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CICIORA’S CORNER - Edison in Orange

Thu, 09/30/2010 - 8:25pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

To invent, you need an imagination and a huge pile of junk

Thomas Edison is a special person to most any technologist. Some would go so far as to say he is their hero. He is, at least, someone to learn from by his example. Reading about his life is one way to learn. But there is a better way: Visit two museums where much of his life and work are displayed.

By Walt CicioraEdison was a contemporary and friend of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. Ford created Greenfield Village, a wonderful museum, in Dearborn, Mich. It is now called “The Henry Ford.” A reconstruction of Edison’s first laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., was added to Greenfield Village by Ford to honor his friend. The two-story building has many original artifacts, including inventions and patent models. The Henry Ford museum requires at least one full day to cover, and more if you want to study the displays and read the plaques.

It was at the Menlo Park laboratory that Edison demonstrated his most famous invention: the first practical incandescent electric light on Dec. 31, 1879. The Greenfield Village museum nicely demonstrates the hardware used to develop the lamp.

Edison is a named inventor on 1,093 patents – more than any other person. His first electric lamp patent is number 223,898, issued Jan. 27, 1880. You can Google it and read the four pages. It’s worth doing.

This URL lists his inventions and patents, a timeline of his life, suggested books for adults and children, and four museums that honor his memory: http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/edison/printinfo.asp.

The second lab to visit was called to my attention by a recent story in The Wall Street Journal on the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in Orange, N.J. The facility had been closed for several years for badly needed rejuvenation. The results of the restoration are well worth seeing. A visit will help you appreciate not only Thomas Edison, but also the nature of innovation and invention.

The facility is much bigger than the museum at Greenfield Village, and it is the model of the modern research and development facility. The first stop is in Edison’s beautifully wood-paneled three-story library. It includes a number of artifacts of his inventive life. Off to a corner is a bed: Edison believed in naps. He also stayed at the labs for days on end when he was involved in a major project.

Next on the tour is a huge storeroom with all manner of materials. Edison once said that to invent, you need a good imagination and a huge pile of junk. He knew the importance of rapid implementation of his ideas. He was always concerned that someone else might think of the same idea and beat him to the patent office. His store of materials and extensive facilities are meant to shorten the time between the first idea and the practical implementation. To that end, he employed a large staff of skilled workers and two huge machine shops. The first-floor shop had very large machines, and the second-floor shop had smaller-scale machines for making small models.

Edison’s favorite invention was not the incandescent lamp – it was the phonograph. The third floor of the lab has a recording studio and a storage area that has been converted to display an extensive collection of his inventions. The other major invention from this part of his life was the motion picture. He had a studio onsite for making motion pictures. Both the motion picture and the recorded audio inventions are key factors in the cable business. We are grateful to Edison for both of these.

An important point to note is that Edison did not just invent devices; he also developed an industry to capitalize on the invention. When he did the incandescent lamp, he also did all of the infrastructure to be able to generate, deliver and sell electricity. When he did the phonograph, he created a business to make recordings and sell them. When he did the motion picture system, he created studios to make motion pictures and market them. Edison was always interested in making a profit from his inventions so that he could afford to continue inventing.

Not everything Edison did was successful. Some of the notable unsuccessful efforts include the Portland cement business, iron ore separation by electromagnet and making rubber from the sap of goldenrod plant. Edison also came close to bankruptcy several times. He “sold” his mansion to his wife to protect it from creditors in the event that he had to declare bankruptcy.

Edison believed that future home construction would be based on poured Portland cement. It would save labor in construction and would be fireproof. It didn’t come to pass. His efforts to separate iron from other minerals with magnets was made superfluous by the discovery of rich iron ore deposits, which did not need further enriching. And his rubber development was the last effort of his life and remained unfinished when he died on Oct. 18, 1931, at the age of 84.

Visit these labs. You will enjoy them.

E-Mail: wciciora@ieee.org

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