The increasing endeavors of infringers to divert into their own pockets some of the proceeds arising from the marketing of the devices covered by Edison's inventions on these latter lines, necessitated the institution by him, some years ago, of a legal department which, as in the case of the light inventions, was designed to consolidate all law and expert work and place it under the management of a general counsel. The department is of considerable extent, including a number of resident and other associate counsel, and a general office staff, all of whom are constantly engaged from day to day in patent litigation and other legal work necessary to protect the Edison interests. Through their labors the old story is reiterated in the contesting of approximate but conflicting claims, the never- ending effort to suppress infringement, and the destruction as far as possible of the commercial pirates who set sail upon the seas of all successful enterprises. The details, circumstances, and technical questions are, of course, different from those relating to other classes of inventions, and although there has been no cause celebre concerning the phonograph and motion-picture patents, the contention is as sharp and strenuous as it was in the cases relating to electric lighting and heavy current technics.
Mr. Edison's storage battery and the poured cement house have not yet reached the stage of great commercial enterprises, and therefore have not yet risen to the dignity of patent litigation. If, however, the experience of past years is any criterion, there will probably come a time in the future when, despite present widely expressed incredulity and contemptuous sniffs of unbelief in the practicability of his ideas in these directions, ultimate success will give rise to a series of hotly contested legal conflicts such as have signalized the practical outcome of his past efforts in other lines.
When it is considered what Edison has done, what the sum and substance of his contributions to human comfort and happiness have been, the results, as measured by legal success, have been pitiable. With the exception of the favorable decision on the incandescent lamp filament patent, coming so late, however, that but little practical good was accomplished, the reader may search the law-books in vain for a single decision squarely and fairly sustaining a single patent of first order. There never was a monopoly in incandescent electric lighting, and even from the earliest days competitors and infringers were in the field reaping the benefits, and though defeated in the end, paying not a cent of tribute. The market was practically as free and open as if no patent existed. There never was a monopoly in the phonograph; practically all of the vital inventions were deliberately appropriated by others, and the inventor was laughed at for his pains. Even so beautiful a process as that for the duplication of phonograph records was solemnly held by a Federal judge as lacking invention --as being obvious to any one. The mere fact that Edison spent years of his life in developing that process counted for nothing.
The invention of the three-wire system, which, when it was first announced as saving over 60 per cent. of copper in the circuits, was regarded as an utter impossibility--this patent was likewise held by a Federal judge to be lacking in invention. In the motion- picture art, infringements began with its very birth, and before the inevitable litigation could be terminated no less than ten competitors were in the field, with whom compromises had to be made.
In a foreign country, Edison would have undoubtedly received signal honors; in his own country he has won the respect and admiration of millions; but in his chosen field as an inventor and as a patentee his reward has been empty. The courts abroad have considered his patents in a liberal spirit and given him his due; the decisions in this country have fallen wide of the mark. We make no criticism of our Federal judges; as a body they are fair, able, and hard- working; but they operate under a system of procedure that stifles absolutely the development of inventive genius.
Until that system is changed and an opportunity offered for a final, swift, and economical adjudication of patent rights, American inventors may well hesitate before openly disclosing their inventions to the public, and may seriously consider the advisability of retaining them as "trade secrets."
THE title of this chapter might imply that there is an unsocial side to Edison. In a sense this is true, for no one is more impatient or intolerant of interruption when deeply engaged in some line of experiment. Then the caller, no matter how important or what his mission, is likely to realize his utter insignificance and be sent away without accomplishing his object. But, generally speaking, Edison is easy tolerance itself, with a peculiar weakness toward those who have the least right to make any demands on his time. Man is a social animal, and that describes Edison; but it does not describe accurately the inventor asking to be let alone.
Edison never sought Society; but "Society" has never ceased to seek him, and to-day, as ever, the pressure upon him to give up his work and receive honors, meet distinguished people, or attend public functions, is intense. Only two or three years ago, a flattering invitation came from one of the great English universities to receive a degree, but at that moment he was deep in experiments on his new storage battery, and nothing could budge him. He would not drop the work, and while highly appreciative of the proposed honor, let it go by rather than quit for a week or two the stern drudgery of probing for the fact and the truth. Whether one approves or not, it is at least admirable stoicism, of which the world has too little. A similar instance is that of a visit paid to the laboratory by some one bringing a gold medal from a foreign society. It was a very hot day in summer, the visitor was in full social regalia of silk hat and frock-coat, and insisted that he could deliver the medal only into Edison's hands. At that moment Edison, stripped pretty nearly down to the buff, was at the very crisis of an important experiment, and refused absolutely to be interrupted. He had neither sought nor expected the medal; and if the delegate didn't care to leave it he could take it away. At last Edison was overpersuaded, and, all dirty and perspiring as he was, received the medal rather than cause the visitor to come again. On one occasion, receiving a medal in New York, Edison forgot it on the ferry-boat and left it behind him. A few years ago, when Edison had received the Albert medal of the Royal Society of Arts, one of the present authors called at the laboratory to see it. Nobody knew where it was; hours passed before it could be found; and when at last the accompanying letter was produced, it had an office date stamp right over the signature of the royal president. A visitor to the laboratory with one of these medallic awards asked Edison if he had any others. "Oh yes," he said, "I have a couple of quarts more up at the house!" All this sounds like lack of appreciation, but it is anything else than that. While in Paris, in 1889, he wore the decoration of the Legion of Honor whenever occasion required, but at all other times turned the badge under his lapel "because he hated to have fellow-Americans think he was showing off." And any one who knows Edison will bear testimony to his utter absence of ostentation. It may be added that, in addition to the two quarts of medals up at the house, there will be found at Glenmont many other signal tokens of esteem and good-will--a beautiful cigar-case from the late Tsar of Russia, bronzes from the Government of Japan, steel trophies from Krupp, and a host of other mementos, to one of which he thus refers: "When the experiments with the light were going on at Menlo Park, Sarah Bernhardt came to America. One evening, Robert L. Cutting, of New York, brought her out to see the light. She was a terrific `rubberneck.' She jumped all over the machinery, and I had one man especially to guard her dress. She wanted to know everything. She would speak in French, and Cutting would translate into English. She stayed there about an hour and a half. Bernhardt gave me two pictures, painted by herself, which she sent me from Paris."