Part IV Preface
Part IV of Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition begins with the year 1899 when Thomas A. Edison, then in his early fifties, abandoned his ambitious iron concentration plant in the mountains of western New Jersey and returned full-time to his laboratory in West Orange. It concludes with the year 1910—shortly before his National Phonograph Company consolidated with several other Edison companies to become Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated.
During this period Edison's phonograph and motion picture businesses grew from novelties to mass entertainment industries of international scope. Intense competition with the Victor Talking Machine Company and other phonograph companies resulted in continual innovation, as Edison sought to improve the design of his phonograph and the machinery for its mass production, the composition of his wax cylinders, and his methods of producing and duplicating sound recordings. The introduction of the four-minute Amberol record in 1908 failed to reverse the decline in sales brought about by the Panic of 1907 and the popularity of Victor's disc records, and by the end of the decade Edison had turned his attention to developing his own method of producing disc records. The battle for control of the burgeoning phonograph industry was fought in the courtroom as well as in the marketplace. Edison's attorneys continually defended his interests in matters of trademark, sales rights, price fixing, and musical copyright and instituted numerous infringement suits in an effort to control key patents.
Competition in the motion picture industry also took place on both the legal and commercial fronts, as films evolved from short documentaries into narratives of increasing artistic sophistication—a development highlighted by the commercial success of the Edison Manufacturing Company's 1903 release, The Great Train Robbery. Despite a series of court decisions upholding the validity of his patent on the motion picture camera, Edison failed to a secure a monopoly in film production or to prevent competitors such as Biograph from increasing their share of the market. Weary of the protracted legal battles and anxious to secure their position against newer rivals entering the field, the Edison and Biograph interests, along with several other established film producers, formed the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908. This attempt to monopolize the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures through the issuance of exclusive licenses eventually succumbed to the pressure of renewed competition and adverse court decisions.
The income from Edison's phonograph and motion picture businesses provided him with investment capital to pursue two new projects—an improved process for manufacturing Portland cement and an alkaline storage battery to power electric automobiles. Adapting the crushing and materials handling technology developed during the 1890s for the concentration of iron ore, Edison erected a cement manufacturing plant in Stewartsville, New Jersey, and designed a long rotary kiln that would become a standard in the industry. Edison envisioned a variety of uses for his cement, including the construction of low-cost houses that would make life more pleasant and affordable for working class families. Although only a few of these houses were actually constructed, the Edison Portland Cement Company quickly became one of the largest cement producers in the nation.
Edison's sharpest inventive energies during this period were focused on the development of an alkaline storage battery. Fascinated by the potential of the automobile, Edison sought to develop a source of motive power that would be cheaper and more reliable than the internal combustion engine and more efficient and lightweight than the lead-acid batteries then on the market. After a decade of experimentation and an extensive search for nickel and other raw materials, Edison began commercial manufacture of his "A" type alkaline storage battery in July 1909. While his nickel-iron battery failed to displace the gas-powered engine in automobiles, it did enjoy widespread use in a variety of industrial applications and would eventually replace the phonograph as the financial foundation of the Edison enterprise.
Although Edison's primary concern was the development of new technologies and the creation of new businesses based on those technologies, his curiosity also led him to investigate and speculate upon numerous subjects that did not have immediate commercial application. His laboratory notebooks are replete with references to electricity, magnetism, thermodynamics, chemistry, and cosmology, as well as to phenomena such as x-rays, "xyz rays," etheric force, and the "Edison effect." Nor did Edison entirely abandon his interest in electric light and power or in other projects that had occupied his attention during his early years in West Orange, such as a method of recording and re-transmitting telephone messages.
The phenomenal growth of Edison's phonograph and motion picture businesses during the first decade of the twentieth century brought about important changes in the West Orange complex. The labor force in the laboratory and factories expanded significantly. New buildings were constructed, and existing ones enlarged, to produce records and films and to house the increasing number of managers and white-collar workers. Specialized departments were established to promote Edison's products, manage his legal concerns, and coordinate the tasks of bookkeeping and information gathering. Longtime associates like Charles Batchelor and Francis Upton gave way to professional managers such as William E. Gilmore, who served as general manager of the Edison phonograph and motion picture businesses until 1908, and his successor Frank L. Dyer, the head of Edison's Legal Department.
Edison's stature as an international celebrity also grew during this period, as the press eagerly sought his opinions about everything from spiritualism and religion to aerial navigation and wireless communication. Such notoriety was not an unmixed blessing, as the inventor found himself "continuously being annoyed by letters from cranks and lunatics from all over the world." Edison's celebrity also exacerbated the already strained relations with his two oldest sons—Thomas, Jr., and William—who both engaged in a series of dubious business ventures with disreputable associates intent on exploiting the Edison name. The inventor's relations with the three children from his second marriage were considerably more harmonious, as the two oldest—Madeleine and Charles—emerged from adolescence into adulthood. By the end of the decade, Charles was enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Soon afterwards, he would enter his father's employ to be groomed to succeed the inventor as the head of the Edison industrial empire.
The approximately 100,000 pages of laboratory notes, correspondence, company records, and other primary sources presented in Part IV represent about 20 percent of the total documentation for this period in the archives at the Edison National Historic Site. Part IV is organized in a manner similar to the earlier parts, with series and subseries that parallel existing record groups within the archives. Like the three previous parts, the printed Guide to Part IV contains indexes, series notes, a chronology, an annotated list of Edison companies and business associates, and an essay on editorial procedures. Account books no longer appear in a separate "Index to Financial Documents" but are listed instead under the names of their authors (generally an Edison company) in the Index to Authors and Recipients. Also included in the guide is an enumeration of errors in previous parts of the microfilm edition that were discovered after the publication of Part III. Users of this edition are urged to inform the editors of any additional errors so that corrections may be entered into the database and included in subsequent publications (Thomas A. Edison Papers / Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey / 44 Road 3 / Piscataway, New Jersey 08854-8049; email@example.com).