Friday, 12 June 2015

12/06/15 - Concrete Houses

Thomas Edison is one of my favourite people. You may just think of him as ‘that light-bulb bloke’, but he was a prolific innovator and enormously busy chap, filing patents all over the shop and creating solutions to problems nobody had thought of. Dubbed ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park’ by the press, Edison invented such useful and influential devices as the motion picture camera, the phonograph, the stock ticker, the steel alkaline storage battery and the quadruplex telegraph; he’s one of the most accomplished inventors of all time, holding 1,093 unique patents.
He didn’t actually invent the electric light bulb, but he did develop the first one that was commercially practical. This is even more significant than you might imagine, because the public excitement surrounding this sensational and revolutionary new invention had the potential to be stymied by a fundamental lack of any kind of domestic electricity infrastructure, so Edison set about developing that too. Having founded the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878, he then went on to set up the Edison Illuminating Company two years later, in order to build upon his own patented concept for reliable electricity distribution. If you think about the number of components and variables that are involved in using an electrical item – the flex, the standardised plug and socket, the fusing system, current conversion, underground cabling, junction boxes, trip switches, sub-stations, where the power actually comes from in the first place – it’s a hideously complicated and expensive system to build from scratch.
On September 4th 1882, Edison fired up the Pearl Street power station in New York City and shot 110 volts of direct current to fifty-nine houses in lower Manhattan. While there were the inevitable early bugs – sockets shooting sparks across the room and so forth – the system was a success, and it’s thanks to the genius (a much-overused word, but wholly appropriate here) of Edison’s systematic and scientific approach that we have the domestic electricity supply that we largely take for granted today.

And yet… even the most brilliant people can’t be brilliant all of the time, and my absolute favourite Edison invention is one that was in fact a total failure. I just love the idea behind it, equally logical and absurd: it’s the concept of moulded concrete housing.
Now, if you’ve not heard of Edison’s concrete houses, here’s a little background. In 1899, he founded the Edison Portland Cement Company in New Jersey; he’d been in the process of mining iron ore – a finger in every pie – and had discovered a lucrative market in selling all of the waste sand from the mining process to cement manufacturers. Spotting yet another string for his bow, he founded his own cement company which quickly became successful (well, in a way, although it did go bankrupt twice… but that’s another story) - the Yankee Stadium is one famous example of a structure built with Edison’s concrete.
So maybe it was that he was always thinking of innovative new concepts, or maybe it was that the success of his cement concern had gone to his head - or perhaps it was a combination of the two - but around 1910 he started toying with the idea of moulded concrete houses.

The idea was pretty simple. He’d manufacturer moulds of complete houses, into which a stream of Edison concrete could be poured from the roof downward, meaning that houses could be built in a matter of hours rather than weeks. This, in theory, would revolutionise the construction industry, in that the costs of materials and labour would be massively reduced, as would the time it took to create homes for the countless new Americans that the booming nation was relentlessly spawning. And these moulds would be incredibly sophisticated too; not just external and internal walls, but all of the details ready to make a house that was almost immediately habitable – moulded-in bathrooms, kitchens, fireplaces, picture frames, everything. Imagine that. Concrete sofas, concrete refrigerators, concrete pianos – there was no end to it, Edison’s vision of the new American utopia was solid, grey and slightly pebbly.
Experimenting with formwork moulds that would stand up to repeated usage, he had a go at building a garage and a gardener’s cottage at his New Jersey mansion and, buoyed by the success and keen to promote the idea, he announced in the press that he would give the patents to qualified builders – this concept was his gift to America. As well as being cheap, the houses would be fireproof, insect-proof, easy to clean, and could be pre-tinted in various colours that would never need repainting.
An eminent philanthropist, Henry Phipps Jr., saw in the idea a genuinely viable scheme by which to solve the crisis of affordable urban housing at the time, proposing to build an entire city of low-cost Edison concrete houses for working-class families… but, sadly, Edison was never able to deliver the plans.
You see, as noble and seemingly simple as the idea might have been, it was in fact totally unworkable for two key reasons: firstly, the ambitiously complicated moulds were so intricate, they ended up comprising around 2,300 separate pieces, which would have been very expensive to builders both in what it would cost to buy them and in the time that would be needed to bolt the things together. Secondly, and rather more importantly, the whole notion hinged on a somewhat unfortunate misunderstanding of how concrete actually behaves. Before it hardens it is, of course, basically a liquid – this was integral to the plans, given that the idea was to pour it in from the top and let it fill the mould. However, the nature of a liquid that contains lots of gravelly stones is that all of the stones will naturally gravitate to the bottom, so it’s impossible to maintain a uniform consistency throughout the mould as it dries. And there’s no way around that, it’s just physics.

Basically, then, it was one of those ideas that sounded really good in embryo, swallowed up a lot of funds, time, energy and egos, and never amounted to anything. But it did give the world the concept of the concrete piano, and perhaps that’s enough.

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