“The American journey has not ended. America is never accomplished, America is always still to build…. West is a country in the mind, and so eternal.”
AMERICAN civilization, from its beginnings, had combined a dogmatic confidence in the future with a naïve puzzlement over what the future might bring. The Puritans believed in a Divine Providence who would keep the world in order, and their belief was all the deeper because they firmly doubted that they really could know what Providence had planned. When later Americans affirmed the nation’s Destiny, even when they sometimes called it “manifest,” their faith once again was firmer because the reach of the American destiny could never be sharply defined.
Twentieth-century America saw a future fuller of novelty than any nation’s future had ever seemed before. Yet the novelty itself was becoming a planned product, predictable and familiar.
“Make it new.”
“A fever of newness has been everywhere confused with the spirit of progress.”
“One of the fundamental purposes of research is to foster a healthy dissatisfaction.”
CHARLES F. KETTERING AND ALLAN ORTH
AMERICANS ORGANIZED in search of novelty, they democratized novelty, until they would finally make it commonplace. All the resources which had been used to lay tracks across the continent, to develop an American System of Manufacturing in its several versions, now went into American Systems of Inventing. In modern America everything became an incentive for invention.
The Social Inventor, the Inventor-for-the-Market, saw a need and tried to satisfy it. And then there were Communities of Inventors, whose incentive was not the market but the autonomous needs of invention itself. They lived by the internal logic of novelty. For them each new thing required another. Finding the use or the market was somebody else’s problem. Working in islands freed from everyday necessities, they had the power to require society to recast its needs to make their discoveries useful. They delighted in making silk purses out of sows’ ears, for they were free to think of the neglected obvious and the feasible that still seemed outlandish.
Then the momentum of production itself became an unexpected force toward innovation. The American System of Manufacturing, the production of millions of similar objects, the democratized consumption of costly novelties, produced a need for slightly dissimilar objects. This path to innovation, the Path of the Annual Model, came not from the needs of society, nor from innovation-for-its-own-sake, but from the need to keep people buying. Next year’s model had to be just different enough. Flow technology, an assembly-line society, implied in itself the need, with a scheduled regularity, to change, however slightly, the product that was flowing. But how different was different enough?
IN THE SPRING of 1876 the young Thomas A. Edison, not yet thirty years old, moved fifteen of his workers to the isolated village of Menlo Park, New Jersey. To his 30 feet by 100 feet white clapboard building, horse-drawn trucks brought rolls of wire, boxes of chemicals, books, a brown steam engine, and a gasoline converter to supply gaslight. From this miscellany it was impossible to guess what Edison aimed to concoct, for he had decided to go into the “invention business.”
“Discovery is not invention,” said Edison, “and I dislike to see the two words confounded. A discovery is more or less in the nature of an accident.” Did Americans want new products? Then they could not wait for “discoveries.” They would have to go in search, organizing for this as they would have organized for anything else. Inventions, according to Edison, were not strokes of luck by minds exploring at random; they were the products of purpose. And Edison believed that the right men, properly organized, could turn out inventions just as regularly and as intentionally as a factory could turn out any other product.
AT MENLO PARK, Edison intended to turn out “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” By an “invention” Edison meant a social, or more precisely, a marketable product. And this gave his very idea of “invention” a distinctively American cast.
Edison was a social inventor. He had focused his first inventive efforts on telegraphy, which until then had been electricity’s most important practical application. His first encounter with telegraphy had come by a lucky accident. When Edison was only fifteen, selling newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railway, he had rescued the three-year-old son of the Mount Clemens, Michigan, stationmaster from the path of a moving train. The father showed his gratitude by inviting young Edison to come and live with his family, and he trained the boy as a telegraph operator. This was what brought Edison into the mysterious new world of electricity.
Before he was twenty-one, Edison was granted his first patent—for a telegraphic vote-recording machine. He had developed this machine while he was reporting the votes of Congress over the press wires, and he noticed the time lost in polling the members for their voice votes. With his invention, at every roll call each congressman would simply press a button at his seat, immediately registering his vote at the Speaker’s desk, where the votes were counted automatically. But Edison’s instant vote recorder would have abolished one of the traditionally cherished opportunities to filibuster. “Young man,” declared the chairman of the congressional committee to whom Edison had just given a demonstration, “that is just what we do not want. Your invention would destroy the only hope that the minority would have of influencing legislation…. And as the ruling majority knows that some day they may become a minority, they will be as much averse to change as their opponents.” This taught Edison a lesson that he never forgot; thereafter, as Edison himself noted, he would aim at a “commercial demand.”
The decade after the Civil War was the heyday of speculation. When Edison came to New York City in 1869, the telegraph was already serving the Gold Exchange with a new “gold indicator” that transmitted numerals as electrical impulses and instantaneously sent information of market fluctuations to distant places. At the height of the speculative mania, when the gold indicators broke down, Edison quickly found the trouble, fixed the machines, and was engaged by the Gold Indicator Company at the then handsome salary of $300 a month. He made a series of inventions serving the gold market. Then Edison and a few friends set themselves up as “electrical engineers” to devise further improvements in telegraph apparatus. When the powerful Western Union discovered his talents, he was added to the company’s team of inventors and given a half-million-dollar order to manufacture twelve hundred stock tickers of his new design. In 1871 Edison could report to his mother that at only twenty-four years of age he had become a “Bloated Eastern Manufacturer.”
In telegraph technology at that stage, the urgent need was for some way to send more than one message at a time over a telegraph wire. By 1869 Edison had already made progress toward a “duplex” machine that would simultaneously send a message on a single wire in both directions. By 1874 he had developed his even more remarkable “quadruplex” machine (he also invented the word), which made it possible to send two messages in both directions at the same time. This one device had the effect of doubling the Western Union facilities and resulted in savings of millions of dollars. Jay Gould bought Edison’s interest in the quadruplex by a transaction so complicated that it supported lawyers for a decade; in the resulting litigation Edison heard lawyers in the courtroom call him a “Professor of Duplicity and Quadruplicity.”
By the time that the young Edison opened his Menlo Park Laboratory, then, he had already well established himself as an inventor. Besides these improvements in the telegraph, his inventions had included an “electric pen,” a mimeograph, and other lesser items.
Edison’s invention factory was emphatically a factory, where he intended to turn invention into large-scale business, meeting the needs of the market. Although off in a village, it was not intended to be a research institute or a place of withdrawal for scientific speculation. Just as stove factories were bringing together workmen who could make the different parts of a stove, so Edison intended to assemble men who would be able to make the different parts of an invention. He had his own toolmakers, and before long he added a mathematical physicist. Edison believed that the best way to invent was to collect a sufficient number of competent men with the best possible equipment, and then organize them for the dogged pursuit of their object. The businesslike Edison actually put little store by “inspiration” or the idea of inventive “genius.” He was, as his biographer observed, “a genius who held that there was no such thing as a genius.”
In the United States after the Civil War the successful inventor was seldom the lone visionary. Although people called Edison “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” the folklore of the alchemist in his secret chamber was beginning to be out of date—and Edison would help make it so. Yet somehow the lone inventor would never become entirely obsolete. A study of seventy case histories of major twentieth-century inventions in Europe and America would show that some of these did come from the lonely inventor with meager resources, struggling to perfect his device against the indifference of the established enterprises. Their inventions would include the jet engine, the gyrocompass, the process of hardening liquid fats to make soap and margarine, power steering, magnetic tape-recording, Bakelite, the helicopter, the Kodachrome process, the zipper, and the self-winding wristwatch.
But there is nothing new about the way of the lonely inventor. There was something new in the organized quest for inventions. In modern America the most substantial, most calculating citizens, the largest, most respectable enterprises would be the mainstay of this organized quest. The American inventor would pursue a respectable profession.
For Edison himself, inventing would be a passion. He sometimes complained that every young applicant for a job at Menlo Park wanted to know only how much was the pay and how long were the hours. And he would tell them, “Well, we don’t pay anything, and we work all the time!” But many young men shared his passion and joined him on the job.
THE INVENTION FACTORY was incorporated into the American economy with the forming of the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. The system of electric lighting which transformed daily life in the twentieth century was a calculated product of Edison’s new institution.
A decade before Edison moved to Menlo Park, others had made a start on electric lighting. In England in the 1860’s arc lights were used for coastal lighthouses, and at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, three arc lights burning in the open air gave off a dazzling white glow. The general counsel to Western Union was so impressed by the brilliant electric arc lighting at the Paris Exposition of 1878 that when he returned to the United States, he persuaded Edison to explore its commercial possibilities. Earlier Edison had experimented briefly with electric lighting, but he had temporarily given it up to experiment with the phonograph.
Arc lighting was, of course, the light made by an electric arc. An electric current flowing between the points of two pencil-like rods of carbon produced a brilliant white light as it burned off the points. At the first public demonstration back in 1808, Sir Humphrey Davy had lit his arcs with a battery of two thousand cells. And the arc light did not become practical for general use until the invention of the dynamo, which in the 1880’s displaced the batteries.
In the growing cities, where some kind of lighting had become essential to public safety, the main competition for arc lighting came from gaslighting. By 1835, gas companies in Baltimore, Boston, New York, Brooklyn, and New Orleans were lighting some streets, a few factories, and a small number of wealthy private residences. Forty years later there were more than four hundred gas companies. But the lighting of streets by gas was still confined to the big cities, where it was profitable to run a central station. Remote factories that wanted gaslight had to install their own gas plants. In small towns and on the farm, Americans relied on candles and oil lamps. It still seemed that when artificial lighting came into more general use, it would be produced by gas.
When the Edison Electric Light Company was formed in 1878, arc lighting gave no promise of lighting homes, offices, or small shops. The arc light, like gas, produced light by burning, and hence could be used only where an open flame was not dangerous; and the carbon rods had to be replaced frequently. But its special limitation was that the arc gave a dazzling light which could not be reduced. Hence even the smallest workable arc lights were not suitable for small-space indoor lighting. In addition, arc lights operated on a “series circuit,” which meant that they all had to be turned on or off at the same time. And if even a single arc short-circuited, the whole system was in peril. By contrast, then, gaslighting had many advantages, and over 90 percent of the revenues of gas companies still came from lighting offices and homes.
Edison’s grasp of the problem of electric lighting proved to be as far as possible from the intuitions of simple “Yankee ingenuity” or of the naïvely inventive gadgeteer. For him this was a social problem, which meant, of course, a problem of the market. In September 1878 he witnessed an exhibition display of eight brilliant 500-candlepower arc lights, presented as the latest thing in arc lights.
I saw that what had been done had never been made practically useful. The intense light had not been subdivided so that it could be brought into private houses. In all electric lights theretofore obtained the intensity of light was very great, and the quantity (of units) very low. I came home and made experiments two nights in succession. I discovered the necessary secret, so simple that a bootblack might understand it. It suddenly came to me, like the secret of the speaking phonograph. It was real and no phantom…. The subdivision of light is all right….
To a reporter for the New York Sun, he revealed his vision of a total system: a central station would send out electric power through a wire network to every household, where the current would illuminate thousands of small household lights. He rashly predicted there would soon be a half-million in downtown New York alone. And his flamboyant predictions, even at this early stage, enlisted the financing of Vanderbilt and of Drexel, Morgan & Company.
Edison still had only the vaguest notion of how this could be done. But he had confidence in the ability of his invention factory to devise almost anything, once the need had been specifically defined. Within two weeks Edison cabled his European agent: “HAVE STRUCK A BONANZA ON ELECTRIC LIGHT—INDEFINITE SUBDIVISION OF LIGHT.” American boosters were in the business of making dreams come true, and Edison too was simply describing events “which had not yet gone through the formality of taking place.”
He had, however, drawn his dreams with commercial precision. Knowing that by 1878 only about 10 percent of the vast gaslighting industry was in street lamps, he was convinced that no more than that small segment of the lighting market could ever be displaced by arc lighting, whose characteristics limited it essentially to the outdoors. This meant that 90 percent of the gas-illumination business remained open to some new kind of competition. Edison wrote in his notebook:
Electricity versus Gas as General Illuminant
Object: E. to effect exact imitation of all done by gas, to replace lighting by gas by lighting by electricity. To improve the illumination to such an extent as to meet all requirements of natural, artificial and commercial conditions. Previous inventions failed—necessities for commercial success and accomplishment by Edison. Edison’s great effort—not to make a large light or a blinding light, but a small light having the mildness of gas.
If gaslights, even with all their inconvenience (Edison noted: “So unpleasant … that in the new Madison Square theater every gas jet is ventilated by small tubes to carry away the products of combustion”), were so much in demand, what might be the profits in a lighting system which had all the advantages of gas, but without its unpleasantness or its risks? Out of the back numbers of gas-industry journals, Edison dug up the facts about gaslighting during the previous fifty years. And he thought of these as outlining for him the market he hoped to capture for electricity.
Edison imagined, then, a universal network of electric power lines. He figured the cost of obtaining gas from coal (as in the systems then in use) against the cost of converting coal and steam power into electrical power. He observed that in the urban areas, where shops and small factories required the most electricity to run their motors, there might be less demand for individual electric lights, “while in the better residential areas, where less electric power would be required for running motors, more would be needed for individual electric lights.” And he concluded: “Poorest district for light best for power—thus evening up whole city.” To “subdivide” light and so bring it into every home required, first of all, a new kind of individual electric light; then a new kind of circuit so that each light could be turned on or off separately; and finally, of course, a central power station actually wired to thousands of outlets. Edison began working on all these at the same time.
The obvious first step would have been to try to subdivide the arc light, but from the very beginning Edison chose another path. He set out to develop an electric light that would make a small illuminating glow in an enclosed lamp. This meant an “incandescent” light, using electricity not to produce a flame (like that of gaslighting or like the fire that consumed the carbon rod in the arc light), but rather to bring some sort of filament to a glowing white heat. The earlier work on the arc light would be of little help here.
For at least a half-century, inventors had been trying to perfect a “glow lamp.” They had used conducting filaments of metal or carbon in a glass vessel from which air had been removed, but none of these had glowed for more than a few minutes. The experts had come to the firm conclusion that incandescent lighting was both theoretically and practically impossible. These earlier unsuccessful efforts had used carbon or platinum burners incandesced by a current to which the filaments offered low resistance. In such a system the filament used a relatively large amount of current (say, 10 amperes of current at 10 volts, with a resistance of 1 ohm), and the circuit required enormous amounts of expensive copper wire. It was this high cost of the copper wiring, as much as anything else, which had persuaded the experts that a system of this type was uneconomic.
INSTEAD OF FOLLOWING the path of his predecessors, and then worrying about the character of the filament or the price of copper wire, Edison took a fresh look at the problem as a whole. In fact, he suddenly turned the problem around. Suppose the filament in the lamp became incandescent by offering a high resistance to the current; then each lamp would use only a small amount of current (say, 1 ampere of current at 100 volts in lights of 100 ohms resistance). This system, because it used a current of high voltage, would require only one hundredth the amount of copper wire in its circuit, and such a saving would itself help make the whole scheme feasible.
By rethinking the problem in this fashion, Edison had incidentally prescribed the qualities of the incandescent burner he had to find. After disappointing experiments with platinum wire, Edison began trying all sorts of other materials. Finally, in October 1879, his trial bulb with a carbonized cotton filament showed promise of success, and it actually glowed for forty hours. This was due, also, to the improved vacuum which Edison had managed to obtain in his bulbs. On November 1, 1879, Edison applied for a patent on a carbon filament lamp. At the same time he designed a parallel circuit whose thousands of outlets could be independently turned on or off. And he developed an improved dynamo. Edison thus was not simply “inventing” a new incandescent bulb, he was organizing a new electric lighting system for whole communities.
Like the pioneer organizers of the fur-traders’ rendezvous a half-century before or like the blazers of cattle trails, he, too, was thinking of times and places and people. He had to push ahead on all fronts at once, to provide a source of power, a network of wires, to serve his new-style electric “candles.” But Edison was building on proven ground: the gaslighting industry, which had prospered by providing “subdivided” light for offices and homes, had already tested his market. If only he could provide a cheaper, better substitute for gaslight, he could be reasonably confident that his business would prosper.
Since the object was to produce a total working system, Edison knew that he could not reap the benefits of solving any one of his problems unless he could solve them all. But Edison also knew that some evidence of his progress would encourage New York investors to stake him in his researches. He therefore set about using his flair for the dramatic to advertise the grandeur of his quest, along with his successes (real or imaginary). A front-page story in the New York Herald on December 21, 1879, proclaimed:
EDISON’S LIGHT THE GREAT INVENTOR’S TRIUMPH
IN ELECTRICAL ILLUMINATION
A SCRAP OF PAPER
IT MAKES A LIGHT WITHOUT GAS OR FLAME, CHEAPER THAN OIL
SUCCESS IN A COTTON THREAD
The well-briefed reporter told the suspenseful melodrama of Edison’s magic: applying an electrical current to “a tiny strip of paper that a breath would blow away” produced “a bright, beautiful light, like the mellow sunset of an Italian autumn.” With no intention of hiding his light under a bushel, Edison announced that Menlo Park would be illuminated by the magical new lighting on New Year’s Eve, 1880. In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, crowds flocked to Menlo Park to see Edison’s miraculous “light of the future.” Forty incandescent bulbs, all lit from a single dynamo, amazed the visitors. What impressed them was not merely the lights themselves, but even more the fact that they could instantly be turned on and off.
The next summer Edison announced that he was sending agents all over the world to find the perfect vegetable fiber for his incandescent filaments. Since, only a few years before, Jules Verne had published Around the World in Eighty Days, which was still at the peak of its popularity, Edison had a ready-made foil for his research stunt to keep alive the interest of investors and to awaken the interest of future customers. He sent one agent to Japan and China, another to the West Indies and Central America, and a third to the upper Amazon. It was not quite the kind of publicity Edison had bargained for when his agent in Cuba died of yellow fever. But his Amazon agent sent back columns of exciting copy for the sensational dailies; then, after returning to New York, being paid off, and enjoying a festive meal at the city’s most elegant restaurant, the agent mysteriously walked out into the darkness, never to be seen again. The papers dubbed Edison’s agents the “dauntless knights of civilization.” In the search for “a material so precious that jealous nature had hidden it in her most secret fastness,” they were risking Cuban fevers, the poison of Amazonian arrows, and death itself, to help Edison illuminate American homes.
Meanwhile a railroad promoter who had recently gone into the shipping business gave Edison his first chance to install a complete lighting plant. In May 1880, when the S. S. Columbia, a steel ship of 3,200 tons, left the yards at Chester, Pennsylvania, for its maiden voyage around the Horn to California, it was the first electrically lit ship in history. At the end of her two months’ voyage the Columbia arrived in San Francisco with all her 115 incandescent lamps still aglow after 415 shipboard lighting hours. The next year at Holborn Viaduct in London, Edison was operating the first urban incandescent-lighting system. Two jumbo generators, designed by Edison and sent from New York, provided power to some two thousand lamps in the neighborhood, including those of the Central British Post Office Building.
DRAWING ON THIS EXPERIENCE, Edison planned his first American central power station, to be built on lower Manhattan Island. “It is my intention,” Edison had promised, back in 1878, “never to show or offer the electric light until it is so perfected in economical and all other aspects that I can feel sure of its instantaneous victory over gas.” At the Paris Exposition of 1881, Edison displayed a model of his system which, a German expert reported, “was as beautifully conceived down to the very last details, and as thoroughly worked out as if it had been tested for decades in various towns. Neither sockets, switches, fuses, lamp-holders, or any of other accessories were wanting.” Samuel Insull, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman who had worked with the British Edison Company, had taken on the job of combating the gas companies; and he helped Edison secure the money and the franchises for the projected Pearl Street station. Edison and Insull had found a site 50 feet by 100 feet where they aimed to build a plant to supply electricity to an area about a half-mile square.
The Pearl Street neighborhood was shrewdly chosen to include much of the Wall Street financial section. For there the success of Edison’s electric lights could immediately win over the men whose support could then make electric lighting possible all over the country. The plant was located in the center of the district, which also included tenements and small factories. Over the protests of city officials and of his financial backers, Edison decided not to string wires overhead, but to go to the expense of burying them underground. In order to do this he developed new tubing, and he set new standards of insulation which were then incorporated in the earliest New York laws on electric power.
When Edison met an unexpected problem, he would make it the occasion to issue another cheery statement. “I kept promising through the newspapers that the large central station in New York would be started at such and such a time. These promises were made more with a view to keeping up the courage of my stockholders, who naturally wanted to get rich faster than the nature of things permitted.” About $600,000 had been spent on the Pearl Street operation. “The biggest and most responsible thing I had ever undertaken,” Edison recalled. “There was no parallel in the world…. All our apparatus, devices and parts were home-devised and home-made. Our men were completely new and without central-station experience. What might happen on turning a big current into the conductors under the streets of New York no one could say…. The gas companies were our bitter enemies in those days, keenly watching our every move and ready to pounce upon us at the slightest failure.”
At 3 P.M. on September 4, 1882, Edison’s chief electrician threw the switch. The lights went on—four hundred of them in the service of eighty-five customers. “It was not until about 7 o’clock, when it began to be dark,” remarked the New York Times (whose offices now glowed with fifty-two Edison lamps), “that the electric light really made itself known and showed how bright and steady it was.” In the Times office “it seemed almost like writing by daylight.” The nation had its first glimpse of city lights.
Edison was still only thirty-five. Enticed by his opportunity to transform night into day for millions of Americans, he declared that he had definitively become a businessman, and would “take a long vacation in the matter of inventions.” Edison’s plants, organized by the Go-Getting Samuel Insull, spread over the country. And the flamboyant publicity paid off in a flood of books and articles about the young Tom Edison, the “King of Inventors,” the “Modern Magician.”
In 1883 the ultimate popular accolade came when Niblo’s Garden, the famous New York Music Hall, offered “a great Mimical Dramatic Ballet” celebrating Edison’s victory over darkness. An electrically lit model of the new Brooklyn Bridge provided background for a dance in which each ballet girl waved a wand tipped with an Edison lamp. In the final preparations a journalist saw the versatile young Edison (who had just wired a whole city neighborhood) wiring the costumes of ballet girls. “Moving about among the girls and adjusting their corsets” so the wires would work, he inserted a little battery in the bosom of each dancer, so that lights would actually glow from their foreheads. The program proudly announced “novel lighting effects by the Edison Electric Light Company under the personal direction of Mr. Thos. Edison.”