Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft

Edison's Laboratory at Orange

If Longfellow's youth "Who through an Alpine village passed" had been Edison, the word upon his banner would probably not have been "Excelsior" but "Experiment." This seems to be the watchword of his life, and is well illustrated by a remark made to Mr. Mason, the superintendent of the cement works: "You must experiment all the time; if you don't the other fellow will, and then he will get ahead of you."

For some years after closing the little laboratory in his mother's cellar Edison made a laboratory of any nook or corner and experimented as long as he had a dollar in his pocket. The first place he began to do larger things was in Newark, where he established his first shops. While life there was very strenuous, he tells of some amusing experiences:

"Some of my assistants in those days were very green in the business. One day I got a new man and told him to conduct a certain experiment. He got a quart of ether and started to boil it over a naked flame. Of course it caught fire. The flame was about four feet in diameter and eleven feet high. The fire department came and put a stream through the window. That let all the fumes and chemicals out and overcame the firemen.

"Another time we experimented with a tubful of soapy water and put hydrogen into it to make large bubbles. One of the boys, who was washing bottles in the place, had read in some book that hydrogen was explosive, so he proceeded to blow the tub up. There was about four inches of soap in the bottom of the tub, which was fourteen inches high, and he filled it with soap-bubbles up to the brim. Then he took a .bamboo fish-pole, put a piece of lighted paper at the end and touched it off. It blew every window out of the place."

We have seen that Edison moved to Menlo Park, where he had a very complete laboratory, in which he brought out a large number of important inventions. After a time, however, this establishment was outgrown and lost many of its possibilities, and he began to plan a still greater one which should be the most complete of its kind in the world.

The Orange laboratory, as was originally planned, consisted of a main building two hundred and fifty feet long and three stories in height, together with four other structures, each one hundred by twenty-five feet and only one story in height. All these were substantially built of brick. The main building was divided into five chief divisions—the library, office, machine-shops, experimental and chemical rooms, and stock-rooms. The smaller buildings were to be used for various purposes.

A high picket fence, with a gate, surrounded these buildings. A keeper was stationed at the gate with instructions to admit no strangers without a pass. On one occasion a new gateman was placed in charge, and, not knowing Edison, refused to admit him until he could get some one to come out and identify him.

The library is a spacious room about forty by thirty-five feet. Around the sides of the room run two tiers of gallery. The main floor and the galleries are divided into alcoves, in which, on the main floor, are many thousands of books. In the galleries are still more books and periodicals of all kinds, also cabinets and shelves containing mineralogical and geological specimens and thousands of samples of ores and minerals from all parts of the world. In a corner of one of the galleries may be seen a large number of magazines relating to electricity, chemistry, engineering, mechanics, building, cement, building materials, drugs, water and gas power, automobiles, railroads, aeronautics, philosophy, hygiene, physics, telegraphy, mining, metallurgy, metals, music, and other subjects; also theatrical weeklies, as well as the proceedings and transactions of various learned and technical societies. All of these form part of Mr. Edison's current reading. At one end of the main floor of the library, which is handsomely and comfortably furnished, is Mr. Edison's desk, at which he may usually be seen for a while in the early morning hours looking over his mail.

In the center of the room is a fine model of the first type of the Edison poured cement house, which stands in a miniature artificial lawn upon a special table prepared for it. Directly opposite to the entrance-door is a beautiful marble statue representing the supremacy of electric light over gas. This statue was purchased by Mr. Edison at the Paris Exposition in 1889.

A glance at the book-shelves affords a revelation of the subjects in which Edison is interested, for the titles of the volumes include astronomy, botany, chemistry, dynamics, electricity, engineering, forestry, geology, geography, mechanics, mining, medicine, metallurgy, magnetism, philosophy, psychology, physics, steam, steam-engines, telegraphy, telephony, and many others. These are not all of Edison's books by any means, for he has another big library in his house on the hill.

Turning to pass out of the library, one's attention is arrested by a cot standing in one of the alcoves near the door. Sometimes during long working hours Mr. Edison will throw himself down for a nap. He has the ability to go to sleep instantly, and, being deaf, noises do not disturb his slumber. The instant he awakes he is in full possession of his faculties and goes "back to the job" without a moment's hesitation.

Immediately outside the library is the famous stock-room, about which much has been written. Edison planned to have in this stock-room some quantity, great or small, of every known substance not easily perishable, together with the most complete assortment of chemicals and drugs that experience and knowledge could suggest. His theory was, and is, that he does not know in advance what he may want at any moment, and he planned to have anything that could be thought of ready at hand.

Thus, the stock-room is not only a museum, but a sample-room of nature, as well as a supply department. At first glance the collection is bewildering, but when classified is more easily comprehended.

The classification is natural, as, for instance, objects pertaining to various animals, birds, and fishes, such as skins, hides, hair, fur, feathers, wool, quills, down, bristles, teeth, bones, hoofs, horns, tusks, shells; natural products such as woods, barks, roots, leaves, nuts, seeds, gums, grains, flowers, meals, bran; also minerals in great assortment; mineral and vegetable oils, clay, mica, ozokerite, etc. In the line of textiles, cotton and silk threads in great variety, with woven goods of all kinds, from cheese-cloth to silk plush. As for paper, there is everything in white and color, from thinnest tissue up to the heaviest asbestos, even a few newspapers being always on hand. Twines of all sizes, inks, wax, cork, tar, rosin, pitch, asphalt, plumbago, glass in sheets and tubes, and a host of miscellaneous articles are revealed on looking around the shelves, as well as an interminable collection of chemicals including acids, alkalies, salts, reagents, every conceivable essential oil, and all the thinkable extracts. It may be remarked that this collection includes the eighteen hundred or more fluorescent salts made by Edison during his experiments for the best material for a fluoroscope in the early X-ray period. All known metals in form of sheet, rod, and tube, and of great variety in thickness, are here found also, together with a most complete assortment of tools and accessories for machine-shop and laboratory work.

Edison at work


The list above given is not by any means complete. In detail it would stretch out to a rather large catalogue. It is not by any means an idle collection, for a stock clerk is kept busy all the day answering demands upon him.

Beyond the stock-room is a good-sized machine-shop, well equipped, in which the heavier class of models and mechanical devices are made. Attached to these are the engine-room and boiler-room. Above, on the second floor, is another machine-shop, in which is carried on work of greater precision and fineness in the construction of tools and experimental models.

There are many experimental rooms on the second and third floors of the laboratory building. In these the various experimenters are at work carrying out the ideas of Mr. Edison on the great variety of subjects to which he is constantly devoting his attention. One cannot go far in the upper floors without being aware that efforts are being made to improve the phonograph, for the sounds of vocal and instrumental music can be heard from all sides.

On the third floor the visitor may see a number of glass-fronted cabinets containing a multitude of experimental incandescent lamps, and an immense variety of models of phonographs, motors, telegraph and telephone apparatus, and a host of other inventions, upon which Mr. Edison's energies have at one time or other been bent. Here are also many boxes of historical instruments and models. In fact, this hallway, with its variety of contents, may well be considered a scientific attic.

In the early days of the Orange laboratory some of the upper rooms contained cots for the benefit of the night-workers. In spite of the strenuous nights and days the spirit of fun was frequently in evidence. One instance will serve as an illustration.

One morning about two-thirty the late Charles Batchelor said he was tired and would go to bed. Leaving Edison and the others busily working, he went out and returned quietly in slippered feet, with his night-gown on, the handle of a feather-duster down his back with the feathers waving over his head, and his face marked. With unearthly howls and shrieks, a l' Indien, he pranced about the room, incidentally giving Edison a scare that made him jump up from his work. He saw the joke quickly, however, and joined in the general merriment caused by this prank.

A description of the laboratory building would be incomplete without mention of room Number 12. This is one of Edison's favorite rooms, where he may frequently be found seated at a plain table in the center of the room deeply intent on one of his numerous problems. It is a plain little room, but seems to exercise a nameless fascination for him.

Passing out of the building, we come to the four smaller buildings, which are known as Numbers One, Two, Three, and Four. The building Number One is called the galvanometer room. Edison originally planned that this should be used for the most delicate and minute electrical measurements. He went to great expense in fitting it up and in providing a large number of costly instruments, but the coming of the trolley near by a few years afterward rendered the room utterly useless for this purpose. It is now used as an experimental room, chiefly for motion-picture experiments.

Building Number Two is quite an important one. As the visitor arrives at the door he is quite conscious that it is a chemical-room. Here a corps of chemists is constantly kept busy in carrying out the various experiments Mr. Edison has given them to perform. This room is also one of his special haunts. He may be seen here very frequently experimenting in person, or seated at a plain little table figuring out some new combination that he has in mind.

A chemical store-room and a pattern-maker's shop occupy building Number Three, while Number Four, which was formerly used for ore concentrating experiments, is now used as a general stock-room.

We have only attempted to afford the reader a passing glance of this interesting laboratory, which for many years has been the headquarters of Edison and the central source of inspiration for the great industries he has established at Orange. Around it are grouped a number of immense concrete buildings in which the manufacture of phonographs, motion-pictures, and storage batteries is carried on, giving employment to as many as four thousand people during busy times.

Needless to say, the laboratory has many visitors. Celebrities of all kinds and distinguished foreigners are numerous, coming from all parts of the world to see the great inventor and the scene of his activities.