It is a trite saying that "history repeats itself," and certainly no axiom carries more truth than this when applied to the history of each of Edison's important inventions. The development of the storage battery has been no exception; indeed, far from otherwise, for in the ten years that have elapsed since the time he set himself and his mechanics, chemists, machinists, and experimenters at work to develop a practical commercial cell, the old story of incessant and persistent efforts so manifest in the working out of other inventions was fully repeated.
Very soon after he had decided upon the use of nickel and iron as the elemental metals for his storage battery, Edison established a chemical plant at Silver Lake, New Jersey, a few miles from the Orange laboratory, on land purchased some time previously. This place was the scene of the further experiments to develop the various chemical forms of nickel and iron, and to determine by tests what would be best adapted for use in cells manufactured on a com- mercial scale. With a little handful of selected experimenters gathered about him, Edison settled down to one of his characteristic struggles for supremacy. To some extent it was a revival of the old Menlo Park days (or, rather, nights). Some of these who had worked on the preliminary experiments, with the addition of a few new-comers, toiled together regardless of passing time and often under most discouraging circumstances, but with that remarkable esprit de corps that has ever marked Edison's relations with his co-workers, and that has contributed so largely to the successful carrying out of his ideas.
The group that took part in these early years of Edison's arduous labors included his old-time assistant, Fred Ott, together with his chemist, J. W. Aylsworth, as well as E. J. Ross, Jr., W. E. Holland, and Ralph Arbogast, and a little later W. G. Bee, all of whom have grown up with the battery and still devote their energies to its commercial development. One of these workers, relating the strenuous experiences of these few years, says: "It was hard work and long hours, but still there were some things that made life pleasant. One of them was the supper-hour we enjoyed when we worked nights. Mr. Edison would have supper sent in about midnight, and we all sat down together, including himself. Work was forgotten for the time, and all hands were ready for fun. I have very pleasant recollections of Mr. Edison at these times. He would always relax and help to make a good time, and on some occasions I have seen him fairly overflow with animal spirits, just like a boy let out from school. After the supper-hour was over, however, he again became the serious, energetic inventor, deeply immersed in the work at hand.
"He was very fond of telling and hearing stories, and always appreciated a joke. I remember one that he liked to get off on us once in a while. Our lighting plant was in duplicate, and about 12.30 or 1 o'clock in the morning, at the close of the supper-hour, a change would be made from one plant to the other, involving the gradual extinction of the electric lights and their slowly coming up to candle-power again, the whole change requiring probably about thirty seconds. Sometimes, as this was taking place, Edison would fold his hands, compose himself as if he were in sound sleep, and when the lights were full again would apparently wake up, with the remark, `Well, boys, we've had a fine rest; now let's pitch into work again.' "
Another interesting and amusing reminiscence of this period of activity has been gathered from another of the family of experimenters: "Sometimes, when Mr. Edison had been working long hours, he would want to have a short sleep. It was one of the funniest things I ever witnessed to see him crawl into an ordinary roll-top desk and curl up and take a nap. If there was a sight that was still more funny, it was to see him turn over on his other side, all the time remaining in the desk. He would use several volumes of Watts's Dictionary of Chemistry for a pillow, and we fellows used to say that he absorbed the contents during his sleep, judging from the flow of new ideas he had on waking."
Such incidents as these serve merely to illustrate the lighter moments that stand out in relief against the more sombre background of the strenuous years, for, of all the absorbingly busy periods of Edison's inventive life, the first five years of the storage- battery era was one of the very busiest of them all. It was not that there remained any basic principle to be discovered or simplified, for that had already been done; but it was in the effort to carry these principles into practice that there arose the numerous difficulties that at times seemed insurmountable. But, according to another co-worker, "Edison seemed pleased when he used to run up against a serious difficulty. It would seem to stiffen his backbone and make him more prolific of new ideas. For a time I thought I was foolish to imagine such a thing, but I could never get away from the impression that he really appeared happy when he ran up against a serious snag. That was in my green days, and I soon learned that the failure of an experiment never discourages him unless it is by reason of the carelessness of the man making it. Then Edison gets disgusted. If it fails on its merits, he doesn't worry or fret about it, but, on the contrary, regards it as a useful fact learned; remains cheerful and tries something else. I have known him to reverse an unsuccessful experiment and come out all right."
To follow Edison's trail in detail through the innumerable twists and turns of his experimentation and research on the storage battery, during the past ten years, would not be in keeping with the scope of this narrative, nor would it serve any useful purpose. Besides, such details would fill a big volume. The narrative, however, would not be complete without some mention of the general outline of his work, and reference may be made briefly to a few of the chief items. And lest the reader think that the word "innumerable" may have been carelessly or hastily used above, we would quote the reply of one of the laboratory assistants when asked how many experiments had been made on the Edison storage battery since the year 1900: "Goodness only knows! We used to number our experiments consecutively from 1 to 10,000, and when we got up to 10,000 we turned back to 1 and ran up to 10,000 again, and so on. We ran through several series--I don't know how many, and have lost track of them now, but it was not far from fifty thousand."
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.
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