The Edisonian

Volume 7

Thomas Edison Circa 1884

  1. Greetings
  2. Edison and Early Fuel Cell Technology
  3. 2011 Edison Achievement Award Winners
  4. Treasure Trove of Edison Family Letters
  5. Edison As Art: Design to Support the Edison Papers
  6. Edison Papers Participates
  7. Featured Books
  8. In Edison's Words


Greetings

Dear Friends -

Due to budget cuts that have taken place at Rutgers University over the last few years we now face a $35,000 shortfall in funding. We continue to seek support from foundations, corporations and individuals such as you. What better way to own a piece of history than funding the Edison Papers?

In the face of these significant budget cuts we nonetheless have continued to move steadily ahead with our efforts to document the Edisonian legacy. We are pleased to announce that Volume 7 is at the printers - look for its release next fall. This volume covers Edison's efforts to replicate the success of his New York central station in scores of U.S. towns and cities, as well as in Europe and Latin America. It also revises several long-standing assumptions about Edison's domestic life and offers the most thorough research to date on the health and death of his first wife, Mary Stilwell Edison.

We also continue to add new documents to our online digital edition. Especially notable are two important groups of family letters held by the Charles Edison Fund and by Edison's great-grandson, Dr. David Sloane. These collections shed new light on the family dynamics only suggested through Edison's own papers.

In addition to our ongoing publishing efforts, we have had the opportunity to assist Time Magazine, Turner Classic Movies and various other media outlets who have requested interviews, documents and images. We are again supporting the Edison Awards and are proud to announce this years Edison Achievement Award winners and Rutgers continued involvement with the Meet the Innovators Forum at the New York Academy of Science.

As always, we welcome your new support and thank you for your continued support.

Paul Israel and the Edison Papers


Edison and Early Fuel Cell Technology

Learn about Edison's contributions to sustainable technology

Fuel Cell Patent

With the search for alternative, environmentally friendly sources of energy intensifying in recent years, particularly as it relates to automobiles, scientists and engineers have once again turned to the idea of fuel cells. The advantage of modern fuel cells, which produce electricity through the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, is that they produce very little pollution. Used in an automobile, the only emission would be harmless water vapor.

Given the recent focus on fuel cells, the assumption might be that they are a recent technology. But, in fact, efforts to develop an efficient fuel cell go back to the nineteenth century. During the 1880s, Edison, who was always on the lookout for new and efficient ways to produce electricity, became one in a long line of inventors to contribute to the development of fuel-cell technology. The story of Edison’s efforts to create an efficient fuel cell is outlined in a number of documents included in The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Volume 7, Losses and Loyalties (April 1883–December 1884), forthcoming in 2011 from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Unlike primary and secondary batteries, in which the electrodes themselves are consumed in chemical reactions, a fuel cell operates by the replenishment of an oxidizable fuel, such as hydrogen or carbon, to produce free electrons. In the case of carbon, this could be done directly by the reaction of coal with other substances, such as nitrates, or by the creation of an ionized gas.

In 1882, Edison first began working on a system to convert coal directly into electricity. His first patent application for this process Edison and Early Fuel Cell Technology (U.S. Patent 460,122) was filed in May of that year. In this design, Edison sought to generate a current by efficiently oxidizing a carbon electrode by means of an active oxidizing agent, such as a fusible metal, in a heated iron vessel. Over the next two years, Edison focused on what was in essence early fuel-cell technology. His research led him to predict in an 1885 essay reprinted in the Scientific American that a "marvelous revolution" from the cheap electricity produced by the direct conversion of coal into electricity was in the offing.

Edison filed two additional applications for direct conversion employing fuel cells in 1883. The first, in September (U.S. Pat. 435,688), covered a process for producing an ionized gas from either a metal or carbon in reaction with an oxidizable substance. He employed a vacuum chamber to maintain the gas in a rarefied state and to prevent reaction with atmospheric oxygen. The second application, filed in November (U.S. Pat. 490,953), described an improvement over his 1882 design. In this arrangement, he maximized the production of carbonic acid from the oxidation of the carbon and of the fusible iron oxide in order to oxidize the carbon more rapidly.

Edison's most intensive experimental work on fuel cells, however, occurred in the summer of 1884. During a Florida vacation with his wife Mary, Edison described a new approach to direct conversion in the pocket notebook he kept for recording new ideas. He proposed to use finely divided metal and a peroxide (usually manganese) in a solution of sulphuric acid to catalyze the oxidation of the carbon. By the end of that summer, he had "obtained a very strong current" using anthracite coal, and he planned to show his system at the Philadelphia Electrical Exhibition in the fall. This system, however, proved to be too dangerous after "all the windows were blown out of his laboratory." In an interview he gave about this time, Edison was reported to have said

"The great secret of doing away with the intermediary furnaces, boilers, steam engines, and dynamos will be found, probably within ten years. I have been working away at it for some months and have got to the point where an apparently insurmountable obstacle confronts me. Working at the problem now seems to me very much like driving a ship straight for the face of a precipice, and when you come to grief picking yourself up and trying it again to-morrow. There is an opening in the barrier somewhere, and some lucky man will find it. I have got far enough to know that the thing is possible. … I give myself five years to work at it, and shall think myself lucky if I succeed in that time."

Edison’s “marvelous revolution” did not materialize as he had envisioned. While he conducted a few experiments over the next three years, he largely abandoned efforts to use the catalytic oxidation of carbon following the 1884 accident. Instead, he began to develop an alternative approach to direct conversion using the principle that the magnetic capacity of iron diminishes as its temperature increases. Edison's efforts to apply this idea in the design of a "pyromagnetic" generator and motor will be detailed in Volume 8.


Below are links to images of Edison's notes for his fuel cell research that are included in Volume 7.


Edison Awards

Mulally and Hendricks Receive 2011 Edison Achievement Awards

Watch Paul Israel and Alan Mulally discuss innovation in this 2-part interview. Part 1 and Part 2.

John Hendricks

Alan Mulally

Alan Mulally, the president and chief executive officer of the Ford Motor Co., and John Hendricks, the founder and chairman of Discovery Communications, are the recipients of the 2011 Edison Achievement Awards. The awards, which the Thomas A. Edison Papers sponsor, recognize distinguished business executives who have made significant and lasting contributions to innovation, marketing, and human-centered design throughout their careers.


Mulally has served as the president and CEO of Ford since 2006. He was previously executive vice president of the Boeing Co. and president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The Edison Awards Steering Committee selected him because of his "boldness of vision and the leadership he has brought to the Ford Motor Company" during particularly difficult times for the U.S. auto industry.


As a member of the President's Export Council, which was formed this year, Mulally advises President Obama on increasing U.S. exports and opening new markets for American products. He is a former co-chair of the Washington Competitiveness Council and a past member of the advisory boards of NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Time magazine named Mulally one of "The World's Most Influential People" in 2009. In 2006, Aviation Week chose him as its "Person of the Year," and in 2005, Business Week listed him among "The Best Business Leaders" for that year.


Hendricks is the creator of the Discovery Channel, which he launched in 1985. It was the first cable channel dedicated to providing high-quality documentary programming that would allow people to explore and gain a better understanding of their world. The Discovery Channel is now seen in 170 countries and territories and has more than 1.5 billion subscribers.

Under Hendricks' leadership, Discovery Communications has grown to encompass more than 100 networks and now represents 27 entertainment brands, including TLC, Animal Planet, and the Science Channel. The Edison Awards Steering Committee, in selecting Hendricks, noted that he followed in Edison's footsteps, investing "personal assets as evidence of his belief in what his dream could become, resulting in a multitude of inspiring success stories."

For his innovative work in the television industry, Hendricks has received a Primetime Emmy Award. He has also received the Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.


Edison, no doubt, would have appreciated Hendricks' innovative use of cable television to increase public awareness of new and emerging technologies. He was very aware that a new technology could not hope to gain public acceptance without widespread publicity and took pains to inform the public through the media of his own day–newspapers, journals, and expositions–about his own inventions.


That Mulally, as president of the Ford Motor Co., has received an Edison Achievement Award also seems particularly apropos in light of Thomas Edison's long-time association and friendship with Henry Ford, the company's founder. Ford's admiration for Edison was such that in the 1920s he had the laboratories from the Menlo Park era reconstructed at Greenfield Village in Michigan, where they are now a part of the Henry Ford Museum.


Treasure Trove of Edison Family Letters

Edison Papers Receive Access to Additional Family Correspondence

Edison family at Glenmont

Over the past few months, the Thomas Edison Papers received access to two important caches of Edison family papers that will provide new insight into the inventor's personality and allow a fuller understanding of his relations with his family. One important collection of about 500 letters comes from the Charles Edison Fund in Newark, N.J. These are chiefly by Edison's second wife, Mina, and many are addressed to the couple's oldest son, Charles. The second cache comes from the collection of Edison's great-grandson, Dr. David E. E. Sloane, and includes more than 900 letters exchanged between Edison's daughter Madeleine and her husband John E. Sloane. These two collections will supplement the 1,775 items from the Charles Edison Fund already available in the Outside Repositories and Private Collections series on the Edison Papers website.

According to Senior Editor Thomas E. Jeffrey, many of the new letters from the Charles Edison Fund are from the years 1909-1912, when Charles was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There are also letters from an earlier period when Charles was at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., as well as some from 1913, after he dropped out of MIT and was away from home traveling out west.

"What struck me," says Jeffrey, who has been organizing the papers for online publication, "is how frank Mina was in discussing her feelings about her husband. It's almost as if she's talking to a confessor. It was surprising to me that she would write this way to her son."

According to Jeffrey, "the dominant emotion" Mina exhibits when discussing her relationship with her husband is depression. "She felt neglected and she felt inadequate," he notes. "She was depressed about Edison's workaholic habits."

Although Mina clearly felt inadequate as a young woman when she first married Edison, who was already a world-renowned figure, the surprising element in the Charles Edison correspondence is that Mina continued to feel this way. "Even as she moved into middle age, twenty-five years after her marriage, she still felt inadequate," says Jeffrey. "She also began feeling unattractive, and she discusses this very explicitly."

In spite of Mina's feelings, there isn't any evidence in the letters that Edison stopped loving her. "He loved her in her own way," Jeffrey notes. "And yet, of all the windows we have into Edison's personality, these letters are the most revealing."

Mina's letters also permit an inside look at Edison's business management team. "She had some very pithy comments about some of the people who worked for Edison, particularly Miller Reese Hutchison," says Jeffrey. "She really hated the guy." According to Jeffrey, Mina saw Hutchison, the chief engineer at the laboratory, as a threat to Charles' eventual ascendancy in the company.

The letters from the Sloane collection also provide an intimate look into the inventor's family, but in this case from the perspective of his eldest child from his second marriage. Jeffrey says the Sloane collection is exceptionally rich for the period from 1909 through 1918. Among the most revealing letters are those Madeleine wrote during the family's 1913 automobile trip to New England, during which Edison became ill, as well as those she wrote to her future husband from Florida in 1914, when the Edison family was on vacation there. "Her letters to John," says Jeffrey, "provide the fullest account of what is going on when they are in Florida."

In addition to the family correspondence, Dr. Sloane has also generously provided the Edison Papers Project with abstracts that he made of the letters in the course of his own research. The abstracts have been extremely useful in organizing the collection for future publication on the Edison Papers website.



Edison As Art: Design to Support the Edison Papers

Edison Art

Although he was not an artist per se, Edison, in the course of his long career, created thousands of drawings in his laboratory notebooks. These drawings are chiefly technical, and Edison made them as a way of communicating his ideas about new inventions to his associates, for the purposes of applying for patents, and to record possible solutions to technical problems.

In the process of editing some of Edison’s drawings for publication in Volume 7 of the Thomas A. Edison Papers, Dan Weeks, an editorial assistant at the project, began to see the artistic possibilities latent in some of Edison’s drawings.

“As I began working on a page of images that Edison had created in his notebook,” says Weeks, “the partially edited page reminded me of something Picasso might have done, and when I added a few patches of color, it began to come to life as something quite different than Edison intended.”

“While it seemed Picasso-like to me,” says Weeks. “Louis Carlat, to whom this first piece was dedicated, said it reminded him of Miro.” Carlat, an associate editor at the Edison Papers, oversaw the preparation of more than 100 drawings and other illustrations for Volume 7, which is titled Losses and Loyalties.

In all, Weeks created five full-color works from Edison's drawings. "My chief interest was to create something for members of the staff as a memento of Volume 7, something that would make them laugh and give them a different perspective on Edison's drawings." For this reason, the theme of all of these works is whimsical. The staff members liked them so much, they have decided to offer them to the public serially on a limited basis.

The result of Weeks’s first effort was “Angel,” which the Edison Papers will offer in a limited, framed edition as a gift for donors to the project of $1,000 or more. For more information, please contact Rachel Weissenburger at rachel.edisonpapers@gmail.com.

Support the Edison Papers

You can support the Edison papers by make a donation to the Edison Papers. In return, we are offering in a limited, framed edition of "Angel" as a gift for donations of $1,000 or more. Each print will be offered in a full-color 8x10-inch format suitable for display at home or in the office.

Thank you for your support!


Edison Papers Participates

Moguls & Movie Stars Edison the Sneeze Dr. Paul Israel discussed Edison's contribution to the 20th Century's greatest art form for Turner Classic Movie channel's Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood.

Edison's earliest thoughts on motion pictures:" I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear. Which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion..." View the actual document.

The End of the Incandescent Bulb
On September 24, 2010, General Electric, a company Edison helped to found, closed its incandescent bulb manufacturing plant in Winchester, Va., the last of its kind in the United States. The closure complies with new laws Congress enacted as part of the 2007 energy bill, which will phase out the manufacture and sale of all incandescent bulbs in the United States by 2014. The law aims to encourage American consumers to adopt more energy-efficient options. It marks the end of an era-the end of the everyday use of Edison's most famous and important innovation. Paul Israel, the director of the Edison Papers, appeared on ABC News to discuss these important changes. Watch the interveiw.

USA Science and Engineering Festival Dr. Carlat explains currents at USA Sci & Eng Festival

The Edison Papers were proud to participate in USA Science and Engineering Festival October 23 & 24th, 2010. The purpose of the event was to re-invigorate the interest of the nation's youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by producing and presenting the most compelling, exciting, educational and entertaining science gatherings in the United States.


Featured Books

Edison’s Electric Light Published in New Edition

Edison's Electric Light

Johns Hopkins University Press has published a revised edition of Robert Freidel and Paul Israel's book Edison's Electric Light: The Art of Invention, which is considered the definitive work on Edison's invention of the electric light and also of the system that brought it in to practical use. “Robert Friedel and I talked to Johns Hopkins University Press about a new edition, and they agreed in light of the fact that many of our colleagues use the book in their courses in the history of technology,” says Israel, who noted that the first edition has been out of print for many years.

Friedel, a professor of history and technology at the University of Maryland, and Israel, the director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers, made full use of the "extraordinary documentary record" in the inventor’s papers to tell this remarkable story of invention and innovation. The authors trace not only the process used to invent the incandescent light, but also the organization employed in its development, explaining at the same time the business and political contexts in which it came to fruition. Edison was already a famous inventor by the time he perfected the incandescent light and began developing an entire system to bring it into practical use. Because he had an understanding of the public interest in important inventions and also of the legal issues surrounding them, he made sure to keep detailed records of each step of the process he and his assistants employed to develop this singularly transformative technology. As the authors note, "This book is an explicit effort to make the best use of this record for enlarging our understanding of the roots of our modern technological world."

The new edition includes the fruits of new research on Edison's approach to high resistance, his developing view of the importance of lamp regulators, and also the application of his "electric light law" in designing spiral filaments. The new edition is designed for use in conjunction with the online resources available at http://edison.rutgers.edu. Because these resources are now available online, the revised edition of Edison's Electric Light contains fewer reproductions of key documents than the original. The authors also plan to make some of the key primary source documents available through links on the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

As Friedel and Israel note, the electric light is one of the key inventions that transformed the world from an industrial age based largely on steam power to a post-industrial age dependent upon electricity. Edison, who not only perfected the incandescent bulb but also an entire system of electricity that could be integrated into the consumer culture of the late nineteenth century, played a key role in bringing about that transformation. In telling the story of the research, development, and commercialization of electric light, Edison's Electric Light provides insight into the origins of the corporate approach to invention and also into the "systemic nature of large-scale modern technologies." Both have helped to define our world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Edison's Electric Light was originally published in 1986 by Rutgers University Press in both hardcover and paperback. John Hopkins has reissued it in a more compact paperback edition.

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The Quotable Thomas Edison

The Quotable Thomas Edison is available now for pre-order ( ISBN:978-0813035598).

The Quotable Edison

Michelle Albion has painstakingly edited some of Edison's enlightening thoughts and shares with us a few of her favorites:

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In Edison's Words...

"The future of the world?  It appears to me to be fine and interesting, but somewhat complicated.  The world is progressing and is moving along faster than ever.  We have foreknowledge and the tools, so we can go ahead on new inventions.  It is hard to say what the new inventions will be.  We need more men of imagination."

"Edison Discusses His Philosophy," New York Times, Feb 12, 1921.

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