Part V Preface
Part V of the Thomas A. Edison Papers: A Selective Microfilm Edition begins with the year 1911, when the sixty-four-year-old inventor consolidated his National Phonograph Co. with several other Edison companies to form Thomas A. Edison, Inc. It concludes with the year 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles finally put an end to the long years of war and enabled Edison and other Americans to turn again to peacetime pursuits.
The period documented in Part V was a time of intense activity for Edison, his laboratory, and his companies. Several important new inventions were created and marketed between 1911 and 1919. These included the Blue Amberol record (a significantly improved cylinder record), Diamond Disc phonographs and records, an office dictating machine that became known as the Ediphone, a home movie projector called the home kinetoscope, and a safety lamp for miners that won Edison the prestigious Rathenau Medal. At a time before the gasoline engine had gained universal acceptance, Edison worked hard to apply his alkaline storage battery to the propulsion of automobiles and commercial delivery trucks. Along with his chief engineer Miller Reese Hutchison, he sought other commercial and military applications for his battery, including ships, submarines, communications systems, and the homes for rural dwellers who lived beyond the gas and electric mains. And more than a decade before the release of The Jazz Singer, Edison himself introduced talking pictures to theater goers in the Americas, Europe, and Asia with his kinetophone.
During this period Edison forged a longstanding personal and business relationship with automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, who joined him in a series of highly publicized camping trips that included industrialist Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs. In 1911 he embarked on a two-month tour of Great Britain and Continental Europe with his wife Mina and their three children, during which the inventor commented extensively on the culture, society, and government of the nations that would soon be convulsed by war. Four years later, he took a cross-country train trip and spent two weeks on the West Coast, visiting the Panama‑Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama‑California Exposition in San Diego. During his interviews with the press on these and other occasions, Edison voiced his opinions about a wide variety of topics, including war and preparedness, Henry Ford's controversial peace plan, the presidential elections of 1912 and 1916, women's suffrage, temperance and prohibition, cigarette smoking, health and diet, musical tastes, popular culture, and religion.
The years 1911-1919 witnessed important changes in Edison's companies and in his laboratory. The number of employees at the West Orange complex increased from about 2,300 at the beginning of 1911 to approximately 10,000 by the end of the war. A severe labor shortage occasioned by the entrance of the United States into the war brought a substantial number of female workers into Edison's factories. By 1919 women comprised 20 percent of the workforce. There were also significant changes in the management of Edison's companies. In November 1912 Frank L. Dyer, who had been general counsel and head of the Legal Department since 1904, resigned as president of Thomas A. Edison, Inc., and Edison himself took over the leadership of his company. In 1915 efficiency engineer Stephen B. Mambert initiated an important change in the organization of Edison Industries with his divisional policy. The reorganization theoretically gave considerable autonomy to the managers of each manufacturing and selling division. In reality, it consolidated Mambert's power as financial executive and enabled him to build his own empire within the larger organization.
The changes in the laboratory had begun in 1910 with the establishment of the Engineering Department and the creation of the new position of chief engineer. Donald Bliss, the first man to hold the position, proved ineffective, and Edison replaced him with Miller Reese Hutchison in August 1912. Hutchison's influence extended beyond the laboratory, as the inventor also made him exclusive agent for the sale of Edison storage batteries to the U.S. Navy and other departments of the United States government. Hutchison's freewheeling business practices generated animosity among the officials of the Edison Storage Battery Co., aroused the enmity of Mambert, and ultimately led to his resignation as chief engineer in July 1918. He was succeeded by John P. Constable, a friend and classmate of Charles Edison.
The Engineering Department had been created to separate the experimental activities of the laboratory from more routine product engineering. Product engineers like Constable and Newman Henry Holland were responsible for making refinements in existing inventions and developing more cost-efficient methods for manufacturing them. The new department reflected a shift in the focus of the West Orange laboratory from the creation of new technologies to product improvement and production efficiency. Longtime experimenters like Charles Dally and Fred Ott, who had received their education in the factory machine shop, were now outnumbered by college-educated engineers and chemists.
Edison's own inventive activities during the early 1910s were focused primarily on the perfection of a disc phonograph to compete with the machines manufactured by Victor and other rival companies. His key innovation was the development of a diamond needle and floating-weight recorder assembly that allowed for very high quality recordings and playback. His associate Jonas Walter Aylsworth developed a heat-resistant composition called Condensite that proved to be the major technical breakthrough in the development of the Diamond Disc record, while Walter Miller and others devised methods for making master disc molds and manufacturing the records. In September 1912 Edison assembled a crew of experimenters, who worked night and day for five weeks to overcome the final challenge in the mass production of disc recordsthe development of a reliable method for coating the disc record blanks with Condensite. Their success earned them the title of Insomnia Squad. Although Edison himself used that appellation exclusively in connection with the experimental team he put together in 1912, the phrase "Insomnia Squad" has since become part of our popular culture and is often used today to characterize Edison's entire laboratory staff going back to the nineteenth century.
Long after the labors of the Insomnia Squad had ended and disc records had been put on the market, the Edison Diamond Disc remained a work in progress. Customers complained about surface noise and a tendency of the Condensite veneer to detach from the core material. Edison set his research team to work on these and other problems, and many of the items in the Notebook Series relate to experiments on disc records. Other notebooks pertain to efforts to improve recording techniques in order to produce records of the highest acoustic quality. Despite his severe hearing deficiency, Edison took a personal interest in the artists and music to be recorded for his discs and cylinders, and he was primarily responsible for his company's record catalog.
The outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 pushed Edison's inventive and business activities in a new direction. He became a major spokesman for preparedness, and his ideas spurred the creation of the Naval Consulting Board, on which he served as president. To overcome the shortages of chemicals previously obtained from Germany, he quickly built new manufacturing plants and became a major chemical supplier not only to American industries but to the European allies and Japan as well.
In 1917, a few months before the United States formally entered the war, Edison and his assistants began conducting antisubmarine experiments for the U.S. 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 the inventor's military research, which is documented in seventeen notebooks, was focused on methods of locating U-boats and camouflaging merchant ships. During the summer and early fall 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. Edison's relationship with the Navy bureaucracy was sometimes 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. With the onset of war, she found herself trapped behind enemy lines and eventually fled to Switzerland. Her marriage to Oscar, already strained by the war, deteriorated even further in 1919 after 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. Thomas A. Edison, Jr., who called the war "a greater tragedy than will ever be known," was the only child from Edison's first marriage to be "spared from its weapons." Still trying to emulate his father's success as an inventor, he developed a fuel-saving device for automobiles called the "ecometer" and unsuccessfully tried to persuade Henry Ford to adopt his invention. In 1919 he moved back to West Orange and was soon working again for his father in the laboratory.
The war also affected the lives of Edison's sons from his second marriage, Charles and Theodore, although neither joined the military. In June 1916, Charles took over the management of the Edison companies, as his father found himself increasingly preoccupied with his chemical plants and his work on the Naval Consulting Board. Together with Mark M. Jones, the director of personnel, he initiated a series of innovations that put Edison Industries on the cutting edge of the modern management movement. Eighteen-year-old Theodore was eager to join the army when the United States entered the war. Mina Edison, perhaps remembering the fate of her brother Theodore who was killed in the Spanish-American War, 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. An inventor and businessman like his father-in-law, Sloane spent part of the war in Washington, D.C. as an officer in the U.S. Signal Corps. Madeleine was the only Edison child to have children of her own. On March 4, 1916 she gave birth to Thomas Edison ("Teddy") Sloanethe first of Thomas Edison's four grandsons. The inventor, still conducting experiments for the U.S. Navy at Key West, was not present to celebrate the birth of his second grandchild, John Edison ("Jack") Sloane, on April 21, 1918.
The approximately 100,000 pages of technical notes, business and family correspondence, patent records, newspaper and journal clippings, and other documents in Part V are arranged in series that parallel the record groups in the archives of the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. As in previous parts, the guide to Part V contains series notes, a chronology, an annotated list of Edison and related companies, and an essay on editorial procedures. In addition, there are essays on Edison's family, his management team, and his laboratory and wartime research staff, along with biographical sketches of more than 350 family members, managers, and employees.