The invention factory
by Jerry Useem, FORTUNE Magazine

(FORTUNE Magazine) - Charles Batcheldor was an English machinist. John Kruesi was a Swiss clockmaker. Ludwig Boehm was a German glassblower. Francis Upton was a Princeton-trained mathematician. They were drawn to the then-isolated New Jersey hamlet of Menlo Park by the magnetic force of Thomas Edison's genius. But it was Edison's unique ability to tap into their skills that turned his half-formed visions into an astonishing stream of workable products. "He was never the lone inventor," says Bill Pretzer, a curator of the Edison collection at the Henry Ford Museum.

"Edison himself flits about, first to one bench, then to another, examining here, instructing there," wrote the New York Herald. A sketch handed to Kruesi unexpectedly yielded the phonograph. The work was "strenuous but joyous," one lab hand wrote. The boss got as dirty as his workmen. And there was the day when the team rode Edison's miniature locomotive to a nearby fishing hole. "The strangest thing to me is the $12 that I get each Saturday," Upton wrote his father, "for my labor does not seem like work but like study."

It was Upton who bought the instruments that led to a breakthrough insight on electric lighting. It was Batcheldor's nimble hands that threaded a carbon filament into a bulb that Boehm evacuated to a millionth of an atmosphere. And on Oct. 22, 1879, when the bulb finished a 14-hour burn, the darkness filled with the cheers of five men and four nationalities. Top of page