- workers. In spite of
the strenuous nights and days the spirit of fun
was frequently in evidence. One instance will
serve as an illustration.

One morning about two-thirty the late
Charles Batchelor said he was tired and would
go to bed. Leaving Edison and the others
busily working, he went out and returned
quietly in slippered feet, with his night-
gown on, the handle of a feather-duster down
his back with the feathers waving over his
head, and his face marked. With unearthly
howls and shrieks, a V Indien, he pranced


about the room, incidentally giving Edison a
scare that made him jump up from his work.
He saw the joke quickly, however, and joined
in the general merriment caused by this prank.

A description of the laboratory building
would be incomplete without mention of room
Number 12. This is one of Edison's favorite
rooms, where he may frequently be found
seated at a plain table in the center of the
room deeply intent on one of his numerous
problems. It is a plain little room, but seems
to exercise a nameless fascination for him.

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Online LibraryWm. H. (William Henry) MeadowcroftThe boy's life of Edison → online text (page 14 of 15)