Already by the time he moved to
Menlo Park in 1876, Thomas Edison had gathered many of the men who would
work with him for the rest of their lives. By the time Edison built his
West Orange lab complex, men came from all over the US and Europe to work
with the famous inventor. Often these young "muckers," as Edison called
them, were fresh out of college or technical training.
Unlike most inventors, Edison depended
upon dozens of "muckers" to build and test his ideas. In return, they received
"only workmen's wages." However, the inventor said, it was "not the money
they want, but the chance for their ambition to work." The average work
week was six days for a total of 55 hours. Nevertheless, if Edison had
a bright idea, days at work would extend far into the night.
By having several teams going at
once, Edison could invent several products at the same time. Still, each
project took hundreds of hours of hard work. Inventions could always be
improved; so several projects took years of effort. The alkaline storage
battery, for example, kept muckers busy for almost a decade. As Edison
himself said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent
What was it like to work for Edison?
One mucker said that he "could wither one with his biting sarcasm or ridicule
one into extinction." On the other hand, as electrician Arthur Kennelly
stated, "The privilege which I had being with this great man for six years
was the greatest inspiration of my life."
Historians have called the research
and development laboratory Edison's greatest invention. In time, other
companies such as General Electric built their own laboratories inspired
by the West Orange lab.
and Famous Inventor Lewis Howard Latimer (1848-1928)
Although Latimer never worked directly for Edison at any of his laboratories,
his many talents deserve special mention. The son of an escaped slave,
Latimer overcame poverty and racism in his scientific career. While working
for Hiram S. Maxim, a competitor with Edison, Latimer patented his own
improved method to make carbon filaments. From 1884 to 1896, he worked
in New York City for the Edison Electric Light Company as an engineer,
draftsman and legal expert. Latimer later joined the Edison Pioneers, a
group of old Edison employees - its only African American member. Since
he never worked with Edison at the Menlo Park or West Orange laboratories,
however, he is not technically a "mucker." As far as we know, there were
no African American muckers.
Mucker and Plastics Pioneer: Jonas
gifted chemist, Aylsworth began working at the West Orange labs when they
opened in 1887. Much of his work involved testing materials for phonograph
recordings. He left around 1891 only to return ten years later, working
both for Edison and in his own laboratory. He patented condensite, a mixture
of phenol and formaldehyde, for use in Edison Diamond Disc records. His
work with "interpenetrating polymers" came decades before other scientists
made similar discoveries with plastics.
Mucker and Friend until the End:
John Ott (1850-1931)
his younger brother Fred, Ott worked with Edison in Newark as a machinist
in the 1870s. Both brothers followed Edison to Menlo Park in 1876, where
John was Edison's principal model and instrument maker. After the move
to West Orange in 1887, he served as superintendent of the machine shop
until a terrible fall in 1895 left him severely injured. Ott held 22 patents,
some with Edison. He died only one day after the inventor; his crutches
and wheelchair were placed by Edison's casket at Mrs. Edison's request.
Mucker "But I am not a chemist..."
Canadian-born Fessenden had been
trained as an electrician. So when Edison wanted to make him a chemist,
he protested. Edison replied, "I have had a lot of chemists... but none
of them can get results." Fessenden turned out to be an excellent chemist,
working with insulation for electrical wires. He left the West Orange lab
around 1889 and patented several inventions of his own, including patents
for telephony and telegraphy. In 1906, he became the first person to broadcast
words and music over radio waves.
Film Pioneer: William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860-1935)
Along with most of the West Orange crew in the 1890s, Dickson worked mainly
on Edison's failed iron ore mine in western New Jersey. However, his skill
as staff photographer led him to assist Edison in his work with motion
pictures. Historians still argue over who was more important to the development
of films, Dickson or Edison. Together, though, they accomplished more than
they did on their own later. The fast pace of work at the lab left Dickson
"much afflicted by brain exhaustion." In 1893, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
By the next year, he was already working for a competing company while
still on Edison's payroll. The two parted bitterly the next year and Dickson
returned to his native Britain to work for the American Mutoscope and Biograph
Mucker and Sound Recording Expert:
Walter Miller (1870-1941)
in nearby East Orange, Miller started working as a 17-year-old apprentice
"boy" at the West Orange lab soon after it opened in 1887. Many muckers
worked here a few years and then moved on, but Miller stayed at West Orange
his entire career. He proved himself in many different jobs. As manager
of the Recording Department and Edison's primary recording expert, he ran
the New York City studio where recordings were made. Meanwhile he also
carried on experimental recordings in West Orange. With Jonas Aylsworth
(mentioned above), he earned several patents covering how to duplicate
records. He retired from Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated in 1937.
images and partial information provided
by the National Parks Service
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