Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 7 Sep 99 14:33
Good question. And a tough one to know how to answer. One thing that I do like to talk about in this regard is one of Edison's great strengths, which was a willingness to fail and an understanding that he could learn a lot from failure, especially in the laboratory. I despair sometimes about our educational system which is increasingly focused on teaching kids to some set of standards but doesn't provide them with an opportunity to test their knowledge and skills in an environment that allows them to fail productively and learn from that failure. This is not the same thing as taking standardized tests and either passing or failing. It means teaching knowledge and skills that can be more broadly applied and then providing means for challenging the students to use them without worrying about whether they successfully get some "right" answer. Edison also was a great one for taking knowledge or experience that might have failed in one context and using it in another. And he also found that analogizing from something he knew could provide a starting point for research that might then lead in a new direction and ultimately provide a useful answer.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 7 Sep 99 15:03
There is a lot to learn from this man, and from this book! What else is going on now in Edison-land -- aside from the microfilming of the Edison papers, is there stuff going up on the web?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Wed 8 Sep 99 14:41
We are planning on putting documents on the web within the year. One of the problems with all of the web stuff is that it is expensive to prepare. We had a big grant to digitize the microfilm but now we have to have work done to convert our database for web use. We're also in the midst of finalizing some issues in regard to markup to use on the book edition, though we need to find some funding to convert the four volumes we now have to SGML. So if anyone knows of a funding source....
(apb) Wed 8 Sep 99 16:33
I grew up in the southeast Michigan and spent some time researching the birth of the American auto industry. Took tours of the River Rouge Plant, the scale of which is mind-boggling to me even today. I wonder what it must have been like to see someone like Ford focus on getting a project like that built? Two things stand out for their hip coolness factor at Henry Ford's Fairlane Manor. The first is the power house, built on the river, which supplied the mansion with its own independent source of electricity. It's like no other power house you'll ever see. Some of the flooring is made of marble, the gauges and other measuring instruments are made of brass and crystal, polished to a very bright shine. It's like being transported into a Jules Verne novel, being whisked onto the Nautilus. The second cool thing was a set of curlers in the Ford's bedroom. He had a system where a pipe would draw water from the river to a boiler, convert it to steam, and then carry that by pipe to a set of wooden curler's that HF's wife was very fond of. I know Ford and Edison had a strong mutual admiration society. What I'm interested in, Paul, is which had more influence on the other? Ford seemed to respect Edison as a scientist, not just an inventor, and Edison respected Ford as a visionary engineer, not just an industrialist. Am I reading too much into this? Was there a rivalry? At times I thought Ford idolized Edison.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Wed 8 Sep 99 20:30
Just dropped by to say I'm headed out of town and probably won't get back to this until Friday. I'll have more to say about the Ford-Edison connection then.
(apb) Wed 8 Sep 99 20:31
Have a nice trip, wherever your going. Look forward to reading your posts!
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Mon 13 Sep 99 07:40
Due to yesterday's WELL outage I'm just now getting around to posting ab out Ford and Edison. During the last two decades of Edison's life he and Ford became best friends. They first met, according to Ford's memoirs, during the annual meeting of hte Association of Edison Illuminating Companies where Edison encouraged Ford to go ahead with his ideas for an automobile. There appears to have been little if any contact between Ford and his hero Edison until Ford asked Edison to design a starter battery for Ford automobiles in 1912. Edison had developed an alkaline battery for electric automobiles but the battery found little market in the auto industry because of the victory of the internal combustion engine, which the Model T played an important part in. Instead the Edison battery was used mainly for industrial purposes. Because the competing lead acid batteries provided a larger initial charge than did Edison's alkaline, they proved more satisfactory as starter batteries for internal combustion engines and although Edison and his lab continued to work on the problem for Ford into the 1920s they never developed a suitable battery. Nonetheless, Ford's friendship with Edison, which grew immensely during those years, led him to continue tofund the research. Besides the work on storage batteries, the friendship grew as a result of their 1915 trip to the Panama-Pacific Expositions in San Francisco and San Diego. This led to annual "camping trips" with Harvey Firestone, the tire manufacturer and John Burroughs, the naturalist. These were auto trips during which they would camp in tents but with all the amenities of home. Ford and Edison loved to exchange jokes and stories and these were apparently lively trips. Ford and Firestone also funded Edison's last great research campaign--the search for a natural source of rubber in case of national emergency. This was not to find a permanent replacement but one that could be rapidly deployed in case of war--there had been a rubber shortage during WWI and after the war the auto industry had become the primary user of rubber, thus the interest of Ford and Firestone in this work. Ford also provided a large loan to Edison after a fire in 1914 destroyed several of Edison's factory buildings. And he received daily dispatches from the Edison family during Edison's final illness. So their was a great friendship between them, with Ford always idolizing Edison but also being a position to offer help to him. One of the key questions about their friendship is the extent to which Edison agreed with Ford's antisemitic views. Edison, like most Americans, tended to hold to ethnic stereotypes in general but not to act on them in his relations with individuals. In addition, he seems to have believed that the stereotypical qualities of a people were grounded in historical cultural and social circumstances. Thus, he said of Jews: "The trouble with the Jew [is] that he has been prosecuted for cenuries by ignorant malignant bigots & forced into his present characteristics and he has acquired a 6th sense which gives him an almost unerring judgment in trade affairs. Having this natural advantage over his fellows he has taken too great an advantage of it & got himself disliked by many as I saw in Europe. I believe that in America where he is free that in time he will cease to be so clannish, & not carry to such extremes his natural advantages." This was a much more sophisticated view of ethnic groups and Jews in particular than that held by Ford, who was an extreme antisemite.
Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 13 Sep 99 13:34
Paul, I just wanted to say that I have been avidly reading your interview, and I thank you for these fascinating glimpses into the life and work of Edison.
David Gans (tnf) Mon 13 Sep 99 18:54
What she said! The idea of Edison and Ford on a "camping trip" sounds like the stuff of theater, or even film.
(ideo) was I ere I saw (esau) Mon 13 Sep 99 19:11
Such a play has been written. Here's a post from me: > books.576.1546: Scott Underwood (ideo) Sat 30 Mar 96 09:18 > > A quick read in bed this morning: "Camping With Henry and Tom", a play by > Mark St. Germain. Don't know why I picked this up at the library, but it > is a fictional account of a real event: a camping trip with Henry Ford, > Thomas Edison and Warren Harding. Edison has all the best lines. > > Oh, and I enjoyed it.
David Gans (tnf) Mon 13 Sep 99 20:12
Wow! What do you remember aboutit?
(apb) Mon 13 Sep 99 21:04
Those camping trips must have been something. Any evidence of Edison, Ford, and company discussing those "natural forces" discussed earlier? I think HF would have taken a simliar view to Edison, that there were natural forces yet to be discovered. I wonder if there's a recollection of them ever discussing this and in what context: physics or the metaphysical?
(ideo) was I ere I saw (esau) Mon 13 Sep 99 21:25
Sorry, David, I don't remember too much. I seem to remember the playwright bringing up the antisemitic aspects in a subtle way and that Harding was portrayed as a bit of a doofus.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 14 Sep 99 05:58
Unfortunately, there is no record of what they talked about during their trips. I did not see the play but did read about it and the author tried to imagine what they would have talked about. In his later years Edison attempted to build a device that could communicate with the dead based on his idea that the atoms that made up the universe each contained a life force that would retain memories of past lives.
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 14 Sep 99 12:05
And what happened to that device? I love the idea. Sounds plausible to me.
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 14 Sep 99 13:18
It was apparently never built. I'm not in my office so I don't have the citation handy (I'll post it after I get back next Monday) but there is some fellow who claims that through a seance in which Edison was contacted he was able to obtain the plans for the device.
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 14 Sep 99 13:23
I can't wait to hear about it!
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sun 19 Sep 99 19:45
What were the early electric companies like? What sort of people worked for them? Were they similar to today's startups?
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Wed 22 Sep 99 12:53
Good question. I'm just getting caught up from being out of town and will try to compose an answer and post it tomorrow.
(ideo) was I ere I saw (esau) Wed 22 Sep 99 13:01
Building on that question, I'm amazed by how many companies seemed to have been started and ended and how many TAE joined and quit--practically one for each new telegraph idea. I keep losing track of the alliances, and I'd love to see a chronology of his career.
Roberta Piazza (rpiazza) Fri 24 Sep 99 14:47
This is just fascinating!
Paul B. Israel (pauli) Tue 28 Sep 99 14:27
Sorry I haven't had a chance to respond yet regarding the early electric companies. I've been preparing a talk on "Science and Invention: Looking Beyond the Popular Image of Thomas Edison" that I'm giving at the Smithsonian on October 12. I needed to get it done as I'm going to Ann Arbor and Detroit next week for the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). I finished writing the paper and preparing the slides today so I hope to have a chance to respond tomorrow. I had mentioned earlier that there was an article purporting to show that Edison had been contacted during a seance and directed the parties to the blueprint of his device for communicating with the dead. Somehow the blueprint had been lost but a tracing turned up and a machine built that failed. It did lead the GE researcher who tried to build the machine to design one of his own that purportedly worked. This is recounted in Wainwright Evans, "Scientists Research Machine to Contact the Dead," Fate (April 1963): 38-43.
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 28 Sep 99 17:58
Oooh! Fate Magazine! Thanks for that, Paul.
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