Edison’s Insomnia Squad (Apr, 1934)

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With Edison’s Insomnia Squad
by Richard G. Berger

IT WAS during the summer of 1916 just after my graduation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that I read an article in Munsey’s Magazine concerning Thomas A. Edison and his “Insomnia Squad.” I immediately wrote to Mr. Edison requesting employment in his laboratory.

He was away on one of his annual Firestone-Burroughs vacation trips. Upon his return I received a letter stating that Mr. Edison offered me two weeks’ trial employment in his laboratory at fifteen dollars per week. I accepted—in fact I would have taken the position without salary—and reported to the laboratory at West Orange, fully expecting to be back home at the end of the two weeks.

The sight of Mr. Edison with several days growth of beard and dressed in baggy clothes, vigorously chewing tobacco, set me at ease. He assigned me to work on various problems of phonograph record composition and the manufacture of phenol (carbolic acid) which was then much in demand for both records and explosives.

Mr. Edison saw that I had plenty of work to do, and rewarded my solved problems by giving me twice as many new ones. He would lecture in his direct way on the evils of smoking cigarets, and of watching the clock. In fact, he would become quite angry at employees who quit work on time. I discovered also that he relished good stories.

Some of his men liked him. Many of them feared him. A few even disliked him. Some of the married men maintained that the long hours of work in the laboratory destroyed their home-life. Edison was dictator and labor turnover was terrific.

It was about 10:30 p. m. while I was at work in the laboratory with Mr. Edison, that his secretary called him. A half hour later Mr. Edison returned without his working
coat, a broad grin lighting his face, and puffing away at a cigar. “I’ve just been awarded a new honor,” he volunteered. “New York University has just given me a degree.”

“What degree is it?” I asked.

He looked perplexed. “I don’t know,” he confessed, “anyhow it was the highest they had.”

That same night, as he seemed loquacious, I expressed a desire to be a Nobel Prize winner. He informed me that I could—if I worked hard enough—and added that he himself would have been awarded a Nobel Prize except that he wouldn’t comply with the necessary regulations and couldn’t be bothered to travel to Sweden to call for it.

On another occasion when I asked him how many medals he had, he replied in his characteristic humorous manner, “about two quarts.”

People have been curious sometimes concerning the Edison manner of experiment.

There is no secret about it. It was the “try everything method”—that is, the process of exhaustion. I give an example which occurred to one of the other experimenters during my term of employment. Edison wanted very finely divided silver for use in place of graphite for electrodeposition during record manufacture. The chemist tried numerous methods of making finely divided silver and finally sent a report to Mr. Edison, who was ill at home for a few days, that silver as finely divided as Mr. Edison desired could not be made, that he had tried 40 methods without success.

I saw the report returned with this memorandum on it, “Keep on trying. There are 17 million chemical compounds you haven’t tried yet.” A few days later this experimenter was discharged and given just one hour to leave the premises.

However, the chief resentment of men working in the laboratory was the lack of public recognition which seemed to be their lot. They might have become reconciled to meager salaries had they been accorded due credit for important processes which, from time to time, they perfected. I hold no brief for them. Perhaps Mr. Edison deserved all the recognition—anyhow he got it.

The superintendent of disc record manufacture had a friend, a chemist Ph.D. from Yale, who desired a position with Mr. Edison. The latter spoke to him and then told him he could have work at $10 per week. The learned Doctor of Philosophy seemed stunned. Later Thomas A. asked the superintendent if his friend had accepted. The superintendent replied that he couldn’t afford to accept.

Never mind,” smiled Mr. Edison. “Then he can’t be worth a damn.”

Mr. Edison disliked visitors at the laboratory. After seeing a number of visitors talk to him I understood his attitude. A good customer would be shown through the plant, and, of course, wanted to meet Mr. Edison. This was invariably the conversation:

“Why, Mr. Edison, you look just like your picture.”

Mr. Edison would grunt. “Is it true, Mr. Edison, that you sleep only four hours per night?”

Mr. Edison would grunt again; then he would pick up a beaker or flask and shake it. The visitor would say, “I see that you are busy, Mr. Edison. Delighted to have met you. Good day, sir.”

Once I was making a demonstration of a fire extinguishing fluid before Mr. Edison and other spectators. I had a miniature model and was trying to extinguish a coal fire aboard a warship. I drenched Mr. Edison and ruined his clothes. It wasn’t intentional. He just got between me and the fire. Mr. Edison took it good naturedly and laughed with the spectators.

I found that Mr. Edison was constantly testing out his men. One morning he brought me an organic substance. “Berger,” said he, “this is benzidine. I want you to make benzidine hydrochloride from it.” I made a few tests of the substance and found that it had none of the properties of benzidine. I reported to him that the substance was not benzidine and gave the proofs. A little later I was given more of the substance to test. Again I reported that it was not benzidine. A third time I was given some substance all wet as though freshly-prepared. I dried it and found it was benzidine. When I reported this to “Tommy,” he laughed and said, “Yes, I know that the last stuff I gave you was benzidine, because I myself bought it in Germany. I just wanted to find out if you knew what you were talking about.”

One morning Mr. Edison assigned a new problem to me. He happened to see me in the library building that evening and asked me if I had any results. My reply was that I was getting my supplies together. Then he proceeded to give me a lecture as follows:

“I would like to have you learn my way of experimenting. Do your preliminary experiments in the crudest kind of a way immediately that you have an idea. Don’t wait for two weeks until you have everything arranged just so— meanwhile you lose interest in your work. I have assigned something to you. Start right away.”

It was 11 o’clock at night but I went into the laboratory and started my experiments. The “old boy” was right; I had some good results before I went home the next morning at 4 a. m.

I copy from my notes, made at the time, some of the things Mr. Edison told me:

“The place for a fellow to start to learn chemistry is at the sink. Next he will graduate to shaking bottles of solutions.”

“Formerly I imported chemists from Germany. I stopped because my experience was that the German chemists generally were familiar with only one subject and not nearly as versatile as American chemists.”

“Let nature speak for herself; just watch her. I have had 50 experiments on one table and 50 on another all going at the same time and have completed as many as 700 in one day. As a result I have never yet failed to find something suitable for the purpose desired.”

“People who write books have no time to experiment. Many of them write only what they read. Make experiments first and theorize afterward. College professors may have theories, but I have the facts. The reason I know things will work a certain way is that I have tried them and seen them work.”

“Say things in a few words; if others don’t believe what you say or write, let them try it, for that is just what I had to do. Remember that genius is 99 per cent perspiration and only one per cent inspiration.”

I was warned to beware of “black goo”—the black residue left after phenol manufacture in the stills, to the extent of about 100 pounds daily. I was informed that several experimenters had been discharged for failure to find out what it was. Imagine my horror when one night Mr. Edison walked in followed by a laborer carrying a 50-pound box of black goo and asked me to identify it as he thought it was valuable. I worried and worked for 10 days and nights. Maybe you don’t know what a vacuum distillation is, and don’t want to know, but it was my salvation and brought me a substantial increase in salary.

Mr. Edison was not entirely deaf and could hear if we talked into his right ear. He was happy when his wife joined the Red Cross so that she had less time to look after him and lavish her kindness on him or else, as he regarded it, less time to interfere with his experiments. He called my slide rule a “guessing stick.” He set up a mechanical stirrer to take the place of stirring solutions by hand and then remarked to me contentedly, “Now I have nature harnessed by the backside.”

Mr. Edison wore one suit constantly until it wore out or had too many acid holes in it and then had the tailor send him another. Mrs. Edison was happy when anyone could persuade Mr. Edison to wear a laboratory coat to protect his clothes. :

When apparatus of any kind was needed by Mr. Edison or his assistants, the laboratory force was not at all particular how it was secured. On one occasion the oil stove belonging to the gate-man was appropriated to be converted into an apparatus for making lampblack. It may seem strange to some that on one occasion the laboratory of the wizard who gave birth to the electric light bulb actually ran short of them. But that is just what happened. Informed of the shortage of electric light bulbs for experiments, he gave the following order, “Go out and swipe some anywhere in the plant.”

The chief engineer came into the laboratory on the day that President Woodrow Wilson was to make an address at Shadow Lawn, New Jersey. Mr. Edison had previously announced his approval of President Wilson. “Mr. ———— wants to know if you are going to Shadow Lawn this afternoon,” said the engineer. “To hell with Shadow Lawn,” was the vigorous reply. “You know there are a thousand other things I want to do.”

Some of Mr. Edison’s terms to his workers, including myself, depending on conditions and his mood were “My dear boy—” “Damn fool!” , “You’re off your nut.” But he was busy and intensely human.

The four – hours – of – sleep – per – day – or – night legend had a basis but the four hours were four hours at one stretch and did not include the dozens of catnaps taken during the day. The experimenters had to keep on working as they could never tell when he would suddenly open his eyes and be wide awake. The transition was rapid.

One of the things Mr. Edison disliked intensely I was riding in a closed automobile. He used to say it made him feel as though he were locked up in a closet and unable to get out.

In spite of Mr. Edison’s inventive genius and genius at getting his employees to exert maximum effort he drove his business associates frantic
with some policies. This was almost disastrous, and as a result he was sometimes pinched for money.

Lest this statement be challenged, I will give an example which occurred in the phonograph record industry. Mr. Edison disliked jazz records and many forms of popular comedy records and ruled them out. Instead he prescribed opera music but would not permit the names of the stars on the records. Stars are temperamental, and they signed up on exclusive long time contracts with competing companies. As a result the Edison records were not selling at all well and by the time that Edison tried to sign up the stars, only the second raters were left.

My last assigned problem in the Edison Laboratory, after 10 months of experience, was Mr. Edison’s order to make material for smoke screens for aeroplanes in a certain explicit manner. Foolishly I disobeyed orders and substituted another method which I thought was preferable. When Mr. Edison discovered this he was furious and told me so in no uncertain terms. A short while later the paymaster visited me—although it was not pay-day—and gave me a dividend of two weeks’ extra pay and the usual one hour to leave the premises. A few days later the U. S. Navy gained another recruit.

In closing I should like to give an example of how work and desire for results was the irresistible driving force which spurred this genius onward to constant efforts. Once when Mr. Edison was exasperated, I was incautious enough to ask him what to use in a certain experiment. His characteristic reply was: “It’s results I’m after. Use mud if you have to.”

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