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No. 523:
Edison's Big Failure

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 magnetite.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Peterson, M., Thomas Edison, Failure. American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Vol. 6, No. 3, Winter 1991, pp. 8-14.

Edison is mentioned in many episodes. For more on him, click the Search function below.