A Relentless Researcher
In 1878, Thomas Edison immersed himself in research related to electric light at his Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey. The filaments in the incandescent lamps he was developing required a material that glowed long enough to provide light when heated by electric current. As the solution remained elusive, Edison and his team tested hundreds of materials. Finally, platinum emerged as a promising possibility.
Laboratory Assistants Working in Menlo Park Laboratory, Menlo Park, New Jersey, circa 1880 (1875/1885)Original Source: Digital Collections
The scarcity of platinum made it expensive. Edison knew that if he was to sell his incandescent lamps at a reasonable price, he would need access to large quantities of the metal. After investigating literature on geology, mining, and mineral processing, Edison concluded that platinum could be recovered from gold mine tailings. His team at Menlo Park began a new round of experiments.
Illustration, Preparing the First Practical Incandescent Lamp for Testing at Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory, October 19, 1879 (1879-10-19) by Flemming, Harry K. and Jehl, Francis, 1860-1941Original Source: Digital Collections
When carbon became the solution to Edison's incandescent filament problem, he turned his attention away from platinum. Experiments continued, but now focused on ways to extract gold ore from tailings.
Francis Jehl with the Magnetic Ore-Separator on the Grounds of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory, 1880 (1936-05-28) by Ford Motor Company. Engineering Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections
One experiment, the electromagnetic ore-separator, proved to be the most feasible. In Edison's design, crushed rock was fed through a hopper that allowed it to fall in a thin, even line. As the powder moved past electromagnets, magnetic grains like iron were attracted to one bin, while non-magnetic grains like gold fell in another.
Portrait of Charles Batchelor, "First Photograph Made with Incandescent Light," 1880 (1880)Original Source: Digital Collections
Over the next decade, Edison continued to experiment with ore separating technology while building America's early electrical infrastructure -- an enterprise that relied heavily on iron, and the steel that it produced. Edison realized that his ore-separator technology might have more lucrative applications in the iron industry. He wrote research papers, filed ore-separator patents, launched new companies, and scaled-up experiments in iron ore processing plants.
A Rocky Road Ahead
By 1890, the Eastern iron ore mines of the United States were becoming quickly depleted. High-grade ore from a few Midwestern mines remained too expensive to transport and mining low-grade ore proved economically unfeasible – leaving Eastern steel and iron industries faltering. In the iron ore shortage, Edison attempted to economize the mining of low-grade ore with his electromagnetic ore-separator.
Alfred Muller, William Kent, Thomas Edison and A. Ruce at Edison's Ore-Concentrating Works, October 1891 (1891-10) by Miller, Spencer, 1859-1953Original Source: Digital Collections
After years of experimentation, Edison acquired an old mine in northern New Jersey that still contained large quantities of low-grade iron ore. There, he designed and built a mill near the mine that used his electromagnetic ore-separator to turn that low-grade ore into a profitable product.
Thomas Edison and Another Man at Edison's Ore-Concentrating Works, Ogdensburg, New Jersey, circa 1895 (1890/1900)Original Source: Digital Collections
In 1892, when his electrical company merged with a rival's, Edison left the electrical industry, retaining only stock in the new company. Edison turned his full attention to the new mill. The mill's cutting edge, automated process moved mined boulders along steel conveyor belts to the top of a tall building. Inside, multiple sets of massive rollers crushed the rock into a fine powder.
Thomas Edison at His Ore-Concentrating Works, circa 1897 (1892/1902)Original Source: Digital Collections
Carried by conveyor belt to another tower, the powder fell past hundreds of electromagnets that pulled granules of iron to one side, allowing waste sand to fall on the other. The concentrated iron ore powder produced at Edison's mill, pictured here, could then be sold and shipped to Eastern steel mills.
Setbacks and Successes
Edison soon ran into setbacks with his ore concentrating process. Massive rollers broke loose, abrasive dust covered everything, and several workmen died in machinery accidents. Some ore powder blew away during transport to the steel mills; still more blew away in steel mill furnaces. One of Edison's successful developments, a glue-like substance that bound the iron powder in briquettes, allowed the iron ore to be transported and used effectively in steel-making.
Thomas Edison at His Ore Concentrating Plant in Ogdensburg, New Jersey, circa 1896 (1891/1901)Original Source: Digital Collections
From 1894 to 1897, Edison spent nearly all of his time tinkering at the plant, only coming home on Sundays. Despite modest demand for the ore he was producing, Edison frequently shut down the plant to redesign machinery and rebuild inefficient structures. As Edison sank more money into his now-failing project, investors left, workers lost faith, and foremen resigned.
Thomas Edison in a Machine Shop at His Ore-Concentrating Works in Ogdensburg, New Jersey, 1897 (1897) by Underhill, Irving, d. 1960Original Source: Digital Collections
To keep his mill running, Edison sold the stock from his electric company merger and went into debt. The final blow came with the opening of the Mesabi iron range in Minnesota. High-grade iron ore became plentiful again, leaving Edison's iron ore powder unneeded.
Thomas Edison at His Ore-Concentrating Works, Ogdensburg, New Jersey, 1897 (1897) by Underhill, Irving, d. 1960Original Source: Digital Collections
By the end of the 1890s, Thomas Edison had spent nearly ten years and more than two million dollars attempting to build an industry around the mining of low-grade iron ore. Deeply in debt, Edison shuttered his operations, but in true Edison fashion, found a new direction in the dust of his failed mining venture.
Cementing a Legacy
After Thomas Edison's mining operations failed, he saw an opportunity for his rock crushing technology to be used in the growing Portland cement industry. Edison's initial exposure to cement production began with the sale of waste sand from his ore-separator to cement manufacturers. By 1901, Edison had built a manufacturing plant in New Jersey and launched the Edison Portland Cement Company.
Thomas Edison with an "Ediphone" Dictation Machine at His Desk in the West Orange Laboratory, 1911 (1911-11-20)Original Source: Digital Collections
Led by Edison's inventive spirit, the Edison Portland Cement Company became America’s largest cement producer. His innovative redesign of the rotatory kilns used in cement-making increased efficiency so much that he led the industry to overproduction.
With cement now unprofitable, Edison explored new uses for the building material in order to increase demand.
One experiment attempted to solve the shortage of affordable housing for working class families.
Using giant iron molds, Edison created entire houses of cement at the rate of one per day.
Ultimately, mass-producing houses with Edison's process proved too expensive for builders to adopt.
President Harding Visiting the "Vagabonds" Camp Site, 1921 (1921) by Ford Motor Company. Engineering Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections
Edison eventually profited from the general expansion of cement use in infrastructure and was able to repay the debt incurred from his ore mining venture. When Edison's friend Henry Ford began construction on Ford Motor Company's massive manufacturing complex, the Rouge plant, the Edison Portland Cement Company supplied the cement.
Henry Ford Watching Thomas Edison Sign Edison Institute Cornerstone, September 27, 1928 (1928-09-27)Original Source: Digital Collections
Like Edison, Henry Ford also found opportunity in failure. As an adversary of waste, Ford ensured his Rogue plant could manufacture Portland cement from the left over slag produced by its blast furnace. In 1928, Henry Ford used this cement to cast a cornerstone for the new museum he was building and dedicating to Thomas Edison.
Cornerstone of Edison Institute Signed by Thomas A. Edison, September 27, 1928 (1928)Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=10475
Signed by Edison, the Portland cement cornerstone helps tell the story of his legacy -- a legacy built on the tenacious ability to find new opportunity in what others considered failure.
From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.
America’s greatest innovators ask big “What If” questions—and answer them in even bigger ways. Step into the unfolding drama of those questions and discover how visionaries like Thomas Edison triumphed to create lasting change.