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Thomas Alva Edison And The Concrete Piano

October 2018

As his biographer Robert Conot has pointed out, some of Thomas Alva Edison’s most important inventions were serendipitous offshoots of research into something altogether different. Thus, experiments in the development of a musical telephone led to the phonograph, work on a zootropic device to motion pictures, and chemical research for an automatic telegraph to the mimeograph. “If I had not had so much ambition and had not tried to do so many things,” he said shortly before his death, “I probably would have been happier, but less useful.”

Which is not to say that things always worked out. Take the cement business, for example. In 1897 Edison developed a new process for concentrating iron ore in a mill he built outside of Ogdensburg, New Jersey. One of the by-products of this operation was an extremely fine sand, which the mill’s manager had no trouble selling to those engaged in the making of Portland cement. Well, Edison reasoned, why not go into the cement business himself?

And so he did. In 1898, with seven partners, he organized the Edison Portland Cement Company, then built a massive plant in the Delaware River valley of western New Jersey featuring 150-foot rotating kilns, the largest in the world at that time. His ultimate dream in all this was the mass production of concrete houses, each of them to be three stories high, contain six rooms, and sell for just twelve hundred dollars. Financially, however, the dream proved hopeless. “The project,” Conot writes, “dragged on for seven years before Edison, unable to stimulate a scintilla of interest from builders or real estate men, abandoned it without pouring the cement for a single concrete house. Before the end came, however, Edison developed the idea that a conrete house should have concrete furniture. He proposed making concrete refrigerators and concrete pianos, and did, in fact, cast several concrete phonograph cabinets. To mark the final resting place of the inhabitants of the concrete world, he devised a concrete tombstone. ”

Edison nursed the cement plant itself through several reorganizations and bankruptcies before letting the New Jersey jungle cover it over in 1930.

Forty-nine years later, Mrs. Sally Johnson Franz of Florham Park found it—or what was left of it—and was stricken with her own idea: to market the bricks from the enormous kilns as mementos of Edison. With a bulldozer, acetylene cutting equipment, and several workers, Mrs. Franz managed to salvage somewhere between twentyfive hundred and three thousand bricks. These were then registered with the Warren County Court House as having come from the Edison plant site, hauled to her back yard in Florham Park, cleaned up, numbered with brass plaques, and offered for sale at $12.95. For his money, each purchaser not only got the brick, but also had his name recorded in a ledger kept on display in the Edison Birthplace Museum in Milan, Ohio. There are plenty of bricks left, Mrs. Franz assures us—although it is difficult to imagine what one is supposed to do with an Edison brick. Perhaps it would add a nice decorative touch, propped up on your concrete piano.