The Final Experiment
Thomas Alva Edison’s 1928 rubber project represents a major advance in modern research on producing materials from renewable resources. More than 17,000 plants were tested in Edison’s quest for latex.
Thomas A. Edison is an outstanding genius in the history of technology. He was instrumental in the development of lighting technology, power systems, perfected the phonograph, developed motion picture cameras and the alkaline battery. He amassed a record 1,093 patents: 389 for electrical light and power, 195 for telephone, 150 telegraph, 141 storage battery and 24 for the telephone. Not only an inventor, Edison was a successful manufacturer and businessman who was highly skilled at marketing his inventions and himself.
Taking a vacation from the cold northern winter in New Jersey (where Edison had his home, business office and laboratory) he enjoyed early 1885 relaxing in Florida. Traveling with a few friends he visited Fort Myers, Florida on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Attracted to the area, Edison considered having a winter retreat in this subtropical environment. In the countryside about one mile from the town of Fort Myers, Edison found a parcel of fourteen acres, with waterfront along the Caloosahatchee River. He arranged for a purchase of $2,750.00. The land was simple wild vegetation and scrub, although there was a stand of Giant Green Bamboo which Edison had experimented with as a natural filament for his incandescent light bulb. The exceptional riverfront would facilitate shipping of building supplies to the site.
Drawings and designs were completed by Autumn of the same year, 1885, for Seminole Lodge. For the next 45 years Edison visited, entertained, had family time, designed the landscape and added constant beautification to the property. Within a few years of living there, hundreds of flowering plants surrounded Seminole Lodge and there were well developed gardens of bananas, tangerines, guavas, limes, lemons, paw-paws, mangoes and 50 orange and 100 grapefruit trees.
Seminole Lodge was a welcoming place to visitors from around the world. In 1914 Edison invited his friend Henry Ford to visit his Florida home. A few days into the visit Ford decided he wanted to stay. Henry Ford quickly initiated proceedings to purchase a modest Craftsman bungalow adjoining Edison’s riverfront property. The purchase of “the Mangoes” home was completed in 1916.
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford first met in 1896 when Henry Ford worked as a mechanic at the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. Several years later Edison invited Ford to his New Jersey home for a visit and to see his laboratory. In 1912 Ford asked Edison to design a battery for his self-starting Model T automobile. As neighbors in southern Florida the two men could relax while discussing important ideas. The conversations they would have had while sitting on the veranda of the “Mangoes” must have been fascinating.
The bicycle craze of the 1890s and the need for rubber to make pneumatic tires gave an economic boost to the rubber producing countries of Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. The Amazon Forest was the only naturally occurring habitat for rubber producing trees in the world. Rubber was not an often used product and Brazil had been able to meet all supply demands. Then came the automobile. The automobile mass market was a phenomena. An interest in the value of a reliable resource of rubber quickly became apparent worldwide. No rubber – no tires. No tires – no automobile.
Traditional methods of collecting rubber in the Brazilian Amazon was for workers to traverse the jungle, tap wild trees for sap and carry buckets back to a camp. A labor intensive process, and that plus transportation determined the cost structure. To protect it’s valuable resource, Brazile passed laws banning the export of seeds and seedlings of rubber trees. However: in 1876, before demand was high, Henry Wickham of England sent 70,000 seedlings to Kew Gardens in London. The British Government invests in Kew Gardens for botanical research that will benefit the empire.
Within a few years Dutch and British interests were developing rubber plantations in India, Congo, Dutch East Indies, and Malaysia. The plantations in Asia offered wages, better living conditions and medical care that attracted Indian workers. Japanese and Chinese immigrated for the higher wages. The Asian market transformed the previous cost structure and capacity of the industry. The British controlled Asian plantations came to dominate 75% of world rubber supply in the early 1900s.
Following the high demand for rubber during WWI came a period of low demand and overstock of rubber in the market. Prices were volatile and producers struggled to forecast future supply and demand conditions. Rubber prices had taken wide swings in the past several years. The British Rubber Growers Association came up with the Stevenson Plan which would stabilize prices by limiting the tonnage of rubber exported. The Federal Legislative Council of the Federated Malay States passed the Export of Rubber (restriction) Enactment in October 1922.
By 1925, high prices resulting from the Stevenson Act were seen as a threat to American interests. Herbert Hoover, United States Secretary of Commerce considered rubber to be a vital resource, particularly in time of war. He told the British that if the Stevenson Plan stayed in effect, that the United States would protect itself any way it could. Hoover authorized the Commerce Department to subsidize a worldwide search for possible rubber production sites. Two years earlier tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone had sent experts to Liberia to test soil samples. Firestone was justifiably concerned with America’s reliance on Asian rubber and discussed the matter while visiting Thomas Edison at Seminole Lodge.
Rubber is made of latex, a natural substance found in many trees and plants. Milkweed and poinsettia contain latex. When the plant is cut latex seeps out acting as a bandage. For Henry Ford latex was needed not for a bandage but for the tires and hoses of the growing automobile industry. By 1925 Ford Motor Company had produced over 10 million Model T Fords. Ford understood the need for a domestic supply of rubber.
In 1927 Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone formed the Edison Botanical Research Corporation. The objective – to find a domestic, latex producing plant that could meet the supply and demands of the American rubber industry. Edison took on the challenge. The headquarters would be in Fort Myers. Edison believed the subtropical environment, long growing season, and proven ideal conditions for growing oranges, pineapple and sugarcane would be well suited for botanical research.
The following year 1928, a state of the art laboratory was built. As the project progressed, a variety of structures and acres of research beds filled the landscape. Edison was convinced that a viable source of latex could be developed from a plant species other than Hevea Brasilliensis the Brazilian Rubber Tree.
Edison solicited friends and colleagues from around the nation to send seed and samples to the botanical research company for analysis. Edison oversaw the beds of research plants, the machine shop where he had built, from his designs, apparatus for harvesting, leaf stripping of stalks, cutting and grinding machines and other needs of various structures used in agriculture. Edison tirelessly worked with his team of young chemists in the laboratory to conduct chemical analysis and methods of testing for hundreds of specimens. Copious notes, sketches and photographs with detailed test results were compiled.
Over 17,000 plant samples were tested at the Edison Botanical Research Corporation.
Specimens had to be cleaned, stripped of leaves and twigs, dried, cut, pulverized and ground into powder before testing. Most of Thomas Edison’s known inventions involved electricity and it is how his legacy is remembered by many. In fact Edison was a chemist at heart going back to the days of his youth. He relished the work he was doing in Ft. Myers.
The Goldenrod plant was eventually selected as a possible source for domestic rubber production. Goldenrod had ideal qualities. It tolerated cold weather, could be harvested mechanically, grew quickly and had a high rubber yield. Acres of different varieties were planted and surrounded the laboratory. Edison cross pollinated a variety that grew over 10 ft. tall and contained significantly more rubber than the average plant. His experimental nature had proven once more successful.
The goldenrod experiment was to be Edison’s last. He died October 18, 1931 at the age of 84 years.
Five years after Edison’s death the rubber project was transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Edison Biological Research Corporation was dissolved in 1936.
More than any other individual, Thomas Alva Edison is credited with building the framework for modern technology and society in the age of electricity.
In 1947 Mrs. Mina Edison deeded Seminole Lodge including original furnishings and accessories to the city of Fort Myers for preservation. The following year the home was opened to the public. Included in the transfer of the property was Edison’s perfectly preserved laboratory. As if it had just recently been vacated were workbenches, filtration flasks, Buchner funnels, test tubes, mortars and pestles, beakers, condensers, analytic balances, funnels and ovens. The final experiment of Thomas A. Edison frozen in time.
The Edison Ford Winter Estates, grounds, museum and research laboratory are open to the public daily from 9am to 5:30pm. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Edison Ford Winter Estates, 2350 McGregor Boulevard, Fort Myers, Florida, 33901.