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InterviewsPaul Israel


Great Projects: The Building of America
Paul Israel

Interview with Paul Israel, Managing Editor of Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University and co-author of Edison's Electric Light, for Program Two: "Electric Nation"

Note: This transcript is from a videotaped interview for the "Electric Nation" segment of "Great Projects." It has been edited lightly for readability.

Paul Israel (PI): Edison formed Menlo Park, the laboratory in 1876, he had come from Newark where he had had a machine shop devoted to his inventive activity and now he wanted to separate himself out of from the city, go to a place where he could build his own facility.

He combined the machine shop with this rather significant electrical and chemical laboratory, one of the best in existence at the time. A lot of university professors would have been jealous. And, primarily, he used his own money, royalties that he had gotten for his work on the stock ticker and other inventions for Western Union and Golden Stock Telegraph Company.

But he also found support after he'd opened the laboratory, from Western Union, which was willing to pay $100 a month to support the machine shop, which was a really important element of the laboratory, where the devices were turned into things that he could experiment with. And over time, of course, Western Union continued to support the laboratory, especially the work on the telephone, but by the time Edison got to the period when he began to work on the electric light, he needed considerably more resources, and so a number of Western Union investors, J. P. Morgan who had some ties to the Western Union, [and other] people agreed to fund a rather significant research and development project. And over the course of the two and a half years that Edison worked at Menlo Park on the research and development, they funded him to the tune of about $130,000, which was a pretty significant figure in 1878, '79, and '80.

PI: When Edison began working at the Menlo Park laboratory, primarily what he brought with him were the few close assistants he had at his New York Telegraph shop. Charles Batchelor had been his principle assistant since 1873. John Kruesi who sort of headed the machine shop, and a couple of other experimenters and machinists. By the time he began working on the electric light, there were about a dozen people all together working in the lab. And he tried to begin to add new people. A couple of chemists, a fellow named Francis Upton who was the first, actually, person trained in physics, both at Princeton, then in Berlin, studying a post-graduate degree. And then over the course of the research on the light, the staff eventually grew to 50 or 60 people, as they moved into the development phase in 1880 and Edison really began to develop a research and development facility where he divided up the work amongst a number of different research groups.

PI: I think the electric light really sets the stage in two ways. First, that it received such a significant amount of money from a group of people willing to invest in invention. I mean, before there had been companies like Western Union who had supported, to a limited extent, inventors like Edison, providing minimal resources but some resources for their work. But here you had a group of people who were willing to invest over $100,000 in the hopes that this guy could do what he said he would do. And he accomplished it obviously.

And what that enabled him to do was, in fact, develop the first research and development laboratory and the electric light is really the first technology that's developed in a modern fashion, that is, that you have a research and development laboratory and you have this long phase of research and development that takes place where they move the product from the ideas in Edison's head and those of his assistants into the marketplace. And that's a really crucial distinction between the electric light and what had come before.

PI: When Edison began working on the incandescent electric light, there were other people who had worked on it. What they'd been doing primarily was taking either sticks of carbon, like Joseph Swann in England, or various types of metals as a number of people had in the US, primarily platinum wires, and heating them up, sometimes in a vacuum, sometimes in rare gases, sometimes just in the air, but nobody had developed a lamp that lasted very long. And Edison thought he had a solution to the problem, he would use a bunch of relays, like he used in telegraphy, to turn the circuit on and off, to keep the metal filaments that he was using from burning out. But in fact, Edison's key insight was not so much how he was going to solve the problem of keeping the lamp lit as that he recognized he needed high resistance, that is, that the more resistance to the circuit that the lamp offered, the better for his system, because in that way he could use much smaller copper conductors because of the nature of electrical laws. And so this was a key insight that allowed him to, I think, move beyond what everybody else had done because it moved him into the realm of working on an entire system, and so he developed not just the lamp but the generator and the various other components, meters, and fixtures, and so on and so forth, in order to really be able to develop a system that he could put into commercial use.

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