7 Epic Fails Brought to You By the Genius Mind of Thomas Edison

Despite popular belief, the inventor wasn’t the “Wiz” of everything

(National Park Service, Thomas Edison National Historical Park)

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Consumers complained they were too fragile and broke easily in the hands of young girls; even the slightest bump down the stairs could cause the mechanism to come loose. Some reported that the toy’s voice grew fainter after only an hour of use. Beyond that, the dolls didn’t exactly sound like sweet companions—their voice was “just ghastly,” DeGraaf says.

Edison reacted quickly—by April, less than a month after they were first shipped to consumers, the dolls were off the market. The swift move was one of the strongest indications of Edison’s attitude toward failure and how he operated when faced with it, DeGraaf says.

Ore mills and separators

For years, Edison corresponded with miners throughout the United States. The deposits of ore along the East Coast, Ohio and Pennsylvania were littered with nonferrous rock that had to be removed before the ore was smelted, DeGraaf explains. In 1890, Edison envisioned an ore separator with powerful electromagnets that could parse the fine ore particles from rocks, depositing them into two different bins.

But he wasn’t alone: at the same time, there were more than 20 small-scale ore separators being tested on Eastern iron beds. To give himself a competitive advantage, Edison constructed several large-scale plants he believed could process up to 5,000 tons of ore a day, DeGraaf says. After opening and closing a few small experimental plants, he constructed a plant near Ogdensburg, New Jersey, which gave him access to 19,000 acres of minerals.

Edison managed the plant in Ogdensburg—a change of pace for the inventor. The endeavor presented issues from the very beginning. The giant crushing rolls—5-foot by 6-foot tools Edison hoped would crush rocks up to six tons—that were crucial to the plant’s operations were all but useless when they debuted in 1894. As Edison redesigned them, his employees discovered the plant’s elevators had deteriorated, which meant he would have to rebuild an entirely new elevator system. Edison could never quite get the lab to full capacity. He rejiggered machines a dozen times over at all steps in the process, from crushing to separating and drying. The work came with a hefty price tag, with which Edison nor his investors could cover. Ore milling was a failed experiment Edison took a decade to let go—an uncharacteristically long time for the quick-stepping innovator.

The Edison Home Service Club

Before there was Netflix or Redbox, there was the Edison Home Service Club.

In the 1900s, Edison’s National Phonograph Co. rolled out a number of less expensive machines so people could bring entertainment—mostly music—into their homes. His and the other major phonograph companies, including Victor and Columbia, manufactured the machines as well as the records they played.

Edison believed his records were superior, DeGraaf says, and thought giving buyers access to more of his catalog was the only way to prove it. He rolled out the club in 1922, sending subscribers 20 records in the mail each month.  After two days, they selected the records they wanted to order and sent the samples on to the next subscriber.


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