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Having taken a somewhat superficial survey of the great enterprise under consideration; having had a cursory glance at the technical development of the plant up to the point of its successful culmination in the making of a marketable, commercial product as exemplified in the test at the Crane Furnace, let us revert to that demonstration and note the events that followed. The facts of this actual test are far more eloquent than volumes of argument would be as a justification of Edison's assiduous labors for over eight years, and of the expenditure of a fortune in bringing his broad conception to a concrete possibility. In the patient solving of tremendous problems he had toiled up the mountain-side of success-- scaling its topmost peak and obtaining a view of the boundless prospect. But, alas! "The best laid plans o' mice and men gang aft agley." The discovery of great deposits of rich Bessemer ore in the Mesaba range of mountains in Minnesota a year or two previous to the completion of his work had been followed by the opening up of those deposits and the marketing of the ore. It was of such rich character that, being cheaply mined by greatly improved and inexpensive methods, the market price of crude ore of like iron units fell from about $6.50 to $3.50 per ton at the time when Edison was ready to supply his concentrated product. At the former price he could have supplied the market and earned a liberal profit on his investment, but at $3.50 per ton he was left without a reasonable chance of competition. Thus was swept away the possibility of reaping the reward so richly earned by years of incessant thought, labor, and care. This great and notable plant, representing a very large outlay of money, brought to completion, ready for business, and embracing some of the most brilliant and remarkable of Edison's inventions and methods, must be abandoned by force of circumstances over which he had no control, and with it must die the high hopes that his progressive, conquering march to success had legitimately engendered.
The financial aspect of these enterprises is often overlooked and forgotten. In this instance it was of more than usual import and seriousness, as Edison was virtually his own "backer," putting into the company almost the whole of all the fortune his inventions had brought him. There is a tendency to deny to the capital that thus takes desperate chances its full reward if things go right, and to insist that it shall have barely the legal rate of interest and far less than the return of over-the-counter retail trade. It is an absolute fact that the great electrical inventors and the men who stood behind them have had little return for their foresight and courage. In this instance, when the inventor was largely his own financier, the difficulties and perils were redoubled. Let Mr. Mallory give an instance: "During the latter part of the panic of 1893 there came a period when we were very hard up for ready cash, due largely to the panicky conditions; and a large pay-roll had been raised with considerable difficulty. A short time before pay-day our treasurer called me up by telephone, and said: `I have just received the paid checks from the bank, and I am fearful that my assistant, who has forged my name to some of the checks, has absconded with about $3000.' I went immediately to Mr. Edison and told him of the forgery and the amount of money taken, and in what an embarrassing position we were for the next pay-roll. When I had finished he said: `It is too bad the money is gone, but I will tell you what to do. Go and see the president of the bank which paid the forged checks. Get him to admit the bank's liability, and then say to him that Mr. Edison does not think the bank should suffer because he happened to have a dishonest clerk in his employ. Also say to him that I shall not ask them to make the amount good.' This was done; the bank admitting its liability and being much pleased with this action. When I reported to Mr. Edison he said: `That's all right. We have made a friend of the bank, and we may need friends later on.' And so it happened that some time afterward, when we greatly needed help in the way of loans, the bank willingly gave us the accommodations we required to tide us over a critical period."
This iron-ore concentrating project had lain close to Edison's heart and ambition--indeed, it had permeated his whole being to the exclusion of almost all other investigations or inventions for a while. For five years he had lived and worked steadily at Edison, leaving there only on Saturday night to spend Sunday at his home in Orange, and returning to the plant by an early train on Monday morning. Life at Edison was of the simple kind--work, meals, and a few hours' sleep--day by day. The little village, called into existence by the concentrating works, was of the most primitive nature and offered nothing in the way of frivolity or amusement. Even the scenery is austere. Hence Edison was enabled to follow his natural bent in being surrounded day and night by his responsible chosen associates, with whom he worked uninterrupted by outsiders from early morning away into the late hours of the evening. Those who were laboring with him, inspired by his unflagging enthusiasm, followed his example and devoted all their long waking hours to the furtherance of his plans with a zeal that ultimately bore fruit in the practical success here recorded.
In view of its present status, this colossal enterprise at Edison may well be likened to the prologue of a play that is to be subsequently enacted for the benefit of future generations, but before ringing down the curtain it is desirable to preserve the unities by quoting the words of one of the principal actors, Mr. Mallory, who says: "The Concentrating Works had been in operation, and we had produced a considerable quantity of the briquettes, and had been able to sell only a portion of them, the iron market being in such condition that blast-furnaces were not making any new purchases of iron ore, and were having difficulty to receive and consume the ores which had been previously contracted for, so what sales we were able to make were at extremely low prices, my recollection being that they were between $3.50 and $3.80 per ton, whereas when the works had started we had hoped to obtain $6.00 to $6.50 per ton for the briquettes. We had also thoroughly investigated the wonderful deposit at Mesaba, and it was with the greatest possible reluctance that Mr. Edison was able to come finally to the conclusion that, under existing conditions, the concentrating plant could not then be made a commercial success. This decision was reached only after the most careful investigations and calculations, as Mr. Edison was just as full of fight and ambition to make it a success as when he first started.
"When this decision was reached Mr. Edison and I took the Jersey Central train from Edison, bound for Orange, and I did not look forward to the immediate future with any degree of confidence, as the concentrating plant was heavily in debt, without any early prospect of being able to pay off its indebtedness. On the train the matter of the future was discussed, and Mr. Edison said that, inasmuch as we had the knowledge gained from our experience in the concentrating problem, we must, if possible, apply it to some practical use, and at the same time we must work out some other plans by which we could make enough money to pay off the Concentrating Company's indebtedness, Mr. Edison stating most positively that no company with which he had personally been actively connected had ever failed to pay its debts, and he did not propose to have the Concentrating Company any exception.
"In the discussion that followed he suggested several kinds of work which he had in his mind, and which might prove profitable. We figured carefully over the probabilities of financial returns from the Phonograph Works and other enterprises, and after discussing many plans, it was finally decided that we would apply the knowledge we had gained in the concentrating plant by building a plant for manufacturing Portland cement, and that Mr. Edison would devote his attention to the developing of a storage battery which did not use lead and sulphuric acid. So these two lines of work were taken up by Mr. Edison with just as much enthusiasm and energy as is usual with him, the commercial failure of the concentrating plant seeming not to affect his spirits in any way. In fact, I have often been impressed strongly with the fact that, during the dark days of the concentrating problem, Mr. Edison's desire was very strong that the creditors of the Concentrating Works should be paid in full; and only once did I hear him make any reference to the financial loss which he himself made, and he then said: `As far as I am concerned, I can any time get a job at $75 per month as a telegrapher, and that will amply take care of all my personal requirements.' As already stated, however, he started in with the maximum amount of enthusiasm and ambition, and in the course of about three years we succeeded in paying off all the indebtedness of the Concentrating Works, which amounted to several hundred thousand dollars.
"As to the state of Mr. Edison's mind when the final decision was reached to close down, if he was specially disappointed, there was nothing in his manner to indicate it, his every thought being for the future, and as to what could be done to pull us out of the financial situation in which we found ourselves, and to take advantage of the knowledge which we had acquired at so great a cost."
It will have been gathered that the funds for this great experiment were furnished largely by Edison. In fact, over two million dollars were spent in the attempt. Edison's philosophic view of affairs is given in the following anecdote from Mr. Mallory: "During the boom times of 1902, when the old General Electric stock sold at its high-water mark of about $330, Mr. Edison and I were on our way from the cement plant at New Village, New Jersey, to his home at Orange. When we arrived at Dover, New Jersey, we got a New York newspaper, and I called his attention to the quotation of that day on General Electric. Mr. Edison then asked: `If I hadn't sold any of mine, what would it be worth to-day?' and after some figuring I replied: `Over four million dollars.' When Mr. Edison is thinking seriously over a problem he is in the habit of pulling his right eyebrow, which he did now for fifteen or twenty seconds. Then his face lighted up, and he said: `Well, it's all gone, but we had a hell of a good time spending it.' " With which revelation of an attitude worthy of Mark Tapley himself, this chapter may well conclude.
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Edison, His Life and Inventions -by- F. L. Dyer and T. C. Martin