Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to Thomas A. Edison

July 7, 1915/

Dear Mr. Edison:-

          I have been intending for some time to write you expressing my admiration at the splendid and patriotic attitude you have taken, as reported in the public press, in refusing to devote your great inventive genius to warlike subjects except at the call of your own country.1 Such an attitude, in these all too commercial times, is one that should be an inspiration to our young men and a lesson in the preeminent right of one’s own country to the best that its citizens have that will be of tremendous benefit to us all. I have deferred writing you, however, because, at the same time, I wanted to take up with you another matter to which I have given a great deal of thought –- a matter in which I think your ideas and mine coincide, if an interview with you recently published in the New York Times was correct. There is a very great service that you can render the Navy and the country at large and which I am encouraged to believe, from a paragraph in Mr. Marshall’s interview you will consent to undertake as it seems to be in line with your own thoughts.2

          One of the imperative needs of the Navy, in my judgment, is machinery and facilities for utilizing the natural inventive genius of Americans to meet the new conditions of warfare as shown abroad, and it is my intention, if a practical way can be worked out, as I think it can be, to establish, at the earliest moment, a department of invention and development, to which all ideas and suggestions, either from the service or from civilian inventors, can be referred for determination as to whether they contain practical suggestions for us to take up and perfect. We, of course, receive many suggestions, but our only way of handling them at present is to leave them to various bureaus already overcrowded with routine work, and it is not always possible to give the necessary attention to propositions that are not so definitely worked out as to make them immediately available for the service. Ideas which contain the germ of improvement can not always be given attention they deserve as there is at present no adequately equipped department to which to send them for the careful study required. In addition our naval officers, particularly those at sea, are in a position to note where improvements are needed and to devise ways in which those improvements can be made. They have, however, neither the time nor the special training, nor, in many cases, the natural inventive turn of mind needed to put these ideas into definite shape. Were there a place where they could be sent to be worked out and perfected, I am sure we would get many noteworthy improvements from this course alone. We have, of course, in the Navy Department energetic and wideawake bureaus, headed by experts in their particular lines of work who devote all the time they possibly can to a study of this problem. They have made important contributions to the improvements in the implements of naval warfare and are doing all that is possible with their other large duties. There are, unfortunately, no officers now detailed who can take time from the mass of work which they are called upon to do in order to devote it fully to studying new suggestions and inventions. The Department is also unprovided with the best facilities for work of pure experimentation and investigation, with the exception of our testing station at Annapolis, which is, as yet, a small affair. Most of all, as I have said, there is no particular place or particular body of men, relieved of other work, charged solely with the duty of either devising new things themselves or perfecting the crude ideas that are submitted to the department by our naturally inventive people.

          I have in mind a general plan of organizing such a department which is still very hazy as to details, but which, in a general ways meets, so far as the Navy is concerned, with your ideas of such a department for the Government in general. I want to use such facilities for experimental and investigation work as we have, under the direction of men particularly selected for ability shown in this direction, to whom would be referred all suggestions of new devices sent in to the Department and who would work out such ideas to a practical point. Such a department will, of course, have to be eventually supported by Congress, with sufficient appropriations made for its proper development, although I feel that we can make a start with the means at hand. To get this support, Congress must be made to feel that the idea is supported by the people, and I feel that our chances of getting the public interested and back of this project will be enormously increased if we can have, at the start, some man whose inventive genius is recognized by the whole world to assist us in consultation from time to time on matters of sufficient importance to bring to his attention. You are recognized by all of us as the one man above all others who can turn dreams into realities and who has at his command, in addition to his own wonderful mind, the finest facilities in the world for such work.

          What I want to ask is if you would be willing, as a service to your country, to act as an adviser to this board, to take such things as seem to you to be of value but which we are not at present, equipped to investigate, and to use you own magnificent facilities in such investigation if you feel it worth while. For our part, we will endeavor not to bother you with trivial matters as we will probably have sufficient facilities to handle such small matters as they come up. This is a great deal to ask and I, unfortunately, have nothing but the thanks of the Navy and, I think of the country at large, together with the feeling of service to your country that you will have, to offer you by way of recompense: yet, so clearly have you shown your patriotism and your unselfish loyalty to your country’s interests, that I feel justified in making this request.

          We are confronted with a new and terrible engine of warfare in the submarine, to consider only one of the big things which I have in mind, and I feel sure that, with the practical knowledge of the officers of the Navy, with a Department composed of the keenest and most inventive minds that we can gather together, and with your own wonderful brain, to aid us, the United States, will be able as in the past, to meet this new danger with the new devices that will assure peace to our country by their effectiveness.

          If you feel that you would be willing to do this, I would like, a little, later, when my plans are somewhat more matured, to consult with you as to the details of the organization proposed so that I can make it as effective as possible for the purpose intended.

          With you, it might be well to associate a few men prominent in special lines of inventive research, and I would like also to consult with you as to who these men should be. It is, of course, your aid that I rely upon most and if you are not able for any reason to do this, I will frankly hesitate to undertake the matter at all. Should you feel like accepting the task, however, I know the relief which the country would feel in these trying times at the announcement that you are aiding us in this all important matter.

          If you could let me know as early as you may, how you feel about this, I would appreciate it, as everything waits upon your answer, and I think we can not be too expeditious if we are going to take this matter up at all.3

Sincerely yours,             

Josephus Daniels             

Source Note: TCyS, DLC, Josephus Daniels Papers, Family and Special Correspondence, MSS 18, 416; roll 49. At the top of the first page is the notation: “Copy of letter addressed to Thomas A. Edison by the Secretary of the Navy.” Below the place/ date line is the address: Hon. Thomas A. Edison,/East Orange, N. J. On a draft of this letter is the notation “Personal and Confidential.

Footnote 1: Daniels later wrote that he was inspired to write Edison after seeing a statement in an interview that the noted inventor gave. The New York Times reported on 30 May 1915, that Edison said he “would not devote his inventive genius to warlike service ‘except at the call of my country.’” Josephus Daniels, The Wilson Era: Years of Peace, 1910-1917 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946), 490-91. However, Edison actually made that statement in another interview given to journalist Henry N. Hall, that was published in the New York World the same day. Thomas E. Jeffrey, “’Commodore’ Edison Joins the Navy: Thomas Alva Edison and the Naval Consulting Board,” Journal of Military History, vol. 80, no. 2 (April 2016): 412-13 and n.

Footnote 2: Daniels is again referring to Edison’s interview with Edward Marshall published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of 30 May 1915. In it, Edison outlined his ideas about how the United States might prepare for war and proposed establishing “a great research laboratory” to quickly create weapons of war should the United States be forced into the fight.

Footnote 3: The Naval Consulting Board did not receive official authorization from Congress until August, 1916. In September of that year newspapers announced its formation. In addition to Edison, it included many noted American scientists of the time. New York Times, 12 September 1916. For an in-depth consideration of this letter, see See Thomas E. Jeffrey, “’Commodore’ Edison Joins the Navy: Thomas Alva Edison and the Naval Consulting Board,” Journal of Military History, vol. 80, no. 2 (April 2016). Jeffrey contends the author of this letter was the chief engineer of the Edison group, Miller Reese Hutchinson, who did so as part of an “elaborate marketing scheme to sell submarine batteries to the U.S. Navy, and that Hutchinson was the éminence grise behind every facet of the Naval Consulting Board. Thomas E. Jeffrey, “’Commodore’ Edison Joins the Navy: Thomas Alva Edison and the Naval Consulting Board,” Journal of Military History, vol. 80, no. 2 (April 2016): 411-45, 417. Despite this, the creation of the Naval Consulting Board led directly to the establishment of the U.S. Navy’s Research Laboratory (NRL), “the first modern research institution created within the U.S. Navy.” “History of the Navy Research Laboratory,” https://www.nrl.navy.mil/about-nrl/history/, accessed 6 March 2016. The NRL began operations in July, 1923.