Thomas Edison

Henry Ford, ‘The Vagabonds,’ and the Birthplace of the Charcoal Briquet

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Henry Ford

By Ken Zurski

In 1919, car-making giant Henry Ford had been eyeing a significant tract of land on the far western portion of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan known as Iron Mountain.  Ford’s cousin, Minnie, to whom he was very close, lived there along with her husband E.G. Kingsford. Thanks to his wife’s family connections, Kingsford ran a successful timber business and owned several car dealerships in the area.

Kingsford, of course, is a name synonymous with charcoal briquets, but the backstory has just as much to do with Ford’s keen business sense.

Here’s why:

At the time, Ford had begun wrestling control from his stockholders and purchasing raw materials to be used in making his vehicles. Anything to make his car making process more efficient, he implied. Kingsford had a beat on something Ford desperately sought. So Ford invited Kingsford to go camping with him. To talk business, he explained.

Ford had been making headlines across the country, not just for making cars, but for using one too. Ford went on road trips. The press dubbed it, “auto-camping,” because Ford along with his three close friends, who called themselves “the vagabonds” would travel by automobile during the day then set camps at night. Ford’s camping companions were no slouches. They included Harvey Firestone, the tire company founder; John Burroughs, the conservationist; and inventor Thomas Edison. Their journeys included a jaunt through the Florida Everglades and treks across mountainous regions in West Virginia and New England. Their first trip to the Adirondacks in 1918 was so satisfying they all agreed to make a trip to a new destination every year.

The trips were well-organized, well-stocked and oftentimes well-staffed with cooks and a cleaning crew. Like true campers, though, the formidable men did sleep on folding cots in a ten-by ten canvas tent. Burroughs, in his 80’s and the oldest by age of the four (Ford was in his 50’s), chronicled most of the adventures. He marveled at their resiliency. “Mr Ford seizes an ax and swings it vigorously til there is enough wood for the campfire,” he wrote.

Each year newspapers ran features of  “the vagabonds” latest adventure and newsreels of their exploits were shown in movie theaters throughout the country. After all these were prominent American inventors and role models to some like Edison and Ford, who despite their gray hair, and unabashed preference to wear business attire – tight collars, three piece suits and ties – even on the retreats, were “roughing it,” so to speak, in the great outdoors. The papers couldn’t hide the obvious irony of it all. “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains Off on Vacation,” the headlines blared. Even President Warren G. Harding joined the men briefly for one excursion.

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“The Vagabonds” – Firestone, Ford, Edison and Kingsford

 

Kingsford must have been pleased and a certainly flattered by Ford’s invitation to join “the vagabonds”  in Green Island, New York, a popular fishing spot near Edison’s Machine Works company. Ford had a purpose. He needed land. Specifically, he needed land with timber on it. Nearly one-million board feet a day was used to manufacture the popular Model T’s, whose chassis were made mostly of wood.

Kingsford convinced Ford to buy some flat land near the Menominee River and build a wood distillation plant. Ford heeded his advice and went even further. He would build the plant and an electric dam nearby to power it. Ford hated to waste anything and in the wood distillation process there was always a lot of waste, specifically wood chip ash, or rough charcoal. So Ford had an idea. He mixed the crushed charcoal with a potato starch glue and pressed the blackened goo into a pillow-shaped briquette. When lit, it burned white ash and produced searing heat, but little or no flame.

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Ford was not the first person to come up with the idea of charcoal in a briquet. That honor goes to a man named Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer from Philadelphia who patented the idea in 1897. Ford, however, was the first to commercially market it. He advertised the new product as “a fuel of a hundred uses” and perfect for “barbecues, picnics, hotels. restaurants, ships, clubs, homes, railroads, trucks, foundries, tinsmiths, meat smoking, and tobacco curing.” For home use, it was less dangerous than a traditional wood fire, but just as useful. “Briquette fire alone is enough to take the chill off a room,” the instructions informed. “Absence of sparks eliminates this menace to rugs, floors and clothing.”

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Ford’s put his signature logo on the charcoal briquettes bags and sold them exclusively at his many car dealerships. When Ford died in 1947, the charcoal business was phased out. Henry Ford II took over and sold the chemical operation to local business men who changed the name to reflect its local heritage: Kingsford Chemical Company.  By that time, Kingsford was not just a person, but a city. Thanks to the economical success of Ford’s wood, parts and charcoal plant, the land used to build the original timber business was named in honor of its first industrialist.

His story is rarely told. In short, Kingsford was born in Woodstock, Ontario and moved to Michigan as a young boy. He lived on his parents farm in Fremont before becoming a timber agent and moving to Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. In 1892, Kingsford married Mary Francis “Minnie” Flaherty, Henry Ford’s cousin. Several years later, he signed a contract to become a Ford sales agent in Marquette and eventually moved to Iron Mountain where he bought tracks of land for timber and opened several Ford dealerships. When Ford called to discuss the possibility of using the massive timber resource for his car making, Kingsford answered.

Eventually, the once uncharted land, about five square miles total, was named Kingsford, Michigan.

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Ford plant Kingsford

Despite the distinction, however, Ford, not Kingsford, is prominently associated with the town’s history. Ford was responsible for putting up the large factory, employing hundreds of workers, and building modern houses for the workers and their families to live.  Within just one year, in 1920, the population of  Kingsford blossomed from a mere 40 residents to nearly 3,000, creating a town out of an enterprise, thanks to Henry Ford.

By the time Ford’s imprint left in 1950, the town of Kingsford was established enough to persevere, although the plant’s closing was a blow economically. After the parts plant it’s doors in the 1960’s, the charcoal business also left; moving operations to Louisville, Kentucky.

Ford’s name is still displayed on several establishments in town: Ford Airport, Ford Hospital and Ford Park are just a few examples. In a a publication honoring the city’s 75th Jubilee, Kingsford is refereed to as  “The Town that Ford Built.”

Some might say that’s a slight to Kingsford, the man, who by association convinced Ford to venture out to the remote section of the Upper Peninsula, ultimately invest in some land, and put a city on the map. Today, you have to go to Kingsford, Michigan to get the full story. You’ll see. Ford still gets the credit.

But when it comes to charcoal, we all know whose name is on that big blue and white bag.

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Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla and the “Irregular” Solution

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By Ken Zurski

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Nikola Tesla

Around the same time Nikola Tesla was making waves in America for inventing an alternating current (AC) electrical power source and engaging in a “War of Currents” with his former employer and now adversary Thomas Edison, one of the Serbian-born scientist and engineer’s lesser known laboratory experiments took an unexpected and unusual turn.

It was in the 1890’s and Tesla had perfected what he called the Oscillator, or an AC generator that introduced a reciprocating piston rather than the standard rotating coils to generate power. Tesla used steam to drive the piston back and forth and a shaft connected to the piston moved the coils through the magnetic field. The result was higher frequencies and more current than conventional generators.

He patented this machine and unveiled it to great curiosity at the Chicago World’s Fair. “Mr. Tesla has taken what may be called the core of a steam engine and the core of an electrical dynamo, given them a harmonious mechanical adjustment, and has produced a machine which has in it the potentiality of reducing to the rank of old metal half the machinery at present moving on the face of the globe,” the New York Times raved.

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Proving the “mad scientist” was never satisfied with his own work and always tried to improve what he had already achieved, when Tesla returned to his New York lab he attempted to use compressed air instead of steam. He built this on a platform that vibrated at a high rate, driving the piston when the column of air was compressed and then released. Even though it didn’t generate enough electricity to power a lighting system, Telsa was amused nonetheless, especially when he stood on the platform. “The sensation experienced was as strange as agreeable,” he wrote, “and I asked my assistants to try. They did so and were mystified and pleased like myself.”

Only one problem. Each time Tesla or one of his assistants stepped off the platform, they had to run to the toilet room. The reason was obvious, especially to Tesla.  “A stupendous truth dawned upon me. Some of us, who had stayed longer on the platform, felt an unspeakable and pressing becessity which had promptly been satisfied.”

Basically, they had a sudden urge to empty their bowels.

Intrigued, Tesla kept experimenting and ordering his assistants to “eat meals quickly” and “rush back to the lab.” Tesla may have failed in an attempt to upgrade his own machine, he thought, but succeeded in the prospect at least of using electricity to cure a number of digestive issues.

But to be sure, he unsuspectingly enlisted the help of a friend.

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Mark Twain

Mark Twain and Tesla were seemingly unlikely acquaintances. In addition to his writing, Twain was a failed inventor, or at least a failed backer of inventions, like the automatic typesetting machine which he poured thousands of dollars into and even more into finding a workable electric motor to power it. Unsuccessful, Twain read about Tesla’s AC steam-powered motor generator and gushed at its simplicity and ingenuity. “It is the most valuable patent since the telephone,” Twain wrote without a hint of his usual sarcasm.

Tesla had sold his invention to lamp maker George Westinghouse’s company which also impressed Twain who lost a sizable portion of his own fortune on the typesetter machine. So at some point the two men met and Twain visited Tesla’s lab. The result is a famous photograph of Twain in the foreground acting as a human conductor of electricity as Tesla or an assistant looms mysteriously in the background. But Tesla fondly remembers helping his friend too. “[Twain] came to the lab in the worst shape,” Tesla recalls, “suffering from a variety of depressing and dangerous elements.”

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As the story goes, Twain stepped on the vibrating platform as Tesla had suggested. After a few minutes, Tesla begged him to come down. “Not by a jugfull,” insisted Twain, apparently enjoying himself. When Tesla finally turned the machine off, Twain lurched forward looked at Tesla and pleadingly yelled: “Where is it?”

He was, of course, asking for direction to the toilet room. “Right over there,” Tesla responded chuckling. But Tesla knew he had done Twain a favor. “In less than two months, he regained his old vigor and ability of enjoying life to the fullest extent.”

Of course, Tesla never did patent or market a machine for such a specific purpose and Twain didn’t talk about it, so it’s mostly lost to time, unlike the photograph.  Both men now have an important place in history and numerous books are written about them.  Twain’s recollections are mostly in his own hand. But the story of Twain’s visit to Tesla’s lab and Twain’s resulting step on the oscillating platform is found in Tesla’s versions, not Twain’s.

Perhaps, as one Tesla biographer suggests, it was all a big practical joke, which certainly – and quite remarkably – turns the tables on both men’s reputations considering Twain was the humorist and Tesla the brain.

Despite this, and knowing the outcome, even if it was only intended for a laugh, both men were likely pleased with the results.

But for completely different reasons.

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Meet William Kennedy Dickson: The Unsung Pioneer of Moving Pictures

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By Ken Zurski

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William Kennedy Dickson

In 1879, at the age of 19, William Kennedy Dickson found himself in a burgeoning America with the promise of a good future for an aspiring entrepreneur who had just finished his education at England’s prestigious Cambridge University.

Dickson, who had a background in electrical invention, immediately sought work with an American scientist who was hiring a team of minds to do experiments on electricity at his lab in Menlo Park, California.

Go see Edison, Dickson was told.

Thomas Edison.

So he did.

Just being a fine chemist and intellectual wasn’t enough for the demanding Edison. He fired several qualified men because they “didn’t get results.” But Edison liked Dickson right away and put him in charge of his metallurgy laboratory.

Dickson also had a knack for photography, and Edison needed someone to document his work in pictures.  So in addition to his experiments in the lab, Dickson became a creative force behind the camera too.  A mission that would eventually lead him to head Edison’s efforts in finding a way to make pictures move.

But the phonograph came first. With it, Edison had a business and a product to sell. Entertainment, however, was not Edison’s strong suit.  Most of his products were focused on labor and used primarily for industry, like the diction phonograph. But leisure time was becoming important to Americans, and Edison saw a need to transition from production tools to consumer goods. The wax recording was a good example.

album3-1Alexander Graham Bell’s team came up with the original idea for the Graphophone, based on Edison’s previous phonograph design. It used wax over the cylinder and listening tubes for hearing. Bell’s group approached Edison for a partnership, but Edison refused. Instead he took their idea and perfected it, making a better and cleaner sounding phonograph, using the wax technology.

Before the turn of the century, the phonograph would be mass produced along with similar machines, including Bell’s. But even before the playback machines were ready for the market, Edison was sensing another profitable venture in the entertainment industry.

In 1888, he drew a sketch of a device he called the Kinetoscope, “an instrument which does for the eye, what the phonograph does for the ear.” This machine, he said, would “reproduce things in motion.” But added, “be cheap, practical and convenient.”

The man Edison chose to command this new venture was his chemist and photographer William Dickson.

It didn’t take long for Dickson and the team to come up with something functional. Applying the phonograph’s cylinder design and photographic celluloid Dickson was already using in his picture-making, within five months, a prototype emerged which showed considerable promise. Edison and Dickson tinkered with technology already established, like the telegraph, and applied it to their experiments. Dickson also used a Tachhyscope for inspiration. It used a series of pictures rotated and illuminated by a light and projected on a screen. Dickson hooked it up to the phonograph and produced what is in essence the first talking picture. He showed it to Edison. In the film, Dickson raises his hat and says “Good morning Mr. Edison, glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kinetograph.” Dickson then counts to ten on his fingers; the sound perfectly synced to the image.

Edison was impressed, but didn’t like the idea of a picture projected on the wall. He thought it was impractical. Further experiments, he directed, should be on movies for coin-slots, similar to the phonograph. Dickson clearly disappointed by Edison’s reaction, kept the projection idea in mind while setting his team to work on the next design: a box with a viewing slot.

By 1897, the phonograph business was booming and everyone wanted in. Columbia gained control of American Gramophone and promptly sued Edison for patent rights. The suit was dropped after Columbia discovered their machines also relied on Edison’s earlier technology. A bidding war began over pricing. Most phonograph models were around $30, but Edison built a cheaper model called the “Gem” for only ten bucks. Kinetoscopes were selling too, but it was a much different process.  Edison could see the technology side of both of his entertainment machines, but not the art. He left that up to others, like Dickson, who made the films. Staged scenes of prize fights and vaudeville performers were the most popular.

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Edweard Muybridge

Things were changing for Dickson, however. He grew tired of making the same movies and sought work elsewhere. He left Edison in 1895 and joined Woodville Latham owner of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company who was already experimenting with light-focused over-sized images projected on a screen.

Dickson soon found out he wasn’t the only one interested in the projection idea.  Many others had researched it over the years, including Eadweard Muybridge, who projected drawings of animals in motion. At one point, Muybridge brought his Zoopraxiscope to Edison hoping to solve the problem of putting actual photographs on the cylinder, like the phonograph did with sound. Edison was interested only in the prospect of the invention, not the actual product. Again Edison thought he could improve on an original design. The problem was projection, something Edison had little interest in at the time.

But thanks to Muybridge and Dickson, the projection idea did not fade away.  In fact it flourished under those who believed it was the future of moving pictures. By the time a projection system was ready for public use, Dickson’s new employer Latham had been been bought out by another company headed by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Both inventors and investors, Jenkins and Armat needed someone who could produce the machines and supply films. They asked Edison to join in. The projector, called the Vitascope would soon be changed to the Projectoscope, Edison’s improved design. When the first motion picture was shown to a New York theater audience in 1896,  Edison would get credit for it. Dickson and other early pioneers of the projection system were left in the dark. Especially Dickson ,who would remain mostly anonymous.

But that would change.

album3-1Perhaps slighted by Edison’s unwillingness to share public credit with him, Dickson wrote a book titled “History of the Kinetoscope, Kinethograph, Kinetoscope & Kinetophonograph.” In it, Dickson gives himself credit for the work in Edison’s lab and claims “co-patentee” honors with Edison on the Kinetoscope design. Edsion objected, especially the part about Dickson being the co-inventor. “Mr. Dickson will get full credit for the work he has done without trying to ram it down people’s throats,” Edison angrily rebutted.

Through the years, historians have debated Dickson’s role in moving pictures.  Some claim Dickson was a product of Edison’s meticulously controlled experiments and first rate facilities. Anyone with Dickson’s background would have made the best of it, they argue. Others believe Edison was ruthless and loved fame more than acknowledgment. He absolutely refused to share success with others.

Regardless of the discourse, Dickson eventually returned to London where he died in 1935 at the age of 75.

But all is not lost.

Today, Dickson is known exclusively for inventing one machine called the Mutoscope.

Slighted by Edison on the projection design, and receiving no attribution for his role in creating it, Dickson made another variation of the Kinetoscope using a simple “flip-book” design run by a crank rather than electricity. The Mutoscope soon found an appreciative audience. It began to appear in amusement parlors in the U.S. and pleasure piers throughout Europe. It served mostly one purpose: satisfying men’s desires to view busty ladies in various stages of undress.

“What the Butler Saw” is what they called the Mutoscope in England.

In America, it became more widely known as a “peep show.”

Dickson gets credit for that.

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(A good portion of the retelling of this story comes from Edison: A life of Invention by Paul Israel).