Edison's secret partner

September 1999
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.


Edison and his assistants
Edison (center) with his assistants gathered in front of the laboratory in 1879. Charles Batchelor is immediately to Edison's right

From 1871 to 1892 Thomas A. Edison had a secret partner, a quiet collaborator who shared the work and the profits.

Charles Batchelor, Edison’s co-investor in the doll debacle, a self-effacing Englishman and skilled mechanic, had met Edison when he journeyed to New Jersey at the age of 25 to install machinery at the Coates thread factory in Newark.

Conservative and meticulous, the perfect counterweight to Edison’s mercurial temperment, it was his job to maintain careful logs of Edison’s experiments, indispensible to Edison’s trial-and-error method of invention.

Batchelor toiled shoulder to shoulder day and night with the famous inventor, managed factories, supervised teams of researchers, placated investors, and made business decisions during Edison’s absence overseas. A skilled draftsman, Batchelor had designed some of the factories, as well as Edison’s mansion Glenmount.

He had secured an oral contract for a 10% share of the gross profits on Edison’s inventions.

It is almost impossible to separate Batchelor’s contributions to the phonograph from those of Edison, but it is certain that Batchelor was responsible for the final design of the Improved Phonograph of 1887, the adaptation of the saphire stylus, and the discovery of how to produce artificial saphire under heat and pressure. He engineered the machinery that drilled the phonograph castings and milled the bedplates. It is also probable that the first words ever uttered by a phonograph, on Dec. 4, 1877, were those of Batchelor: “How do you get that.”

In 1881 Batchelor was sent to the Paris Electrical Exposition, armed against the pompous French with a notarized and witnessed certficate that he was Edison’s authorized agent. He remained overseas for three years, establishing Edison systems to light up the continent. In 1884 he was recalled to straighten out the Edison lighting industries in the United States.

Batchelor probably left Edison’s employ over disagreements about the magnetic mining venture, which was hemmoraging money badly, although he remained on friendly terms with Edison. He retired a wealthy man, and spent his remaining years selling securities and travelling with his wife and two daughters.

Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton

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