Today, let's meet a great inventive failure --
Thomas Edison. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
In 1887 Edison was 40 years
old and the most celebrated inventor in the world.
Behind him lay the electric light, the central
power station, the phonograph, and much, much more.
1887 was the year Edison embarked on his great --
and largely forgotten -- fiasco. Ten years before,
he'd found black sand while he was fishing off Long
Island. It was magnetite -- iron ore. That got his
attention. The cost of iron was affecting the price
of his new electric generators.
Edison played with the problem of separating
magnetite particles from beach sand -- then gave it
up. Now, Eastern steel mills were closing, and he
saw opportunity. He filed new patents. He published
an article on extracting iron from low-grade ore in
the journal Iron Age.
It might have gone no further, but an editorial
called the idea Edison's Folly. That did it! Edison
set up a company to build a separation plant in
Ogdensburg, New Jersey. He would pulverize
low-grade ore. Then he'd drop the dust down towers
lined with electromagnets. They'd catch the
Edison sold stock. He invested his own fortunes. He
built a huge plant and a town around it. It opened
in 1891, and it was a disaster. Bearings failed on
the crushing machines. Buildings collapsed. Dust
clogged everything. Workers died in accidents.
Edison went back to the drawing board.
In 1895 he was back with new designs. This time he
produced iron, and Bethlehem Steel bought it.
Meanwhile Edison's money flowed out like water
through a sieve. Then Bethlehem complained that the
fire simply blew the iron dust up the furnace
stack. Edison had to invent means for binding the
iron into briquettes.
It all seemed to come together by 1898. The process
was working. He'd cut his costs from $7 a ton to
$4.75. Then the great Mesabi iron range opened in
Northern Minnesota. Suddenly iron cost only $3 a
ton. By 1899 Edison had to close the mill for good.
So what was the legacy of Edison's Folly? It's been
written out of most Edison biographies. But Edison
had left behind a string of important process
patents. His work later showed us how to process
low-grade taconite ore. Edison himself went on to
revolutionize concrete production with his methods.
Henry Ford picked up ideas for his assembly line
from Edison's plant. Even Iron Age
magazine finally granted that Edison's greatest
error was being 25 years ahead of his time.
So we learn an old lesson. To succeed we first have
to risk failure. Success rises from failure in
peculiar ways. The message of Ogdensburg is, quite
simply, "Dare not, win not!"
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds