Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

Edison's Method in Inventing

If one were allowed only two words with which to describe Edison it is doubtful whether a close examination of the entire dictionary would disclose any others more suitable than "experimenter-inventor." These would express the overruling characteristics of his eventful career.

His life as child, boy, and man has revealed the born investigator with original reasoning powers, unlimited imagination, and daring method. It is not surprising, therefore, that a man of this kind should exhibit a ceaseless, absorbing desire for knowledge, willing to spend his last cent in experimentation to satisfy the cravings of an inquiring mind.

There is nothing of the slap-dash style in Edison's experiments. While he "tries everything," it is not merely the mixing of a little of this, some of that, and a few drops of the other, in the hope that something will come of it. On the contrary, his instructions are always clear-cut and direct, and must be followed out systematically, exactly, and minutely, no matter where they lead nor how long the experiment may take.

Unthinking persons have had a notion that some of Edison's successes have been due to mere dumb fool luck—to fortunate "happenings." Nothing could be farther from the truth, for, on the contrary, it is owing almost entirely to his comprehensive knowledge, the breadth of his conception, the daring originality of his methods, and minuteness and extent of experiment, combined with patient, unceasing perseverance, that new arts have been created and additions made to others already in existence.

One of the first things Edison does in beginning a new line of investigation is to master the literature of the subject. He wants to know what has been done before. Not that he considers this as final, for he often obtains vastly different results by repeating in his own way the experiments of others.

"Edison can travel along a well-used road and still find virgin soil," remarked one of his experimenters recently, who had been trying to make a certain compound, but with poor success. Edison tried it in the same way, but made a change in one of the operations and succeeded.

Another of the experimental staff says: "Edison is never hindered by theory, but resorts to actual experiment for proof. For instance, when he conceived the idea of pouring a complete concrete house it was universally held that it would be impossible because the pieces of stone in the mixture would not rise to the level of the pouring-point, but would gravitate to a lower plane in the soft cement. This, however, did not hinder him from making a series of experiments which resulted in an invention that proved conclusively the contrary."

Having conceived some new idea and read everything obtainable relating to the subject in general, Edison's fertility of resource and originality come into play. He will write in one of the laboratory notebooks a memorandum of the experiments to be tried, and, if necessary, will illustrate by sketches.

This book is then given to one of the large staff of experimenters. Here strenuousness and a prompt carrying on of the work are required. The results of each experiment must be recorded in the notebook, and daily or more frequent reports are expected. Edison does not forget what is going on, but in his daily tours through the laboratory keeps in touch with the work of all the experimenters. His memory is so keen and retentive that he is as fully aware of the progress and details of each of the numerous experiments constantly going on as if he had made them all himself.

The use of laboratory notebooks was begun early in the Menlo Park days and has continued ever since. They are plain blank-books, each about eight and a half by six inches, containing about two hundred pages. At the present time there are more than one thousand of these books in the series. On their pages are noted Edison's ideas, sketches, and memoranda, together with records of countless thousands of experiments made by him or under his direction during more than thirty years.

These two hundred thousand or more pages cover investigations into every department of science, showing the operations of a master mind seeking to surprise Nature into a betrayal of her secrets by asking her the same question in a hundred different ways. The breadth of thought, thoroughness of method, infinite detail, and minuteness of investigation proceeding from the workings of one mind would surpass belief were they not shown by this wonderful collection of notebooks.

A remark made by one of the staff, who has been experimenting at the laboratory for over twenty years, is suggestive. He said: "Edison can think of more ways of doing a thing than any man I ever saw or heard of. He tries everything and never lets up, even though failure is apparently staring him in the face. He only stops when he simply can't go any farther on that particular line. When he decides on any mode of procedure he gives his notes to the experimenter and lets him alone, only stopping in from time to time to look at the operations and receive reports of progress."

The idea of attributing great successes to "genius" has always been repudiated by Edison, as evidenced by his historic remark that "genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration;" Again, in a conversation many years ago between Edison, Batchelor, and E. H. Johnson, the latter made allusion to Edison's genius, when Edison replied:

"Stuff! I tell you genius is hard work, stick-to-it-iveness, and common sense."

"Yes, say Johnson, "I admit there is all that to it, but there's still more. Batch and I have those qualifications, but, although we knew quite a lot about telephones, and worked hard, we couldn't invent a brand-new non-infringing telephone receiver as you did when Gouraud cabled for one. Then, how about the subdivision of the electric light?"

"Electric current," corrected Edison.

"True," continued Johnson; "you were the one to make that very distinction. The scientific world had been working hard on subdivision for years, using what appeared to be common sense. Results, worse than nil. Then you come along, and about the first thing you do, after looking the ground over, is to start off in the opposite direction, which subsequently proves to be the only possible way to reach the goal. It seems to me that this is pretty close to the dictionary definition of genius."

It is said that Edison replied rather incoherently and changed the topic of conversation.

This innate modesty, however, does not prevent Edison from recognizing and classifying his own methods of investigation. In a conversation with two old associates recently (April, 1909) he remarked:

"It has been said of me that my methods are empirical. That is true only so far as chemistry is concerned. Did you ever realize that practically all industrial chemistry is colloidal in its nature? Hard rubber, celluloid, glass, soap, paper, and lots of others, all have to deal with amorphous substances, as to which comparatively little has been really settled. My methods are similar to those followed by Luther Burbank. He plants an acre, and when this is in bloom he inspects it. He has a sharp eye, and can pick out of thousands a single plant that has promise of what he wants. From this he gets the seed, and uses his skill and knowledge in producing from it a number of new plants which, on development, furnish the means of propagating an improved variety in large quantity. So, when I am after a chemical result that I have in mind I may make hundreds or thousands of experiments out of which there may be one that promises results in the right direction. This I follow up to its legitimate conclusion, discarding the others, and usually get what I am after. There is no doubt about this being empirical; but when it comes to problems of a mechanical nature, I want to tell you that all I've ever tackled and solved have been done by hard, logical thinking."

The intense earnestness and emphasis with which this was said were very impressive to the auditors. If, in following out his ideas, an experiment does not show the results that Edison wants, it is not regarded as a failure, but as something learned. This attitude is illustrated by his reply to Mr. Mallory, who expressed regret that the first nine thousand and odd experiments on the storage battery had been without results. Edison replied, with a smile: "Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I have found several thousand things that won't work."

Edison's patient, plodding methods do not always appear on the notebooks. For instance, a suggestion in one of them refers to a stringy, putty-like mass being made of a mixture of lampblack and tar. Some years afterward one of the laboratory assistants was told to make some and roll it into filaments. After a time he brought the mass to Edison and said:

"There's something wrong about this, for it crumbles even after manipulating it with my fingers."

"How long did you knead it?" said Edison.

"Oh, more than an hour," was the reply." Well, keep on for a few hours more and it will come out all right," was the rejoinder. And this proved to be correct.

With the experimenter or employee who exercises thought Edison has unbounded patience, but to the careless, stupid, or lazy person he is a terror for the short time they remain around him. Once, when asked why he had parted with a certain man, he said: "Oh, he was so slow that it would take him half an hour to get out of the field of a microscope."

Edison's practical way of testing a man's fitness for special work is no joke, according to Mr. J. H. Vail, formerly one of the Menlo Park staff. "I wanted a job," he said, "and was ambitious to take charge of the dynamo-room. Mr. Edison led me to a heap of junk in a corner and said: 'Put that together and let me know when it is running.' I didn't know what it was, but received a liberal education in finding out. It proved to be a dynamo, which I finally succeeded in assembling and running. I got the job."

A somewhat similar experience is related by Mr. John F. Ott, who, in 1869, applied for work. This is the conversation that took place, led by Edison's question:

"What do you want?"


"Can you make this machine work?" (exhibiting it and explaining its details).


"Are you sure?"

"Well, you needn't pay me if I don't."

And thus Mr. Ott went to work and accomplished the results desired. Two weeks afterward Edison put him in charge of the shop. Although this was more than forty-one years ago, Mr. Ott is still a valued member of Mr. Edison's staff at the laboratory.

Examples without number could be given of Edison's inexhaustible fund of ideas, but one must suffice by way of example. In the progress of the ore-concentrating work one of the engineers submitted three sketches of a machine for some special work. They were not satisfactory. He remarked that it was too bad there was no other way to do the work. Edison said, "Do you mean to say that these drawings represent the only way to do this work?" The reply was, "I certainly do." Edison said nothing, but two days afterward brought in his own sketches showing forty-eight  other ways of accomplishing the result, and laid them on the engineer's desk without a word. One of these ideas, with slight changes, was afterward adopted.

This chapter could be continued to great length, but must now be closed in the hope that in the foregoing pages the reader may have caught an adequate glance of Mr. Edison at work.