Part III Preface

Part III of Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition begins with the year 1887 when forty-year-old Thomas A. Edison opened his new laboratory complex in West Orange, New Jersey. It concludes with the year 1898 when he temporarily shut down his ambitious ore milling operations at Ogden, New Jersey and began preparations to visit Portland Cement plants in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. During the period documented by Part III, Edison's West Orange laboratory emerged as an early research and development center and became the nucleus of his varied manufacturing and commercial interests. At the same time, numerous new companies were established to exploit his diverse inventions. The laboratory notebooks, correspondence, company records, and other primary sources presented in this edition not only reveal Edison's role as inventor and entrepreneur, but also document the parts played by his numerous laboratory and business associates in his affairs as well as in the larger technical and business communities.

For the first several years, Edison remained active in the development of electric light and power systems. The notebooks and other documents presented in Part III reveal his ongoing research in electrical technologies, including his work on improved filaments for incandescent lamps, his advocacy of direct over alternating current, his controversial electrocution experiments, his role in the Niagara Falls hydroelectric project, and his involvement in electrical utility companies. Those interests declined with the series of mergers and acquisitions that led in the early 1890s to the establishment of the General Electric Company.

Increasingly during the late 1880s and 1890s, Edison turned his attention to other projects, such as the perfection of his cylinder phonograph and the development of a wax cylinder and an electroplating process for duplicating his cylinder recordings. He also sought to market his phonographs and cylinder recordings in the United States, Canada, and Europe with the establishment of the North American Phonograph Company and the Edison United Phonograph Company. Although administrative control of these companies initially lay in the hands of business associates such as Jesse Lippincott and Stephen F. Moriarty, Edison regained control of marketing operations with the establishment of his National Phonograph Company in January 1896.

Edison's work on motion pictures proceeded concurrently with his experiments on the improved phonograph. In October 1888 he applied for his first caveat, or preliminary patent application, on "an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." Construction of the first motion picture studio, the Black Maria, began in December 1892 and was completed the following February. In April 1894 the first commercial viewing of Edison's peephole kinetoscope was held in New York City. As with the phonograph, Edison initially entrusted marketing operations to associates such as Franck Z. Maguire and Norman C. Raff, although these activities would later be taken over by the Edison Manufacturing Company.

Another of Edison's major interests during this period involved the magnetic separation of iron ore. Toward the end of 1888, he organized the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Concentrating Works and built a plant at Ogden (later named Edison), New Jersey, to engage in the large-scale, continuous production of concentrated iron ore from the low-grade ore found in abundance throughout the region. During the following decade, Edison made significant advancements in continuous-process manufacturing by developing large and costly machines for crushing, conveying, screening, separating, drying, and briquetting the ore. By the end of the 1890s, however, iron ore prices had fallen sharply with the arrival of low-cost, high-grade ore from the Mesabi range in Minnesota, and Edison found himself unable to sell his own product at a profit. He suspended operations at the Ogden plant temporarily in December 1898 and closed it permanently in 1900, despite his promise to rebuild the works.

Edison's inventive and business activities were significantly affected by the depression that hit the nation in 1893 and persisted through much of the decade. In the wake of this severe economic downturn, Edison found it necessary to discharge numerous "old hands" and suspend many activities at the West Orange laboratory. In August 1894 the North American Phonograph Company entered receivership, while ore milling operations at Ogden were repeatedly suspended for plant modifications. Not surprisingly, the number of documents for the mid-1890s is significantly fewer than for the periods immediately preceding and following.

Edison's private life during this period underwent significant changes. On May 31, 1888, Madeleine, the first child of his second wife, Mina, was born at Glenmont, the Edisons' Victorian home in Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. Two sons—Charles and Theodore—followed in August 1890 and July 1898. Meanwhile, the three children from Edison's previous marriage were entering into adulthood. On October 1, 1895, his eldest child, Marion, married a German army officer by the name of Oscar Oeser. By the end of the decade his two older sons—Thomas and William—had reached manhood and were struggling to emerge from the shadow of their famous father. The collection of family correspondence recently donated to the Edison National Historic Site by the Charles Edison Fund of East Orange, New Jersey, provides rich documentation for this period in Edison's life. During the 1880s and 1890s Mina Miller Edison received numerous letters not only from family members in Akron, Ohio, but also from her three stepchildren. These documents provide information regarding the domestic life, activities, and relationships of the Edison and Miller families, as well as insights into the character of the inventor himself.

Although it covers a larger span of time, Part III of the microfilm edition is comparable in size to Part II. The approximately 100,000 pages of documents presented here represent about 25 percent of the total documentation for this period in the archives at the Edison National Historic Site. Part III is organized in a manner similar to the earlier parts, with series and subseries that parallel existing record groups within the archives. Several new series have been added to Part III to reflect record groups that did not exist for earlier parts. These are: (1) West Orange Laboratory Records; (2) Published Works and Other Writings; (3) Unbound Clippings; (4) Vouchers and Attached Correspondence; and (5) Family Records. In addition, the Patent Series and the Company Records Series are considerably larger than for earlier parts, reflecting the increased amount of documentation for the period 1887-1898. The Primary Printed Collection, formerly part of the Company Records Series, is now a separate series, while ledgers, journals, and other materials that previously were published in a separate Accounts Series are now located with related documents in the West Orange Laboratory Records, Company Records, and Family Records series.