Thomas Edison’s Forgotten Passion: Building Concrete Houses

Of all things Thomas Alva Edison is known for, concrete is not one of them. It was one of Edison's less successful ventures, but not one without significance.
Towards the end of 19th century, Edison, like many businessman and builders of the time, was captivated by the possibilities of cement. Edison believed that concrete was the future and the answer to all housing problem, and he decided to act on this impulse in a big way.
edison concrete house
Concrete houses in Gary, Indiana constructed using methods developed by Thomas Edison. Photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr
Edison’s foray into the cement making business, however, was accidental. For ten years, Edison was milling iron ore unsuccessfully selling off the waste sand the mills produced to cement manufacturers. Struggling against steep competition from ore mills in the Midwest, Edison tried to keep his business afloat using stocks from his immensely successful General Electric Company. But once Edison realized that he was flogging a dead horse, he decided to switch to cement making instead using the same waste that he had been selling to his now competitors.
In 1899, Edison formed the Edison Portland Cement Company and built a massive plant in western New Jersey featuring 150-foot rotating kilns, the largest in the world at that time. Within a decade Edison was the fifth biggest cement producer in the world. His researchers continually improved the cement making process and Edison kept patenting them. Altogether, this illustrious inventor holds forty-nine patents relating cement manufacturing.
Edison’s ultimate dream was the mass production of cheap concrete houses. He patented a process by which homes could be cast in a single continuous pour instead of pouring floor by floor. But that’s not all. Aside from walls and floors, Edison wanted every interior structure—baths, toilets, sinks, cabinets, beds, and even refrigerators and pianos—to be of concrete.
edison concrete house
The object of my invention is to construct a building of a cement mixture by a single molding operation,” reads his patent application. “All its parts, including the sides, roofs, partitions, bath tubs, floors, etc., being formed of an integral mass of a cement mixture. This invention is applicable to buildings of any sort, but I contemplate its use particularly for the construction of dwellings, in which the stairs, mantels, ornamental ceilings and other interior decorations and fixtures may all be formed in the same molding operation and integral with the house itself. The house thus made is practically indestructible.”
Edison’s dream was just too crazy, but determined to show the world that it was feasible, Edison poured two experimental buildings—a gardener’s cottage and a garage—at his New Jersey mansion Glenmont in 1910. He then announced that he would donate the patented information to qualified builders rather than profit from it.
The publicity attracted the attention of philanthropist Henry Phipps Jr. who proposed using the concrete houses to solve New York City’s housing problems. Phipps declared that he would build an entire city for working-class families using the concrete casting technique devised by Edison. But when it came to delivering, Edison was unable to provide the plans.
edison concrete house
A concrete house made using Thomas Edison's ideas.
It was then Edison realized the unrealizability of his dream. One of the main technical problems of his single-pour homes was the complexity of the molds. Each house required more than two thousand pieces of molds that had to be precisely set, and carefully taken apart and set again for the next house. The process was ridiculously cumbersome and complicated, not to mention expensive for the builders. Another problem was pouring the concrete smoothly. The challenge for Edison's engineers was to formulate a mixture that was liquid enough to flow into every nook and corner of every mold, but thick enough to suspend the aggregate in the mixture and not let it settle down at the bottom of the mold by gravity.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable problems, Edison did manage to build a few concrete homes in Union and Montclair, New Jersey, where they still stand today.
Before the Edison Portland Cement Company went belly up in the 1920s, it scored one last big contract—the construction of the original Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, New York City. The stadium was home to the New York Yankees until 2008, when they relocated to a new stadium. The original Yankee Stadium was demolished in 2010, two years after it closed, and the 8-acre site was converted into a park called Heritage Field.
edison concrete house
Thomas Edison showing a model of a concrete house.
edison concrete house
Concrete houses in Gary, Indiana constructed using methods developed by Thomas Edison. Photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr
edison concrete house
Concrete houses in Gary, Indiana constructed using methods developed by Thomas Edison. Photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr
edison concrete house

Concrete houses in Gary, Indiana constructed using methods developed by Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison’s Forgotten Passion: Building Concrete Houses Thomas Edison’s Forgotten Passion: Building Concrete Houses Reviewed by STATION GOSSIP on 04:37 Rating: 5

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