A Tentative Idea for a Lamp

Tim Radford

  • Edison: A Life of Invention by Paul Israel
    Wiley, 552 pp, £19.50, November 1998, ISBN 0 471 52942 7

Thomas Edison invented himself, and then he invented the legend. He did the first in the usual, recognisably Victorian way, from scratch, with terrific self-confidence, huge energy, astute focus and ferocious determination. He did the second by exploiting a singular gift for self-publicity: introduce a journalist and Edison would produce a soundbite. Some of them slid straight into the dictionaries of quotations and stayed there, and are still daisy-fresh more than a century later. ‘From his neck down a man is worth a couple of dollars a day,’ he once said. ‘From his neck up, he is worth anything his brain can produce.’ He remarked of his friend Henry Ford: ‘This fellow Ford is like a postagestamp. He sticks to one thing until he gets there.’ He had a way of making his recipe for success seem dead simple: ‘I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.’

He chose words like ‘try’ because he meant them. ‘I have more respect for the fellow with a single idea who gets there than for the fellow with a thousand ideas who does nothing,’ he said, in a rebuke to those who were content to be clever, or even dazzling, rather than achievers. He also produced one of the few lines almost everybody in the world can recite: ‘Genius is 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.’

He meant that, too. His was a lifetime lesson in ingenuity and hard work crowned by success after success. By the time he died he held 1093 patents across an extraordinary range of endeavour, for telegraphy, telephony, electricity, acoustics, cement housing, artificial pearls, the forerunner of the mimeograph and a way of getting electricity from coal. He also left five million pages of papers and records. Paul Israel’s dense and sometimes exasperating book is a fine example of the ‘many worlds’ theory of biography: Edison was incontestably one of the great Victorians. The Victorian label, however, gets harder to append when it includes people who, like Edison, also seem very modern: a 20th-century transatlantic man trapped in the wrong century.

In fact the 19th century often seems like two different centuries: its own, and a rehearsal for this one, a kind of bifocal landscape in which one can blink from then to now and back again. Edison was born in 1847, in Milan, Ohio, the youngest of seven children. Most of his co-ordinates are firmly fixed in the cultural map of ‘then’. He was born in the year of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the year Balzac wrote Cousin Pons, Verdi wrote Macbeth, Berlioz composed The Damnation of Faust, James Simpson first successfully used chloroform, the German Gustav Kirchhoff spelled out the laws of electric currents in a network of wires and Carl Zeiss opened an optics factory in Jena, Switzerland. It was the year Alfred Krupp cast his first steel gun and an Italian called Ascanio Sobrero produced nitroglycerine; it was the year of the first double-decker bus, horse-drawn, of course, produced by Adams and Co. of Bow, London; it was also the year a Patent Mile Index was fitted to a London cab: the first taxi-meter. The Magnetic Telegraph Company, founded by Samuel Morse, was already two years old. Edison wasn’t the only American legend born in 1847; so was the outlaw Jesse James. The lawman Wyatt Earp was born in 1848: Earp and James and Edison might have inhabited different planets, but one of the ironies of this story is that the legends of Earp and James are essentially Hollywood creations, and one of the players in the creation of Hollywood was the Edison Motion Picture Company.

The many-worlds version of biography provides endless opportunities for games like these. Edison’s first patent was for an electrical vote-recorder, intended to sidestep that fusty Victorian business of queueing up to be counted, and to make democracy more instant and more available. Such things are now used in television shows, though not yet in Parliament. This patent was taken out in 1868; the year of The Ring and the Book, of Queen Victoria’s Leaves from a Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, of Little Women, of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, of the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Nobody wanted to use Edison’s electrical vote-counter: he took the lesson on board immediately and vowed that he would never again waste time making something that people would not buy. The year 1878 established Edison’s place in history for ever: he patented the phonograph (saying a little later, with that down-home flair that made reporters love him: ‘It’s my favourite baby. Once it grows up and becomes a big feller, it will support me in my old age’). In 1879 he went one better: he invented the incandescent electric light bulb. These two years were the years of H.M. Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent, of HMS ‘Pinafore’, of A Doll’s House, of Travels with a Donkey and The Brothers Karamazov, of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The year of the light bulb was the year Virgil Earp became marshal of Tombstone, Arizona. The notorious gunfight at the OK Corral was two years in the future. Jesse James was at this time hiding in Missouri, hoping for a bit of peace.

There is a connection. Edison began his adult life as an itinerant telegrapher of the kind you see in Western movies, tapping out telegrams on a Morse key in railway station offices. But his railroad career had begun a great deal earlier. He moved, with his family, from the grain port of Milan, Ohio to the timber-town of Port Huron, Michigan, at the age of seven. In some ways the story is a classic Victorian one, of high adventure, high seriousness and huge industry. He was 12 or 13 when he first went to school: his mother, once a schoolteacher, taught him to read with the help of Gibbon and David Hume’s History of Great Britain, no doubt because they happened to be around the house at the time. The young Thomas read Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason at the age of 13 and became a lifelong freethinker: in 1925, he was to compose a foreword to the collected works of Paine. He started to lose his hearing at an early age and always said later that it helped him concentrate. He was a light sleeper: four or five hours per day, some of them catnaps, were all he seemed to need. He was also introduced as a child to a bizarre Italian work dating from 1558 called The Temperate Life, which maintained that good health and longevity were a consequence of eating as little as possible, rather than as well as possible. (This thesis was quite popular in the 19th century and enjoys some modern scientific support, at least on the basis of experiments with half-starved rats and monkeys: Edison survived to the age of 84 on meals weighing no more than four or five ounces.)

Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, and others like them, had made science fashionable, popular and hugely exciting. Edison and his schoolfellows began experimenting with chemical reactions. At the age of 12, with the help of a friend, he built a half-mile-long telegraph line stretching between their houses and a little steam railroad in one room of the Edison home. Many of his skills were self-taught, from textbooks, but as he was later to say, ‘doing the thing itself is what counts.’

His father had a ten-acre market garden: the young Edison worked on the land and sold vegetables from a cart, door to door. When the railroad arrived (from Toronto to Detroit via Port Huron) he got a job as a newsboy. Within six months, he had two stalls in Port Huron, one selling fruit and vegetables, the other periodicals, and employed two boys to run them for him. Once he was a member of the railroad community, he appropriated a US mail car to carry freight-free baskets of vegetables snapped up cheap in Detroit and butter and blackberries purchased from farmers along the line: he also hired another boy to sell bread, tobacco and sweets to Norwegians on a daily immigrant train to Iowa and Minnesota. He gave up the vegetable store during the Civil War. In Detroit, he saw crowds round the railway bulletin boards waiting for the latest news of the Battle of Shiloh, in which sixty thousand were supposed to have been killed or wounded. He understood immediately that if people in Port Huron, and towns along the line, had advance news of the casualties, he would sell extra newspapers. So he went to a telegraph operator and – with promises of free copies of Harper’s Weekly – persuaded him to relay the telegraph news to local railway stations. Then he went to the editor of the Detroit Free Press and asked not for his usual 100 copies but for 1000 copies on credit. At the first station, Utica, he usually sold two copies. He sold 35. At the next station, he doubled the price from 5 to 10 cents, and by the time he got to Port Huron, he was selling his last copies at 25 cents each. ‘I realised,’ he recalled later, ‘that the telegraph was a great invention.’ The next day he started to learn both telegraphy and printing. Within a few weeks he was printing and publishing his own newspaper, in a railway baggage car, using type and a proofing press someone had discarded, and studying telegraphy, he claimed, 18 hours a day. He also took his chemistry set on the train, accidentally setting a baggage car on fire. He was just 15.

He became a railroad telegrapher, with an eye on membership of telegraphy’s aristocracy, the press-wire operators. From the age of about 16 to 21, he was also a tramp, a journeyman, a strolling telegrapher, drifting from city to city, and job to job. Operators were in demand everywhere, and conductors would let them travel on trains for nothing. Edison now belonged to what Israel calls ‘an élite fraternity’ with ‘a unique subculture’. (Tom Standage’s splendid book, The Victorian Internet, published last year, has a lot to say about this fraternity.) It was a competitive culture: Edison himself told the story of arriving in Boston and being given an assignment ‘to roast me, as they say’. He had to take press copy from one of the fastest senders in New York and soon became aware that his colleagues were watching to see how soon the new man would ‘break’. When things got bad, Edison opened his own key and signalled back: ‘You seem to be tired, suppose you send a little while with your other foot.’

He was a member of a community that drank, gambled, womanised and got fired from time to time. But its members were interested in the technology they used, and looked for ways to make it faster, or easier, or take it further. Edison smoked cigars, chewed tobacco and got fired once or twice as well. He went to burlesque houses and developed a taste for theatre, especially for Shakespeare. ‘My, but that man did have ideas!’ he said later. ‘He would have been an inventor, a wonderful inventor, if he had turned his mind to it. He seemed to see the inside of everything.’ He also studied electrical science. He was 17 when he made his first real invention. Morse code was originally registered as indented dots and dashes on a paper tape: operator culture, however, insisted that listening to the clicking of the Morse sound was a faster and more accurate way of taking messages. It meant writing (in longhand) quickly and legibly. Edison borrowed a pair of surplus registers, used one of them to record incoming messages at 40 words a minute on a tape and then used the same tape to operate the second register at 25 or 30 words a minute. It meant his reports were neater and more legible, and more acceptable to newspaper printers. It was not a particularly astounding thing to do: Morse key telegraphy began as what now seems a clumsy, laborious and often faulty technology, and many operators were interested in improving it. In this sense, Edison the inventor started casually enough, in a landscape peopled with inventive technologists.

Inventors fall into several categories. One kind invents things that nobody wants: a replacement for the qwerty keyboard or a more expensive trouser press. Another, more interesting kind invents things for which society cannot find a use. In 1829, an Oxford-trained barrister called Sir William Robert Grove found a new way of making electricity: he trickled oxygen and hydrogen gases over a pair of electrodes and produced three things. One was heat. The second was water. The third was electricity. There were no moving parts to the instrument, and no ensuing flame. Electricity was conjured straight from chemistry – and very hot water. On the strength of what are now called Grove fuel cells, Sir William was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. These fuel cells, however, ‘remained laboratory curiosities’, Isaac Asimov wrote in 1964. ‘Intensive research has not yet devised one capable of withstanding the rugged demands of practical use.’

Before fuel cell technology could go anywhere, the rest of humankind had to invent space travel. The Apollo programme relied on fuel cells, and the Apollo 13 flight almost ended in tragedy because one particular fuel cell was not capable of withstanding the rugged demands of practical use. Grove’s invention was remarkable in itself, and a remarkable instance of profitless achievement: Grove did not benefit from it; nor, for more than a century, did anyone else. Edison had that kind of vision, too, and a sense of his place in history, but he wanted his success to be swift, if not instant. So he preferred to concentrate on kicking open doors that were already being unlocked by others. He liked having workmen around – and mathematicians, physicists, chemists, glassblowers, engineers and designers, too – to turn his rough drawings into real products, and he liked finding backers and founding companies to exploit them. He hit the big time early, with a telegraph printer to serve the New York financial markets: he told his parents in 1870 that he had one workshop with 18 men, and was fitting out another to employ 150 men. ‘I am now,’ he said to them, ‘what you Democrats call a bloated Eastern Manufacturer.’ He was 23.

Over the next six decades, he was to establish a bewildering number of companies, but he always said that he was interested in money only because it meant he could carry on inventing. A lot of his projects went nowhere. Some even went badly wrong. What Israel makes clear is how much of Edison’s work depended not just on his own obsessive enthusiasm but on the talent of others. His workshops were the forerunners of today’s corporate research laboratories. He didn’t steal ideas (though he got caught up in a number of priority disputes): he picked up quickly on how to make something new of what was already there, but he also understood that making things work required many hands, and many skills, and that the road from inspiration to a finished and desirable product was long and difficult.

Cartoons signify invention by a light bulb flashing in someone’s head. In fact, the light bulb is a good example of Edison’s way with a bright idea. He had been thinking, in mat gaslit and candle-powered world, about electric lamps, and how you might keep them burning. He had also been thinking about ways of getting electrical power across significant distances and about the role of carbon in both microphones and telephones. (He claimed that his patent transmitter for the telephone turned his contemporary Alexander Graham Bell’s invention from a ‘scientific toy’ into an achievement.) Then he saw a new kind of electromagnetic generator in somebody else’s workshop: one which could light eight lamps at once. ‘Edison was enraptured. He fairly gloated,’ wrote a reporter for the New York Sun who was with him. ‘He estimated the power of the instruments and of the lights, the probable loss of transmission, the amount of coal the instrument would save in a day, a week, a month, and the result of such saving on manufacturing.’ That was on 8 September 1878. He went back to his own laboratory-cum-workshop at Menlo Park, New Jersey and sketched out a tentative idea for a lamp. By 13 September, he had drawn up his first electric light patent and on 16 September, he announced in the Sun that he had an electric lamp. ‘I have it now! With the process I have just discovered I can produce a thousand – aye, ten thousand – from one machine.’

He went on to describe his plans for a complete electric lighting system to replace gas lighting in lower Manhattan. It was vintage Edison: think big, think the whole package and think aloud in front of a grateful journo. Actually, he still had a way to go. Electric lighting was never an easy problem: how do you keep the current going but regulate the temperature of the lamp so it doesn’t melt the incandescing element? And having announced a success, why could he not demonstrate it? Edison sidestepped that little problem with the apparently disarming frankness that newsmen find so endearing. ‘No machine ... has ever been got up that did not require years for improvement,’ he told a reporter. ‘I ought to be allowed at least two years to improve mine. Now, old man, get out and let me go to work.’

He had already done the homework: he knew that 20 predecessors who had been playing with the idea of incandescent electric light chose either platinum, or iridium in air, or carbon in a vacuum as the carrier of the brightness. Iridium is very rare and platinum is very expensive, so he tried iron and steel, and platinum alloys. He also experimented with filaments, foils, sticks and buttons of metals and carbon. He worked out that energy consumption would be proportional to the radiating surface of the lamp and not a result of its resistance, a point most of his competitors had missed. So you could increase resistance and reduce radiating surface by winding very thin filaments in tight spirals.

On 16 October he incorporated the Edison Electric Light Company and began working on his own dynamo design. He ordered a new building with powerful engines and boilers to test every detail of his electric light, and he still had no lamp to show his investors. He went on pursuing the notion of metal filaments. Nickel, for instance, became brilliantly incandescent without fusing, but it oxidised swiftly. So he turned to filaments in a vacuum, while at the same time rethinking the generator and worrying about the loss of power in the transmission of current. He even launched a search for a cheap source of platinum. But by that time his vacuums were good enough for him to try burning carbon: carbon would have high resistance, and it would not oxidise in a vacuum. At the time he was thinking about the carbon buttons he was manufacturing for transmitters for the Edison Telephone Company of London. The buttons were made from lampblack scraped off the chimneys of kerosene lanterns. According to a newspaper account, he was ‘abstractedly rolling between his fingers a piece of compressed lampblack until it had become a slender thread ... the idea occurred to him that it might give good results as a burner if made incandescent.’ By 1 November 1879, he had executed his first carbon-filament lamp patent. He had carbonised cotton thread and left it glowing for more than 13 hours. He and his workmen also tried it with wood, paper, vulcanised fibre, cotton lampwick, cork, coconut hair and shell, and fishing line. ‘I think,’ he told a reporter – and I can’t help feeling he kept reporters around for the same reason Johnson put up with young Boswell – ‘the Almighty made carbon especially for the electric light.’

By 30 December, his laboratory, lit with 25 electric lamps, was packed with visitors. The railway companies had to put on extra trains to cope. But having made the lamp, Edison still had to make it work for hundreds of hours before it could be considered economically irresistible. A paper filament would not do: it did not have the right structure of fibres. ‘I believe that somewhere in God Almighty’s workshop there is a vegetable growth with geometrically parallel fibres suitable for our use. Look for it!’ he told his staff. His scientists tried wood, bast, hemp, palmetto and bamboo. Bamboo looked pretty good, so the best bamboo had to be found. One man was sent to Cuba, another to Brazil, a third to China and Japan. He installed electric lights on the steamship Columbia, and to do this had to develop the first lamp socket, key switch and safety fuse to prevent overheating and subsequent fire. By this time, Edison was already thinking about how to balance the load on his generators: if lights were used at night, what would his generators do in the daytime? So he started experimenting with electric motors for hoists, elevators, sewing machines and railways. Meanwhile, the lamps had to be made better.

By spring 1884, his accountant warned him that there had been 2774 lamp experiments at a cost of more than $70,000. There was another problem: the ideal bamboo for filaments grew in only one region of Japan. In addition, there was a difficulty with Joseph Swan, the British chemist who had begun to experiment with incandescent lamps when Edison was just one year old, and who had written about carbon rods in a vacuum in 1879. That problem was solved by a merger: it suited both parties because Swan’s squirted cellulose was more uniform in structure than Edison’s natural bamboo. And, Edison grumbled, the British had ‘a beautiful system of patent law invented I think by King Canute’. He was also working on his other great invention, the phonograph. Just as a point of detail, what would be the most sensitive reproducer? The thing fine enough to pick up a talking voice but not make a scratching noise? He and his colleagues tried camel’s hair, sealskin hair, chamois skin, silk thread. They also had to think about how to make a cheap phonograph sleeve, so they played with a resin of kaolin, starch, plumbago, paraffin and woodpine tar moulded on tinfoil, paper and papier-mâché. He was also, in that one decade, involved in research into ore milling, the machinery of cotton-picking, tobacco-bleaching, hearing-aids, ink for the blind, artificial silk and ivory, copper-refining, and machines for drawing brass wire and compacting snow to make it easier to clear it from the streets. No wonder he invented the concept of a working lunch at midnight.

He married 16-year-old Mary Stilwell on Christmas Day 1871. She was an employee. He proposed, and then said: ‘Let me know as early as possible, as if you consent to marry me, and your mother is willing, we can be married next Tuesday.’ That was the extent of the courtship. She died 13 years later, having given him a daughter and two sons. He met Mina Miller, and married her in 1886: she was just 20. They had another daughter and two sons. He was probably a kind and generous husband and father, but most of the time he wasn’t there. He was in his workshop. His children’s distress soured his later life, but couldn’t be said to have taken up his time.

Paul Israel’s study is a prodigous book, but not an easy one. It presumes a familiarity with electrical physics, technology, finance and history that most readers will not have. Most seriously, it seems to have been written as a corrective to what appear to have been drooling hagiographies. But if you haven’t read a drooling book about Edison the legend lately, and you don’t need putting right, then tough. Edison deliberately and systematically created for his time, and for investors who wanted to see a return in years, not decades. So he noticed what came to be called the ‘Edison effect’ but didn’t take the research as far as the cathode ray tube; remarked on ‘etheric force’ but missed out on radio waves. He enjoyed the company of other people and probably did care about them in the abstract: he designed and patented a low-cost poured-concrete house and is reported to have been alarmed at the thought of the pollution the gasoline-powered motor car might one day cause. His solution was to develop storage batteries that might power an electric car. Ironically, just as the city of Chicago is experimenting with public buses powered by Grove fuel cells, so motor manufacturers are reexamining the battery-powered electric car. Edison has a way of reasserting himself as a great man, no matter how carefully you examine him for flaws. Israel’s book has already provoked some testy comments, one of them in the US journal Science. ‘The man who gave us automated telegraphy, mimeograph copiers, incandescent lighting systems, talking machines, the Edison effect, telephones that worked, electric locomotives, superior storage batteries, cinematic films and other epic items deserves better ... Tinkerer indeed!’ splutters an engineer in his letter to the paper. ‘The very tube I am writing this on uses his “effect” and his technological advances, for its operation. Why can’t we just adore this giant personality?’

Science claims Edison as one of its founders. When he died on 18 October 1931, the National Broadcasting Service played Edison’s favourite song, ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’. After he was buried on 22 October, in response to a request from President Hoover, the nation extinguished its electric lights for one minute, and the broadcast networks observed a minute’s silence.