A CUBE OF COPPER
September 16, 1945
Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey where Thomas A. Edison worked up until his death in 1931. While there I was greatly impressed by one of the many exhibits in the combination library and office. The exhibit I mention is a cubic foot of copper. Back of that unusual piece lies a story which I think should thrill and encourage every citizen of our great country.
History tells us that some 34 years ago the members of the copper industry gave a luncheon for Mr. Edison to express their appreciation of what he had cone for their business. In acknowledgment of his great contributions they asked the inventor what they might give him. Mr. Edison thought a minute and replied that he had never seen a cubic foot of copper—maybe they could give him one. That is how this unusual exhibit came into his possession.
That cube of copper stands today a symbol of what can happen when an inventor can bring from the limitless storehouse of the unknown a new fact. On Oct. 21, 1879, 66 years ago, in his little laboratory at Menlo Park Edison produced the first commercially practical incandescent electric lamp. At that time the copper industry probably paid little attention to this experiment—its connection with their business seemed too remote. But on the trail of this invention came the New York Pearl Street powerhouse—the first central station. Copper was used in the dynamo coils and commentators and more and more went into the transmission lines. The production of copper went from 50 thousand tons a year to the present production of about a million tons annually. Men were needed as time went on to manufacture the equipment, service it and sell it. More jobs and still more jobs. All because one man found a way of producing light by electrically heating carbon filament in an evacuated glass bulb.
But with the coming of electric light and power hundreds of other things followed in its wake. We all know them—vacuum cleaners, radios, electric stoves, refrigerators, and so on, to mention only a few. Think of the industries that have been built upon these things—the thousands of new jobs—the comforts and conveniences! The net profit to the producers is significant when compared to the great increase in our National wealth brought about by their use.
As a creator of jobs, Edison had few, if any, equals. So when in 1891 he exhibited the first motion picture depicting Fred Ott’s sneeze, he again set the stage for hundreds of thousands of new jobs and occupations that no one at the time could even imagine. For who at that time could have predicted Hollywood? Who could have predicted the hundreds of thousands of miles of film that would be produced annually—the building of motion picture theatres in every town in the United States? The effect of that first flickering demonstration has been felt in every house in the Nation.
These are only the highlights of the results of just two inventions made by one man. However, Edison’s fertile imagination visualized hundreds of improvements that could be made in many fields—if he only had the time and the facilities. This situation lead to one of his greatest inventions—as time has shown. He conceived the idea of multiplying his efforts by applying teamwork to the problems—many minds and many hands working simultaneously on different organized research.
As our reconversion is completed the millions of jobs needed will be supplied by the automotive, the electrical, the steel industries and thousands of others. Yet less than 100 years ago most of these products did not exist because the industries themselves were unknown. In studying jobs for tomorrow why do we always look backward? A large section of tomorrow’s population will probably be employed in designing, building and selling things unknown to us today. That is, if we encourage inventors to keep trying to find the new ideas that American industry can convert into more and better things for a lower and lower cost.
The success of the individual inventor as well as the research laboratory depends on the ability to analyze out of the feeble indications of today’s experiments some possible applications for Tomorrow. This is not always easy because it must be done in the atmosphere of present day distractions—under the stress and confusion of the demands of the immediate problems. But we should never lose sight of this simple fact that the things of greatest importance for the future nearly always seem of little or no importance right now, or as the great French naturalist, Fabre, said, “The man who is thinking of Tomorrow is usually out of style today.”