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Reading 1: The Creation of the Research and Development Laboratory
Thomas Edison was a man of broad and wide-ranging interests. During his lifetime, he developed inventions for consumers, businesses, and industries in fields ranging from sound reproduction to iron ore mining. Edison never limited his curiosity or his work. Anything was grist for his mill. The one restriction he put upon his work was that a project had to have a practical commercial application. Edison said, "I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing" (Josephson, 314). That meant his inventions had to have a market, so that the profits could fund new inventions.
Edison had previously built laboratories in Newark and in Menlo Park, New Jersey--indeed, he had already won the nickname of the "wizard of Menlo Park"--when he moved to West Orange, in 1886. The following year Edison built a new laboratory complex on what he believed would be a perfect site. The area was largely undeveloped, the land was cheap, and it was less than a mile away from the mansion he had purchased for his second wife. The site was also close to New York City where the bankers and investors who helped finance his work were located. Well established rail and ferry services existed near the Hudson River that could put Edison in their offices within an hour.
When he began to build his new laboratory complex, Edison's goal was to have on hand everything needed to quickly and cheaply perfect inventions and ready them for mass production. All the necessary tools, machines, materials, and skilled personnel would be housed within the complex. Edison originally planned to have the entire facility in one 250-foot long, three-story building. Even before this huge facility was completed, however, Edison realized it would not be big enough. He then built four one-story buildings set at right angles to the main building. The original five buildings of the laboratory complex opened for operation in late 1887. More buildings, including factory buildings for manufacturing his inventions, were added later as they were needed.
To assist him in his invention work, Edison employed a large and diverse staff of more than 200 machinists, scientists, craftsmen, and laborers at peak production. This staff was divided by Edison into as many as 10 to 20 small teams, each working simultaneously for as long as necessary to turn an idea into a perfected finished prototype or model. Martin V. Melosi in Thomas A. Edison and the Modernization of America noted that "It was not unusual for Edison to give his staff the general outline of what he wanted, and then turn them loose to find the best method of achieving the goal" (103). Edison himself would move from team to team advising and cajoling efforts as necessary. When a particular invention was perfected, Edison quickly patented the device. With such extensive facilities and his large staff, Edison was able to turn out new products on an unprecedented scale and with unprecedented speed. From the West Orange complex came improved phonographs, a perfected alkaline storage battery, the movie camera, and the fluoroscope (a diagnostic tool widely used before X-rays were perfected).
Long experience as an inventor had taught Edison that money was made not from selling patent rights or from royalties, but from the direct sale of the products to the public. In 1888 Edison began building factories next to his laboratory complex to manufacture the finished products based on his inventions. These factories produced all the necessary parts for Edison inventions. In turn, most of the machinery used in the factory to manufacture the inventions was designed and machined in the laboratory complex. The finished products were distributed and sold around the country and abroad.
Profits from the sale of these Edison products were used to fund further research, to improve existing Edison inventions, and to allow Edison and his research staff to develop new ideas for inventions. The proximity of the factories to the laboratory complex helped speed up the invention process by making it possible to quickly put new inventions or improvements on the market. Technological innovation could move forward at an unprecedented rate.
This process is most clearly shown by Edison's work on the phonograph. He was the original inventor of the product, which first used foil cylinders to record sound. Shortly after he opened his new laboratory, Edison heard that the rival inventors had been awarded patents for improvements to the machine. Rather than suing these rivals for infringement of his original patent, Edison set out to develop his own "perfected" phonograph. For nearly two years, he and his team dedicated themselves to that goal. Edison's original patent used a tinfoil sheet for recording sound, but in his patent application he had listed a number of materials that could be used for records--all kinds of waxed substances among them. He tried out many such substances and finally settled on a hollow cylinder with walls about a quarter of an inch thick made from a wax compound which allowed for closer grooving. He replaced the old recording needle with a sapphire stylus and created a "floating weight" to hold the stylus in place. His first factories in West Orange were built to mass produce that product. The phonographs were then sold throughout the country and the world. The profits were used by Edison to fund further work on improving the phonograph--developing plastic cylinders rather than wax cylinders, for example, and also to create new inventions. For over 40 years, such innovations developed in the laboratory were quickly utilized in the factories. Edison always felt that an invention could be improved, and he was never satisfied until he had done that.
The diversity of Edison's inventive interests and industries helped the financial stability of his complex. By working on many projects simultaneously, the laboratory's future was not dependent on the success of one idea. Further, the profits from older, successful inventions and companies provided the needed financial support for Edison's new ideas and companies. For example, during the long, difficult, and very expensive struggle to develop the alkaline storage battery, Edison's already successful phonograph business provided the necessary financial support.
By uniting the resources of the laboratories and factories, Edison was able to accomplish far more than would have otherwise been possible. Edison and other inventors had previously been constrained by the small size of both their laboratories and their financial resources. By creating a large, diverse laboratory and factory complex, Edison could undertake more inventive projects with greater resources, both technological and financial, than had ever been possible before.
Edison worked at this laboratory complex for 44 years. With his modern research and development laboratory, Edison had the space, tools, and flexibility to work on any promising new idea that came to mind. With Edison's genius, the impossible became possible.
1. What was Edison's one requirement of an invention? Why was this important?
2. What was Edison's objective in building a new laboratory? Was he successful? Support your answer.
3. Why was the laboratory staff important?
4. Why did Edison manufacture his inventions himself when it would have been easier to sell the rights to the inventions?
5. How did the laboratory and factory facilities support each other?
6. How did the sale of phonographs help Edison?
7. Why was it helpful for Edison to develop diverse products?
Reading 1 was compiled from Anne Booth, "Edison National Historic Site" (Essex County, New Jersey) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1978; materials from the Edison National Historic Site Archives; Kim Keister, "Genius at Work," Historic Preservation (January 1994); and Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,  1992).