Thomas Edison and Military Preparedness

Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The role of science and invention in defeating Germany is promoted in this World War I political cartoon by Rollin Kirby. A framed copy of this cartoon, signed by the artist, hangs today in the library of Edison’s West Orange laboratory.
The role of science and invention in defeating Germany is promoted in this World War I political cartoon by Rollin Kirby. A framed copy of this cartoon, signed by the artist, hangs today in the library of Edison’s West Orange laboratory.

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Thomas Edison was an outspoken advocate of military and industrial preparedness during World War I. Recognizing that new technologies – including the submarine, machine gun and airplane – were rapidly changing warfare, Edison told the New York Times in October 1915, “The soldier of the future will not be a sabre-bearing, blood thirsty savage. He will be a machinist.” Future military conflicts, he believed, would be wars ‘in which machines, not soldiers, fight.” In another interview with the Times several weeks later, Edison remarked, “Science is going to make war a terrible thing – too terrible to contemplate. Pretty soon we can be mowing men down by the thousands or even millions almost by pressing a button.”
If recent inventions like the submarine and airplane raised security challenges for the U.S., Edison believed that technology combined with industrial organization offered solutions. In May 1915 he outlined a preparedness plan based on the idea that military training and equipment procurement should be organized along industrial lines. He called for the stockpiling of airplanes, battleships and munitions and for the recruitment of a large army of reservists trained by private industry. To develop new inventions quickly, he proposed the creation of military research laboratories.
Thomas Edison marches with the Naval Consulting Board in a New York City Preparedness Parade, May 13, 1916
Thomas Edison marches with the Naval Consulting Board in a New York City Preparedness Parade, May 13, 1916

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Edison’s views on military preparedness attracted the attention of U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels. In July 1915 Daniels asked Edison to head an advisory board to evaluate technical ideas submitted to the navy by the public. Edison agreed, provided that he would not have to handle administrative matters and would be free to pursue his own war-related research.
Edison with Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels aboard the battleship U.S.S. New York at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, October 12, 1914.
Edison with Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels aboard the battleship U.S.S. New York at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, October 12, 1914.

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Eleven technical and scientific societies, including the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Mining Engineers, the American Aeronautical Society, and the American Institute of Electric Engineers, selected the board members. These societies named several prominent engineers and inventors, including General Electric research director Willis R. Whitney; Leo H. Baekeland, a chemist who invented an early plastic called Bakelite; gyroscope inventor Elmer Sperry; and Frank J. Sprague, an electric railroad inventor who had worked for Edison in the 1880s.
Edison with the Naval Consulting Board on the east steps of the State, War and Navy Building, October 7, 1915. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels stands to Edison’s left. Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt is in the front row, far left.
Edison with the Naval Consulting Board on the east steps of the State, War and Navy Building, October 7, 1915. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels stands to Edison’s left. Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt is in the front row, far left.

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At its first meeting on October 7, 1915 the Naval Consulting Board quickly adopted operating rules and created fifteen subcommittees organized by subject, including submarines, ordnance and explosives, mines and torpedoes and ship construction. These subcommittees evaluated invention proposals submitted by the public. The board received approximately 11,000 suggestions, most dealing with the submarine. Of these submissions, only 110 were referred to one of the subcommittees for evaluation, while only one – the Ruggles Orientator – was produced during the war. The orientator, a simulated pilot’s seat mounted on gimbals, allowed instructors to simulate aircraft motion for pilot trainees.

In February 1917, the Naval Consulting Board created a Special Problems Committee to address the issue of protecting ships from surface attack. This committee received thousands of suggestions from the public for shields and nets to protect surface vessels from submarines. Other ideas for camouflage and smoke reduction (to reduce the visibility of ships) were also tested. None of these ideas, however, were practical.

The technical research conducted by individual board members was more consequential. Elmer Sperry developed a number of improvements for airplanes and submarines, including a device to detect hydrogen in submarines, improved steel airplane propellers, and remote-control devices for aerial bombs. Hudson Maxim invented improved contact mines and torpedo fuel. Peter Cooper Hewitt experimented on helicopters, while Frank Sprague developed depth charges, underwater fuses, and armor-piercing shells.

Edison at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1915
Edison at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1915

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Thomas Edison began researching war-related problems in January 1917. He outfitted a special laboratory near his West Orange lab to test equipment for locating gun positions by sound. In the spring of 1917 he continued these experiments at the Sandy Hook, New Jersey naval station. Between August and October, he spent six weeks on Long Island Sound, experimenting on the USS Sachem, a 186-foot private yacht that the navy had acquired for Edison’s research.

Most of Edison’s research in 1917 focused on protecting surface ships from submarine attack. He studied camouflage methods and recommended that cargo ships burn anthracite coal, which would lessen smoke emissions. He also investigated ways to quickly turn ships under torpedo attack and equipped the Sachem with electrical instruments to detect submarines by sight, sound and magnetic field.
U.S.S. Sachem, a converted yacht used by Edison in 1917 for naval research
U.S.S. Sachem, a converted yacht used by Edison in 1917 for naval research

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Edison with the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Sachem, 1917
Edison with the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Sachem, 1917

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Smoke screen experiments conducted Edison on the Long Island Sound, August 1917
Smoke screen experiments conducted by Edison on the Long Island Sound, August 1917

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Smoke screen experiments conducted by Edison on the Long Island Sound, August 1917
Smoke screen experiments conducted by Edison on the Long Island Sound, August 1917

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Edison kept detailed notes of his experiments while aboard the Sachem in 1917. These notes record his smoke screen and camouflage tests.
Edison kept detailed notes of his experiments while aboard the Sachem in 1917. These notes record his smoke screen and camouflage tests.

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In the fall of 1917 Edison moved his war research to Washington, D.C. From October 1917 to January 1918 he used an office in the State, War and Navy Building near the White House (now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) to collect data on Allied shipping losses. At the conclusion of this research, Edison discovered that the U.S. and its Allies were using prewar shipping routes, which made it easier for enemy submarines to target ships, and that many ships were passing through danger zones during daylight. Edison recommended that the Allies change their shipping schedules to avoid German submarines.

Edison encouraged the Navy to establish a permanent research laboratory. Modelled after his own West Orange research facility, Edison’s proposal called for a well-equipped laboratory capable of producing new invention rapidly. As Edison told the New York Times, “The laboratory should be of complete equipment to enable working models to be made and tested . . . there should be a pattern shop, foundries for brass, cast iron and steel, and machine shops for large and small work.”

In 1916 Congress appropriated $1 million for the construction of a naval research lab, which would be built near the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Because of the war, construction did not begin until 1920. When the Naval Research Laboratory finally opened in 1923, its first projects focused radio and sound detection research.

The Naval Research Laboratory was the federal government’s first permanent facility devoted to producing new technologies. Following the lab’s opening in 1923, the U.S. government assumed a greater role in supporting technological research. A number of significant 20th century innovations, including radar, jet engines, atomic energy, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the Internet were the result of this federal support. This is Thomas Edison’s legacy during World War I. By advocating industrial preparedness and the Naval Research Laboratory, he encouraged the view that technical research and innovation were vital to national security.