An Accurate Account of the “Men Who Built America” Part 23

This is the twenty-third in my series of posts about the five businessmen the History Channel profiled in a terribly inaccurate and un-historical TV miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. I’m writing these posts in response to several comments and e-mails from TV viewers who have expressed interest in a more accurate version of the story. (Click here to see all Al’s columns on the program and its subjects.)

Post #23: JP Morgan and the Electric Light

Late in 1878 JP Morgan wrote a letter to his brother-in-law about an investment opportunity that he considered “most important.” “Secrecy at the moment is so essential that that I do not dare put it on paper,” said Morgan. “Subject is Edison’s electric light.”

Morgan had good reason for wanting to be secretive. His was not the only investment bank interested in offering Edison the funding he needed for his research.

Morgan and Edison were unlikely partners. Morgan was such a powerful force in the banking world that he could block a mogul like Andrew Carnegie from getting a new railroad built just by cutting a deal between railroad executives on his yacht. He grew up in a wealthy home amid luxuries that most Americans could only dream of. He was educated in Europe, apprenticed to bank presidents in his youth, and an intimate of most of the captains of industry on two continents. His hobbies were yachting and collecting Renaissance art.

Edison’s image was very different. He had grown up in semi-poverty and left school to work full time early in his teens. He seldom bathed or changed his clothes, especially when working on a major challenge like the electric light. Whenever his wife would try to persuade him to use a spittoon, rather than spitting his tobacco juice on the floor as was his wont, he would answer that he could miss a spittoon, but couldn’t miss the floor.

Benjamin Franklin once said that in America the measure of a man is “not ‘who is he?’ but ‘what can he do?'” Edison’s career certainly illustrates Franklin’s point. For the first twenty-odd years of his life he was a nobody. And even after he started to succeed there was nothing about his background, bearing or manners that would ever have caused power brokers like JP Morgan to seek his company. Yet Morgan did.

By 1878 Edison and his team had patented several very important improvements to telegraph technology, and followed up on that success by inventing the phonograph and the “carbon button” that made Bell’s telephone really practical. Western Union’s sponsorship of Edison when he was developing the carbon button entitled the company to twenty percent of AT&T’s telephone revenues for a seventeen year period, and while the phonograph was not yet a commercial success in ’78, it would eventually be a gold mine.

According to Morgan biographer Jean Strouse, Edison’s premature boasting about his electric light work was taken so seriously, coming as it did on the heels of his other triumphs, that it “brought inquiries from financiers all over the world.” Morgan, his partner Anthony Drexel, and a handful of their associates moved quickly and in secret to form a company to finance the project, with Edison holding half the shares and the investors  collectively holding the other half.

Edison initially became interested in the electric light idea during a long western vacation. In the summer of 1878 Edison and a few other scientists to  went to Colorado to observe a solar eclipse, using an instrument Edison had built. After the eclipse they visited western mines and ranches and at one point went on a long hunting trip in Indian-held territory under the protection of a troop of cavalry.

Away from the laboratory for the first time in years, Edison had time to dream up new ideas, including several different uses for electricity. During a visit to a silver mine near Virginia City he envisioned an electro-magnetic device that could identify veins of ore and facilitate more efficient mining. As soon as he got back to his Menlo Park lab he went to work on designs for an electric lamp.

Soon he was making bold pronouncements about the future of the electrical industry. “The same wire that brings the light,” said Edison, “will also bring power and heat. With the power you can run an elevator, a sewing machine, or any other mechanical contrivance, and by means of the heat you may cook your food.”

Edison, Morgan, and the other investors signed their contract in mid-November of 1878.

The investors would begin to doubt the wisdom of their decision before Edison finally delivered. Virtually the whole year 1879 was spent in the kind of trial and error process that marked most of Edison’s endeavors. His philosophy on invention was that “Sticking to it is the real genius.” Any “bright minded fellow” could achieve as much as Edison did, he once said, “if he will stick like hell,” because “nothing that’s any good works by itself. You got to make the damn thing work.”

The electric light certainly didn’t work by itself. Other scientists and inventors had been working on the idea for decades, and all had given up in frustration. That Edison finally achieved success was a tribute not only to his intellect, but also to the characteristic that set him apart from everyone else who’d ever taken on the challenge: his capacity for failure.

Edison’s tenacity in the face of failure was surely unrivaled in all of human history. It could be said that Edison was the biggest failure who ever lived, yet, appropriately, he is remembered only for his successes. In the case of his electric light venture it took over two thousand trials before he had a lamp that worked well enough for a public demonstration.

Early in the process he determined that a high resistance filament was required, and he chose Platinum as his medium because of it’s high melting point. Undeterred by the metal’s high price, he sketched out plans for a magnetic separator that could increase the world supply of the material by making the mining process cheaper. When pure platinum didn’t yield the results he wanted in the lab he tried platinum alloys as well as iron, tantalum, nickel, tungsten, and any number of other substances.

The most efficient DC generator available converted only 55% of its power to electricity; Edison designed and built one that was 80% efficient. His generator design was good for a couple new US patents.

When he determined that air was causing his filaments to burn up he determined to seal them in vacuum bulbs. He hired a glassblower to make the bulbs and bought the most powerful vacuum pump in existence. When the pump proved insufficient to his needs he upgraded it in various ways and patented the improvements.

Even with his upgraded vacuum pump it took hours to evacuate a light bulb. While a new bulb was being pumped out Edison and his men would work on other projects, or just lie on tables and benches for a nap. They worked ’round the clock, paying no attention to the time. Once a bulb was equipped with a filament, then sealed and evacuated, it would be carried up to the second floor of the main laboratory building for a trial. If it blew up in the first few seconds the men would sweep up the glass shards and go back downstairs to go to work on the next trial.

Eventually Edison and his team abandoned metals and focused on carbon. Carbon burns when heated in the presence of oxygen, but in a near-perfect vacuum it can be brought up to extremely high temperatures without burning or melting. After hundreds of trials they were able to make a horseshoe-shaped carbon filament burn for several days. On December 3 of 1879 Edison brought reporters from various newspapers to his home, every room of which was illuminated by electric bulbs.

In one room of the house Edison demonstrated an electric sewing machine; the first step toward fulfilling his boast about electric power replacing muscle power.

When Morgan eventually re-organized the electric light company to bring in more working capital he gave it the name Edison General Electric. Several years later the company was re-named General Electric, the name it has today. When Edison’s name was removed from the marque he sold most of his shares. This turned out to be a mistake, as GE’s revenues and profits would continue to grow rapidly for over a century.

 Next week’s post will be about the infamous labor strike at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Mill. It will be the final post of this series.

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