Essaying Edison - Details

Competing Interests 1888-1889

The Papers of Thomas A. Edison: Competing Interests 1888-1889

The big new laboratory that Edison opened in West Orange, N.J., late in 1887 led to one of his most important inventions: the professional research director. The lab's unmatched size, equipment, supplies, and skilled staff allowed Edison to create in new ways. No longer did he have to take the lead on each problem: he could assign it to a talented man or team of men (always men). Over the next few years, Edison adapted his long habits; still working eighteen (or more) hours in a day, he learned to direct others' work: planning, watching, quizzing, instructing, summarizing. Still the inventor working at a bench, now he could also multiply his personal efforts, pushing a variety of difficult projects at more or less the same time. Work could even go on without him, as it did when he spent almost two months abroad visiting the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. The new role of research director could not be patented, and it added little to Edison's glittering fame at the time. But he proved the concept of industrial research that, within his lifetime, would be adopted by the likes of General Electric, Bell Telephone, and DuPont to transform the United States in the 20th century.

The new laboratory and the role he created for himself in it were, for Edison, simply tools for doing what he had always done and loved to do: invent and make things. With these tools, he pushed creative and manufacturing projects on a broader scale than ever: a talking doll, the phonograph (redesigned twice), specialized waxy compounds for recording cylinders, flexible cylinders to go in the mail, iron-ore separators, gold-ore separators, motion-picture cameras and playback devices, and more efficient lamps and electrical equipment. Edison was building new factories (as he had done for electrical equipment) to manufacture products developed by the laboratory, such as waxes, batteries, and phonographs. And he nurtured grander plans for manufacturing the scores of new products he had in mind at any time.

New ways of creating—and the relentless need of funds—strained old ties. He asserted his primacy in the phonograph business, shrugging off the claims of some early financial backers. He had a bitter falling-out with his closest friend and hand-picked partner in the phonograph. Other old friends and associates loosened their own orbits around the Edison star as he, formerly generous to a fault, vowed to "act the big hog myself and eat all of my own swill." Determined to safeguard the "swill" against poaching rivals, he turned the "War of the Currents" between his established direct current (DC) electrical system and the up-and-coming alternating current (AC) system into a corrosive feud with businessman-inventor George Westinghouse. A new holding company, Edison General Electric Co. (a direct forerunner of today's General Electric), consolidated Edison's DC lighting companies and manufacturing shops. Amid these professional stresses, his wife gave birth to her first child (his fourth), worrying the while about her efficacy as mother and wife.

These events—and many more—make up Competing Interests (1888–1889), to be published this spring as the ninth installment of the Edison Papers book edition. The volume documents these eventful years in 331 carefully selected and richly annotated letters, notebook entries, memoranda, patent applications, and other items (including detailed photographs)—with more than 700 hand drawings and dozens of illustrations.

Competing Interests also marks an exciting transition for the Edison Papers. After publishing the first eight volumes as expensive hardcover books, our longtime publishing partner, Johns Hopkins University Press, will make this one available digitally (for free) through the open-access portion of Project Muse, its highly respected online repository of books and journals. Not only that, but earlier (and subsequent) volumes will also be become freely available on Project Muse (https://muse.jhu.edu/). We are deeply grateful to Johns Hopkins Press for enabling anyone with internet access to enter the world of Edison through his annotated papers.