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Beehives of Invention
Edison and His Laboratories
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Folk Hero

He hated the radio; he called it a "lemon." He had even less use for the electronic phonograph. In 1925 he sounded the death knell for the Edison name in the home phonograph industry by saying he would stick with his mechanical device. After much stubborn hesitation, his company brought out an electronic phonograph in 1928. But it was too late. In 1929 the Edison company stopped manufacturing entertainment phonographs and records. A last-minute venture into the mushrooming radio field failed soon afterwards.

Thomas Alva Edison belonged to the 19th century. It was there, in the beginnings of America's love affair with technology, that the dynamic and sharp-tongued "country boy" from Milan, Ohio, put his extraordinary genius to work and achieved national fame. In that age before the horseless carriage and wireless Thomas Edison made his remarkable contribution to the quality of life in America and became a folk hero, much like an Horatio Alger character.

Edison's reputation stayed with him in the early 20th century, but his pace of achievements slackened. At his laboratory in West Orange, N.J., in the 1900's he did not produce as many important inventions as he had there and at his Menlo Park, N.J., lab in the late 1800's. Edison's projects and quests became expensive, costing millions and resulting in few rewards and profits. His forays into many fields were continuing evidence of a Da Vinci-like breadth of mind, but they were not financially successful, or, one suspects, personally satisfying. Besides some financial success with a battery, it was profits from the phonograph and motion picture innovations, both fruits of his work in the 19th century, that kept Edison solvent in those later years.

His last major effort was devoted to finding a domestic source of rubber. When the British acted in 1924 to restrict the supply of Malayan raw rubber, Edison's camping caravan partners, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, pleaded with him to find a practical domestic source. A long-term rubber shortage might mean disaster for both tycoons of the motorcar world. Their plea was a godsend (perhaps not in Edisonian theology) to a bored and somewhat jaded inventor. Here was a problem he could tackle with the exhaustive empirical method that had made him the "Wizard of Menlo Park." To find the right tree or plant was going to be "search, try, and discard" all the way. This was not a task for theorists and mathematicians whom Edison scorned; this was a task which fit, to some degree, the Edison definition of genius as "ninety-nine per cent perspiration and one percent inspiration." This was a task which required that rare Edison combination of imagination, brilliance, and dogged determination exemplified in his successful quest for a practical incandescent lamp in 1879. The man of practical physics and electrical engineering became a botanist almost overnight. Suddenly everything was rubber—at home and at the lab. The Old Man was happy.

A new company, the Edison Botanic Research Corporation, was formed, and, with grants of $93,500 each from Firestone and Ford, was on its way by the fall of 1927. Edison began this adventure at his Fort Myers, Fla., home and lab, where he customarily spent some of the winter. At both his Florida and New Jersey labs he put a new staff of botanists and chemists to work. He sent agents to every corner of the tropical and temperate zones to look for vines, bushes, trees, shrubs, and weeds that might hold latex juices.

After two years Edison could report that he had tested more than 14,000 different plants of which about 600 contained latex to some degree. He believed that goldenrod was the most promising and narrowed his focus to that weed of countless road sides, abandoned lots, and rural fields across America. Edison felt that he was on the track of finding a source of domestic rubber that was "sowable and mowable." He took the best varieties and began crossbreeding. In the end he developed a goldenrod variety about 14 feet tall and yielding 12 percent latex. His goal was to produce 100 to 150 pounds of rubber per acre of goldenrod.

Ford, Jehl, Edison
As Henry Ford and Francis Jehl look on, Edison reenacts the making of the first successful incandescent lamp. The event took place in Dearborn, Mich., on October 21, 1929, the 50th anniversary of the lamp and the dedication of Edison's reconstructed Menlo Park laboratory.

Little did he realize that his project was futile. He made rubber from goldenrod, and Firestone even made four tires out of it, but it was expensive rubber and of inferior quality. And meanwhile, German scientists were successfully producing a synthetic rubber from coal tars.

If anyone, Ford and Firestone included, had any suspicions that Edison's experiments would not succeed, they didn't tell him. Edison probably would not have listened anyway.

Thomas A. Edison was dying. He had been suffering for years from diabetes, Bright's disease, and a gastric ulcer. Uremia almost took him in 1929, when he was 82. But, as always, he tried to work. When in bed, his assistants kept him informed of progress in the rubber experiments.

In the summer of 1931 his afflictions brought him near death. He rallied for a short time, but he suffered a relapse and died on October 18.

Edison was gone and with him an epoch in American science and technology. He had been truly a "legend in his time." Medals, busts, and ribbons, Edison claimed bushels of them, including one from Congress. Henry Ford paid him perhaps the greatest tribute by reconstructing, in Dearborn, Mich., Edison's old Menlo Park lab with virtually all the paraphernalia—bulbs, dynamos, apparatus, machinery, materials, buildings—of his early years as an inventor.

What kind of man was this hero of several generations of Americans? He was not the saintly figure of the many bronze busts and news articles of his day. And yet he was much more than "just a country boy" full of folksy sayings and homilies and the victim of urbane and unprincipled robber barons, the way he liked to picture himself: He survived and often triumphed in the patent quarrels, litigation, and vicious infighting that were characteristic of those survival-of-the-fittest years.

He had an uncanny knack for drama. P. T. Barnum could have learned something from Edison. The Old Man was a born promoter as well as creative genius, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was an attractive personality to much of America. We was a small town boy who had made good, and the folks of the day loved to see their ways of practicality and down-to-earth grit put the professors and foreigners to shame. Self education and the American backwater environment were, as in Abraham Lincoln's life, superbly vindicated in Edison. Through the newspapers, he prepared the people for greater things to come. And if the bluster and ballyhoo did not square with results and performance, as with his target date for a workable lighting-distribution system, the people did not seem to mind.

The men who labored with and for this man of fantastic drive were smitten with the drama of science. They had to be. With what Edison paid, something else must have sustained them working twice as long each day as their deodorized, white-coated, 40-hour-a-week counterparts of the 1970's. They saw a side of the Old Man that the adoring public rarely viewed—profane, grossly unkempt, and with an uncertain temper. But there was a charisma about the man that inspired loyalty and sacrifice.

Science and technology became America's new frontier during the most creative and dynamic years of Edison's life. It was no coincidence.

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