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The House That Edison Built

Jeffrey Syken

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”

Thomas Alva Edison

For “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” genius came easy; it was the work that went into making his many inspirations manifest that came hard, but if ever there was someone up to the task, it was T.A. Edison. To his generation, he was the man who “turned night into day,” with his perfection of a commercially practical incandescent light bulb (in October 1879). That quest required testing over 6K different vegetable fibers in 1,200 experiments over a span of eighteen months (at a cost of $40K). Edison’s first light bulb lasted just 13.5 hours before burning out, thus his search for the perfect incandescent light bulb was far from over. For many years thereafter, Edison experimented with every procurable fiber in search of one that would resist intense heat. He found what he was looking for one hot summer’s day in, of all things, an oriental fold-out fan. He unwound the fine bamboo on the edge of the fan, carbonized it and tested it as a filament – the rest, as they say, is history.

If you were to ask T.A. Edison which of his many inventions was his favorite, he’d likely tell you the phonograph, given his affinity for music. However, the invention he’s probably least known for (and had nothing to did with electricity) was also his least successful and one which he considered to be his “pet” – the affordable cast-in-place concrete house. The period prior to WWI (a/k/a “Progressive Era”) was the conjunction of two “movements” – City Beautiful and Art and Crafts. These came together in America’s first “Garden City” – Forest Hills Gardens, in the “Suburban District” of New York City (central Queens). However, this development of the Russell Sage Foundation never became the worker’s paradise it was touted to be. Thus, with many successes behind him, in August 1906, T.A. Edison determined the solution to the chronic poverty and housing problem of the early 20th century was an affordable house made quick, cheap and easy via cast-iron forms (of his patented design) that would be his gift to the American people, proclaiming he would not to seek to profit from it. Altruism aside, Edison was, in reality, trying to make lemonade from a lemon. Realizing the magnetic properties of iron-ore, Edison had entered into the iron-ore milling business in the 1880s. Although that venture didn’t work out very well, ever the innovator, Edison realized the waste sand resultant from the ore milling process was ideal for the manufacture of Portland cement. Thus, in 1899, Edison founded the Edison Portland Cement Co. At the time, Portland cement and its derivative, concrete, were a burgeoning industry. Previously, concrete was used mainly as a leveling and/or fill material, but by the late 19th/early 20th century/s, that was changing. The first large-scale use of concrete for houses came in the form of hollow concrete block, which met with mixed success. However, it was in the early years of the 20th century that cast-in-place houses were being experimentally built. As it turned out, the complexity and weight of the nickel-plated iron forms and investment required by contractors to build a house in one continuous poor proved prohibitive thus, concrete houses were relegated to the dustbin of history. However, by the 1930s, precast concrete houses were being constructed and today, ICFs (Insulated Concrete Forms) are the proud heir to the legacy of “The House That Edison Built.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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