The Edisonian, Vol. 13, Issue 1, December 2015
We are very excited to announce Volume 8 is now available. Be sure to order your copy of The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: New Beginnings, January 1885-December 1887 (Volume 8). As you will see below, we have been busy. Our new blog, Edison Findings is now live (see below). We want to thank National Endowment for the Humanities, National Historical Publications and Records Commission and The New Jersey Historical Commission for their continued support. And we want to thank all of you who have donated this year. Please consider making a year-end donation or a scheduled donation for next year. Your donations help!
As always, we appreciate your support. May you have a peaceful and joyful holiday season!
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Will you consider supporting the Edison Papers this year? Thomas Edison enjoyed a remarkably creative and exceptionally well-documented life. The Thomas Edison Papers is dedicated to making these records accessible to the public and students at all levels. We invite you to share in making these papers accessible, please consider making a contribution or a monthly donation here!
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Add Volume 8 to your personal collection this holiday season! Purchase your copy through our Amazon link and support the Edison Papers.
This year, the National Endowment for the Humanities celebrated its 50th Anniversary. The Edison Papers were invited to Washington, D.C. for the celebration and to share our work as a representative example of transformative NEH grants. In addition, Rutgers helped sponsor the event to honor NEH's contributions to the academic world. Congressmen Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and David Price (D-N.C.), co-chairs of the Congressional Humanities Caucus, spoke at the event. Read full article here.
Over the past 50 years, NEH has awarded $5.3 billion in grants, of which $2 billion in grants went to universities and colleges. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act on September 29, 1965. It created the National Endowment for the Humanities as an independent federal agency. "The humanities," the current legislation declares, "belong to all the people of the United States." Explore and enjoy NEH 50 projects here.
It was during the summer of 1885 that Thomas Edison, who had become a widower in August of the previous year, developed a romantic interest in Mina Miller, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Ohio inventor and manufacturer Lewis Miller. In late June and early July, Edison and Miss Miller were both guests at the summer home of Ezra and Lillian Gilliland in Winthrop, Mass. Mina had just finished her first year at Miss Abby H. Johnson's School and was visiting briefly with the Gillilands before returning home to Akron on summer vacation.
As Edison recorded in the diary he kept at Winthrop later in the summer, his brief encounter with Mina had left him smitten. "Got thinking about Mina and came near being run over by a streetcar," Edison wrote in his diary, which was purposely written to be read to the Gillilands and their guests, all of whom were friends of Mina Miller.
In early August, Edison traveled to Chautauqua, New York, with his daughter Marian and the Gillilands to meet Mina and her family. Lewis Miller was a co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution, a Methodist educational conclave that met each summer on the banks of Lake Chautauqua. The Millers were impressed enough with Edison to allow Mina to join his party for an excursion to the White Mountans, which included stops at Alexandria Bay and Montreal. It was in the White Mountains that he proposed, tapping the question in Morse code in Mina's hand, as she later recalled. She tapped back, "Yes."
Having secured her assent, Edison parted from Mina at the trip's end and returned to New York. From there, at the end of September, he wrote a formal letter asking, in accordance with longstanding tradition, for Lewis Miller's consent to marry Mina. Miller agreed and Mina became Edison's second wife on February 24, 1886.
A bit of a mystery has surrounded Mark Twain's 1888 visit to Thomas A. Edison. Historians, who by nature are interested when two titans from different spheres come together, have been fairly certain such a visit took place, but exactly when, where, and under what circumstances have proved elusive. Until now.
Thomas E. Jeffrey, senior editor at the Edison Papers, recently unearthed a 1927 letter from Edison that in part clears up some of the mystery. In early January of that year, Edison received a letter from Cyril Clemens, the president of the Mark Twain Society in Webster Groves, Mo. "I am gathering material for a life of Mark Twain," wrote Clemens, a cousin of the famed author. "Would you be so kind as to tell me your opinions of the humorist, and if you ever met him."
Edison replied a few days later in a typed letter now in the manuscript collection of the Library of Congress [X042DG]. He said that Twain did come once to his laboratory in West Orange in company with the Canadian writer George Iles. "He told a number of funny stories," Edison wrote, "some of which I recorded on phonograph records. Unfortunately, these records were lost in the big fire which we had at this plant in 1914."
Twain died in 1910. As a result, the loss of these phonograms of Twain speaking extemporaneously is regrettable almost beyond measure. Had they survived, their significance to historians, both of technology and literature, would be incalculable since no recordings of Mark Twain's voice, which is said to have been inimitable, are known to exist.
Although he could no longer provide Cyril Clemens with phonograms of Twain's voice, Edison did provide an anecdote. He recalled that when Twain and Iles were ready to leave, a rain storm came up, and as they opened the door a gust of rain blew in on them both. Said Twain to Iles, "I guess we are caged for awhile." Iles noticing a carriage at the door, belonging to a visitor, suggested "Let us take this carriage." "No," said Mark, "It is not ours." Iles replied "That don't matter, let's take it anyway." Twain, in his drawling way said, "Business man's idea! Business man's idea!" As to his opinion of Twain, Edison remarked that "he was more than a humorist. He was a practical philosopher."
With Edison's letter to Cyril Clemens in hand, Allie Rimer, assistant editor at the Edison Papers, was able to locate Clemens original letter of January 5, 1927, in the archives at the Thomas A. Edison Historical Park in West Orange, N.J. This letter includes Edison's hand-written draft of the typed letter finally sent to Clemens in reply.
Edison's response to Cyril Clemens, clears up where his 1888 meeting with Mark Twain took place and under what circumstances, at least in part. But the question of precisely when required further research. In late May 1888, Twain had asked to visit Edison in order to see the inventor's new wax-cylinder phonograph. The author hoped to use the machine to complete the novel on which he was then working– A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented this meeting. This meant that the meeting to which Edison refers in his 1927 letter likely took place in June, since Twain spent the better part of July and August in Elmira, New York. But the available correspondence between Edison and Twain did not provide a more definite answer to the question of when the visit took place. The mystery was finally solved, though, in a roundabout way. In researching the date on which Edison and his associates negotiated the sale of the inventor's phonograph interests, Louis Carlat, associate editor at the Edison Papers, found court testimony [HM89ACG] in which Edison recalled that the final negotiations took place at the West Orange Laboratory on the same day Twain and Iles made their visit. Edison said the date was 21 June 1888, which seems to give a date certain on which Twain made his historic visit, at least if Edison's memory served. Click to read the full article.
A More Prosaic Light: Essays, Revisions, and Reviews 1987-2015 by Edison Papers assistant editor Daniel Weeks is now available from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, and other online distributors. Among the essays are several relating to Edison's phonograph, including "Did Edison Record Whitman?" "A Voice from Beyond the Grave: The Robert Browning Phonogram," and "Twain and the Phonograph." It also includes a review of W. Bernard Carlson's book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.
" 'New and Untried Hands': Thomas Edison's Electrification of Pennsylvania Towns" by Edison Papers editors Louis Carlat and Daniel Weeks has been published in the October 2015 edition of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, now available from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The Edison Papers launched a new blog called Edison Findings. Edison Findings is open to contributions from you! Have a thought? Feel free to send it to us so we can feature it! Blog: Edison was no Twain!
Mark Your Calendar!
Rutgers has begun to celebrate 250 years on the Raritan River. Check out Rutgers 250!
Edison and Innovation Series
Have you been following Edison and the Rise of Innovation series? Check back for new essays!
NPS turns 100!
The National Park Service turns 100 this year. Be sure you plan your visit to Edison National Historical Park!
The Edisonian, Vol. 12, Issue 1, February 2015
Congratulations to all our editors - Volume 8 is at the printer! We look forward to seeing a hardcopy late next summer. Be sure to add your name to our mailing list for the announcement. If you haven't seen it, check out our series, Edison and the Rise of Innovation. This month we have added From Menlo Park to West Orange, which details transitions in his personal life as well as his research space. In January, American Experience: Edison, was released on PBS; it features Edison Paper editors Paul Israel, Bob Rosenberg and Lisa Gittleman. And lastly, let's give a big birthday wish to Thomas Edison.
The Edison Papers
Thomas Edison enjoyed a remarkably creative and exceptionally well-documented life. The five million pages estimated to be in his collected papers not only show the inventor and entrepreneur at work, they provide a window into life in the United States. This trove details how Edison and his household fit into the ordinary world they shared with countless other aspiring citizens, while his inventive record details how he became an icon of American inventiveness. The Thomas Edison Papers is dedicated to making these records accessible and intelligible to the public and students at all levels. Private donations and grants from public agencies make it possible for the project's historians to carry out this work and train the next generation of students. This year three new undergraduate students are helping us transcribe documents and scan in our most recent document collection. Many thanks to Ray Cratch, Linzi Ryan, Patrick Lonegran, James Deloughery, Randy Sparks, and welcome to Andrea Alvarez, Jennyfer Javier and Jade Gleason. Will you please consider making a contribution? Your generous contributions in the past have helped support their work! Your donation is tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. Please consider making a donation today!
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Volume 7: Losses and Loyalties to your personal collection! Purchase your copy of Volume 7 through our Amazon link and support the Edison Papers. Signed copies are available on a limited basis through our website. Contact us!
The name of Thomas Edison has been closely associated with Rutgers University since the university won a competition to host the Edison Papers. Edison himself had a personal relationship with the university, having spent a good deal of his career in close proximity to its New Brunswick campus. He received two honorary degrees from Rutgers, donated electrical apparatus to the school, and stirred up a bit of controversy among students and faculty with the intelligence tests he instituted for employees in 1920. Edison also hired Rutgers graduates, including his experimenters John Marshall, Edward Payne, and Charles Deschler. Read more...
The winter of 2014-15 has been a snowy one across the Northeastern United States, and the joyous refrains heard at the first snowfall–"Ah, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow"–have turned to "Enough already!" But though a perfect Matterhorn of dirty snow the plows left still looms just outside of the Edison Papers' windows, this winter has not been even close to the snowiest on record in the New York area. And neither was 1886, when Edison jotted down some ideas for a snow removal machine. But there had been one terrific blizzard in January of that year which may have prompted him to imagine a different way of getting rid of the white stuff from city streets.
While not as famous nor as paralyzing as the Great Blizzard of 1888, the blizzard of '86 was still formidable. It thickly blanketed New York City and environs in twelve inches of snow. For the city's Department of Street Cleaning, snow removal was labor-intensive. In the first day after the blizzard, the department carted off 6,000 loads of snow. But in spite of this effort, much of the city was still buried. A private firm, the New-York Snow Melting Co. also pitched in, but its attempt to quickly melt the snow and have it run off into the gutters proved less than successful.
The New York Times meanwhile wondered about the economic costs of such a storm. As an editorial writer noted, "Even the enormous expense of carting snow bodily from the principal thoroughfares of the city and dumping it into the rivers would probably be a true economy if the enormous expense entailed by the presence of the snow until nature takes it out of the way could be accurately ascertained and assessed."
These considerations, along with a second storm in early February, may have prompted Edison on February 6th to jot down a brief note and provide a drawing for a snow removal machine in his experimental notebook: St Cleaning— Machine for gathering snow & Compressing it to ice & dropping definite blocks in gutter as horses advance apparatus Blox ice being used for Radiated cold in Summer.
The design does seem a bit fanciful, but Edison and his assistant Charles Batchelor apparently made some progress toward building this machine. As Edison later recalled in his autobiographical notes: One time when they had a snow blockage in New York I started to build a machine with Batchelor—a big truck with a steam engine and compressor on it. We would run along the street, gather all the snow up in front of us, pass it into the compressor, and deliver little blocks of ice behind us in the gutter taking one tenth the room of the snow, and not inconveniencing anybody. We could thus take care of a snow storm by diminishing the bulk of material to be hauled. The preliminary experiment we made was dropped because we went into other things. The machine would go as fast as a horse could walk.
In December, 2014, Mark Twain's classic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was 125 years old. Since its original publication, it has been reissued innumerable times and has been adapted for film, radio, television, and even into a Rodgers-and-Hart Broadway musical. Twain wrote the novel over a three-year period in the late 1880s, just at the time Thomas Edison was preparing his new wax-cylinder phonograph for commercial production. News accounts of the new machine gave Twain the idea that it might prove a useful tool for finishing his book, and he accordingly made inquiries. His attempts to secure a phonograph at this time, however, were unavailing. But had he been able the obtain one, it would have been the first time such a recording device had been used to dictate a significant portion of a novel or any other book for that matter.
Twain's first experience with the new phonograph occurred at the end of May 1888. On the 21st of that month, he sent an urgent telegram to Edison. "Can you appoint an hour for tomorrow when I may run over & see the phonograph." Twain, who lived in Hartford, Conn., was in New York City for a short visit, and was anxious to try out Edison's newly designed machine. He sent the telegram from the Murray Hill Hotel at Park Avenue and East Fortieth Street to Edison's New York office at 40 Wall Street. But it took three days to reach the inventor, who was then in Orange, New Jersey, where his new home and laboratory were located. "Will be glad to see you this afternoon or any time to-morrow convenient to yourself," Edison wired back. "I'm here all the time." But by that time, Twain had returned to Hartford.
Although Twain had not seen Edison, he did manage to see the phonograph. "I had only part of a day at my disposal," he wrote Edison from Hartford, "but I shall try again, soon, & shall hope to find you on deck & still open to invasion. However, I accomplished part of my mission, anyway: I spent an hour & a half with the phonograph in Dey street, with vast satisfaction." Dey Street was the address of the Edison Phonograph Co. of New York. Click to read the full article.
Edison's laboratories at Menlo Park, where he completed his most famous inventions, and in West Orange, which is now a national historic park, are well-known. But these are not Edison's only laboratories. Edison established his first laboratory at his workshop in Newark, N.J., in 1873, and he is known to have briefly established a laboratory on the top floor of a building occupied by the manufacturing firm Bergmann & Co. at Avenue B and 17th Street in Manhattan after closing the Menlo Park lab in September 1882. He also built a small laboratory in conjunction with his summer home in Fort Myers, Fla., in the spring of 1886. All of these facilities are well-documented, but much less is known about the laboratory he used at his lamp factory in Harrison, N.J., just prior to opening his more famous lab in West Orange.
In spring 1881, Edison was looking for an enlarged space for his lamp manufacturing operations, which at the time were located at Menlo Park. In late April, he visited the complex of the Peters Manufacturing Co. in Harrison, then sometimes called East Newark. From contemporary reports, the site consisted of three four-story buildings constructed in 1877, which had been used for the purpose of producing oilcloth. The buildings would give Edison about ten times the floor space of his Menlo Park facility. On the Peters site were also a number of outbuildings and the remains of a fourth factory building, which had burned. Aside from the extra space, there was another good reason to move to Harrison. Edison and Lamp Co. manager Francis Upton saw the cost advantage of moving production close to Newark with its large pool of cheaper labor.
On May 9, Edison agreed to purchase this property for $52,250. Under the terms, the Edison interests would pay $5,000 in cash up front with the remainder in notes in installments. The final payment of $30,000 was to be made within two years. Money for the down payment was raised from among the partners in the Edison Lamp Co.
It apparently took a full year to ready the new plant for production. But on April 1, 1882, the Lamp Co. ceased production at Menlo Park and began moving operations to Harrison. The new plant could produce 1,200 lamps per day right away and eventually would be able to reach 40,000 lamps per day. The new site immediately accomodated an increased work force of 150, up from a little more than 100 at the Menlo Park factory. By the end of May, the new plant was up and running.
Edison made the transition from his laboratory at Bergmann's to the lab at Harrison in early July 1886. With his assistant John Ott, Edison conducted experiments at the new facility to extend the life of incandescent lamps. By August, his wife, Mina, had joined him in the lab to take notes, and at the end of the month, his friend and associate Ezra Gilliland, who had been suffering through a bout of illness, came to work with him as well. Some of the experiments Edison and Gilliland conducted together concerned improving the carbon transmitter, testing new ideas for a wireless railway telegraph, redesigning the village electrical plant system Edison had devised, and improving the phonograph, which Gilliland would be charged with manufacturing and marketing. Edison also turned his attention at this time to developing a uniform filament for his lamps. In order to pursue this experimental work, he spent a good part of July, almost all of August and September, and part of October 1886 in the laboratory at the lamp factory in Harrison.
In 1889, the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison became part of the Edison General Electric Co. and in 1892, in the merger between Edison General Electric and the Thomson-Houston Co., it became part of General Electric. With each of these steps, it became further removed from Edison's personal involvement. The facilities in Harrison also grew. In the years between 1882 and 1895, the Edison Lamp Co. further developed the site of the old Peters manufactory, adding at least one major building and perhaps acquiring additional space through the purchase of adjoining properties.
From the beginning, the Lamp Works was a large industrial complex closely connected to Thomas Edison. For this reason, the editors of the Thomas A. Edison Papers have been keenly interested to know what became of these historic buildings in Harrison. This question became all the more important over the last few years as the editors have worked on the recently published seventh volume of the Thomas A. Edison Papers and worked on the forthcoming one, which together cover the years 1882 to 1887. These are the very years Edison acquired the Peters property, established his lamp works and laboratory there, and conducted important research on the site.
"We compared everything we knew about the Edison factory's location, including photos, with historical maps and Google views of the area." says Louis Carlat, managing editor of the book edition. "We concluded that the building was gone." The former Peters property, between Bergen and Sussex Sts., where the Lamp Works and the Edison lab had been located, now seemed to be a strip mall, and where the main buildings had been, there was now a parking lot.
But in mid-September 2013, Edison Papers Business Manager Rachel Weissenburger received an interesting phone call from real estate developer Tom Berkenkamp. "He said he was redeveloping a property in Harrison, New Jersey, and believed it was the Edison Lamp Works," Weissenburger recalls. Berkenkamp's call certainly piqued the interest of the historians at the Edison Papers. The editors immediately scheduled a trip up to Harrison to check out the property in person.
Berkenkamp's realty company acquired the former RCA Corporation property, encompassing a city block in Harrison between Bergen and Sussex sts., in February 2012. It consists of three main buildings, which Berkenkamp intends to transform into upscale rental units. "The oldest building" says Berkenkamp, "seemed to date from 1902. There were some papers from the RCA Company when they were getting ready to sell the building in 1974 that indicated that."
But upon first-hand inspection, it seemed to Edison Papers Director Paul Israel and the other editors, that the oldest building, known as Building C—of brick and wood construction—was erected earlier than 1902. In terms of its layout and construction, it was very similar to the lab Edison built in West Orange in 1887. This opened the possibility that the oldest building from the RCA site, which had previously been part of the General Electric plant, was the old Lamp Works from 1882, where Edison had set up his laboratory for a brief period in the late 1880s.
But further inspection of an early drawing of the Edison Lamp Works in the 1880s and of a later photo of the site that appears in Francis Jehl's Menlo Park Reminiscences, when compared with maps and site plans from 1907, reveal that the building standing today at 420 South Fifth St. was not part of the original Peters Manufacturing site but stands on property that was just across Fifth St. from the Edison Lamp Works of the 1880s.
"What we do think," says Israel, "is that the construction of this building dates to the 1880s or to the 1890s at the latest." What is not known is precisely when and for what purpose the building was constructed and when it was incorporated into the complex that included the original Edison Lamp Works. So far, no records have come to light earlier than those in Berkenkamp's possession, which came from RCA in the 1970s, so that the building remains a bit of a mystery.
The word "Hello" and variations of it, have been around for a while. It was a common greeting in the early 1800's and was found in print in 1833, credited to Davy Crocket in "The Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee." When Alexander Graham Bell was first experimenting with the telephone, he used “Ahoy!” as a greeting. However, Edison had a different idea. In August 1877, he wrote Thomas B.A. David:
I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! Can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think?
(Edison later noted that “bells are a nuisance” which may have been the reason he was disinterested in having a bell on the phone.)
The word quickly caught on and telephone operators moved from using “What is wanted?” when picking up a ringing phone to “Hello?” Telephone operators became known as “hello girls” and Mark Twain referred to "hello girls" in his novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Wondering how “Hello” came to be on name badges? In September 1880, the first National Convention of Telephone Companies met and the organizations president addressed the audience: “The shortest speech that I could make to you and that would express a great deal to you, probably would be the one that is on all your badges -- 'Hello'!" The delegates burst into applause. The Hello! name tag went on to become a national institution. Today, we answer the phone "Hello!"
I am at work on an invention which will enable a man in Wall-street not only to telephone to a friend near Central Park, say, but to actually see that friend while speaking to him. …Of course, it is ridiculous to talk about seeing between New York and Paris; the rotundity of the earth, if nothing else, would render that impossible.
-Mr. Edison and the Electric Millennium
Constantinople, Sept 1, 1889.
From Brooklyn to Florida, from Germany to England, Edison was a global figure as we have highlighted in this newsletter. Here at the Edison Papers, we receive emails, inquiries and phone calls from Italy and Japan and even Iran! Edison transcends place and his universal presence lends us deep perspectives. Feel free to contact us!
The Edisonian, Vol. 11, Issue 1, October 2013
Did you know The Thomas Edison Papers is a cooperative project between Rutgers University and Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange? What was originally thought to be one million pages of Edison's lab notebooks and letters turned out to be around five million pages! During this next year we are participating in the National Park Service's "YEAR OF INNOVATION" series by highlighting and exploring documents available in our editions and offering suggested readings. Be sure to check back each month for a new Edison study banner!
What do students do at the Edison Papers? This year six undergraduate students experienced preparing art work, transcribing documents, researching records via Google books, scanning documents and processing new collections. Meanwhile graduate students continue to work with our editors on research, transcriptions and proofreading. Many thanks to Ray Cratch, Linzi Ryan, Sean Cureton, Randy Sparks, Patrick Lonegran, Mohammad Malik, Ben Resnick-Day, Ken Moss and Christina Chiknas. Your generous contributions helped support their work!
There is still time to help out!! Your donation is tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. Please consider making a donation today!
You can't go far in New Jersey without seeing a sign that says Washington Slept Here, but what about Thomas Edison Slept here?! Edison had a love of napping.
"You know when I am working on anything I keep at it night and day, sleeping a few hours with my clothes on." TAE, May 23, 1889
This robust map shows the important sites in New Jersey related to the life, naps and work of Thomas Edison. Take a look and let us know what you think!
Siemens AG, a global "integrated technology" company with headquarters in Munich, Germany, is a leader in industry, energy, health care, telecommunications, and urban infrastructure. It is also the world's largest producer of environmental technologies. And like so many of today's leading companies, Siemens, too, is connected to Thomas A. Edison.
Edison and Werner von Siemens often competed against each other in business but maintained a healthy mutual respect. When Edison visited Europe in 1889 for the Paris Exhibition, Siemens invited the Edison family to visit Germany.
Siemens was formed in 1847 as a partnership between the inventor Werner von Siemens and the mechanic Johann Georg Halske. Known initially as Siemens & Halske, the company was organized to manufacture, promote, and sell Siemens' improved telegraph receiver, which used a needle to point to the letters and therefore could dispense with Morse code. What began as a small workshop that chiefly made precision telegraph equipment soon expanded to meet the growing need for electrical equipment more generally, becoming the largest German company for the manufacture of meters and railroad signaling and safety systems.
Siemens & Halske dominated the electrical industry in Germany until 1883, when Emil Rathenau formed Deutsche Edison Gesellschaft für Elektricität (DEG) or the German Edison Co. for Applied Electricity. For four years, the two companies cooperated. DEG concentrated on the construction of power stations, while Siemens & Halske, which took out licenses for Edison's patents, manufactured the dynamos, motors, cables, and other equipment needed for the stations.
In 1887, when DEG was reorganized as Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) specifically to exploit Edison's electric light patents, Siemens & Halske invested $1 million marks in the new company. AEG, though, threatened the preeminent place of Siemens & Halske in the German electric industry, particularly after the new company began to expand, says historian Wilfried Feldenkirchen, into "nearly all branches of heavy-current engineering." By the end of the nineteenth century, Siemens & Halske and AEG had emerged as the two largest electrical companies in Germany.
Although they often found themselves competing, Edison and Werner von Siemens remained friends. In 1886, Edison asked Siemens to become the European representative for his telegraphic inventions [LB022107], an offer that Siemens politely declined [D8630ZBQ]. When Edison visited Europe in 1889 for the Paris Exhibition, Siemens invited him to visit Germany [D8905AFW]. Edison and his family stayed at the Siemens home in Charlottenburg and toured his manufacturing plants. Siemens also a hosted grand banquet in Charlottenberg, at which Edison was the guest of honor. He escorted Edison to Heidelberg to the Congress of German Naturalists, at which Edison was once again feted.
That same year, Siemens & Halske became a major financial backer of the newly-formed Edison General Electric Co., which brought about the merger of Edison's electric light interests in the United States. Edison General Electric would also hold the U.S. licenses for Siemens & Halske patents. In addition, Edison and Siemens agreed to share the results of their research and inform one another of innovations in manufacturing processes.
The Siemens company has gone through a number of mergers and reorganizations since the death of Werner von Siemens in 1892. Today the company operates on every continent except Antarctica, with some 370,000 employees worldwide. Its annual revenue in the last year topped 78 billion euros.
Volume 8 of the Thomas Edison Papers will include Edison’s purchase of land for a winter home and laboratory on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He sketched in characteristic detail how he wanted the grounds to look and wrote dozens of specific instructions for setting out a variety of decorative and fruit-bearing plants. Visitors to Fort Myers today can still see Edison’s vision in the landscaping of his property.
It was, according to newspaper accounts, a simple chance meeting in London. Col. George Gouraud, Thomas A. Edison's representative in England for the phonograph, and Dr. Frederick Furnivall, a co-creator of The Oxford English Dictionary, had each stopped separately at the house of the popular preacher and journalist Hugh R. Haweis. Dr. Furnivall took the opportunity to remind Gouraud that the day—12 December 1890—was the first anniversary of the death of their mutual friend, the poet Robert Browning. The lexicographer, who was also the president of the Robert Browning Society, was well aware that Gouraud had in his possession a wax cylinder recording of the poet and convinced the colonel that it would be, according to Haweis, "a fitting occasion to test the integrity of the cylinder."
The three men then proceeded to "Edison House," the London headquarters of the Edison Phonograph Co., where Gouraud retrieved the small wax cylinder from his safe. He then wired Rudolph Lehmann, another Browning friend, to join them. Once everyone was solemnly assembled, Gouraud put the cylinder on the phonograph and applied the needle.
Browning had made the recording on 7 April 1889. The occasion was a dinner party at Lehmann's house, and Gouraud had brought along the phonograph to make a recording of the poet, apparently as a keepsake for Edison. Gouraud does not seem to have informed Browning prior to the dinner that he intended to make a recording, so that the poet seems to have been entirely unprepared. As a Miss M. H. Fergusson operated the phonograph, Gouraud launched into a salutary introduction to Edison: "My dear Edison, my dear Edison, I have sent you by means of the phonograph living, interesting souvenirs of my brief residence in London. Nothing that I have sent you will be more welcome to you than the words which follow now—words that are none other than those of one of England's—I may say, of one of England and America's great descriptive poets—those of Robert Browning. Now listen to his voice."
Browning then asks, "Ready?" and begins to recite from his poem "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," making several miscues along the way:
I sprang to the saddle, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
"Speed!" echoed the wall to us galloping through;
"Speed!" echoed the—
Here Browning breaks off the recitation, saying "I forget," which reveals that he had been attempting to recite the poem from memory. After a brief pause, he attempts to pick up the next line. "Then the gates shut behind us, the lights sank to rest," he says, misremembering the line "Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest."
At this point, he gives up the attempt and addresses Edison directly: "I'm most terribly sorry but I can't remember my own verses; but one thing which I shall remember all my life is, the astonishing sensation produced upon me by your wonderful invention. Robert Browning."
Col. Gouraud then leads the crowd in cheering the poet: "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!"
In his report in The London Times, Haweis called the replaying of Browning's voice on the anniversary of his death "an extraordinary seance." It was also, he noted, "an event unique in the history of science and of strange sympathetic significance . . . The voice of the dead man was heard speaking. This is the first time that Robert Browning's or any other voice has been heard from beyond the grave."
THOMAS EDISON'S FORMULA
When all has been tried
And everything has failed
Test it once again
by Laura Bailey
President, Greenwich Books
Indeed, when Browning had said he would remember Edison's invention all his life, he very likely had no notion just how short a time that would be. In December 1889, he traveled to Venice to visit his son Pen. While there, he caught a cold, which soon developed into something more serious, and quietly died. His remains were brought back to England and interred in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
A few weeks after Gouraud played the Browning phonogram for his friends at Edison House, it was played again, this time at Haweis's house for a much larger group on the anniversary of Browning's funeral. This, too, was reported in the papers, along with an illustration of people listening.
Not everyone approved of these proceedings. The journal The Speaker, referring to the earlier playback, decried "Browning butchering his one verse . . . to make a holiday for Messrs. Haweis & Co.: the dead poet dragged back to Edison House to bear witness to one of the most foolish amenities of his life:—this were grievous, in all conscience." Browning's sister Sarianna also objected. Apparently paraphrasing Haweis's description of the first event, she referred to the larger gathering as an "indecent seance," at which "Poor Robert's dead voice" had been made "an interesting amusement." "God forgive them all," she continued. " I find it difficult."
It is not clear that the cylinder recording or any copy of it ever made its way to Edison's hands. It remained for more than a year in Gouraud's safe at Edison House in London and afterward seems to have come into the possession of Miss Fergusson. Today it is held by the BBC Archives.
Reference: John M. Picker, Victorian Soundscapes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
No finer engine of misinformation has ever exceeded the World Wide Web. It is here that thousands of false memes and rumors are planted daily and grow virally until they become, in the popular imagination, something like the truth. One need only to type the word "Edison" into any search engine to find a myriad of web sites, blogs, and assorted writings which declare that Edison, recognized in his own time as the greatest of inventors, stole all of his ideas and that the chief victim of his thievery was Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). There is even an online debate in progress that considers the proposition: "Nikola Tesla should be taught about in schools for his inventions instead of the people who stole his ideas like Marconi or Edison."
These rather scurrilous stories seem to have their root in a popular misunderstanding of how invention takes place. Inventions rarely spring fully formed from the mind of a single person. The inventor or discoverer proceeds from the information he or she has about what has already been accomplished in the field. In the case of Edison and Tesla, this fundamental misunderstanding and the exaggerated tales that spring from it have proven to be highly damaging. They defame Edison and rob Tesla of his rightful and well-deserved place in the history of the development of electric power. In his new book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, published by Princeton University Press, W. Bernard Carlson, takes pains to readjust our perception of Tesla, and in so doing presents a more realistic perspective on Tesla's relationship with Edison.
While not ignoring Tesla's recent rise to the status of a cult figure, Carlson concentrates his attention on Tesla's very real technological achievements and also sheds light on his failures and their causes. Tesla's career, says Carlson, a professor of science, technology, and society at the University of Virginia, provides the scholar with an unusual symmetry. "It allows us to study a big win and a big loss." The win was, of course, Tesla's alternating current motor and his idea of three-phase power, which sealed the victory of AC power over Edison's preference–direct current–in developing the modern electric power system. The big loss was in radio where Marconi's idea of transmission through the air bested Tesla's notion that wireless waves might better be transmitted through the ground.
Carlson demonstrates that the success or failure of an "invention" often comes down to which form of the invention has the most practical and economical application and is, therefore, able to gain financial and commercial support. Tesla's system of AC polyphase power succeeded because it was a good idea and because AC was cheaper and more efficient to transmit over long distances (at least in 1893) than DC. But it also succeeded because Tesla had the commercial and marketing support of George Westinghouse as well as the financial backing of deep-pocket Wall Street investors. Tesla's system of wireless power transmission, by contrast, eventually failed to gain traction, not only because it was not as practically useful as Marconi's idea, but also because Tesla lost the financial backing of Wall Street to further develop his system.
The relationship between Westinghouse and Tesla, which at times was contentious, is instructive. The Westinghouse Company owned the U.S. patents to Tesla's AC polyphase motors and used its control of this technology to land the contract to build and install the generators and motors at the Niagara Falls Power Plant in the 1890s. As Carlson explains, "the successful development of power at Niagara proved to be the turning point for Tesla's polyphase inventions." It also marked a turning point in the development of the modern world. "As a result of the success of the Niagara Falls power plant," Carlson writes, "American and European utilities shifted to polyphase AC; it now forms the standard current distributed in most parts of the world today." The triumph of Niagara also made Tesla a celebrity, establishing his "reputation as one of America's leading inventors."
But the success of polyphase AC at Niagara was not attributable to Tesla alone. Westinghouse played a key role. It was his company that held and protected Tesla's patents, and it was also Westinghouse's promotional acumen in securing the power contract for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago that sealed the deal in Niagara. Westinghouse used the World's Fair to demonstrate the practicability and efficiency of AC. Then, too, Westinghouse engineers, such as Charles Scott and Benjamin Lamme, made key improvements to Tesla's system–particularly Lamme's rotary converter–that made AC power more adaptable to consumer use. Tesla, though, did play a vital role in the final adoption of polyphase AC at Niagara. He wrote numerous letters to Edward Dean Adams, who organized the financing for the construction of the Niagara plant and headed the construction company, explaining why polyphase AC was technologically and commercially superior to other systems. In the end, Tesla's arguments, based on his deep technological knowledge, were convincing.
It is difficult to see how Edison can be blamed for stealing Tesla's ideas . In terms of his premier invention, the polyphase AC motor, Tesla scored a victory over Edison. Edison, whom Adams had, in fact, consulted first, had proposed installing a DC system. Far from stealing Tesla's key innovation—polyphase AC—Edison resisted it. He promoted his own DC system, in part perhaps, out of simple egotism. He had developed the direct current system, therefore he thought it was the better system. But Edison also seems to have had some sincere reservations about the safety of the AC system for consumers.
Where, then, does the idea that Edison stole inventions from Tesla originate? After all, Edison's most important innovations—the phonograph and the commercially successful incandescent light bulb—had come to fruition before Tesla had ever left his native Serbia or gained any public notice. Perhaps, the roots of the misunderstanding date back to the short period during which Tesla worked for Edison's companies. In the early 1880s, Tesla worked briefly for the Société Electrique Edison, Edison's company in Ivry, France. As Carlson attests, while "working at the Edison works in Ivry, Tesla acquired a great deal of practical engineering knowledge about dynamos and motors." "Up to this point," Carlson continues, "Tesla had done mostly mental engineering, visualizing in his mind how an AC motor might ideally work." It was at Ivry, too, that Tesla came to the notice of Edison's right-hand man, Charles Batchelor, who brought the young engineer to the United States in 1884.
Almost as soon as he arrived in New York, Tesla went to work at the Edison Machine Works at Goerck St. For his part, Edison was impressed with the younger man's work and thought him "a damned good man." But it seems the two men had very little direct intercourse. "Tesla only worked for about six months at the Edison Machine Works," says Carlson. "He was one of about twenty or so of what might be called junior field engineers. He met Edison maybe two times."
Still, Tesla was soon put in charge of developing an arc lighting system for the Edison Construction Department. He was able to develop a successful system, but for business reasons, Edison decided not to use it. Naturally, Tesla was disappointed and also miffed because Edison did not offer him a bonus for completing the system. As Carlson notes, Tesla quit "in disgust." He then patented his system independently and entered into a business arrangement with another company to market it. Edison and his associates were understandably upset about this since Tesla had developed the technology while he was an Edison employee. Generally speaking, Edison allowed his employees to patent their innovations under their own names, but the patents were then assigned to the Edison company, which was a common practice. " "This begs the question," says Carlson, "of who stole from whom."
While the contentious end to Tesla's career as an Edison engineer, along with the roles Tesla and Edison played in the competition over AC and DC, may have provided a small factual foundation for the myth of their titanic antagonism, Carlson thinks another source of popular misunderstanding about their relationship is the need many people have for historical figures to be cast in rather simple-minded dichotomies. One such dichotomy, says Carlson, is "the money grubbing businessman versus the dreamy visionary artist." Edison and Tesla, he notes, "have been shoe-horned into this dichotomy." Since Edison proved to be the better businessman, he naturally was set up unfavorably against Tesla. "It seems that we have to have a good guy and a bad guy," Carlson concludes. "There is in the popular mind a battle between commerce and art. Commerce is always the villain, and art is always the victim."
But the reality of innovation is that art and commerce must work together if any invention is to make a significant impact in the world. The research has to find funding and the invention needs to be manufactured, integrated into a larger commercial system, and marketed to consumers. The story, Carlson argues, is always more complex than the simple but popular dichotomies allow.
Then, too, there is the real story of Edison and Tesla's ongoing relationship. "Tesla and Edison learned to live with each other," says Carlson. He notes that "Edison sent Tesla an autographed picture when Tesla started to become well-known." The younger man thought well of the gesture and cherished this token of Edison's esteem. And later, when Tesla appeared before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers to promote his wireless scheme, Edison put in a rare appearance to hear what he had to say. "To show his appreciation," says Carlson, "Tesla got everyone to give the old man a standing ovation.'
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Born in Asia circa 1875, Topsy was smuggled into America and touted as one of the first elephants born in captivity. Eventually she was brought to Coney Island to haul heavy materials. She came to Coney Island having killed 3 of her previous trainers, one of whom tried to feed her a lit cigarette. After another unfortunate incident, Topsy was scheduled to die.
The execution was set for January 5, 1903 and “the executioners were very matter of fact electricians of the Edison Company.” Edison was not present. While an Edison motion picture camera crew did film the event it is very unlikely that Edison himself was involved in the filming selection. Edison did not run his motion picture business himself. Contrary to popular myth, the electrocution of Topsy had nothing to do with the "Battle of the currents" between AC and DC, which ended with the formation of GE in 1892. Read more...
Playful musings from Edison's Diary, July 12, 1885I think freckles on the skin are due to some salt of Iron, sunlight brings them out by reducing them from high to low state of oxidation. Perhaps with a powerful magnet applied for some time and then with the proper chemicals, these mudholes of beauty might be removed.
From Brooklyn to Florida, from Germany to England, Edison was a global figure as we have highlighted in this newsletter. Here at the Edison Papers, we receive emails, inquiries and phone calls from Italy and Japan and even Iran! Edison transcends place and his universal presence lends us deep perspectives.
The Edison Papers received an operating support grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, a division of the Department of State.
The Edisonian, Vol. 10, Issue 1, February 2013
Happy Birthday Tom!!
Exciting things are happening at the Edison Papers. We find a new insight nearly every day into one of America's most creative minds. Did you know Edison was a Shakespeare enthusiast? Keep reading to find out which was his favorite play. This newsletter starts a new series on Edison and poetry, beginning with "Did Edison Record Walt Whitman?"
We will continue to share pieces of our discoveries and hope you enjoy these oftentimes surprising findings.
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DTE Energy, with its headquarters in Detroit, Mich., is one of the largest diversified energy companies in the United States. The company's direct connection to Thomas A. Edison is revealed once the acronym at the beginning of the company's name is decoded. "DTE" was the stock symbol for Detroit Edison, which was founded as the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit on April 15, 1886. One hundred and ten years later Detroit Edison formed DTE Energy as an energy holding company of which it is now the largest subsidiary.
Detroit Edison was among the first Edison illuminating companies founded after Edison relinquished management of the central station business to the Edison Electric Light Company in late 1884. It was in April of that year that Edison Electric's field agent for Detroit, steam and electrical engineer John R. Markle, first approached Edison about setting up a Detroit company. Although it took him two years, Markle finally succeeded in bringing together a number of prominent Detroit businessmen to capitalize the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit, which then signed an agreement with the Edison Electric Light Co. to license Edison's patents for central station systems. (See a document relating to the founding of The Edison Illuminating Co. of Detroit.)
By 1892, Detroit Edison Illuminating had 550 customers, many of which were manufacturing concerns. The illuminating company provided electric power for its incandescent system, which was suitable for indoor use and limited outdoor use. Street lighting, by 1893, was the province of the Peninsular Electric Light Co., which had bought out the local Brush Co. and used the Westinghouse alternating current system, as opposed to the direct current system the Edison companies employed.
Among the employees of Detroit Edison Illuminating was Henry Ford, who joined the company in September 1891 and subsequently became its chief engineer. It was while representing Detroit Edison at the 1896 annual meeting of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies at Manhattan Beach in New York City that Ford talked to Edison about his ideas regarding a horseless vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Ford later recalled Edison saying "Young man, that's the thing!" Then after banging his fist on the table, Edison told him "You have it. Keep at it. . . . Your car is self-contained, carries its own power plant, no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it." Ford credited this statement of Edison's with inspiring him to continue his work on automobiles. By 1899 he had found investors for his new car company and left Detroit Edison Illuminating.
In January 1903, shareholders and directors of The Edison Illuminating Co. of Detroit, along with new investors from outside of the city, formed the Detroit Edison Co., which purchased a controlling interest in both the Illuminating Co. and the Peninsular Co. These two companies continued to operate independently as subsidiaries of Detroit Edison, distributing direct and alternating current respectively. Detroit Edison, in the meantime, began construction of a new power plant in the village of Delray on the Detroit River.
Detroit Edison was formed at just the right time. In 1903, Henry Ford expanded his operations with the founding of the Ford Motor Co., and the next year, Detroit Edison began to provide electricity to the new Cadillac Motor Car Co. Anticipating further growth of manufacturing in the automobile industry, Detroit Edison added a second Delray power plant in 1908 and a third in 1915. Today, Detroit Edison operates nine fossil-fuel generating plants and one nuclear power plant. Its total capacity is about 11,084 megawatts, which are delivered to customers over some 44,000 miles of power lines. DTE Energy, meanwhile, now has some $26 billion in assets and generates revenues of almost $9 billion per year.
No doubt Thomas Edison would have been interested to learn that skeletal remains recently found beneath a parking lot in the English city of Leicester are those of King Richard III, who was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. During his days as a telegraph operator in Cincinnati in the 1860s, Edison had grown fond of the theater, especially Shakespeare, and it is said that the hunchbacked, conniving, and ruthless Richard III was his favorite character.
According to an article that appeared in the technical journal The Operator in 1878, Edison so loved the character of Richard that in his young career as a telegrapher he sometimes took on the king's persona to amuse his fellow operators. As The Operator reported, "whenever his duties in the office permitted, he would arise from his instrument, hump his back, bow his legs and proceed with 'Now is the winter of our discontent.'"
That particular line became a favorite of Edison's and was later repeated in his laboratory notebooks. Edison and his assistants sometimes used the full quotation, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York," when testing telegraph, phonograph and telephone equipment.
In the early 1980s, the scholar Larry Don Griffin was conducting research for a paper on the quality of Walt Whitman's voice when he came across a cassette tape in the Midlands (Tex.) College Library that purported to include a recording of the poet reciting the first four lines of his poem "America":
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time.
Walt Whitman (1888)
The cassette, which also included recordings of James Whitcomb Riley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and William Carlos Williams, was commercially produced in 1974 and made generally available to libraries across the country. It had not elicited any real scholarly interest, however, until Griffin mentioned the Whitman snippet in an article in the Winter 1992 edition of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. Griffin's revelation soon excited a lively debate on whether the recording was authentic.
The question of authenticity immediately led to the question of provenance, which eventually led to Thomas Alva Edison. The first clue in the chain emerged from the cassette itself. The narrator who introduces the Whitman recording also introduces himself—Leon Pearson, the brother of the columnist Drew Pearson. He notes further that technicians at NBC had transferred the Whitman recording to tape from a wax cylinder.
The Library of Congress, which is a repository of the NBC archives, was able to identify the program— "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow"—originally broadcast in 1951. The wax cylinder in question, in the meantime, was purported to have come from the collection of a retired elevator operator and collector of such recordings, Roscoe Haley of New York, who died in 1982. Essentially, the chain of provenance ends there. The original wax cylinder, which Pearson had said was badly damaged, has not been found. It could simply have disintegrated, as some wax cylinders do if they are not cared for properly. Nor could researchers trace the cylinder to Haley's collection. The only evidence that this is where NBC got it is the broadcast itself, though it seems unlikely that Pearson would have fabricated such a detail.
It is at this point in the story, in 1992, that Edison comes into the picture. Archivists at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park at West Orange turned up two documents relating to a potential recording of Walt Whitman. Both are dated 14 Feb. 1889. The first is from Edison's private secretary Alfred O. Tate to the Boston-based journalist and Whitman admirer Sylvester Baxter. Tate writes that Edison himself had received Baxter's letter of 8 February "in regard to obtaining a phonographic record of the poet Whitman." He then notes further that Edison "is very much obliged for your suggestion, and will endeavor to carry it out."
Later the same day, Tate prepared a letter for Edison to Jesse H. Lippincott, the head of the North American Phonograph Co. Lippincott had recently purchased the Edison Phonograph Co. and represented Edison's phonograph interests. Tate attached Baxter's original letter and asked, on Edison's behalf, if Lippincott wished "to act upon this gentlemen's suggestion, and obtain a phonogram from the poet Whitman?"
Edison representatives during this period are known to have made a number of phonograms of prominent figures, including P. T. Barnum (1890), British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1888), Otto von Bismarck (1889), and Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (1889), as well as poets Robert Browning (1889) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1890). They were chiefly used for the purpose of demonstrating the phonograph. A recording of Whitman likely would have been used for the same purpose.
Lippincott's response, unfortunately, has not been found, and to date the tantalizing paper trail ends with Edison's letter. With no ironclad proof as to the recording's authenticity, scholars are left to draw their own conclusions, marshaling such arguments as they can. Those who doubt the recording is really Whitman, beginning with historian Allen Koenigsberg, have argued that since the wax cylinder can't be found, there is no proof that it is an Edison cylinder at all, so that even if Edison had followed up on his desire to record Whitman, the recording in hand—whatever it may be—might not have been made for Edison. Then, too, since no follow-up to the Edison correspondence has come to light, there is nothing to show that Edison made any recording of Whitman.
Koenigsberg encapsulated his findings in an article "Walt Whitman (1819–1892) Speaks?" which appeared in the Winter 1992 edition of Antique Phonograph Monthly. He notes that in the extensive contemporaneous documentation of Whitman's life from 1889-1892, no one has found any mention of a recording. This documentation includes not only Whitman's own correspondence but extensive letters and memoirs by Whitman's friends and frequent newspaper reports, as well as the nearly daily account of Whitman's activities in Camden, N.J., and Philadelphia that his friend Horace Traubel kept.
Koenigsberg and other critics have also pointed to the high quality of the recording as evidence that it is a fake. Analysts for both the Library of Congress and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives consulted on the case and agreed that the clarity of the recording was beyond what could be achieved in 1889 or 1890. Experts at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives also noted that there was much more bass response than one could expect from a century-old recording. Of course, the recording was not taken directly from the wax cylinder, but rather from the tape of a 1951 radio program that had presumably been rerecorded on cassette in 1974. Nonetheless, the sound analysis along with the documentation difficulties led Koenigsberg to conclude that "the supposed Whitman recording is a fascinating fake."
Those who believe the recording is authentic, beginning with Ed Folsom, the editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, have developed counter arguments. In his article "The Whitman Recording," which appeared in the Spring 1992 edition of the WWQR, Folsom reveals that the clarity of the recording might actually connect it to Edison. He quotes his own expert, Dave Beauvais of Magic Media Services, Amherst, Mass., who says that in making his cylinders, Edison used a vertical cut technique that made "near-perfect equalization" inherent in his process. Beauvais writes that the analysts at the Library of Congress are "certainly not the first ones to disbelieve their ears when stumbling upon vertical-cut artifacts."
William Grimes, who covered the 1992 controversy for the New York Times, notes that the voice heard on the recording has a marked New York accent in certain words and is consistent with Traubel's description of Whitman's "strong and resonant" tenor. Beauvais meanwhile concludes that the accent is "a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent." One does note a certain southern lilt mixed with a more Northern accent, a hybrid that perhaps derives from Whitman's New York upbringing and from the many years he spent in Washington, D.C., in the 1860s and 1870s, then still in many ways a Southern city. As Beauvais notes, "it strains credulity" to think that someone would create such an accent in order to perpetrate a fraud.
Further evidence in favor of the recording's authenticity comes from the poem itself. "America" is not one of Whitman's better-known works, and its obscurity, says Grimes, militates against the idea that it would be a "likely choice for anyone concocting a fake." The poem would have been a much more likely choice for Whitman himself to have made, though. "America" first appeared in the 11 Feb. 1888 edition of the New York Herald and was then reprinted in an annex to the 1888 edition of Leaves of Grass. For Whitman, then, the poem would have been new and therefore fresh in his consciousness in 1889 or 1890, the very time when Edison was contemplating making a phonogram.
Although no correspondence has as yet come to light beyond the two letters of February 1889, there is another interesting connection between Edison and Whitman in this same period. In May 1889, Edison filed a famous lawsuit against both his erstwhile best friend Ezra Gilliland and his own personal attorney John C. Tomlinson for having entered into a secret side deal with Lippincott in order to profit from the sale of Edison's phonograph rights. Edison felt betrayed and swindled after it became apparent to him that Gilliland and Tomlinson, who had acted as his agents in selling the Edison Phonograph Co., had acted to benefit themselves.
Edison hired the prominent New York attorney and free-thinker Robert G. Ingersoll to help with his lawsuit. Ingersoll also happened to be a good friend and warm admirer of the poet Walt Whitman. It was Ingersoll who gave the keynote address at Whitman's seventieth birthday celebration in Philadelphia on 31 May 1890 and later gave the poet's funeral oration in 1892. By the time he gave the birthday address, Ingersoll would have been well-acquainted with Edison's phonograph, having served as the inventor's attorney in the phonograph lawsuit the previous year. It is not inconceivable that Ingersoll arranged for Whitman to record a few lines on the occasion of his birthday.
It would not have been difficult for Ingersoll to make such an recording. Edison had spent a good deal of effort in 1887 and 1888 making his phonograph more "user-friendly." As Paul Israel has noted in his book Edison: A Life of Invention, the new phonograph was "designed for use by a single person working in the quiet of an office." It was also highly portable, so that Ingersoll himself or anyone else might have brought along a phonograph and recorded Whitman at his birthday celebration or at any time after 1888.
Harvesting Gold: Thomas Edison's Experiment to Re-Invent American Money
by David L. Hammes
In the immediate wake of World War I, the United States economy suffered through a combination of high unemployment, high inflation, and significant weakness in the agricultural sector of the economy. Although, as David L. Hammes explains in his new book Harvesting Gold: Thomas Edison's Experiment to Re-Invent American Money, the 1920s are fabled for prosperity, the U.S. economy really didn't stabilize and begin to roar until about 1923. In fact, the agricultural sector never did stabilize, leaving significant poverty in farm districts.
The difficulties of the postwar economic recovery led Thomas A. Edison in 1921-1922 to contemplate the re-invention of the American monetary system. Hammes's book, published last year by Richard Mahler Publications, explores the history of Edison's effort to formulate a new monetary plan and to implement it. Essentially, the inventor hoped to wean the nation from the gold standard and to issue federal reserve notes backed by 36 chiefly agricultural commodities.
Edison's scheme was not adopted at the time. In part, it fell victim to an economy that began to recover without any significant tinkering with the monetary system. Then, too, economists then (and now, for that matter) were less than enthusiastic, considering the inventor's plan a bit impractical and subject to political manipulation. But then, as Hammes notes, the current 2013 system—which has jettisoned the gold standard and essentially allows major banks to manipulate the value of currency at will—might be subject to a similar charge.
What the inventor did understand, says Hammes, was that farmers and producers of other commodities could always be cheated out of some of the value of their products so long as the gold standard remained in place and rampant speculation was allowed in the commodities markets. Edison foresaw that the gold standard would have to go, which it did finally during the Nixon administration, and noted that unregulated speculation destabilized the economy—something with which the U.S. government has yet to come to grips.
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For years, rumors circulated that Edison was born in Mexico. The rumor apparently grew out of a 1909 newspaper article that claimed Edison's real name was Tomas Alva y Dison and that he was born in Zacatecas, Mexico. Edison's ancestors were Dutch. His family came to New York before the American Revolution and his branch of the family were loyalists who fled to Nova Scotia after the war. Later they moved to the province of Ontario and Edison's father fled a rebellion there to the United States. Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, where he was given the middle name Alva in honor of a ship captain who was a family friend.