Thomas Edison's Brief Stint as a Homemaker
The first decade of the 20th century was, for many people, a period characterized by incredible optimism for the future. The November 22, 1908 Sunday New York Times ran an article titled, “Inventions Which the World Yet Needs.”
The dreams of yesterday are the realizations of today. We live in an age of mechanical, electrical, chemical, and psychical wonder. On every hand the human mind is reaching out to solve the problems of nature. In those solutions are hidden the mysteries and revelations of all things. While the dreamer may dream, it is the practical man of affairs, with a touch of the imaginative in his nature, who materializes and commercializes new forces and new conceptions. Step by step these men lead in the vanguard of progress. What is their conception of the needs of the world? Toward what is their imagination reaching? What in their viewpoint, is the world waiting for—what are the immediate needs of the world in practical, scientific conception and invention?
The article then looks at the predictions of inventor and businessman Thomas Edison; Edward Bruce Moore, who was head of the U.S. Patent Office; Frank Hedley, who would eventually become president of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company; Lewis Nixon, a naval architect; Cortlandt E. Palmer, a mining expert; and Peter Cooper Hewitt, an electrical engineer and inventor.
Edison had nine predictions for the 20th century, touching upon everything from electricity and movie technology to flying machines and the extinction of the locomotive. His first prediction concerned the future of concrete architecture—a topic that, for him, was not purely academic. The inventor had founded the Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899 in order to use excess sand, which was a waste byproduct of his iron ore milling process. Edison had hoped to revolutionize the building of homes by using relatively inexpensive concrete. As Neil Baldwin notes in his book Edison: Inventing the Century, “Always with an eye for spin-offs, Edison went on to produce cement cabinets for the phonograph, and seriously considered building a concrete piano.”
While Edison’s concrete was used in the construction of New York’s Yankee Stadium in 1922, his company and efforts to build homes made entirely of concrete was considered a failure. Edison’s modular homes, measuring 25 by 30 by 40 feet high, failed largely because of the difficulty in creating the reusable, metal molds that were needed to fabricate and mass-produce houses made of concrete. Perhaps, deep down, Edison was skeptical of the venture from the beginning. His predictions in the Miami Metropolis—just three years after his New York Times interview—would quickly swing in favor of steel as the building material of the future.
An excerpt from the New York Times piece appears below.
NINE NEW INVENTIONS CERTAIN
They Will Come Soon — and Pave the Way for Hundreds More
Interview with Thomas A. Edison
The next era will mark the most wonderful advance in science and invention that the world has ever known or hoped for. So vast will that advance be that we can now have scarcely any conception of its scope, but already a great many of the inventions of the future are assured. It is only of those which I regarded as practical certainties that I speak here.
First — Within the next twenty or thirty years — and it will start with the next two or three — concrete architecture will take enormous strides forward; the art of molding concrete will be reduced to a science of perfection and, what is equally important, of cheapness; there will rise up a large number of gifted architects, and through their efforts cities and towns will spring up in this country beside which Turner’s picture of ancient Rome and Carthage will pale into nothingness and the buildings of the Columbia Exhibition will appear common. But great expense will not attend this; it will be done so that the poor will be able to enjoy houses more beautiful than the rich now aspire to, and the man earning $1.50 a day, with a family to support, will be better housed than the man of to-day who is earning $10.
Second — Moving-picture machines will be so perfected that the characters will not only move, but will speak, and all the accessories and effects of the stage will be faithfully reproduced on the living picture stage. This, of course, will not be done as well as on the regular stage, but its standard will approach very near to that, and the fact that such entertainment will be furnished for 5 cents will draw vast numbers of the working classes. The result will be that the masses will have the advantage of the moral of good drama, they will find an inexpensive and improving way of spending the evening, and death knell of the saloon will be sounded.
Third — In perhaps fifteen or twenty years — depending on the financial condition of the country — the locomotive will pass almost altogether out of use, and all our main trunk railways will be operated by electricity.
Fourth — A new fertilizer will spring into existence, containing a large percentage of nitrogen. This will be drawn from the air by electricity, and will be used to increase the arability of the land.
Fifth — All our water power will be utilized by electricity to an extent now almost unthought of, and will be used with great advantage, both industrially and for railroads.
Sixth — A successful serial navigation will be established — perhaps for mails — and will achieve a sound practical working basis.
Seventh — We shall be able to protect ourselves against environment by the use of serums and things of that sort so that the general state of health will improve and the average span of life will increase by a large percentage. The grand fight which is being made against tuberculosis and cancer will reach a successful culmination, and those diseases will be entirely mastered.
Eighth — A new force in nature, of some sort or other, will be discovered by which many things not now understood will be explained. We unfortunately have only five senses; if we had eight we’d know more.
Ninth — We will realize the possibilities of our coal supplies better, and will learn how to utilize them so that 90 percent of the efficiency will not be thrown away, as it is today.
Finally, let it be said, hardly any piece of machinery now manufactured is more than 10 percent perfect. As the years go on this will be improved upon tremendously; more automatic machinery will be devised, and articles of comfort and luxury will be produced in enormous numbers at such small cost that all classes will be able to enjoy the benefits of them.
These are some of the inventions which the world is awaiting which it is sure of seeing realized. Just how they will be realized is what the inventors are working now to determine.
This article originally appeared at Smithsonian magazine.