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These papers deal with two aspects of Edison's work during World War I: his role as chairman (later president) of the Naval Consulting Board (NCB), beginning in 1915; and his personal experimental work for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, which began early in 1917 and took up much of his time until the end of the war. Although these two functions were not formally related, they often overlapped, and documents concerning both the NCB and Edison's personal research appear in this record group.
The NCB was created in July 1915 as the result of discussions between Edison and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, with the advice of Miller Reese Hutchison, Edison's chief engineer and personal representative. The Board's membership, confirmed at its first meeting in October 1915, included two representatives from each of the eleven professional engineering societies, as well as Edison and Hutchison. The NCB was organized into technical committees on various subjects, with a view to industrial preparedness should the United States be drawn into the European war.
One of the Board's initial responsibilities was to evaluate suggestions for inventions from the public, which quickly became a huge and essentially fruitless task. The NCB operated in a purely advisory capacity until it was authorized by Congress in August 1916, after which it began to plan for its own research laboratory. Although frequently discussed, the laboratory was not built until well after the war due to fundamental disagreements between Edison and the younger generation of researchers about how technological research should be conducted. Edison insisted that a large industrial workshop near New York City was required, while others believed that a facility for research in basic science, near government and military headquarters in Washington, would be more useful. With the U.S. entry into the war in April 1917, the Board's attention shifted to the more immediate problem of defense against German submarines.
Edison's role on the NCB had always been largely ceremonial, with the administrative work carried out by first vice chairman William L. Saunders and secretary Thomas Robins. Beginning in 1917, however, Edison devoted almost all of his time to a variety of research projects that he conducted both personally and with the assistance of experimenters working at various locations in New Jersey, on Long Island, and later at Key West. His results and expenses were reported to Secretary Daniels, but to Edison's disappointment the Navy declined to take up any of his inventions and by October 1919 the government had stopped funding his military research.
The folders contain documents on three distinct subjects, in varying proportions according to the year: unsolicited letters from the general public; correspondence relating to the business of the NCB; and communications among Edison, his experimental staff, Naval officers, government officials, and private companies, relating to his personal research projects. The folders for 1919-1920 also contain correspondence with Capt. Lloyd N. Scott and others pertaining to Scott's official history, Naval Consulting Board of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920).
Approximately 25 percent of the documents have been selected, including all items pertaining directly to Edison. Routine documents sent to Edison as an official of the NCB have not been selected. Also unselected are the vast majority of war invention ideas submitted by the public, few of which received a substantive reply. More specific selection statements can be found in the editorial descriptions preceding each folder.
Material pertaining to the experiments discussed in these documents can also be found in the Notebook Series: (1) Notebooks by Edison, N-17-01-20 through N-18-07-18.2 and N-18-11-03; (2) Notebooks by Edison and Other Experimenters -- Navy and Wartime Research Experiments; and (3) Notebooks by Experimenters Other Than Edison -- Navy and Wartime Research Experiments. Correspondence and other documents similar to those in the Naval Consulting Board Papers can be found in the Edison General File for 1915-1919 in "Advice," "Naval Consulting Board," "Naval Experiments," "Radio," "Roosevelt, Franklin D," "World War I -- Experimental Work," and other folders for these years. Additional correspondence between Edison and Daniels can be found in the Josephus Daniels Papers (Library of Congress) and in the Edison Wartime Research Reports (Charles Hummel Collection). A 343-page volume containing the minutes of NCB meetings for the period October 7, 1915-March 22, 1919 can be found in the Charles Edison Fund Collection. A scrapbook of newspaper clippings relating to the NCB and the war generally can be found in the Scrapbook Series.
For a note on the arrangement of the Naval Consulting Board Records, along with a list of unselected folders, click here. Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.