thomas edison and his son charles -- 10/28/15

Today's selection -- from The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall Stross. Though he was the darling of the media, Thomas Edison's business career was checkered, and he more than once had to lean on the generosity the magnate Henry Ford when financially distressed. When he became distracted with wartime duties in the Navy research laboratory, Thomas Edison promoted his son to CEO of his company. Yet when his war duties ended, he reversed the changes his son had brought to the company:

"In 1917, [Inventor Thomas Edison's son Charles] was promoted from assistant to the founder to acting CEO. The rapid advance -- he was still only twenty-seven -- came not because Thomas Edison believed the time had arrived to permit a younger generation to step forward. Nor did it come because Charles had been carefully rotated through the various departments, as he had at Boston Edison, to gain a panoptic view of Thomas A. Edison, Inc. His father had continued to run the phonograph business unilaterally as always, and the executive education he provided Charles consisted primarily of posing trivia questions at home: How many records were rejected at the plant today? What is the name of the Edison dealer in Dubuque? Charles's promotion came only because the Naval Consulting Board needed Thomas Edison's presence full-time in Washington and at a Navy research laboratory. When the father departed, the son became the head of the company -- temporarily.

Charles Edison 1931

"Charles did not dare tamper with any of the core business functions. Instead, he busied himself in the one neglected corner in which his father had no interest: personnel matters. Thomas Edison paid little notice to his workers (except, of course, Red Kelley in Building 18, the one who knew 'a good chew'), and paid no attention to what lives they inhabited when they stepped outside the gates of his plant. Charles did notice. Factory hours were 6:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.; in the winter, it was dark when workers went in and dark when they came out. Twenty-two saloons and bars lined the street that faced the main plant, and they opened at 5:00 A.M. for workers who had difficulty facing the grimness of the workday without anesthetic.

"Work was dangerous as well as dull. While serving his brief apprenticeship at the company, Charles Edison had taken in a sight one day that would long stay with him. The laboratory, though owned by the man who as much as anyone made it possible for its lathes and other metal-working machines to be powered by electric motors, was still filled with the overhead line shafts, belts, and pulleys of the pre-Edison era. The sleeve of William Benedict, a maintenance worker who was attempting to put a belt on a pulley while the line shaft was still turning, was caught by the belt. Before the power could be shut off, he had been pulled up to the shaft, then battered against the ceiling as he was whirled around. The victim was carried out of the shop without any medically trained person attending to him. The company's accident report blamed the dead man for failing to abide by the company's rule to shut off power prior to changing a belt. When asked to suggest 'a practical method' to prevent a repetition of this accident, the company did not say, 'By investing in electric motors, which use the power that our company founder helped move out of the laboratory more than thirty years ago.' Instead, it recommended for itself a simpler, less-expensive course of action: dismissing any employee who failed to follow the company's safety rules.

"When Thomas Edison departed for Washington, Charles Edison got the chance to make changes at Thomas A. Edison, Inc., that made life for factory workers less harsh and dangerous. Charles shortened the workday to ten hours; put in a dispensary staffed with a nurse or doctor on duty; and subscribed to the state's workmen's compensation plan, even though other managers were convinced it would bankrupt the company.

"He was young enough that when he began to search for ways to stanch employee absenteeism, he turned to his old prep school, Hotchkiss, for guidance on how to adapt the school's system of demerits to the Edison factory. The two settings did not seem to him to be all that different. ...

Thomas Alva Edison

"When the war ended, so, too, did Edison's unhappy experience with the Navy, which had consistently ignored his suggestions. He returned to his own laboratory, where he was master of his domain. Charles was permitted to remain as the head of the business, but only nominally. His father had no interest in Charles's new Personnel Department and reduced its size, then eliminated it altogether, growling, 'Hell, I'm doin' the hirin' and firin' around here.' Edison ordered dismissals throughout the executive ranks, over the protests of Charles, and then, beginning in 1920, when the postwar depression arrived, Edison fired plant workers in large numbers. ('Merrily the axe swings,' said Charles sardonically during one of his father's campaigns to reduce the workforce.) Employees were selected for severance by Edison personally. A. E. Johnson, a longtime employee, described Edison's methodology:

" 'What he'd do, whenever he'd think that the overhead was getting too much, you know, and they'd been hiring a lot of men that weren't needed, he'd start on one of his firing campaigns .... If he saw you coming down he'd stop you and say, "Who are you, what do you do?" You'd tell him, he'd ask a couple of questions ... [and if he did not like the answers] he'd say, "You're fired." ' Johnson thought the process was harmless because many of those 'fired' would report the news to their supervisor, who would then instruct them not to pay any attention to what Edison had said. Still, between 1920 and 1922, Edison did succeed in drastically reducing employment in the company's manufacturing plants from ten thousand to three thousand."


Randall E. Stross


The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World


Broadway Books


Copyright 2007 by Randall E. Stross


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