Date: December 9, 1914
Place: Edison West Orange Labs [NJ]
Time: 5:15 p.m.
Action: 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 afire; 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.”
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.
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 [May 9, 2014]]
The fire cost him nearly $1 million, with only about one-third of that covered by insurance. Good friend Henry Ford loaned Tom $750,000 to help him get back on his feet. Words of encouragement and sympathy poured in, especially from President Woodrow Wilson and George Eastman. Some beautiful words from Nikola Tesla—
“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.”
[So much for the trumped up enmity between these two great men]
While 1500 men were engaged to clean up the damage, Edison was true to his “I shall return spirit”. In a couple of days his employees were in nearby temporary facilities; and by New Year’s Day, just three weeks hence, his factory buildings were partially restored with his people hard at work. Only one employee had died in the horrific fire.
In 1915, Thomas Edison Industries chalked up $10 million in revenue. Way to recover Tom!
[Credit also to Bruce Spadaccini, former Museum Technician for his two articles about the fire, information from which was included here.]