How Thomas Edison & His Business Came Back From a Tragic Fire

When: December 9, 1914, 5:15 p.m.
Where: West Orange, NJ
How: Large explosion in Building 41, film inspection area

The great fire of 1914 was triggered by highly combustible nitrate film exploding. Nitrate film at that time was composed of nitrocellulose, also known as gun cotton, a major ingredient of naval munitions…and known to be highly combustible if in an unstable state.

By 6:20, six other buildings were on fire; by 7:40 another six buildings were also engaged, for a total of 13 active building fires. This level of activity quickly overpowered the 72 man Edison employee fire department and several other large neighboring city departments. At about 9:30 powerful explosions from stores of volatile chemicals inside the buildings rocketed flames 100 feet aloft, causing secondary fires as far away as 5 blocks. During the night as many as 10,000 people gathered to see the “barn-burner.”

An eerie night glow as fire guts a large factory building
An eerie night glow as fire takes a large factory building

Many employees scurried about to save precious artifacts in the famous R&D labs and Edison’s office/library from flames that were perhaps a few hundred feet away. Mrs. Edison was among those helping to save her husband’s legacy.

In the heart of the fire…notice in foreground badly twisted steel support columns
In the heart of the fire…notice in foreground badly twisted steel support columns

“According to a 1961 Reader’s Digest article by Edison’s son Charles, Edison calmly walked over to him as he watched the fire destroy his dad’s work. In a childlike voice, Edison told his 24-year-old son, ‘Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.’ When Charles objected, Edison said, ‘It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.’ Later, at the scene of the blaze, Edison was quoted in The New York Times as saying, ‘Although I am over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.’ He told the reporter that he was exhausted from remaining at the scene until the chaos was under control, but he stuck to his word and immediately began rebuilding the next morning without firing any of his employees.”

[Credit to: “Thomas Edison’s Reaction To His Factory Burning Down Shows Why He Was So Successful”; Richard Feloni]
This building….a total loss!
This remains of the Edison Labs after the fire

The fire cost Edison nearly $1 million, with only about one-third of that covered by insurance. His good friend, Henry Ford, loaned Edison $750,000 to help his business get back on its feet. Words of encouragement and sympathy poured in, especially from President Woodrow Wilson and George Eastman. In fact, the first telegram that came in after the fire was from Nikola Tesla. It said…

“As one of the millions of your admirers, I send you my sympathy. It is not only a personal and national loss, but a world loss, for you have been one of its greatest benefactors.”

While 1500 men were engaged to clean up the damage, Edison was true to his words, “I shall return spirit.” In a couple of days his employees were in nearby temporary facilities. By New Year’s Day, just three weeks after, his factory buildings were partially restored with his people hard at work.

It’s good to remember Edison’s story as we struggle to get our arms around the Corona Virus and its impacts. What Edison lost that night is very similar to what our world is losing today:

  • A beloved & hardworking employee, as well as the health of others
  • Many weeks his employees went without working hours
  • Unfilled orders, unfinished projects, and terminated projects
  • Lost revenue and new opportunities 
  • $1 million in damages, for which were only covered 1/3 by insurance

All of this hardship didn’t deter Edison. He re-grouped and adapted to a new “normal.” In 1915, he posted $10 million in revenue. 

As we get into the heat of the COVID-19 crisis and you are thinking about your responsibility as a human and business owner, remember this quote…

Thomas Edison said, “The world owes nothing to any man, but every man owes something to the world.”


2 thoughts on “How Thomas Edison & His Business Came Back From a Tragic Fire

  1. Gil Lafortune

    Not meaning to ill talk not doubt a great man but Mr Edison could not have made it back without the help of his good friend Henry Ford! A debt which he never repayed…!

  2. JM

    I’m sorry how do you know he never repaid it? Were you there? Maybe Mr. Ford saw it as an investment in his friends future and didn’t expect repayment?

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