From the very first, Edison's broad idea of his storage battery was to make perforated metallic containers having the active materials packed therein; nickel hydrate for the positive and iron oxide for the negative plate. This plan has been adhered to throughout, and has found its consummation in the present form of the completed commercial cell, but in the middle ground which stands between the early crude beginnings and the perfected type of to-day there lies a world of original thought, patient plodding, and achievement.
The first necessity was naturally to obtain the best and purest compounds for active materials. Edison found that comparatively little was known by manufacturing chemists about nickel and iron oxides of the high grade and purity he required. Hence it became necessary for him to establish his own chemical works and put them in charge of men specially trained by himself, with whom he worked. This was the plant at Silver Lake, above referred to. Here, for several years, there was ceaseless activity in the preparation of these chemical compounds by every imaginable process and subsequent testing. Edison's chief chemist says: "We left no stone unturned to find a way of making those chemicals so that they would give the highest results. We carried on the experiments with the two chemicals together. Sometimes the nickel would be ahead in the tests, and then again it would fall behind. To stimulate us to greater improvement, Edison hung up a card which showed the results of tests in milliampere-hours given by the experimental elements as we tried them with the various grades of nickel and iron we had made. This stirred up a great deal of ambition among the boys to push the figures up. Some of our earliest tests showed around 300, but as we improved the material, they gradually crept up to over 500. Just about that time Edison made a trip to Canada, and when he came back we had made such good progress that the figures had crept up to about 1000. I well remember how greatly he was pleased."
In speaking of the development of the negative element of the battery, Mr. Aylsworth said: "In like manner the iron element had to be developed and improved; and finally the iron, which had generally enjoyed superiority in capacity over its companion, the nickel element, had to go in training in order to retain its lead, which was imperative, in order to produce a uniform and constant voltage curve. In talking with me one day about the difficulties under which we were working and contrasting them with the phonograph experimentation, Edison said: `In phonographic work we can use our ears and our eyes, aided with powerful microscopes; but in the battery our difficulties cannot be seen or heard, but must be observed by our mind's eye!' And by reason of the employment of such vision in the past, Edison is now able to see quite clearly through the forest of difficulties after eliminating them one by one."
The size and shape of the containing pockets in the battery plates or elements and the degree of their perforation were matters that received many years of close study and experiment; indeed, there is still to- day constant work expended on their perfection, although their present general form was decided upon several years ago. The mechanical construction of the battery, as a whole, in its present form, compels instant admiration on account of its beauty and completeness. Mr. Edison has spared neither thought, ingenuity, labor, nor money in the effort to make it the most complete and efficient storage cell obtainable, and the results show that his skill, judgment, and foresight have lost nothing of the power that laid the foundation of, and built up, other great arts at each earlier stage of his career.
Among the complex and numerous problems that presented themselves in the evolution of the battery was the one concerning the internal conductivity of the positive unit. The nickel hydrate was a poor electrical conductor, and although a metallic nickel pocket might be filled with it, there would not be the desired electrical action unless a conducting substance were mixed with it, and so incorporated and packed that there would be good electrical contact throughout. This proved to be a most knotty and intricate puzzle--tricky and evasive--always leading on and promising something, and at the last slipping away leaving the work undone. Edison's remarkable patience and persistence in dealing with this trying problem and in finally solving it successfully won for him more than ordinary admiration from his associates. One of them, in speaking of the seemingly interminable experiments to overcome this trouble, said: "I guess that question of conductivity of the positive pocket brought lots of gray hairs to his head. I never dreamed a man could have such patience and perseverance. Any other man than Edison would have given the whole thing up a thousand times, but not he! Things looked awfully blue to the whole bunch of us many a time, but he was always hopeful. I remember one time things looked so dark to me that I had just about made up my mind to throw up my job, but some good turn came just then and I didn't. Now I'm glad I held on, for we've got a great future."
The difficulty of obtaining good electrical contact in the positive element was indeed Edison's chief trouble for many years. After a great amount of work and experimentation he decided upon a certain form of graphite, which seemed to be suitable for the purpose, and then proceeded to the commercial manufacture of the battery at a special factory in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, installed for the purpose. There was no lack of buyers, but, on the contrary, the factory was unable to turn out batteries enough. The newspapers had previously published articles showing the unusual capacity and performance of the battery, and public interest had thus been greatly awakened.
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.
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