Thomas Edison knew from a young age what he liked best and it was chemistry. From his preteen years to his death at age 84, the great inventor never lost sight of the wonders of chemistry, and how it fit into his inventions and entrepreneurial activities.
It pretty much began with the creation of noisy and often foul odor producing chemical experiments in the basement of his home. Later, at age 13, he established a makeshift chemistry lab on-board a boxcar on the Grand Trunk Railroad where he served as a candy butcher and do-it-yourself newspaper publisher. However, a fire caused by the spilling of his chemicals caused his lab to be shut down by railroad officials.
When Edison erected his West Orange invention factory, he created a much more advanced version of his boyhood chemistry lab…and his own personal chemistry lab in Room 12 on the second floor. He would ruin many good suits inventing the future in this lab. Lost on many people is just how much chemistry was involved in some of Edison’s most well-known inventions.
1. The Incandescent Light Bulb Filament
The development of a long-lasting filament for light bulbs both necessitated a good deal of chemistry to make them serviceable, reliable and practical for robust use. Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 experiments spanning many different materials and formulations were tried before long-lasting filaments were born…starting with carbonized string and slivers of bamboo, and ending with specially formed metal filaments. It was hard work and may hours in the lab.
2. The Edison Diamond Disc
Recorded sound involving Edison’s Diamond Disk records was a chemistry challenge for Edison to master. “Condensite”, a phenolic resin that is chemically similar to Bakelite and was invented by Edison’s team in 1910, was identified as a suitable material. Records made from Condensite could be mass-produced, were highly durable, and provided superior sound; and could endure the movement of a steel needle through their grooves for a long life of many record “plays”. This journey to practicality was not a small chore, something his legendary “insomnia squad”, which included himself, spent many a night working on.
3. The Storage Battery
From 1863 to 1868, young Tom was a very capable telegraph operator when he began tinkering with the systems and working with batteries, which were essential as the power source for early telegraphs. This electrochemical indoctrination would prove crucial in his later work to develop the revolutionary family of alkaline storage batteries, the so-called nickel-iron batteries.
The nickel-iron storage battery saga was especially challenging with historians claiming anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 chemical experiments over a 10-year period were necessary to make the tricky electrochemistry work. In Edison’s time, these batteries were his best-selling and most profitable enterprise. Today, the alkaline family of storage batteries are everywhere from our small batteries to electric vehicles to solar system storage batteries. Obviously the birthing pains endured by Edison was well worth the effort.
4. The Hunt for a New Source of Rubber
During the last big research project of his life, Edison was involved in the creation of artificial rubber [a strategic material in wartime], a tough organic chemistry undertaking. This endeavor began as a collaboration with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to create tires for their companies. More than 17,000 plant samples from around the world were analyzed for their rubber content, and one group of plants—Solidago, commonly known as goldenrod—was selected as the most promising due to both its high rubber content and ability to be grown quickly in the U.S. Although the commercial viability of Edison rubber lost out to other versions of artificial rubber, the project nonetheless represents a major advance in modern research on producing materials from renewable resources.