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.