Notwithstanding the establishment of a regular routine of manufacture and sale, Edison did not cease to experiment for improvement. Although the graphite apparently did the work desired of it, he was not altogether satisfied with its performance and made extended trials of other substances, but at that time found nothing that on the whole served the purpose better. Continuous tests of the commercial cells were carried on at the laboratory, as well as more practical and heavy tests in automobiles, which were constantly kept running around the adjoining country over all kinds of roads. All these tests were very closely watched by Edison, who demanded rigorously that the various trials of the battery should be carried on with all strenuousness so as to get the utmost results and develop any possible weakness. So insistent was he on this, that if any automobile should run several days without bursting a tire or breaking some part of the machine, he would accuse the chauffeur of picking out easy roads.
After these tests had been going on for some time, and some thousands of cells had been sold and were giving satisfactory results to the purchasers, the test sheets and experience gathered from various sources pointed to the fact that occasionally a cell here and there would show up as being short in capacity. Inasmuch as the factory processes were very exact and carefully guarded, and every cell was made as uniform as human skill and care could provide, there thus arose a serious problem. Edison concentrated his powers on the investigation of this trouble, and found that the chief cause lay in the graphite. Some other minor matters also attracted his attention. What to do, was the important question that confronted him. To shut down the factory meant great loss and apparent failure. He realized this fully, but he also knew that to go on would simply be to increase the number of defective batteries in circulation, which would ultimately result in a permanent closure and real failure. Hence he took the course which one would expect of Edison's common sense and directness of action. He was not satisfied that the battery was a complete success, so he shut down and went to experimenting once more.
"And then," says one of the laboratory men, "we started on another series of record-breaking experiments that lasted over five years. I might almost say heart-breaking, too, for of all the elusive, disappointing things one ever hunted for that was the worst. But secrets have to be long-winded and roost high if they want to get away when the `Old Man' goes hunting for them. He doesn't get mad when he misses them, but just keeps on smiling and firing, and usually brings them into camp. That's what he did on the battery, for after a whole lot of work he perfected the nickel-flake idea and process, besides making the great improvement of using tubes instead of flat pockets for the positive. He also added a minor improvement here and there, and now we have a finer battery than we ever expected."
In the interim, while the experimentation of these last five years was in progress, many customers who had purchased batteries of the original type came knocking at the door with orders in their hands for additional outfits wherewith to equip more wagons and trucks. Edison expressed his regrets, but said he was not satisfied with the old cells and was engaged in improving them. To which the customers replied that THEY were entirely satisfied and ready and willing to pay for more batteries of the same kind; but Edison could not be moved from his determination, although considerable pressure was at times brought to bear to sway his decision.
Experiment was continued beyond the point of peradventure, and after some new machinery had been built, the manufacture of the new type of cell was begun in the early summer of 1909, and at the present writing is being extended as fast as the necessary additional machinery can be made. The product is shipped out as soon as it is completed.
The nickel flake, which is Edison's ingenious solution of the conductivity problem, is of itself a most interesting product, intensely practical in its application and fascinating in its manufacture. The flake of nickel is obtained by electroplating upon a metallic cylinder alternate layers of copper and nickel, one hundred of each, after which the combined sheet is stripped from the cylinder. So thin are the layers that this sheet is only about the thickness of a visiting-card, and yet it is composed of two hundred layers of metal. The sheet is cut into tiny squares, each about one-sixteenth of an inch, and these squares are put into a bath where the copper is dissolved out. This releases the layers of nickel, so that each of these small squares becomes one hundred tiny sheets, or flakes, of pure metallic nickel, so thin that when they are dried they will float in the air, like thistle-down.
In their application to the manufacture of batteries, the flakes are used through the medium of a special machine, so arranged that small charges of nickel hydrate and nickel flake are alternately fed into the pockets intended for positives, and tamped down with a pressure equal to about four tons per square inch. This insures complete and perfect contact and consequent electrical conductivity throughout the entire unit.
The development of the nickel flake contains in itself a history of patient investigation, labor, and achievement, but we have not space for it, nor for tracing the great work that has been done in developing and perfecting the numerous other parts and adjuncts of this remarkable battery. Suffice it to say that when Edison went boldly out into new territory, after something entirely unknown, he was quite prepared for hard work and exploration. He encountered both in unstinted measure, but kept on going forward until, after long travel, he had found all that he expected and accomplished something more beside. Nature DID respond to his whole- hearted appeal, and, by the time the hunt was ended, revealed a good storage battery of entirely new type. Edison not only recognized and took advantage of the principles he had discovered, but in adapting them for commercial use developed most ingenious processes and mechanical appliances for carrying his discoveries into practical effect. Indeed, it may be said that the invention of an enormous variety of new machines and mechanical appliances rendered necessary by each change during the various stages of development of the battery, from first to last, stands as a lasting tribute to the range and versatility of his powers.
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