Year of Innovation Series - Edison and World War I

Year of Innovation - Edison and World War I

THOMAS EDISON AND WORLD WAR I: COLLECTIONS IN THE THOMAS A. EDISON PAPERS

  1. WARTIME RESEARCH - DIGITAL
  2. FAMILY CORRESPONDENCE -DIGITAL
  3. WARTIME RESEARCH - MICROFILM
  4. CHEMICAL PLANTS - MICROFILM
  5. FAMILY CORRESPONDENCE - MICROFILM

The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 had a profound effect not only on Thomas Edison, but also on his businesses and his family. He became a major spokesman for preparedness and chairman (later president) of Naval Consulting Board––a brain trust of civilian experts whose purpose was to advise the U.S. Navy on matters of military technology. To overcome the shortages of chemicals previously obtained from Germany, Edison quickly built new manufacturing plants and became a major chemical supplier not only to American industries but also to the European allies and Japan.

In February 1917, a few months before the United States formally entered the war, Edison and his assistants began conducting antisubmarine experiments for the Navy, as well as other military research, at a specially equipped new laboratory at the top of Eagle Rock Mountain in West Orange. The sinking of the RMS Lusitania two years earlier had dramatically underscored the ease with which German U-boats could destroy merchant ships and inflict great loss of life. Much of Edison's military research was focused on methods of locating and evading U-boats and camouflaging merchant ships. During the summer of 1917, he spent six weeks on Long Island Sound conducting experiments aboard the USS Sachem, a large private steam yacht that had been commissioned by the Navy for military service. He subsequently continued his research in an office at the Navy Annex in Washington once occupied by Admiral George Dewey and at the U.S. Naval Station in Key West, Florida. Edison's relationship with the Navy bureaucracy was often contentious, and he found himself engaged in an acrimonious debate with other members of the Naval Consulting Board over the location and purpose of the proposed Naval Research Laboratory.

The war also had a profound effect on Edison's family. His eldest daughter Marion had been living in Germany since the 1890s with her husband Oscar Oeser, an officer of the Imperial German Army. After the United States declared war on Germany, she found herself trapped behind enemy lines and fled to Switzerland. Her marriage to Oscar, already strained by the war, deteriorated even further in 1919 when she discovered that he was having an affair with a waitress from a local bierhaus. They divorced two years later. While Marion's husband was fighting on the German side, her brother William joined the U.S. Army at the age of thirty-nine and served in France as a sergeant in the recently established Tank Corps.

The war also affected the lives of Edison's children from his second marriage to Mina Miller. In June 1916, their eldest son Charles took over the management of the Edison companies, as his father found himself increasingly preoccupied with his chemical plants and his wartime research. Together with Mark M. Jones, the director of personnel, Charles initiated a series of innovations that put Edison Industries on the cutting edge of the modern management movement. Charles also played the leading role in the campaign to persuade the workers of Edison Industries to purchase war bonds. By the time the last of the five Liberty Loan drives had ended in May 1919, the approximately 10,000 workers at Edison Industries had contributed more than $4 million to war-related causes.

Charles's eighteen-year-old brother, Theodore, was eager to join the army when the United States entered the war. Remembering the fate of her brother Theodore, who was killed in the Spanish-American War, Mina Edison dissuaded her son from enlisting, and he spent the war on his father's research staff conducting military experiments in West Orange and on an island in the Florida Keys. Six weeks before the outbreak of war in Europe, Madeleine Edison, the oldest child of Thomas and Mina, married John Eyre Sloane of South Orange. Sloane spent most of the war in Washington, D.C., as an officer in the U.S. Signal Corps. Madeleine joined her husband in the nation's capital in October 1917 but returned to West Orange the following April to give birth to her second son. Thomas Edison, still conducting experiments at Key West, was not present to celebrate the birth of his second grandchild, John Edison (Jack) Sloane, on April 21, 1918.

An extensive discussion of Edison's wartime work and the impact of the war on his businesses and family can be found in Thomas E. Jeffrey, From Phonographs to U-Boats: Edison and His Insomnia Squad in Peace and War, 1911-1919 (Bethesda, Md.: LexisNexis, 2008).

The following is an annotated list of collections in the Thomas Edison Papers image edition that contain documents relating to World War I. The links for each collection lead to editorial introductions ("targets") that provide a fuller description of the collection. A list of documents associated with each collection can be obtained by clicking the "List Documents" button at the bottom of the target. For documents in the digital edition, images can be obtained by clicking the "Show Documents" button after the "List Documents" button is clicked. Microfilm is available at Rutgers Alexander Library.

WARTIME RESEARCH

Charles Hummel Collection: Edison Wartime Research Reports

This collection, which covers the years 1917-1919, consists primarily of letters exchanged between Edison and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels regarding the inventor's research for the Department of the Navy and Department of War. Many of the typewritten letters are accompanied by drafts in Edison's hand. The research projects are numbered from 1 through 57. There is also a twenty-page essay containing Thomas Edison's own recollections of his wartime activities, written in 1919, along with an address delivered by Gov. Charles Edison at the Edison Pioneers Luncheon on February 11, 1942, in which he discusses his father's chemical plants and military research.

Lloyd N. Scott's Naval Consulting Board of the United States

This official history of the Naval Consulting Board was published in 1920. The complete book is available online through Google Books. Several sections have been published in the Edison Papers digital edition, including Chapter 11, which discusses Edison's wartime research projects, and an Appendix entitled "Naval Laboratory" containing the majority report recommending Annapolis, Maryland, as the site of the proposed laboratory and the minority report signed by Edison recommending Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Included in the editorial introduction ("target") to Scott's book is a list of the thirty-nine research projects discussed in Chapter 11, with links to the original documents in the Charles Hummel Collection (see above) relating to those projects.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Naval Consulting Board Minutes

This 343-page volume contains the minutes of the Naval Consulting Board (NCB) for the period October 7, 1915-March 22, 1919. Because of Edison's limited participation in NCB activities, the minute book has not been published in its entirely. The minutes of five meetings have been published in full, including the organizational meeting of October 7, 1915, at which Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels addressed the members regarding the mission of the NCB and Edison formally presented his recommendations for a Naval Research Laboratory. Also included are portions of the minutes from sixteen additional meetings that contain references to Edison, his research, or the Naval Research Laboratory.

Library of Congress: Josephus Daniels Papers (Thomas A. Edison Correspondence)

These letters exchanged between Edison and Daniels primarily cover the years 1917-1920. Among the wartime research projects discussed in the letters are Edison's sea anchor (or kite rudder) for the rapid turning of merchant ships threatened by enemy torpedoes; smoke bombs to hide merchant ships from enemy submarines; searchlights for use on U.S. submarines; and various submarine detection experiments. Other topics include Edison's concern that his research be kept secret, his dissatisfaction with the career officers of the Navy, the acrimonious debate over the location and purpose of the Naval Research Laboratory, and his strenuous objection to the decision to locate the laboratory in Washington, D.C. The letters also indicate that Edison used his connection with Daniels to obtain delays in a federal antitrust suit against the Edison Phonograph Works and in a damage suit against the Edison Storage Battery Co. arising from the January 1916 explosion aboard the E-2 submarine.

Library of Congress: Josephus Daniels Papers (Miller R. Hutchison Correspondence)

These letters exchanged between Daniels and Edison's chief engineer, Miller Reese Hutchison, primarily cover the years 1914-1918. Many of the letters deal with Hutchison's efforts to sell Edison storage batteries to the Navy Department for submarines, ship lighting, and other military applications. Other documents concern the roles of Hutchison and Edison as members of the Naval Consulting Board and the controversy over the location of the proposed Naval Research Laboratory. There are also items regarding the explosion aboard the E-2 submarine, which had recently been equipped with Edison storage batteries, in January 1916; the subsequent investigation by the Naval Board of Inquiry; and the Edison-commissioned report by consulting engineer Lamar Lyndon. In addition, there is correspondence from 1935-1936 and 1941 containing reminiscences by Hutchison and Daniels of Edison, his wartime research, the work of the Naval Consulting Board, and the contentious relations involving Edison, the Board, and the career officers of the U.S. Navy.

FAMILY CORRESPONDENCE

Most of the documents in the Charles Edison Fund Collection were scanned from an 11-reel microfilm set owned by CEF. Many of the original documents were subsequently donated to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. See Microfilm Edition – Part V Family Records Series, below.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Edison, Marion Estelle

These letters are primarily from Marion Estelle Edison (1873-1965) to her father, Thomas A. Edison, and her stepmother, Mina Miller Edison. In 1895 Marion married a German army officer named Karl Oscar Oeser, and she lived in Germany from the time of her marriage until 1925. The fifty-eight letters from 1914-1925 contain extensive discussion of social, political, and economic conditions in Germany during World War I and the years immediately following. Among the topics mentioned in the correspondence are the enormous casualties of the war, Marion's fear for her own life and Oscar's, the impact of the war on her physical and mental health, the role of German women during the war, and Marion's flight to Switzerland after the U.S. declaration of war. The letters written after the Armistice discuss the rampant inflation and widespread suffering of the postwar years, the deterioration in Marion's own standard of living, and the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923. There are also letters relating to Marion’s discovery of Oscar's affair with Clara Berger, their acrimonious and drawn-out divorce, Marion's growing contempt for the Germans, and her decision to return to the United States. In addition to the correspondence, there are numerous photographs and news clippings dating from the war. Related correspondence can be found in Microfilm Edition – Family Records Series – Oeser, Marion Edison and Oscar (1911-1932).

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Edison, Madeleine and Sloane, John Eyre.

These letters are primarily from Madeleine Edison (1888-1979) to her mother, Mina Miller Edison. There are also letters by John Eyre Sloane (1886-1970), whom Madeleine married in 1914 and who served as an officer in the U.S. Signal Corps during World War I. Included are thirty-seven letters written in 1918 while the Sloane family was living in Washington, D.C. The letters contain numerous remarks about the war and its impact on domestic life.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Edison, Mina to Charles Edison.

These letters are from Mina Miller Edison to her oldest son, Charles Edison (1890-1969). Two letters written during World War I reveal Mina's dislike of war and her negative attitude toward Germans, including H. H. Meno Kammerhoff, manager of Thomas Edison's chemical plants, and her Llewellyn Park neighbors George and Friedrike Merck.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Edison, Theodore M.

These letters are primarily from Theodore Miller Edison (1898-1992) to his mother, Mina Miller Edison. Included are forty-three letters from February-May 1918, which pertain to wartime research conducted by Theodore and others at Man Key, an island in the Florida Keys near the U.S. Naval Station in Key West where Thomas Edison and his assistants were conducting their own experiments for the Navy.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Edison, William L. and Blanche T.

These letters are primarily from William Leslie Edison (1878-1937) to his father, Thomas A. Edison, and his stepmother, Mina Miller Edison. Included are four letters written from England and France in 1918-1919 while William was serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Tank Corp.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Miller, Lewis, II, and Helen M.

These letters are primarily from Lewis Miller, II (1894-1989) to his aunt, Mina Miller Edison. At the beginning of the war, Lewis enlisted in the U.S. Army and ultimately advanced to the rank of captain of artillery. He was originally stationed in Watertown, New York. He was ordered to France in the spring of 1918. A letter from June 1917 describes the artillery training camp in Watertown, while two letters from 1918 discuss life in the trenches on the Western Front and Lewis's reaction to the Armistice and the prospects of returning home.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Miller, Mary E. and Nichols, William W.

These letters are primarily from Mary Emily Miller (1869-1946) to her older sister, Mina Miller Edison. The nine letters written during 1914-1918 include numerous comments about World War I. Several letters mention Mary's concern about Marion Edison Oeser, who was living in Germany and married to a German army officer. One letter expresses her fear that the enemy might use Marion as a "tool" to harm her father. Other war-related topics include research conducted by Edison in Key West; charges of disloyalty raised against President Wilson's secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty; and the sinking of the Tuscania by a German submarine in February 1918 – an incident in which 230 Americans were killed.

Charles Edison Fund Collection: Miller, Robert A., Jr

These letters are primarily from Robert Anderson Miller, Jr. (1889-1959) to his aunt, Mina Miller Edison. Six letters were written during 1917-1918 while Robert was serving in the New York Division of the Officers' Reserve Corps at Plattsburgh Barracks in upstate New York and at Camp Upton in Long Island. Included are comments about the success of the Liberty Loan drive at Edison Industries, a request for an Edison Army & Navy phonograph for the use of his company, and remarks about Army life at Camp Upton and the prospect of being sent to the front in France.

David E. E. Sloane Collection: Edison, Madeleine and Sloane, John Eyre (1917) [images not yet available]

These letters consist primarily of correspondence exchanged among Madeleine Edison, her mother Mina Miller Edison, and her husband John Eyre Sloane. Included are comments about the draft lottery of July 20, 1917, the draft status of John Sloane and Charles Edison, John's desire to enlist in the U.S. Signal Corps, and his relocation to Washington in September. There are also remarks about the enlistment of Madeleine's cousins Robert and Lewis Miller, the desire of her uncle John V. Miller to join the army, and the combat death of Lieutenant Eyre, one of John's relatives. Comments about the war and about its impact on the home front can be found throughout the correspondence. Several letters by Mina Edison discuss her experience aboard the USS Sachem, on which Thomas Edison conducted experiments in Long Island Sound from late August until early October. Included are comments regarding Mina's unhappiness at her treatment by the Navy officers on the ship. There is also a printed circular urging employees of Edison Industries to subscribe to the First Liberty Loan.

David E. E. Sloane Collection: Edison, Madeleine and Sloane, John Eyre (1918) [images not yet available]

These letters consist primarily of correspondence exchanged among Madeleine Edison, her mother Mina Miller Edison, and her husband John Eyre Sloane. Included are comments about Liberty Loan campaigns, Red Cross drives, food conservation calls, civilian relief efforts, and the convalescent hospital for soldiers that Mrs. Annie Jenkins set up in her Llewellyn Park home. There are remarks about wartime women's organizations such as the "motor girls" of the Red Cross Motor Service and the "farmerettes" of the Woman's Land Army of America. Other war-related topics include Thomas Edison's discomfort around the many officers who were guests at Glenmont during the war; the attitude of Edison and his daughter toward opponents of the war; Madeleine's efforts to explain the concept of war to her two-year-old son, Teddy, and to convince her husband that there were valid reasons why Charles and Theodore had not enlisted; the enlistment of Madeleine's half-brother, William L. Edison, in the U.S. Tank Corp. and his deployment to France; the impact of wartime labor shortages on the service staff at Glenmont; labor unrest at the Edison factories; and anticipated coal shortages during the winter of 1918-1919.

Chautauqua Institution Archives: Edison, Theodore Miller (1917)

These letters from Mina Miller Edison to her youngest son, Theodore, include nine items containing remarks about accommodations, living conditions, and experimental activities aboard the USS Sachem, where Mina and Thomas spent six weeks during the summer of 1917. There is also a reference to an injury to Mina's knee that she sustained while boarding the ship. Also included are nine letters written from Washington, D.C., where Edison spent four months (October 1917-January 1918) working in an office at the Navy Annex. The letters reflect Mina's growing frustration about the duration of the war and about the perceived incompetence of the U.S. government and the Allies, as well as her feeling of being torn between her "duty to be here with Papa" and her desire to return home and be with her sons. The letters contain numerous expressions of hostility toward the Germans and other foreigners, including Mina's German-born neighbor in Llewellyn Park, George Merck, and his Belgian-born wife, Friedrike.

Chautauqua Institution Archives: Edison, Theodore Miller (1918

These letters from Mina Miller Edison to her youngest son, Theodore, primarily cover the period January-May 1918. They were written from Washington, D.C., where Edison was doing wartime research at the Naval Annex; the U.S. Naval Station in Key West, where Mina and Thomas were residing at the commandant's house with Capt. Frederick A. Traut and his family; and Seminole Lodge, the family's winter home in Fort Myers, where Mina went at her husband's insistence at the end of February. Included are comments regarding the activities and facilities at the naval base, Mina's favorable impression of the Traut family, her admiration for the soldiers and sailors, and her disdain for the town of Key West and its Cuban residents. One letter contains comments about a communication that Mina received from stepdaughter Marion Edison Oeser in Germany. There are numerous remarks about the impact of the European war on Mina and other members of the Edison and Miller families. There are also comments about Theodore Edison's wartime experiments at Man Key Island, which involved a rotating wheel filled with TNT that could be aimed toward enemy trenches. Other war-related topics include wartime labor shortages, Liberty Loan and Red Cross parades designed to stimulate patriotism, and Mina's personal involvement in various Liberty Loan fund-raising drives. In one letter Mina muses about the possibility of training as a nurse and going to France. Mina's frustrations about the duration and disruption of the war are also evident in the letters.

WARTIME RESEARCH

All of the documents in Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition. Part V (1911-1919) were filmed from originals in the archives of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, West Orange, N.J. Images for these documents are not yet available online.

Notebook Series: Notebooks by Edison

Among the eighty-five Edison-authored notebooks published in Part V are forty-eight books relating to research performed for the U.S. Navy during World War I. The seventeen notebooks from January 1917-January 1918 pertain primarily to submarine detection. There are also notes on rangefinders, camouflaging techniques, techniques for positioning guns in trenches, and methods of generating smoke and fog to conceal Allied ships from enemy submarines. Some of the experiments were performed at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, while others were conducted aboard the USS Sachem on Long Island Sound. A few books contain information from Naval intelligence reports and other material copied from published sources. The remaining thirty-one war-related notebooks begin in May 1918 following Edison's return to West Orange from his three-month stay at Key West. Many of the entries were made in the garage at Glenmont, Edison's home in Llewellyn Park, where he continued to work on sound detection experiments for the Navy.

Notebook Series: Notebooks by Edison and Other Experimenters––Navy and Wartime Research Experiments

These three notebooks were used during the period February 1917-March 1918 for experimental work for the Navy and other wartime research performed at the behest of Edison. Some of the entries relate to night visibility tests to help rangefinder users develop more sensitive night vision for spotting submarines. Other experiments pertain to the use of sound recording for submarine and torpedo detection. There are also notes on experiments with kite rudders for the rapid turning of ships threatened by enemy torpedoes.

Notebook Series: Notebooks by Experimenters Other Than Edison––Navy and Wartime Research Experiments

These thirty-one notebooks were used during the period 1917-1919 for experimental work for the Navy and other wartime research. Many of the books contain entries pertaining to submarine and torpedo detection. Also included are experiments on smoke generation to hide ships, the prevention of rust on submarine guns, and improvements to range finders and spotting telescopes. In addition, there are notes on a respirator to protect men in the fighting tops of battleships from sulphur dioxide fumes, a smoke bomb, a kite for bomb delivery, a primary battery for airplane use, a "stabilized plane for running light," and a "wheel" weapon for trench warfare. Much of this work was carried out under Edison's instructions and supervision. Some of the tests took place at sea near Sandy Hook and Red Bank, New Jersey. The sixteen books with indications of oversight or involvement by Edison were selected for publication.

Notebook Series: Pocket Notebooks

Among the thirty-four Edison-authored pocket notebooks published in Part V are thirteen books from 1916-1918 that include research performed for the Navy during World War I. The entries pertain primarily to submarine detection experiments, although there are also notes about non-military topics such as disc records and batteries. Some of the entries were made aboard the USS Sachem in Long Island Sound during the summer of 1917; others were made at the U.S. Naval Station in Key West during the winter of 1918.

Special Collections Series: Naval Consulting Board and Wartime Research Papers

These documents cover the years 1915-1922, with a few additional items from 1930. They deal with two aspects of Edison's work during World War I that often overlapped: his role as chairman (later president) of the Naval Consulting Board, 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. The folders for 1919-1920 contain correspondence with Capt. Lloyd N. Scott and others pertaining to Scott's official history, Naval Consulting Board of the United States.

Edison General File Series

Correspondence, technical notes, and other documents similar to those in the Naval Consulting Board and Wartime Research Papers can be found in the Edison General File Series 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.

Scrapbook Series: Cat. 44,452 (July-October 1915)

The war-related clippings in this scrapbook pertain primarily to the newly established Naval Consulting Board. Included are articles discussing Edison's role as its leader, the selection of its other members in September and its first meeting in October, comparisons between the American board and its British counterpart, and Edison's proposal to establish a Naval Research Laboratory. There are also references to submarine warfare, the progress of the war generally, the impact of the war on the American economy, the issue of preparedness, and Henry Ford's peace plan. Some of the clippings relate to Edison's plans to manufacture aniline dye and other chemical products.

CHEMICAL PLANTS

Special Collections Series––Organic Chemical Plant Records

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Edison began constructing chemical plants at Silver Lake, New Jersey, to manufacture carbolic acid (synthetic phenol), necessary for the production of his phonograph records, as well as other organic chemicals in short supply. Phenol Plant No. 1, owned by Thomas A. Edison, Inc. [TAE Inc.], began operations within six weeks after the commencement of the war. Phenol Plant No. 2, owned by Thomas A. Edison, Personal, was in production by June 1915. Three additional chemical plants owned by Edison personally were subsequently built at Silver Lake: (1) the Aniline Plant opened around the same time as Phenol Plant No. 2; (2) the Amidophenol Plant opened during the summer of 1916; (3) the Bendizine Plant probably opened in November. In September 1917 the four personally owned plants were transferred to the newly established Coal Tar Products Division of TAE Inc. In addition to the plants at Silver Lake, Edison constructed two plants to manufacture pure benzol (a byproduct of coke), which used in the manufacture of synthetic phenol: one at the works of the Cambria Steel Co. in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and the other at the works of the Woodward Iron Co. in Woodward, Alabama. Both benzol plants began operations during the first half of 1915. With the coming of peace, the two benzol absorption plants were sold, and the plants erected at Silver Lake during the war were closed or scaled back. The records are arranged according to individual plant. However, these documents do not constitute the complete business records of those plants. In most cases, only documents from a narrow date range have survived. The documents selected for publication relate directly to Edison's personal involvement or to his personal projects.

Edison General File Series––Chemicals

An extensive series of letters and other documents relating to Edison's wartime chemical business can be found in the "Chemicals" folders in the Edison General File Series for 1915-1918.

FAMILY CORRESPONDENCE

Family Records Series (Subseries I): Oeser, Marion Edison and Oscar (1911-1932)

These letters from Marion Estelle Edison to her father, Thomas A. Edison, and her stepmother, Mina Miller Edison, originally in the Charles Edison Fund Collection, were subsequently donated to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Included are twelve letters from 1914-1923 that discuss the war and its aftermath. A few of these letters are also reproduced in the digital edition (see Charles Edison Fund Collection).

Family Records Series (Subseries I): Mina Edison Correspondence (1911-1931)

These letters consist primarily of correspondence addressed to Mina Miller Edison from various members of the Miller family. The letters were originally in the Charles Edison Fund Collection and were subsequently donated to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Included are twelve letters from 1917-1918 that mention the war. The letters were written by Mina's brother, Lewis Alexander Miller (1863-1943), his wife Cotta Smyser Miller (1893-1975), and Mina's nephews Robert Anderson Miller, Jr. and Lewis Miller, II.                                

Family Records Series (Subseries II): Mina Edison Correspondence (1918)

These letters addressed to Mina Miller Edison were written primarily by correspondents who were not family members. Two letters relate to the war. A letter from Charles B. Hanford, Thomas Edison's personal assistant at Key West, mentions that Theodore Edison is looking for an island in the Florida Keys on which to conduct his experiments. A letter from William H. Meadowcroft, Edison's longtime assistant, remarks that the inventor was "suffering keenly from disappointment" that his war work for the U.S. government was not sufficiently appreciated. "He does not wear his heart on his sleeve . . . and only those who know him well realise how greatly he was discouraged."

Edison General File Series: 1918. Family (E-18-39)

This folder contains a few letters relating to efforts by William Leslie Edison to obtain an expedited discharge from the Army at the end of war.

 

 

 

 

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