A WORLD-HUNT FOR FILAMENT MATERIAL
IN writing about the old experimenting days at Menlo Park, Mr. F. R. Upton says: "Edison's day is twenty-four hours long, for he has always worked whenever there was anything to do, whether day or night, and carried a force of night workers, so that his experiments could go on continually. If he wanted material, he always made it a principle to have it at once, and never hesitated to use special messengers to get it. I remember in the early days of the electric light he wanted a mercury pump for exhausting the lamps. He sent me to Princeton to get it. I got back to Metuchen late in the day, and had to carry the pump over to the laboratory on my back that evening, set it up, and work all night and the next day getting results."
This characteristic principle of obtaining desired material in the quickest and most positive way manifested itself in the search that Edison instituted for the best kind of bamboo for lamp filaments, immediately after the discovery related in a preceding chapter. It is doubtful whether, in the annals of scientific research and experiment, there is anything quite analogous to the story of this search and the various expeditions that went out from the Edison laboratory in 1880 and subsequent years, to scour the earth for a material so apparently simple as a homogeneous strip of bamboo, or other similar fibre. Prolonged and exhaustive experiment, microscopic examination, and an intimate knowledge of the nature of wood and plant fibres, however, had led Edison to the conclusion that bamboo or similar fibrous filaments were more suitable than anything else then known for commercial incandescent lamps, and he wanted the most perfect for that purpose. Hence, the quickest way was to search the tropics until the proper material was found.
The first emissary chosen for this purpose was the late William H. Moore, of Rahway, New Jersey, who left New York in the summer of 1880, bound for China and Japan, these being the countries pre- eminently noted for the production of abundant species of bamboo. On arrival in the East he quickly left the cities behind and proceeded into the interior, extending his search far into the more remote country districts, collecting specimens on his way, and devoting much time to the study of the bamboo, and in roughly testing the relative value of its fibre in canes of one, two, three, four, and five year growths. Great bales of samples were sent to Edison, and after careful tests a certain variety and growth of Japanese bamboo was determined to be the most satisfactory material for filaments that had been found. Mr. Moore, who was continuing his searches in that country, was instructed to arrange for the cultivation and shipment of regular supplies of this particular species. Arrangements to this end were accordingly made with a Japanese farmer, who began to make immediate shipments, and who subsequently displayed so much ingenuity in fertilizing and cross- fertilizing that the homogeneity of the product was constantly improved. The use of this bamboo for Edison lamp filaments was continued for many years.
Although Mr. Moore did not meet with the exciting adventures of some subsequent explorers, he encountered numerous difficulties and novel experiences in his many months of travel through the hinterland of Japan and China. The attitude toward foreigners thirty years ago was not as friendly as it has since become, but Edison, as usual, had made a happy choice of messengers, as Mr. Moore's good nature and diplomacy attested. These qualities, together with his persistence and perseverance and faculty of intelligent discrimination in the matter of fibres, helped to make his mission successful, and gave to him the honor of being the one who found the bamboo which was adopted for use as filaments in commercial Edison lamps.
Although Edison had satisfied himself that bamboo furnished the most desirable material thus far discovered for incandescent-lamp filaments, he felt that in some part of the world there might be found a natural product of the same general character that would furnish a still more perfect and homogeneous material. In his study of this subject, and during the prosecution of vigorous and searching inquiries in various directions, he learned that Mr. John C. Brauner, then residing in Brooklyn, New York, had an expert knowledge of indigenous plants of the particular kind desired. During the course of a geological survey which he had made for the Brazilian Government, Mr. Brauner had examined closely the various species of palms which grow plentifully in that country, and of them there was one whose fibres he thought would be just what Edison wanted.
Accordingly, Mr. Brauner was sent for and dispatched to Brazil in December, 1880, to search for and send samples of this and such other palms, fibres, grasses, and canes as, in his judgment, would be suitable for the experiments then being carried on at Menlo Park. Landing at Para, he crossed over into the Amazonian province, and thence proceeded through the heart of the country, making his way by canoe on the rivers and their tributaries, and by foot into the forests and marshes of a vast and almost untrodden wilderness. In this manner Mr. Brauner traversed about two thousand miles of the comparatively unknown interior of Southern Brazil, and procured a large variety of fibrous specimens, which he shipped to Edison a few months later. When these fibres arrived in the United States they were carefully tested and a few of them found suitable but not superior to the Japanese bamboo, which was then being exclusively used in the manufacture of commercial Edison lamps.
Later on Edison sent out an expedition to explore the wilds of Cuba and Jamaica. A two months' investigation of the latter island revealed a variety of bamboo growths, of which a great number of specimens were obtained and shipped to Menlo Park; but on careful test they were found inferior to the Jap- anese bamboo, and hence rejected. The exploration of the glades and swamps of Florida by three men extended over a period of five months in a minute search for fibrous woods of the palmetto species. A great variety was found, and over five hundred boxes of specimens were shipped to the laboratory from time to time, but none of them tested out with entirely satisfactory results.