He Has Given Up Working for Money and is Working for the Love of Work
The Interpreter in American MagazineDecember11908
Edison is Now Having the Fun of His Life
He Has Given Up Working for Money and is Working for the Love of Work
The Interpreter in American Magazine
NOT long ago—said the Observer—it was given out in the daily papers that Edison was about to retire: that he would invent no more. He was quoted as saying that he had been at work now for over forty years, week-days and holidays, besides many nights all night long, and he thought it about time that he took a rest. He said he wanted to retire and have fun.
I suppose that many people who read this paragraph formed a swift mental picture of the inventor, rich in both money and fame, living in some restful country place, or enjoying the diversion of a trip around the world in a steam yacht. I had a momentary vision of that sort myself, but it went up in a laugh. I knew it was another of Edison’s little jokes.
The other day I went out to see Mr. Edison at his laboratory in Orange, New Jersey. I had not expected to write anything about my visit, having quite another purpose in view, but I came away with a curiously new impression of the man. Seven or eight years ago I had occasion to visit Edison’s laboratory repeatedly, and to talk a number of times, more or less at length, with the inventor himself. At that time I was chiefly interested in the results of Edison’s extraordinary activities, for if there ever was a place of marvels, that place was, and is to-day, the inventor’s laboratory at Orange. At that time I missed a clear view of the man in the multitude of his works. In eight years the plant at Orange has developed new and greater buildings, filled with even more marvelous marvels ;
and yet when I came out of the little gate into the street after my visit the other day I found myself strangely unstirred by the new things I had seen. I found myself saying: “The most wonderful thing here
is this wonderful old man.” For while he has worked for forty years with retort and lathe and dynamo, the greatest of his inventions, after all, is a unique human character.
When we met the other day I referred to the newspaper reports I had seen.
“I thought you had retired and that you were looking for fun?”
“Me?” he answered. “Why, I have retired, and I’m having the fun of my life.”
It was one of the hottest days in August, a time when many men rush away to the hills or the seashore ; but Edison looked as though he were working harder than ever. He wore an old, thin, black coat, a good deal soiled ; on his forehead were a number of bright green spots and streaks, reminders of recent activities in his chemical laboratory and his white hair was well rumpled where he had run his fingers through it in one of his characteristic gestures. He gave the impression of a singularly sturdy, able, active man. And as for looking tired or worn, no man ever looked less so. I have rarely seen eyes with more of the eternally youthful in them than Edison’s. Youth "and humor, and a sort of accomplished contentment, these are all in Edison’s eyes. As for the exact color of them—a friend has asked me since I returned—the other impressions I had, the character impres-
sions, are so strong I can scarcely remember : I should say gray-blue.
He explained what he meant by retiring and resting after forty years of work.
“I’ve retired,” he said, “from moneymaking. That's what I have been trying to escape from. Now I’m free, and I’m going to have some fun. Money has got me into all the trouble I’ve ever had. If you want lies and entanglements and trouble, just go in for money-making. If you want to meet rascals and have friends turn out bad, get into business ! No, I don’t like the crowd or the game. I don’t see how any man can go in for money-making as a real business in life. It would kill me. I don’t need much of anything personally, but I’ve had to have a lot of money for my work. It’s come, somehow, and now I’ve got all I need, and all I want—and I’ve retired.”
“And you’re having fun?”
“Yes, I’m having the fun of my life— steering clear of anything that has any money-making connected with it. I’m trying some chemical experiments. For years I’ve been making notes—I’ve got a lot of books up there filled with suggestions which I’ve been planning to work out as soon as I could get the time. Now I’m going at them—not to make money—but just to find out things. I’m going to put a lot of things together and take ’em apart and see what the result is. That’s the greatest fun in the world.”
So far, indeed, as the outer habits of Edison’s life are concerned, there has been no change. He has merely retired into new achievements. In the library of the laboratory where I awaited the inventor I saw, on a little bare table in one of the alcoves, the remnants of his luncheon : part of a glass of milk and a crust of bread. Every day, as he has done for forty years past, he takes this simplest of simple lunches alone in his library. In another alcove I saw a cot bed. Here, if he is particularly busy, and fourteen, or sixteen, or eighteen hours a day in the laboratory is not enough, the inventor can drop down and sleep all night. Thus he rests and has fun.
He took me up-stairs to show me his plans for “pouring” houses. In a large work-room he has had the model of a house constructed. Tt is complete in every particular, doors, windows, roof, chimney and all, but it is only some ten feet high
and fifteen feet long. TTis idea has been to
make a homelike house of architectural beauty, which can be constructed by his new method of “pouring,” as he calls it, at a very low expense and in an incomparably short time.
“I wanted to do something,” he said, “to solve the housing problem in the cities. My idea is to make a home that will have all the modern conveniences, and yet be within the reach of the workingman.”
He has had molds of iron made for a full-sized house like the model. They can be set up and bolted together in a few days’ time on the lot where the building is to stand. Into the completed mold is poured a liquid preparation of ordinary cement, which rushes into and fills every crack and corner. It requires only three hours to do the pouring—in other words to construct the house complete, including all ornaments, chimneys and even bath-tubs. After being allowed to harden for a day or two, the molds can be removed and the house stands practically complete, save, of course, for windows, doors, and interior work. Mr. Edison calculates that such houses can be built at absurdly low prices, and being practically a solid block of cement, they will not only be indestructible, but will require next to no repairs. They will also be water and vermin-proof.
“I have been working, off and on, with this scheme for a year or more,” said Mr. Edison, “and I think now I’ve got it. It’s more of a problem than you imagine. I have to meet the same difficulties that are found in casting a bronze statue—to make the cement go into the proper channels, expelling the air in such a way that every part of the mold is completely filled. They told me at firs.t that I couldn’t do it, because the solid parts of the cement combination would immediately settle to the bottom, and that I couldn’t properly fill places where the cement had to flow upward. But I’ve proved that I can.”
He took me down-stairs and out of doors, where he had been conducting a series of cement-pouring experiments in large wooden frames. One of these frames was constructed like a huge letter “U,” with a square bottom. Into the top of one leg of the “U” he had poured the cement, and it had risen and filled the other leg. Upon drying, part of the frame was removed and I saw the smooth, even texture of the solid
cement casting. I asked him when he was to “pour” his first building.
“Soon, now,” he said ; “the molds are about ready. They cost $25,000, but can be used for an innumerable number of houses. I am training two young engineers to look after the work. We’re going to pour the first building just over there, outside of the laboratory grounds. If it doesn’t work out the first time we’ll put a stick of dynamite under it and blow it out, and try again.”
I remarked that it seemed to me that he stood a chance of making a good deal of money out of his invention, whether he wanted it or not.
“Not a bit,” he said. “Personally, I shall not make a cent. This is my contribution to the housing problem. Of course I shall license contractors under my patents to do the work, in order to see that it is properly done. They will naturally make their profit, but none of it will come to me. I believe this system is going to make existence cheaper and better and pleasanter for thousands of men who now have to live in flats and tenements in the cities.”
We walked around in the sunshine to the door of the chemical laboratory. Inside I could see the long tables filled with retorts, ‘bottles and glasses and the like, all the familiar paraphernalia, and a number of men in long aprons at work. Edison himself does very little of the actual experimenting. He is the brain that directs, so that he can keep many men at work upon the details of the problem he has in hand. I parted from him there at the doorway, but I carried with me the picture he made standing bareheaded in the sunshine, erect, white-haired, in his worn black coat. His fine face, with the minute humor-wrinkles around the eyes, was unmistakably that of a contented, peaceful, simple-hearted old man. And I thought of his unpropitious 'boyhood and youth, the lack of education in the sense that we now understand education, the long hours and the hard work— then I "thought of the great manufacturing buildings rising all around him here at his Orange laboratory, each the material clothing of an idea that had sprung from his fertile brain. I thought of the manufacturing plants in every part of civilized creation where wheels turn and belts whir wholly or partly because this man has lived and worked. I thought how life had been made brighter and easier and sweeter for D
hundreds of millions of human beings through his many inventions. If any one remains who is not convinced of the power of mind over matter, let this convince him : for these things, also, are miracles.
And it is clean greatness—Edison’s. He wears by rights the look of a contented man. He has robbed no widows, crushed no competitions, stolen no franchises, taken no rebates. He is rich not because he gambled in the stock markets ; nor employed children and women at starvation wages ; nor awaited, doing nothing himself, for the rise in the price of land or corn or cotton. He is famous not because he manipulated an election, or bribed a legislature. There is nowhere in his career any record of success which came of devious or deceitful ways. His is indeed a clean greatness. He has worked for what he won, and everything that he has done has been in the direction of making this a better world for mankind to dwell in.
A number of years ago I asked Mr. Edison why he worked so hard and so steadily. He paused a moment, apparently a little puzzled that any one should ask so curious a question.
“Why, I don’t know,” he said. “I have always felt as though something inside of me were driving me.”
It was a significant reply. Really effective men are thus driven by something within themselves which is greater than themselves. There is a sort of yielding to universal force, a unity with life, in which the man himself becomes, curiously, only the vehicle of greater inner forces. Great men are always more or less “possessed.” They have been able to raise themselves somehow above themselves. And that is the only true path to noble achievements.
What is it all for? I remember once asking Edison that question : what he was aiming at, what was the use, after all, of his inventions? He answered quickly, as though he had given that matter a good deal of thought.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what you and I are here for, or where we are going. Do you? Why do people rush and struggle? Why do you write as though your life depended on it—and enjoy it, too? Why do I invent? We work because in some way it satisfies us. That is all we know.”
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