Most of what we learn in high school history about Thomas
Edison is all about his successful inventions. Thomas Edison
electricity, the phonograph, and on and on.
We know that Thomas Edison held over 1,093 patents for
a number of different types ofventions. What we do not know or we very seldom hear is about his failures. One of the most noted failures was his inability to find an
effective way to mine iron ore.
Iron is the cheapest and most common metal available for
mining. Iron is used for making steel. Steel, at the time
that Edison was working on his invention, was very expensive.
The world now and during the life of Edison is very dependent
If Edison was successful in creating the extraction process
he would have earned billions of dollars in income,
The possibilities that would extend from that success
would also create millions of jobs, and spur other
Iron is useless in its pure form. Iron is brittle and can not be used to manufacture any products because of this
and other characteristics. Iron in its pure form is a
silver color. The gray that we see in iron comes from
combining iron with oxygen. But iron is not adaptable to
any practical applications on its own.
That is why the discovery of an effective extraction process
was important. Edison worked on this extraction process
from 1880 to 1890. For over ten years, he performed experiments,
hired scientist, and other experts to perfect his extraction
process. The impetus was to provide iron ore to the Pennsylvania
Edison moved his office from a comfortable building to actually
work in the old iron mines to find an economic process to satisfy
the insatiable demands for steel. The testing and processing of
His experiences was very expensive. To finance his invention
Edison sold all his stock in General Electric. His heirs still
regret that to this day.
Edison was never able to find a way to extract the iron from unusable,
low grade ores. Edison ever abandoned the project. He never
recouped his money that he had invested. Fortunely for Edison,
he continued his work on the phonograph and motion pictures,
and remained finanally intact.
Finding a cheaper way to produce steel was not only important to the
financial enhancement of Edison but important to the American
economy. After 1840 the American iron industry was experiencing
a revitalization but American was not the major steel producer in
In 1844, government surveyors found a large iron ore deposit of
anthracite in the Great Lakes area. Pennsylvania became the nation's
leading supplier of iron and steel. With the discovery of the rich
iron ore around Lake Superior and the ability to transport the
bounty the mine produce by water, Pennsylvania became the center
of American iron and steel production.
British engineer Henry Bessemer perfected a steel extraction
process. He completed the work that Thomas Edison had started.
Bessemer developed an iron smelting process that made it possible
to produce large quantities of steel. Some manufacturers of steel
use his process to this day.
The invention was an economic and an efficient process to make
steel from iron ore. But a better process was introduced
By Abram S. Hewitt who became a steel magnate that rivaled
Andrew Carnegie was the first American to try the Bessemer
process. He then improved on the process to develop the
the open-hearth converter. American steel makers preferred
the process of Hewitt to that of Bessemer.
The low cost of steel production after this discovery
changed the balance for American industries. American
Industry could now lead the world in steel production.
In 1873 the United States, produced nearly 115,000
tons of steel. As the price of steel continued to drop,
It was possible to use steel in several industries.
Over 70% of the finished steel that is produced in
the United states goes to automotive industry.