Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Travels with Dad: Edison Museum

The gentleman to your left, his likeness forever cast in stainless steel, is Thomas Alva Edison. The man was an inventor and came up with patents for 65 years straight; 1,093 in all. The tree you see in the background is a banyan tree, a gift from Harvey Firestone, planted there in 1925 and flourishing 88 years later.

Edison is most well-known for inventing the light bulb but he created oh, so much more. There is a fairly well-researched Wikipedia entry here, for those who want to read more. Some of Edison's inventions my father and I witnessed today were the coffeemaker, curling iron, toaster, phonographs (the grandfather of the music CD, kids), mimeograph (the ancestor of the copy machine most well known by the brand name Xerox), cement, baby furniture, rubber from plants, batteries, and a high-quality iron ore.

And those are just the ones I can remember.

Since both Dad and I grew up in Michigan, we felt an affinity for Edison, as he grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. He fell into the telegraphy business, but his entrepreneurial spirit had blossomed before that. His first patent was for an electric voting machine, to help the legislators in Congress cast votes more quickly and easily. This was, of course, the *last* thing they wanted to do and so it was a commercial failure. One historian on film at the museum suggested that was Edison's best legacy: that failure is often a prerequisite for success; picking yourself up and trying again.

The first big hit of Edison's was the phonograph. The thought that sounds could be captured on metal (he used tin foil at first) and then replayed was from so far out in leftfield at the time that Edison was dubbed, "The Wizard of Menlo Park" (his lab was in Menlo Park, New Jersey). The phonograph to the right was built in 1904 and we heard a demonstration where it still sounded pretty dang good. The tinfoil - which tore far too easily - was eventually replaced by a hard waxy substance called "blue amberol," from which the cylinder here is made. The motor ran off a spring that you hand-cranked with the device seen on the right. There was no volume control, so to soften the sound coming out of the horn, people would stuff a bit of cotton - or a wadded up sock - down the horn to quiet it (this was also demonstrated for us). And that, gentle reader, is where the expression, "stuff a sock in it" originated.

 Eventually Edison switched to the 12-inch plastic round disc we know as the "Long-Playing Album" (or LP), because his main competitor - Victrola - had started using them. The advantage to the disc was that you could flip it over and record a second song on the back. The technology was improved until you could get up to 40 minutes of music on each side, instead of 3-4 minutes.

Ultimately, that's what Edison really became good at doing - improving his own inventions. As he grew older, the demands of his fame, and his family (which his second wife sensibly insisted he attend upon) took away much of his time from inventing and the world's technology was changing around him so fast that he couldn't keep up and lacked the energy to try. So even though he built a laboratory that was 10 times larger than his original, he never really struck out onto new ground.

Interestingly, Edison was nearly deaf. He had to rely on the ears of others to fine-tune his recording devices. Once, he had a phonograph placed into this wood frame, where he would actually bite the corner (see the photo) and feel the vibrations of the music to make sure they were being reproduced.

By the way, if these pictures aren't crystal clear, chalk it up to the fact I'm using my cell phone. It's a pretty good camera (Samsung Galaxy S-II), but not as good as, say, a *real* digital camera, like the one my father uses.

Speaking of cameras - oh, wasn't that smooth? - Edison began experimenting with motion pictures in 1888. So yeah, he sort of invented Hollywood, too.

To accommodate his new invention, he built the world's first soundstage and movie studio - in West Orange, New Jersey. It was built on a circular railroad track and both sides of the roof opened so the interior could be flooded with natural sunlight.

 Edison's work ethic was incredible. He thought himself no higher than his workers - here you see him punching the clock, like everyone else - and on this particular day, if you could see the plaque below the photo ... it was his 74th birthday.


His last project in life started in 1929. Edison, Harvey Firestone, and Henry Ford  realized that the country imported nearly all of its rubber, a critical component to all of their businesses (Edison used rubber in the manufacture of battery cases). And realizing that the rubber supply could be cut off and was out of their control, they began searching for ways to make rubber right here in the United States. The three of them created the Edison Botanical Research Laboratory, each contributing $25,000 in start-up costs. Edison went to work testing different plants for a potential rubber source. He tested more than 17,000 varieties, finally settling on the goldenrod weed as the best potential source. At the time, it grew to about six feet, and approximately 4% of the leaf would yield rubber.

Through cross-breeding and hybrid pollination, Edison created a variety of goldenrod that grew to 12 feet, and 10% of the leaf would yield rubber. In 1930, Congress rewarded him by naming this new hybrid variety after him, calling it the Solidago edisoniana, but before it could move to the mass-production process, DuPont discovered a way to make artificial rubber, calling it neoprene. The laboratory remained in operation until 1937, six years after his death.

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