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!
Students and the Edison Papers
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!
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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!
Connect to Edison: Siemens AG
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.
Featured Document: T. A. Edison Memo Book, 1886
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.
Edison and Poetry: A Voice from Beyond the Grave: The Robert Browning Phonogram
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).
Featured Book: TESLA: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
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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Myth Buster: Did Edison really electrocute an elephant?
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...
In Edison's Words...
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.