Like other successful commanders, Edison also possesses the happy faculty of choosing suitable lieutenants to carry out his policies and to manage the industries he has created, such, for instance, as those with which this chapter has to deal--namely, the phonograph, motion picture, primary battery, and storage battery enterprises.
The Portland cement business has already been dealt with separately, and although the above remarks are appropriate to it also, Edison being its head and informing spirit, the following pages are intended to be devoted to those industries that are grouped around the laboratory at Orange, and that may be taken as typical of Edison's methods on the manufacturing side.
Within a few months after establishing himself at the present laboratory, in 1887, Edison entered upon one of those intensely active periods of work that have been so characteristic of his methods in commercializing his other inventions. In this case his labors were directed toward improving the phonograph so as to put it into thoroughly practicable form, capable of ordinary use by the public at large. The net result of this work was the general type of machine of which the well-known phonograph of today is a refinement evolved through many years of sustained experiment and improvement.
After a considerable period of strenuous activity in the eighties, the phonograph and its wax records were developed to a sufficient degree of perfection to warrant him in making arrangements for their manufacture and commercial introduction. At this time the surroundings of the Orange laboratory were distinctly rural in character. Immediately adjacent to the main building and the four smaller structures, constituting the laboratory plant, were grass meadows that stretched away for some considerable distance in all directions, and at its back door, so to speak, ducks paddled around and quacked in a pond undisturbed. Being now ready for manufacturing, but requiring more facilities, Edison increased his real-estate holdings by purchasing a large tract of land lying contiguous to what he already owned. At one end of the newly acquired land two unpretentious brick structures were erected, equipped with first- class machinery, and put into commission as shops for manufacturing phonographs and their record blanks; while the capacious hall forming the third story of the laboratory, over the library, was fitted up and used as a music-room where records were made.
Thus the modern Edison phonograph made its modest debut in 1888, in what was then called the "Improved" form to distinguish it from the original style of machine he invented in 1877, in which the record was made on a sheet of tin-foil held in place upon a metallic cylinder. The "Improved" form is the general type so well known for many years and sold at the present day--viz., the spring or electric motor-driven machine with the cylindrical wax record--in fact, the regulation Edison phonograph.
It did not take a long time to find a market for the products of the newly established factory, for a world- wide public interest in the machine had been created by the appearance of newspaper articles from time to time, announcing the approaching completion by Edison of his improved phonograph. The original (tin-foil) machine had been sufficient to illustrate the fact that the human voice and other sounds could be recorded and reproduced, but such a type of machine had sharp limitations in general use; hence the coming into being of a type that any ordinary person could handle was sufficient of itself to insure a market. Thus the demand for the new machines and wax records grew apace as the corporations organized to handle the business extended their lines. An examination of the newspaper files of the years 1888, 1889, and 1890 will reveal the great excitement caused by the bringing out of the new phonograph, and how frequently and successfully it was employed in public entertainments, either for the whole or part of an evening. In this and other ways it became popularized to a still further extent. This led to the demand for a nickel-in-the-slot machine, which, when established, became immensely popular over the whole country. In its earlier forms the "Improved" phonograph was not capable of such general non-expert handling as is the machine of the present day, and consequently there was a constant endeavor on Edison's part to simplify the construction of the machine and its manner of opera- tion. Experimentation was incessantly going on with this in view, and in the processes of evolution changes were made here and there that resulted in a still greater measure of perfection.
In various ways there was a continual slow and steady growth of the industry thus created, necessitating the erection of many additional buildings as the years passed by. During part of the last decade there was a lull, caused mostly from the failure of corporate interests to carry out their contract relations with Edison, and he was thereby compelled to resort to legal proceedings, at the end of which he bought in the outstanding contracts and assumed command of the business personally.
Being thus freed from many irksome restrictions that had hung heavily upon him, Edison now proceeded to push the phonograph business under a broader policy than that which obtained under his previous contractual relations. With the ever-increasing simplification and efficiency of the machine and a broadening of its application, the results of this policy were manifested in a still more rapid growth of the business that necessitated further additions to the manufacturing plant. And thus matters went on until the early part of the present decade, when the factory facilities were becoming so rapidly outgrown as to render radical changes necessary. It was in these circumstances that Edison's sagacity and breadth of business capacity came to the front. With characteristic boldness and foresight he planned the erection of the series of magnificent concrete buildings that now stand adjacent to and around the laboratory, and in which the manufacturing plant is at present housed.
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