Edison His Life And Inventions / Frank Lewis Dyer / CHAPTER 13


IN writing about the old experimenting days at Menlo Park, Mr. F. R. Upton says: "Edison's day is twenty-four hours long, for he has always worked whenever there was anything to do, whether day or night, and carried a force of night workers, so that his experiments could go on continually. If he wanted material, he always made it a principle to have it at once, and never hesitated to use special messengers to get it. I remember in the early days of the electric light he wanted a mercury pump for exhausting the lamps. He sent me to Princeton to get it. I got back to Metuchen late in the day, and had to carry the pump over to the laboratory on my back that evening, set it up, and work all night and the next day getting results."

This characteristic principle of obtaining desired material in the quickest and most positive way manifested itself in the search that Edison instituted for the best kind of bamboo for lamp filaments, immediately after the discovery related in a preceding chapter. It is doubtful whether, in the annals of scientific research and experiment, there is anything quite analogous to the story of this search and the various expeditions that went out from the Edison laboratory in 1880 and subsequent years, to scour the earth for a material so apparently simple as a homogeneous strip of bamboo, or other similar fibre. Prolonged and exhaustive experiment, microscopic examination, and an intimate knowledge of the nature of wood and plant fibres, however, had led Edison to the conclusion that bamboo or similar fibrous filaments were more suitable than anything else then known for commercial incandescent lamps, and he wanted the most perfect for that purpose. Hence, the quickest way was to search the tropics until the proper material was found.

The first emissary chosen for this purpose was the late William H. Moore, of Rahway, New Jersey, who left New York in the summer of 1880, bound for China and Japan, these being the countries preeminently noted for the production of abundant species of bamboo. On arrival in the East he quickly left the cities behind and proceeded into the interior, extending his search far into the more remote country districts, collecting specimens on his way, and devoting much time to the study of the bamboo, and in roughly testing the relative value of its fibre in canes of one, two, three, four, and five year growths. Great bales of samples were sent to Edison, and after careful tests a certain variety and growth of Japanese bamboo was determined to be the most satisfactory material for filaments that had been found. Mr. Moore, who was continuing his searches in that country, was instructed to arrange for the cultivation and shipment of regular supplies of this particular species. Arrangements to this end were accordingly made with a Japanese farmer, who began to make immediate shipments, and who subsequently displayed so much ingenuity in fertilizing and cross-fertilizing that the homogeneity of the product was constantly improved. The use of this bamboo for Edison lamp filaments was continued for many years.

Although Mr. Moore did not meet with the exciting adventures of some subsequent explorers, he encountered numerous difficulties and novel experiences in his many months of travel through the hinterland of Japan and China. The attitude toward foreigners thirty years ago was not as friendly as it has since become, but Edison, as usual, had made a happy choice of messengers, as Mr. Moore's good nature and diplomacy attested. These qualities, together with his persistence and perseverance and faculty of intelligent discrimination in the matter of fibres, helped to make his mission successful, and gave to him the honor of being the one who found the bamboo which was adopted for use as filaments in commercial Edison lamps.

Although Edison had satisfied himself that bamboo furnished the most desirable material thus far discovered for incandescent-lamp filaments, he felt that in some part of the world there might be found a natural product of the same general character that would furnish a still more perfect and homogeneous material. In his study of this subject, and during the prosecution of vigorous and searching inquiries in various directions, he learned that Mr. John C. Brauner, then residing in Brooklyn, New York, had an expert knowledge of indigenous plants of the particular kind desired. During the course of a geological survey which he had made for the Brazilian Government, Mr. Brauner had examined closely the various species of palms which grow plentifully in that country, and of them there was one whose fibres he thought would be just what Edison wanted.

Accordingly, Mr. Brauner was sent for and dispatched to Brazil in December, 1880, to search for and send samples of this and such other palms, fibres, grasses, and canes as, in his judgment, would be suitable for the experiments then being carried on at Menlo Park. Landing at Para, he crossed over into the Amazonian province, and thence proceeded through the heart of the country, making his way by canoe on the rivers and their tributaries, and by foot into the forests and marshes of a vast and almost untrodden wilderness. In this manner Mr. Brauner traversed about two thousand miles of the comparatively unknown interior of Southern Brazil, and procured a large variety of fibrous specimens, which he shipped to Edison a few months later. When these fibres arrived in the United States they were carefully tested and a few of them found suitable but not superior to the Japanese bamboo, which was then being exclusively used in the manufacture of commercial Edison lamps.

Later on Edison sent out an expedition to explore the wilds of Cuba and Jamaica. A two months' investigation of the latter island revealed a variety of bamboo growths, of which a great number of specimens were obtained and shipped to Menlo Park; but on careful test they were found inferior to the Japanese bamboo, and hence rejected. The exploration of the glades and swamps of Florida by three men extended over a period of five months in a minute search for fibrous woods of the palmetto species. A great variety was found, and over five hundred boxes of specimens were shipped to the laboratory from time to time, but none of them tested out with entirely satisfactory results.

The use of Japanese bamboo for carbon filaments was therefore continued in the manufacture of lamps, although an incessant search was maintained for a still more perfect material. The spirit of progress, so pervasive in Edison's character, led him, however, to renew his investigations further afield by sending out two other men to examine the bamboo and similar growths of those parts of South America not covered by Mr. Brauner. These two men were Frank McGowan and C. F. Hanington, both of whom had been for nearly seven years in the employ of the Edison Electric Light Company in New York. The former was a stocky, rugged Irishman, possessing the native shrewdness and buoyancy of his race, coupled with undaunted courage and determination; and the latter was a veteran of the Civil War, with some knowledge of forest and field, acquired as a sportsman. They left New York in September, 1887, arriving in due time at Para, proceeding thence twenty-three hundred miles up the Amazon River to Iquitos. Nothing of an eventful nature occurred during this trip, but on arrival at Iquitos the two men separated; Mr. McGowan to explore on foot and by canoe in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, while Mr. Hanington returned by the Amazon River to Para. Thence Hanington went by steamer to Montevideo, and by similar conveyance up the River de la Plata and through Uruguay, Argentine, and Paraguay to the southernmost part of Brazil, collecting a large number of specimens of palms and grasses.

The adventures of Mr. McGowan, after leaving Iquitos, would fill a book if related in detail. The object of the present narrative and the space at the authors' disposal, however, do not permit of more than a brief mention of his experiences. His first objective point was Quito, about five hundred miles away, which he proposed to reach on foot and by means of canoeing on the Napo River through a wild and comparatively unknown country teeming with tribes of hostile natives. The dangers of the expedition were pictured to him in glowing colors, but spurning prophecies of dire disaster, he engaged some native Indians and a canoe and started on his explorations, reaching Quito in eighty-seven days, after a thorough search of the country on both sides of the Napo River. From Quito he went to Guayaquil, from there by steamer to Buenaventura, and thence by rail, twelve miles, to Cordova. From this point he set out on foot to explore the Cauca Valley and the Cordilleras.

Mr. McGowan found in these regions a great variety of bamboo, small and large, some species growing seventy-five to one hundred feet in height, and from six to nine inches in diameter. He collected a large number of specimens, which were subsequently sent to Orange for Edison's examination. After about fifteen months of exploration attended by much hardship and privation, deserted sometimes by treacherous guides, twice laid low by fevers, occasionally in peril from Indian attacks, wild animals and poisonous serpents, tormented by insect pests, endangered by floods, one hundred and nineteen days without meat, ninety-eight days without taking off his clothes, Mr. McGowan returned to America, broken in health but having faithfully fulfilled the commission intrusted to him. The Evening Sun, New York, obtained an interview with him at that time, and in its issue of May 2, 1889, gave more than a page to a brief story of his interesting adventures, and then commented editorially upon them, as follows:


"The narrative given elsewhere in the Evening Sun of the wanderings of Edison's missionary of science, Mr. Frank McGowan, furnishes a new proof that the romances of real life surpass any that the imagination can frame.

"In pursuit of a substance that should meet the requirements of the Edison incandescent lamp, Mr. McGowan penetrated the wilderness of the Amazon, and for a year defied its fevers, beasts, reptiles, and deadly insects in his quest of a material so precious that jealous Nature has hidden it in her most secret fastnesses.

"No hero of mythology or fable ever dared such dragons to rescue some captive goddess as did this dauntless champion of civilization. Theseus, or Siegfried, or any knight of the fairy books might envy the victories of Edison's irresistible lieutenant.

"As a sample story of adventure, Mr. McGowan's narrative is a marvel fit to be classed with the historic journeyings of the greatest travellers. But it gains immensely in interest when we consider that it succeeded in its scientific purpose. The mysterious bamboo was discovered, and large quantities of it were procured and brought to the Wizard's laboratory, there to suffer another wondrous change and then to light up our pleasure-haunts and our homes with a gentle radiance."

A further, though rather sad, interest attaches to the McGowan story, for only a short time had elapsed after his return to America when he disappeared suddenly and mysteriously, and in spite of long-continued and strenuous efforts to obtain some light on the subject, no clew or trace of him was ever found. He was a favorite among the Edison "oldtimers," and his memory is still cherished, for when some of the "boys" happen to get together, as they occasionally do, some one is almost sure to "wonder what became of poor 'Mac.'" He was last seen at Mouquin's famous old French restaurant on Fulton Street, New York, where he lunched with one of the authors of this book and the late Luther Stieringer. He sat with them for two or three hours discussing his wonderful trip, and telling some fascinating stories of adventure. Then the party separated at the Ann Street door of the restaurant, after making plans to secure the narrative in more detailed form for subsequent use—and McGowan has not been seen from that hour to this. The trail of the explorer was more instantly lost in New York than in the vast recesses of the Amazon swamps.

The next and last explorer whom Edison sent out in search of natural fibres was Mr. James Ricalton, of Maplewood, New Jersey, a school-principal, a well-known traveller, and an ardent student of natural science. Mr. Ricalton's own story of his memorable expedition is so interesting as to be worthy of repetition here:

"A village schoolmaster is not unaccustomed to door-rappings; for the steps of belligerent mothers are often thitherward bent seeking redress for conjured wrongs to their darling boobies.

"It was a bewildering moment, therefore, to the Maplewood teacher when, in answering a rap at the door one afternoon, he found, instead of an irate mother, a messenger from the laboratory of the world's greatest inventor bearing a letter requesting an audience a few hours later.

"Being the teacher to whom reference is made, I am now quite willing to confess that for the remainder of that afternoon, less than a problem in Euclid would have been sufficient to disqualify me for the remaining scholastic duties of the hour. I felt it, of course, to be no small honor for a humble teacher to be called to the sanctum of Thomas A. Edison. The letter, however, gave no intimation of the nature of the object for which I had been invited to appear before Mr. Edison....

"When I was presented to Mr. Edison his way of setting forth the mission he had designated for me was characteristic of how a great mind conceives vast undertakings and commands great things in few words. At this time Mr. Edison had discovered that the fibre of a certain bamboo afforded a very desirable carbon for the electric lamp, and the variety of bamboo used was a product of Japan. It was his belief that in other parts of the world other and superior varieties might be found, and to that end he had dispatched explorers to bamboo regions in the valleys of the great South American rivers, where specimens were found of extraordinary quality; but the locality in which these specimens were found was lost in the limitless reaches of those great river-bottoms. The great necessity for more durable carbons became a desideratum so urgent that the tireless inventor decided to commission another explorer to search the tropical jungles of the Orient.

"This brings me then to the first meeting of Edison, when he set forth substantially as follows, as I remember it twenty years ago, the purpose for which he had called me from my scholastic duties. With a quizzical gleam in his eye, he said: 'I want a man to ransack all the tropical jungles of the East to find a better fibre for my lamp; I expect it to be found in the palm or bamboo family. How would you like that job?' Suiting my reply to his love of brevity and dispatch, I said, 'That would suit me.' 'Can you go to-morrow?' was his next question. 'Well, Mr. Edison, I must first of all get a leave of absence from my Board of Education, and assist the board to secure a substitute for the time of my absence. How long will it take, Mr. Edison?' 'How can I tell? Maybe six months, and maybe five years; no matter how long, find it.' He continued: 'I sent a man to South America to find what I want; he found it; but lost the place where he found it, so he might as well never have found it at all.' Hereat I was enjoined to proceed forthwith to court the Board of Education for a leave of absence, which I did successfully, the board considering that a call so important and honorary was entitled to their unqualified favor, which they generously granted.

"I reported to Mr. Edison on the following day, when he instructed me to come to the laboratory at once to learn all the details of drawing and carbonizing fibres, which it would be necessary to do in the Oriental jungles. This I did, and, in the mean time, a set of suitable tools for this purpose had been ordered to be made in the laboratory. As soon as I learned my new trade, which I accomplished in a few days, Mr. Edison directed me to the library of the laboratory to occupy a few days in studying the geography of the Orient and, particularly, in drawing maps of the tributaries of the Ganges, the Irrawaddy, and the Brahmaputra rivers, and other regions which I expected to explore.

"It was while thus engaged that Mr. Edison came to me one day and said: 'If you will go up to the house' (his palatial home not far away) 'and look behind the sofa in the library you will find a joint of bamboo, a specimen of that found in South America; bring it down and make a study of it; if you find something equal to that I will be satisfied.' At the home I was guided to the library by an Irish servant-woman, to whom I communicated my knowledge of the definite locality of the sample joint. She plunged her arm, bare and herculean, behind the aforementioned sofa, and holding aloft a section of wood, called out in a mood of discovery: 'Is that it?' Replying in the affirmative, she added, under an impulse of innocent divination that whatever her wizard master laid hands upon could result in nothing short of an invention, 'Sure, sor, and what's he going to invint out o' that?'

"My kit of tools made, my maps drawn, my Oriental geography reviewed, I come to the point when matters of immediate departure are discussed; and when I took occasion to mention to my chief that, on the subject of life insurance, underwriters refuse to take any risks on an enterprise so hazardous, Mr. Edison said that, if I did not place too high a valuation on my person, he would take the risk himself. I replied that I was born and bred in New York State, but now that I had become a Jersey man I did not value myself at above fifteen hundred dollars. Edison laughed and said that he would assume the risk, and another point was settled. The next matter was the financing of the trip, about which Mr. Edison asked in a tentative way about the rates to the East. I told him the expense of such a trip could not be determined beforehand in detail, but that I had established somewhat of a reputation for economic travel, and that I did not believe any traveller could surpass me in that respect. He desired no further assurance in that direction, and thereupon ordered a letter of credit made out with authorization to order a second when the first was exhausted. Herein then are set forth in briefest space the preliminaries of a circuit of the globe in quest of fibre.

"It so happened that the day on which I set out fell on Washington's Birthday, and I suggested to my boys and girls at school that they make a line across the station platform near the school at Maplewood, and from this line I would start eastward around the world, and if good-fortune should bring me back I would meet them from the westward at the same line. As I had often made them 'toe the scratch,' for once they were only too well pleased to have me toe the line for them.

"This was done, and I sailed via England and the Suez Canal to Ceylon, that fair isle to which Sindbad the Sailor made his sixth voyage, picturesquely referred to in history as the 'brightest gem in the British Colonial Crown.' I knew Ceylon to be eminently tropical; I knew it to be rich in many varieties of the bamboo family, which has been called the king of the grasses; and in this family had I most hope of finding the desired fibre. Weeks were spent in this paradisiacal isle. Every part was visited. Native wood craftsmen were offered a premium on every new species brought in, and in this way nearly a hundred species were tested, a greater number than was found in any other country. One of the best specimens tested during the entire trip around the world was found first in Ceylon, although later in Burmah, it being indigenous to the latter country. It is a gigantic tree-grass or reed growing in clumps of from one to two hundred, often twelve inches in diameter, and one hundred and fifty feet high, and known as the giant bamboo (Bambusa gigantia). This giant grass stood the highest test as a carbon, and on account of its extraordinary size and qualities I extend it this special mention. With others who have given much attention to this remarkable reed, I believe that in its manifold uses the bamboo is the world's greatest dendral benefactor.

"From Ceylon I proceeded to India, touching the great peninsula first at Cape Comorin, and continuing northward by way of Pondicherry, Madura, and Madras; and thence to the tableland of Bangalore and the Western Ghauts, testing many kinds of wood at every point, but particularly the palm and bamboo families. From the range of the Western Ghauts I went to Bombay and then north by the way of Delhi to Simla, the summer capital of the Himalayas; thence again northward to the headwaters of the Sutlej River, testing everywhere on my way everything likely to afford the desired carbon.

"On returning from the mountains I followed the valleys of the Jumna and the Ganges to Calcutta, whence I again ascended the Sub-Himalayas to Darjeeling, where the numerous river-bottoms were sprinkled plentifully with many varieties of bamboo, from the larger sizes to dwarfed species covering the mountain slopes, and not longer than the grass of meadows. Again descending to the plains I passed eastward to the Brahmaputra River, which I ascended to the foot-hills in Assam; but finding nothing of superior quality in all this northern region I returned to Calcutta and sailed thence to Rangoon, in Burmah; and there, finding no samples giving more excellent tests in the lower reaches of the Irrawaddy, I ascended that river to Mandalay, where, through Burmese bamboo wiseacres, I gathered in from round about and tested all that the unusually rich Burmese flora could furnish. In Burmah the giant bamboo, as already mentioned, is found indigenous; but beside it no superior varieties were found. Samples tested at several points on the Malay Peninsula showed no new species, except at a point north of Singapore, where I found a species large and heavy which gave a test nearly equal to that of the giant bamboo in Ceylon.

"After completing the Malay Peninsula I had planned to visit Java and Borneo; but having found in the Malay Peninsula and in Ceylon a bamboo fibre which averaged a test from one to two hundred per cent. better than that in use at the lamp factory, I decided it was unnecessary to visit these countries or New Guinea, as my 'Eureka' had already been established, and that I would therefore set forth over the return hemisphere, searching China and Japan on the way. The rivers in Southern China brought down to Canton bamboos of many species, where this wondrously utilitarian reed enters very largely into the industrial life of that people, and not merely into the industrial life, but even into the culinary arts, for bamboo sprouts are a universal vegetable in China; but among all the bamboos of China I found none of superexcellence in carbonizing qualities. Japan came next in the succession of countries to be explored, but there the work was much simplified, from the fact that the Tokio Museum contains a complete classified collection of all the different species in the empire, and there samples could be obtained and tested.

"Now the last of the important bamboo-producing countries in the globe circuit had been done, and the 'home-lap' was in order; the broad Pacific was spanned in fourteen days; my natal continent in six; and on the 22d of February, on the same day, at the same hour, at the same minute, one year to a second, 'little Maude,' a sweet maid of the school, led me across the line which completed the circuit of the globe, and where I was greeted by the cheers of my boys and girls. I at once reported to Mr. Edison, whose manner of greeting my return was as characteristic of the man as his summary and matter-of-fact manner of my dispatch. His little catechism of curious inquiry was embraced in four small and intensely Anglo-Saxon words—with his usual pleasant smile he extended his hand and said: 'Did you get it?' This was surely a summing of a year's exploration not less laconic than Caesar's review of his Gallic campaign. When I replied that I had, but that he must be the final judge of what I had found, he said that during my absence he had succeeded in making an artificial carbon which was meeting the requirements satisfactorily; so well, indeed, that I believe no practical use was ever made of the bamboo fibres thereafter.

"I have herein given a very brief resume of my search for fibre through the Orient; and during my connection with that mission I was at all times not less astonished at Mr. Edison's quick perception of conditions and his instant decision and his bigness of conceptions, than I had always been with his prodigious industry and his inventive genius.

"Thinking persons know that blatant men never accomplish much, and Edison's marvellous brevity of speech along with his miraculous achievements should do much to put bores and garrulity out of fashion."

Although Edison had instituted such a costly and exhaustive search throughout the world for the most perfect of natural fibres, he did not necessarily feel committed for all time to the exclusive use of that material for his lamp filaments. While these explorations were in progress, as indeed long before, he had given much thought to the production of some artificial compound that would embrace not only the required homogeneity, but also many other qualifications necessary for the manufacture of an improved type of lamp which had become desirable by reason of the rapid adoption of his lighting system.

At the very time Mr. McGowan was making his explorations deep in South America, and Mr. Ricalton his swift trip around the world, Edison, after much investigation and experiment, had produced a compound which promised better results than bamboo fibres. After some changes dictated by experience, this artificial filament was adopted in the manufacture of lamps. No radical change was immediately made, however, but the product of the lamp factory was gradually changed over, during the course of a few years, from the use of bamboo to the "squirted" filament, as the new material was called. An artificial compound of one kind or another has indeed been universally adopted for the purpose by all manufacturers; hence the incandescing conductors in all carbon-filament lamps of the present day are made in that way. The fact remains, however, that for nearly nine years all Edison lamps (many millions in the aggregate) were made with bamboo filaments, and many of them for several years after that, until bamboo was finally abandoned in the early nineties, except for use in a few special types which were so made until about the end of 1908. The last few years have witnessed a remarkable advance in the manufacture of incandescent lamps in the substitution of metallic filaments for those of carbon. It will be remembered that many of the earlier experiments were based on the use of strips of platinum; while other rare metals were the subject of casual trial. No real success was attained in that direction, and for many years the carbon-filament lamp reigned supreme. During the last four or five years lamps with filaments made from tantalum and tungsten have been produced and placed on the market with great success, and are now largely used. Their price is still very high, however, as compared with that of the carbon lamp, which has been vastly improved in methods of construction, and whose average price of fifteen cents is only one-tenth of what it was when Edison first brought it out.

With the close of Mr. McGowan's and Mr. Ricalton's expeditions, there ended the historic world-hunt for natural fibres. From start to finish the investigations and searches made by Edison himself, and carried on by others under his direction, are remarkable not only from the fact that they entailed a total expenditure of about $100,000, (disbursed under his supervision by Mr. Upton), but also because of their unique inception and thoroughness they illustrate one of the strongest traits of his character—an invincible determination to leave no stone unturned to acquire that which he believes to be in existence, and which, when found, will answer the purpose that he has in mind.

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