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Unlocking the Legacies of the Edison Archives

150 years after Thomas Edison’s birth, his record of 1,093 diverse patents is still unrivaled. A massive effort to catalogue his voluminous collection of papers and artifacts is yielding clues to account for his phenomenal success.
February 1, 1997

Leonard DeGraaf, sporting the familiar beige and green uniform of the U.S. National Park Service, leads the way through a narrow subterranean passageway to one of the country’s invaluable and rarely viewed wonders. Rounding a final turn, DeGraaf points to the chamber before him. “This is always a thrill for me, no matter how many times I come here,” he says in the kind of hushed, reverent tone you might expect from a park ranger approaching the rim of the Grand Canyon or spotting a bald eagle. DeGraaf’s enthusiasm, however, is directed toward the massively thick steel door of an underground bank vault.

Unlike many of his park-ranger colleagues, DeGraaf is neither a forester nor a geologist but a historian of technology. The passageways of his prized grotto, some 15 feet below the barren, paved courtyard of an aging laboratory complex, are human-made and lined floor to ceiling with shelves of papers. DeGraaf pulls open the vault’s thick steel portal to reveal a collection of some of technology’s most fertile germinations: the 3,500 handwritten notebooks of Thomas Alva Edison. Now administered by the U.S. Park Service, the vault is the heart of the Edison Archives, a bomb-resistant bunker built below the famous inventor’s laboratory in West Orange, N.J.

DeGraaf explains that Edison and his colleagues used the notebooks as a daily log of their experiments just as many modern labs do. But Edison also recorded his musings about cosmology, observations of the natural world, sketches, even occasional poetry. In these pages, for instance, Edison not only details the steps leading to his successful prototype of the incandescent lightbulb but also his forays into everything from x-rays to air travel. Spanning most of his astonishing six-decade career, the vast collection offers an opportunity, rare in its detail and depth, to peer inside the mind of one of history’s greatest inventors.

What makes the notebooks all the more fascinating, as DeGraaf knows intimately, is the fact that the Edison estate, bestowed to the Park Service in 1955, also contains a remarkably diverse collection of related documents and artifacts, including correspondence, legal records, prototypes, and Edison’s complete library of books and articles, many scrawled with his wide-ranging and often irreverent marginalia. “We are blessed here with one of the most complete personal archives in the history of technology,” DeGraaf says. “A researcher here can trace an idea from its earliest conception through to its full-scale development and production.”

Complete as the collection may be, though, the locked bunker and bank vault serve as an unfortunately apt metaphor for the sequestered archive. As a result of some measure of neglect, underfunding, and incompetence, only a few individuals have ever viewed the bulk of the papers and memorabilia. Some 65 years since Edison’s death, roughly half of the lab’s 5 million documents and 400,000 artifacts have yet to be catalogued. And despite some 17 years of concerted archival work by the Thomas Edison Papers Project, a joint effort of the Park Service and historians at Rutgers University, only slightly more than a third of Edison’s remarkable notebooks-the chronologically earliest-have been reproduced on microfilm so they can be inspected by more than the tiniest handful of scholars. DeGraaf concedes the obvious: “The material just hasn’t been accessible,” he says. “It has been a very underutilized resource.”

Edison’s papers may remain largely hidden from public view, but we live daily with his overpowering imprint on our technological world. Most people know that the development by Edison and his colleagues of a working incandescent lightbulb spawned the omnipresent electric-power grid whose major components often still bear his name. But Edison’s contributions go well beyond that linchpin of modern technological society: like a runner who leaves even his closest competitors in the dust, Edison’s astonishing record of 1,093 patents far outpaces that of all other inventors before or since, and the breadth of these contributions is equally remarkable. His invention of the phonograph, for example, made possible the music- recording industry just as moving pictures, also his brainchild, eventually put Hollywood on the map. Less well known are Edison’s invention of the microphone and the mimeograph and his key advances in batteries. His portfolio even included a patent on poured concrete, part of his half-realized plan to build the structural shell of an entire middle-class house in just six hours.

How could a maverick with virtually no formal education pull off such an uncanny string of important inventions? Rather than settle for the view popular in his day-promoted largely by Edison himself-that his success derived from some combination of technological genius and single-minded perseverance, the few historians who do have access to Edison’s papers are focusing primarily on the innovative strategies he employed as one of the earliest-and still one of the boldest-practitioners of modern large-scale R&D.

Building an “Invention Factory”

Some 40 minutes from Manhattan along Interstate 280, the middle-class community of West Orange, N.J., looks much the same as it did in Edison’s day. Tired brick storefronts line a depressed but still viable downtown. A few blocks away, nestled unobtrusively in a drab, semi-industrial neighborhood, Edison’s West Orange facility, built in 1887, fills two fenced-off blocks with a cluster of vaguely fortresslike brick buildings. The very creation of an independent laboratory here in a prosaic New Jersey suburb is nearly as noteworthy as the work conducted inside. Bearing no visible connection to a university or corporate headquarters, the laboratory stands alone both visually and figuratively. Rutgers historian Paul Israel, one of the editors working on the Thomas Edison Papers Project and the author of a forthcoming biography of Edison-the first based on extensive access to the archives-explains some of the vision behind the freestanding laboratory. “Edison was one of the first,” he says, “to understand that the invention process could be organized.”

In a posthumous work on invention published in 1993, the eminent computer scientist Norbert Wiener attests that Edison’s most lasting innovation “was the invention of the industrial scientific laboratory in which a moderately large trained crew of technicians was directed by a central mind towards the making of inventions as an everyday business.”

Many of the techniques Edison would use to run his R&D operation were honed in nearby Menlo Park, where he initially built a laboratory and adjacent boarding house for his workers. There Edison and a dozen colleagues worked in teams to tackle as many as 40 separate projects at a time, including the lightbulb. In 1876, with typical bravado, Edison promised that the enterprise would yield a “minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” Remarkably, Edison averaged close to this success rate throughout most of the ensuing four decades.

Cashing in on the initial fame and financial success afforded by his invention of the lightbulb, Edison seized the opportunity in his West Orange laboratory to more completely realize his vision of what he called his “invention factory.” He chose the rural site near his newly purchased estate because it offered lots of space upon which to build yet proximity to Manhattan’s supply of materials, workers, and capital. Here, conscious that he was forging a new path for commercially oriented technological research, Edison built one of the world’s first full-scale R&D complexes.

The breadth of the West Orange facility’s mandate is one of the first things to strike a visitor. Introducing her sweeping tour, Maryanne Gerbauckas, superintendent of the Edison National Historic Site, explains that it includes a metal foundry, two large machine shops, a fully stocked chemistry lab, a woodworking shop, glassblowing facilities, a darkroom, and sound-recording and film studios, not to mention a lavish, wood-paneled 40,000-volume library. “Edison didn’t leave much out in his conception of this place,” she says.

To build what he immodestly referred to as the “best equipped and largest Laboratory extant,” Edison realized he needed “facilities incomparably superior to any other for rapid and cheap development of an invention … into commercial shape.” The effort, he noted, would require the facility to carry “a stock of almost every conceivable material,” so that he would be able to “build anything from a lady’s watch to a locomotive.” Israel says the lab reveals that “Edison understood quite early on that naturally occurring materials held open vast possibilities for exploration, exploitation, and development.”

Nowhere is Edison’s passion for diverse resources as clearly evident as in the storeroom, one of the first stops on Gerbauckas’s tour. Standing before banks of small wooden drawers that line several walls, Gerbauckas explains that each holds different samples; to her side larger stocks of metal sheets, rods, and pipes are neatly arranged. She recounts the inventor’s famous quip that the storehouse contained “everything from an elephant’s hide to the eyeballs of a United States Senator.”

An 1887 newspaper report confirms that the West Orange stock room contained “eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minx, camels, … silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, sharks’ teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell, … cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores, [and] metals.”

Edison put such exotic substances to use with surprising regularity. His notebooks, for instance, show that in their quest to discover an effective lightbulb filament, he and his assistants experimented with no fewer than 3,000 separate materials, including platinum and Japanese bamboo, before finally settling on carbonized cotton thread. After much similar trial and error, Edison employed compressed rainforest nuts to make the needle used in some of his earliest phonograph models before ultimately choosing tungsten as the best material for the job.

As W. Bernard Carlson, a historian of technology at the University of Virginia, explains it, Edison approached the process of invention more like a craft worker than a theoretical scientist. “For Edison the craftsman, invention was a tactile and visual activity,” he says, and “scientific instruments were extensions of his senses.” He contrasts the “collection of craft shops” at the West Orange facility, which employed glassblowers and machinists, with the more theoretical approach to conceiving new products that became common during ensuing decades. Of course, Edison also hired mathematicians and scientists throughout his career. But he relentlessly chided his college-educated colleagues that their university experience had corrupted them by teaching them to see only “that which they were taught to look for,” thus prompting them to overlook many of nature’s great secrets.

Tying “R” to “D”

Gregory Field, a historian at the University of Michigan at Dearborn who spent five years scrutinizing the early notebooks as part of the Edison Papers Project, says Edison’s key contribution to modern research efforts is his maverick insistence on “always tying the R’ to the D’.” Edison persistently held that “invention involves not just research but research, development, and marketing,” Field maintains-a view that would ultimately help usher in a new relationship between scientists and the entrepreneurial use of their work. According to Edison, in fact, “Dollars and science were so much mixed up” in his career that it was sometimes hard to separate his inventive activities from the continual stream of commercial ventures in which he involved himself.

To be sure, entrepreneurs of all stripes flourished during Edison’s day, and Edison counted some, like Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, among his close acquaintances. But Edison’s approach contrasts with that of many other scientists of his time, including Louis Pasteur of France. Pasteur was well known for his widely accepted view that “a man of science [sic] would complicate his life and risk paralyzing his inventive faculties” if he deigned to involve himself in using his discoveries as a source of commercial profit.

Edison almost defiantly emphasized his role as an “industrial scientist” to contrast himself with academic scientists such as Pasteur. Not surprisingly given his success, he inspired others to pursue a similar approach. For instance, historians have traced Alexander Graham Bell’s establishment of a small general research laboratory-the precursor of what would ultimately grow into the enormous Bell Laboratory complex (now Lucent Technologies)-to Edison’s example.

Yet unlike many of the R&D efforts he spawned, Edison repeatedly refused to be closely linked to any particular corporate mission. For example, although Edison relied on sponsors such as Western Union, one of the largest companies of the day, he avoided direct oversight of his work in order to pursue the widest possible R&D agenda.

Edison’s independence would prove to be a short-lived “golden moment” in modern research. As early as 1896, Carlson notes, emerging giant General Electric chose to contract with Edison’s more systematically oriented competitor Elihu Thompson to attempt to manufacture x-ray tubes. Given that he had worked on such tubes and helped found General Electric, Carlson says, Edison would have been a more obvious choice. “But by then he was already viewed by corporate managers as an unreliable and unpredictable source of innovation,” Carlson maintains, because of his insistence on following where his own intuition led.

A Knowledge-Centered Approach

Indeed, of his many colorful attributes, Edison is probably most famous for maniacal persistence, frequently working 90100 hours per week. “I never quit til I get what I’m after,” he reportedly answered when asked the key to his success, a variation on his famous maxim that “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Nowhere is Edison’s tireless persistence as evident today as in a rarely viewed attic closet at the West Orange facility. Walking past rows of shelves holding uncatalogued artifacts on the main building’s top floor, Gerbauckas opens the closet door to reveal a staggering display. Here, on shelves and floor, stand scores of phonograph horns of every size and shape. Some are round, others angular; some are short and squat while others are elongated, standing as much as six feet tall. This rogues’ gallery of rejected prototypes offers a rich visual testament to Edison’s approach: to try out every design he could conceive of.

Extremely hard of hearing, Edison was often frustrated upon not getting loud enough or clear enough sound from his phonograph machine. Edison’s archivists have found, Gerbauckas recounts, that the inventor would sometimes even clamp his teeth onto a phonograph horn as a hearing aid, feeling the sound vibrate through his jaw.

Yet the archives reveal that the conventional emphasis on Edison’s persistence has overshadowed an equally important attribute: a “wild enthusiasm” for any events out of the ordinary. This openness to new inputs and associations would often elude modern laboratories that attempted to build on Edison’s approach.

His openness was reflected in his ability to quickly capitalize on emerging scientific knowledge. Rather than wrestle with advancing scientific theory himself, he would comb the published literature for ideas that sparked his interest. This strategy, coupled with independence from corporate hierarchy, gave Edison extraordinary flexibility to regularly reinvent and reconfigure his laboratory.

Carlson notes that “the lab’s arrangement was in constant flux,” with Edison often redirecting efforts at its various branches and rearranging their thin, non-load-bearing wooden walls to accommodate the new ventures. On one occasion late in 1900, for example, when it was clear that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison had invested both financial and technical resources was failing, he returned to the West Orange lab on a weekend, cleared out a room in the main building, and laid out a detailed plan to completely redirect the team’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on some of the same equipment and materials.

Israel reports that he has uncovered new evidence of Edison’s enormous talent for appropriating techniques that may have failed in one instance and using them to great effect in another. For example, Edison’s unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable ultimately led to a breakthrough on a telephone transmitter. In repeated attempts to maintain a constant level of electrical resistance in a prototype of a lengthy transatlantic cable, Edison simply couldn’t solve the problem. Many months later, in his work on the telephone, Edison used the principle of variable resistance to help design a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing soundwaves of a caller’s voice-a technique that would serve as the industry standard for the better part of a century.

“The further we get into examining Edison’s papers,” Israel says, “the more cross-fertilization we recognize, with favored techniques and conceptual models transferred from one problem to the next.” While all modern R&D efforts must struggle to balance creative freedom with practical goals, it increasingly appears that Edison’s success owes much to the freewheeling, flexible framework in which his highly directed efforts thrived.

Preserving the Legacy

Despite the rich technological heritage embodied in the Edison National Historic Site and the many mysteries of the inventor’s work still to be plumbed, a visitor cannot help but be struck by the facility’s shabby condition. The damage and deterioration is severe enough, in fact, that the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation cited the lab in 1993 as one of the country’s “most endangered historic properties.” Touring the main building, for instance, Gerbauckas departs from her largely upbeat, historically oriented remarks to note water damage from a large leak in the roof. An arm’s length away, scores of open shelves hold all manner of Edison artifacts, including motors, hand tools, metal castings, architectural models, and gizmos of every description. Just two years ago, a researcher working in the area stumbled upon one of the world’s first phonograph recordings buried on one of these shelves. “There may well be more hidden gems here,” Gerbauckas says resignedly. “We just won’t know for sure until we are able to work our way through it all.” A new roof for the main building, she explains, is just one of many costly renovations needed at the site.

To combat such problems, Gerbauckas has helped launch a newly unveiled public-private partnership to restore the aging facility. In an effort the entrepreneurial inventor would undoubtedly have approved of, the new nonprofit Edison Preservation Foundation will solicit private contributions to help maintain the lab complex and Edison archive. The inauguration of the partnership drew a recent visit from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who as titular head of the Park Service hailed the plan as “a prototype” for defraying maintenance outlays throughout the underfunded park system. To be sure, a gaping shortfall remains despite the initial $1 million raised by the trust: the site’s renovation is now estimated to cost $60 million. But the partnership plan at least offers a viable structure within which to complete the task.

To encourage broad interest in the new partnership, as well as to commemorate the inventor’s 150th birthday, Gerbauckas, DeGraaf, and others working at the site are attempting to open the Edison collection to a wider audience. This spring the Edison archivists will launch a Web site that will ultimately include a fully searchable database of the papers. And DeGraaf is organizing a symposium that will be the first to draw a group of scholars from around the world to consider Edison from every angle: as scientist, entrepreneur, and cultural icon.

Back at the archive office, though, it is business as usual as Thomas Jeffrey, associate director of the Edison Papers Project, plows ahead in the seemingly Sisyphean task of preserving the rich cache of materials for posterity. Jeffrey calculates that the Edison papers if stacked would stand roughly as high as the Chicago Sears Tower. Although he has already spent 17 years attempting to catalogue the collection, Jeffrey estimates that his dedicated team of editors, digging their way through this mountain of paper, will need at least 17 more years to publish a representative sample of the inventor’s work on microfilm and in 15 to 20 printed volumes. “When you think that only 3 volumes have appeared so far,” he adds, “even 2015 may prove to be an optimistic deadline.”

Jeffrey is candid in his assessment of the consequences of this slow process: “So far,” he says, “most scholars have been able to study only the tip of the iceberg of this collection. And there is no question that piecemeal access to the material has limited the range of scholarship.” But someday, he says, “the intellectual resources hidden away at this site will be unlocked. We are creating an essential roadmap into this invaluable collection.”

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