Needless to say, mastery of its literature is regarded by him as a most important preliminary in taking up any line of investigation. What others may have done, bearing directly or collaterally on the subject, in print, is carefully considered and sifted to the point of exhaustion. Not that he takes it for granted that the conclusions are correct, for he frequently obtains vastly different results by repeating in his own way experiments made by others as detailed in books.
"Edison can travel along a well-used road and still find virgin soil," remarked recently one of his most practical experimenters, who had been working along a certain line without attaining the desired result. "He wanted to get a particular compound having definite qualities, and I had tried in all sorts of ways to produce it but with only partial success. He was confident that it could be done, and said he would try it himself. In doing so he followed the same path in which I had travelled, but, by making an undreamed-of change in one of the operations, succeeded in producing a compound that virtually came up to his specifications. It is not the only time I have known this sort of thing to happen."
In speaking of Edison's method of experimenting, another of his laboratory staff says: "He 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. Taking one of the laboratory note-books, he will write in it a memorandum of the experiments to be tried, illustrated, if necessary, by sketches. This book is then passed on to that member of the experimental staff whose special training and experience are best adapted to the work. Here strenuousness is expected; and an immediate commencement of investigation and prompt report are required. Sometimes the subject may be such as to call for a long line of frequent tests which necessitate patient and accurate attention to minute details. Results must be reported often--daily, or possibly with still greater frequency. Edison does not forget what is going on; but in his daily tours through the laboratory keeps in touch with all the work that is under the hands of his various assistants, showing by an instant grasp of the present conditions of any experiment that he has a full consciousness of its meaning and its reference to his original conception.
The year 1869 saw the beginning of Edison's career as an acknowledged inventor of commercial devices. From the outset, an innate recognition of system dictated the desirability and wisdom of preserving records of his experiments and inventions. The primitive records, covering the earliest years, were mainly jotted down on loose sheets of paper covered with sketches, notes, and data, pasted into large scrap- books, or preserved in packages; but with the passing of years and enlargement of his interests, it became the practice to make all original laboratory notes in large, uniform books. This course was pursued until the Menlo Park period, when he instituted a new regime that has been continued down to the present day. A standard form of note-book, about eight and a half by six inches, containing about two hundred pages, was adopted. A number of these books were (and are now) always to be found scattered around in the different sections of the laboratory, and in them have been noted by Edison all his ideas, sketches, and memoranda. Details of the various experiments concerning them have been set down by his assistants from time to time.
These later laboratory note-books, of which there are now over one thousand in the series, are eloquent in the history they reveal of the strenuous labors of Edison and his assistants and the vast fields of research he has covered during the last thirty years. They are overwhelmingly rich in biographic material, but analysis would be a prohibitive task for one person, and perhaps interesting only to technical readers. Their pages cover practically every department of science. The countless thousands of separate experiments recorded exhibit 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. For instance, when Edison was investigating a certain problem of importance many years ago, the note-books show that on this point alone about fifteen thousand experiments and tests were made by one of his assistants.
A most casual glance over these note-books will illustrate the following remark, which was made to one of the writers not long ago by a member of the laboratory staff who has been experimenting there for twenty years: "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 further on that particular line. When he decides on any mode of procedure he gives his notes to the experimenter and lets him alone, only stepping in from time to time to look at the operations and receive reports of progress."
The history of the development of the telephone transmitter, phonograph, incandescent lamp, dynamo, electrical distributing systems from central stations, electric railway, ore-milling, cement, motion pictures, and a host of minor inventions may be found embedded in the laboratory note-books. A passing glance at a few pages of these written records will serve to illustrate, though only to a limited extent, the thoroughness of Edison's method. It is to be observed that these references can be but of the most meagre kind, and must be regarded as merely throwing a side-light on the subject itself. For instance, the complex problem of a practical telephone transmitter gave rise to a series of most exhaustive experiments. Combinations in almost infinite variety, including gums, chemical compounds, oils, minerals, and metals were suggested by Edison; and his assistants were given long lists of materials to try with reference to predetermined standards of articulation, degrees of loudness, and perfection of hissing sounds. The note-books contain hundreds of pages showing that a great many thousands of experiments were tried and passed upon. Such remarks as "N. G."; "Pretty good"; "Whistling good, but no articulation"; "Rattly"; "Articulation, whispering, and whistling good"; "Best to-night so far"; and others are noted opposite the various combinations as they were tried. Thus, one may follow the investigation through a maze of experiments which led up to the successful invention of the carbon button transmitter, the vital device to give the telephone its needed articulation and perfection.
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