Friday, March 8, 2019

Thomas Edison's Lady Glassblowers

Fig. 1. 
Sealing the Glass Socket and
Carbon Filament into the Flask of an Incandescent Lamp.
"We will next turn to the glass-blowing department, where
hundreds of girls are employed in all the delicate and skillful 
manipulations involved in the glasswork of these lamps"
-Henry Morton, Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 6, 1889
On a cold Monday afternoon in December of 1888, Thomas Edison, his wife Mina and their children arrived in Akron, Ohio, on the 12:17 train. They had traveled from their estate ‘Glenmont’ in West Orange, New Jersey, to visit Mina’s parents for the holidays. That same evening, after dinner, Edison and his father-in-law, Lewis Miller, donned winter coats and walked to a nearby station of the Akron Electric Light Co. where they inspected one of Edison’s dynamo generators that had recently been installed. The dynamo was wired by dedicated copper lines to ‘Oak Place’, Miller’s residence. Upon returning to the house, the family assembled on the third floor, along with a newspaper reporter, where a “mammoth Christmas tree” stood. That year, the tree was adorned with ornaments, tinsel, and also a special addition: forty incandescent lamps that, with a flick of a switch, blazed to life.[1] There is every chance that each of those forty lamps was crafted by female hands at Edison’s Harrison, New Jersey, factory.


Early on, Edison decided on a female crew of flamework glass artisans to perform the delicate manipulations of assembling and finishing the incandescent lamp bulbs, (fig. 1). These specialists crafted the glass parts of the lamps in a complex series of steps. The ‘stem’ makers formed a glass seal around the electrical wires that held the delicate filament in place. The ‘tubulators’ put a small hole in the top of the bulb and attached the glass tubing used to pump the air out of the bulb. Mating the stem to the bulb in an air-tight seal without cracking or damaging either was an art unto itself. All the while, workers needed to adapt on-the-fly to continual changes in materials, procedures and tools as the bulbs evolved and improved. What is known, is that in the early days,  production took place at the laboratory in Menlo Park. As demand for the lamps started to explode, a “shed” for the glass work was built and then expanded. Because of the rural location of the laboratory, there was a continual problem of recruiting qualified workers. Around 1880, Edison turned to the employment of school-aged girls and boys to fill the labor shortage. Here he got a first hand look at what they were capable of. The use of women and girls for this glass work was a tradition that continued for nearly five decades, through the transition into General Electric Co., right up until the work was fully automated.


It was a year earlier, in the spring of 1879 that Edison first made the announcement that he was ready to begin producing electric lamps. Newspapers at the time gave great credit to a German glassblower working for Edison, for bringing the inventor’s research to fruition. This was Ludwig Boehm. He previously worked for Heinrich Geissler in Bonn, Germany, producing electrical discharge tubes and vacuum pumps.[2]  Boehm possessed the glassblowing skills to quickly whip out one test lamp after another, but he also knew how to make the coveted vacuum pumps invented by Geissler. These were the leading edge of vacuum pump technology, far faster and more efficient at evacuating the air out of the lamps than other methods of the time. Edison’s achievement would have been impossible without Geissler’s work and it was Ludwig Boehm, the glassblower, who was the conduit.

By 1882, a new ‘Lamp Works’ factory was ready in Harrison, near metropolitan Newark. It had more floor space than they could possibly ever use, or so they thought. By 1889, Henry Morton, the president of Stevens Institute of technology wrote, “Hundreds of girls are employed in all the delicate and skillful manipulations involved in the glasswork of these lamps.”[3]


Fig. 2.
Laboratory notebook entry
signed solely by Mina Edison.
Edison kept a series of laboratory notebooks documenting experiments and potential solutions to problems, and for the lamps there were many problems. The entries are often signed by Edison himself or his assistants. It is interesting to note that for a period, his wife Mina co-signed some of Edison’s entries and several pages appear in her name alone. This shows her active participation at some level in events of the laboratory.[4] Fig. 2 shows an example of a page signed by Mina Edison, Dated 23 March 1886 with three diagrams of lamps. The top diagram is accompanied by text reading “Make lamps of all kinds of glass and list conductivity.” The next diagram shows a bulb with a special electrode off to the side. The text reads “polished silver. Also one of polished hard rubber.” The third diagram shows a lamp with two filaments and appears to read “copper filament to take out curr[ent] 10-” While the intent of these experimental setups may be lost, what is clear is that she possessed a working understanding of how the lamps functioned and she was proficient at circuit diagrams. Whether she influenced the decision to use female glass workers is an open question.


To become one of Edison’s glass technicians meant steady work in a booming industry, it also meant a first-hand introduction to divisive labor problems common to factories at the end of the 19th century. In the summer of 1889, the general manager of the lamp works took a trip to Europe and, based on British glass blowing practices, he ordered his superintendent in Harrison to immediately cut pay and institute a list of new work rules. The superintendent procrastinated, knowing a disaster in the making when he saw one. Upon the manager’s return in October, the superintendent was fired and the new rules and wages were posted. “The workmen immediately commenced to walk out, and it is likely that the entire force of two hundred will strike” wrote one reporter.[5] Four weeks later, the papers announced that “The girls employed in Edison’s lamp works at Harrison, N J, will go on strike today because of a reduction in wages.”[6] Four years later, an unrelated incident at the lampworks made the papers. It illustrates that even with a good work record and no problems with management, simply getting in through the front door unscathed was not a given. “There was a small riot at the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison, this morning, between several hundred men who were waiting about the gates of the establishment for work. Some objected to the presence of a number of Polish Jews and a free fight ensued, which resulted in a number being badly bruised. The police dispersed the crowd.”[7]


Fig. 3.
Wanted ad for Edison’s Harrison Lampworks factory.
The Boston Globe (Boston Massachusetts)
22 June 1894, Fri., p. 9.
Through it all, the business continued to expand by leaps and bounds. A continual stream of “wanted” advertisements ran in papers as far away as Boston (Fig. 3.) In 1896, Harper’s Magazine reported that  Edison’s lamp factory at Harrison employed “several hundred girls and men” turning out over six-million lamps per year.[8] Even with long hours and partial automation, the line would require at least a couple-hundred glass workers for the delicate hand-work necessary in order to produce what amounted to a new lamp finished every two seconds on the clock.[9]


In the early 1900s the processes for making the lamps was further automated, with women still running much of the equipment. By 1903 a single worker could turn out 600 completed bulbs per day.[10]  By 1912 the Harrison plant employed a total of 4000 workers. In 1918 the women glass workers at the plant met to discuss forming their own union in order to institute an apprentice system to ensure the trade remained healthy.[11] Ultimately the entire lamp factory was closed in 1929 and the work was distributed to more modern and fully automated facilities around the country.[12]


Fig. 4.
Finishing work by women on tungsten lamps, c.1927.
(Shortly before the manufacture of lamp bulbs was fully automated)
Notice the striking similarities to fig. 1. above, from
the same facility, 40 years earlier.
The individual women and girls who worked for the electric lamp factory in Harrison can be traced to some extent through census records. A survey of the 1900 US census found over a hundred female respondents listing the Edison Lamp Works as their place of employment [13] The oldest was Elizabeth Stultz aged 45, the youngest Tillie Glinik just 13. There were a number of sisters there working glass side-by-side. Mary and Carrie Wright were 26 and 16 respectively, while Barbara, Christina and Annie Etzel were 19, 18 and 17.[14]


There is also evidence that the use of female glassworkers for Edison carried overseas to his British lamp making operation. As an 18-year-old, Florence Small who lived in a suburb north of London, worked making glass ‘stems’ for the Edison and Swan Electric Light Company (Royal Ediswan). In 1911, she worked at their Ponders End facility in her hometown of Enfield. She thought enough of the experience to include that detail in her will, fifty years later.[15]

Those forty lamps on the Miller’s Christmas tree in 1888, along with millions of other lamps were created by the skilled female flameworkers of the Edison and later General Electric lamp works in Harrison. It is quite a legacy that from the time of the introduction of electric lamps in 1879, all the way to the invention of television in 1927, the delicate glasswork of the electric lighting industry was firmly entrusted to the competent hands of women.


[1] “A Talk With Edison”, The Summit County Beacon (Akron, Ohio), 2 Jan 1889, Wed, Page 7
[2] “A Very Skillful Glass-Blower” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 4 January 1880, Sun, p. 10. In US Census records and laboratory notebooks Boehm spells his own name “Ludwig K Böhm”. In later life, he reinvented himself as a patent attorney in New York.
[3] Henry Jackson Morton, “Electricity in Lighting” Scribner’s Magazine 1889 vol. VI, pp. 19-23 [compiled, pp. 176-200], (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York) p. 192.
[4] 03/18/1886 Edison, Thomas Alva -- Technical Notes and Drawings (Edison, Mina Miller (Mrs Thomas A.)) Incandescent lamp [N314] Notebook Series -- Fort Myers Notebooks: N-86-03-18 (1886) [N314003; TAEM 42:815] Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
[5] The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), 12 October 1889, Sat. p. 4.
[6] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York), 11 November 1889, Mon. p. 4.
[7] “Edison Lamp Works Riot.” Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania), 5 Dec. 1893, Tue. p. 4.
[8] R. R. (Richard Rodgers) Bowker “Electricity, a Great American Industry”, Harper’s Magazine, Oct 1896, vol. 32, p. 710.
[9] In 1892 Edison began to automate the process of forming the outer bulbs, ultimately farming the work out to Corning Glassworks.
[10] John W. Howell And Henry Schroeder, “History of the Incandescent Lamp” (The Maqua Company: Schenectady, New York ,1927), pp. 165-172.
[11] “Have Mass Meeting of Lamp Works Employes” (sic.), The Fort Wayne Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) 31 December 1918, p. 3.
[12] In 1932 the Harrison factory was re-purposed for the Radiophone Corporation of America. RCA, which produced electronic tubes until 1976. The site was ultimately leveled and is now home to a shopping mall.
[13] Combinations of search terms targeted females working at the Harrison, New Jersey Edison/General Electric Lamp Works. Women found working there, but not listing a specific profession could have worked non glass blowing jobs. Conversely, many who were glass workers at the plant left the census field for 'employment' blank, or were not asked by the census taker and therefore not found in the search.
[14] No candidates could be found in the 1880 US census, and the 1890 census was largely destroyed in a fire at the Commerce Dept. in 1921.
[15] Probate details for Florence Small provided by https://www.terrys.org.uk/charts/c/crack301.htm


Fig. 1: Sealing the Glass Socket and Carbon Filament into the Flask of an Incandescent Lamp. 1889
Fig. 2: Laboratory notebook entry signed solely by Mina Edison.
Fig. 3: Wanted ad for Edison’s Harrison Lampworks factory. The Boston Globe (Boston Massachusetts) 22 June 1894, Fri., p. 9.
Fig. 4: Finishing work on tungsten lamps, c.1927.

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