Home / Exploration & Technology / Edison Interests Helped Create Naval Consulting Board 100 Years Ago

Edison Interests Helped Create Naval Consulting Board 100 Years Ago

From the Thomas A. Edison Papers, Rutgers University

Thomas Alva Edison.   From The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division.
Thomas Alva Edison.
From The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division.

On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the Cunard passenger liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans.

“The sinking of the Lusitania,” says Thomas E. Jeffrey, Ph.D., senior editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University, “dramatically underscored the power of submarines in modern warfare and got people in the Navy thinking about ways to resist them.”

One of the steps the Navy took was to create the Naval Consulting Board, a committee of technical experts headed by Thomas A. Edison, which was to provide advice on the best use of technology for the purposes of conducting naval warfare. July 7 marks the board’s centenary.

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels claimed in his memoirs he was inspired to create the board and appoint the famed inventor to head it after reading journalist Edward Marshall’s interview with Edison on the topic of military preparedness. In this interview, Edison said the United States needed to marshal its manufacturing and inventive expertise to be ready in case the U.S. was brought into World War I, which was then raging in Europe and on the high seas. The interview appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and several other newspapers just three weeks after the Lusitania went down.

That’s the conventional story. But new research by Jeffrey, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Military History, reveals the impetus to create the Naval Consulting Board likely came, not from the government, but from the Edison interests.

“The board was the brainchild of Edison’s chief engineer Miller Reese Hutchison,” says Jeffrey, “who conceived it as part of an elaborate plan to sell Edison submarine batteries to the U.S. Navy.”

The Naval Consulting Board at their first meeting, 1915.  National Park Service photo
The Naval Consulting Board at their first meeting, 1915.
National Park Service photo

Secretary Daniels sent Edison a letter on July 7, 1915, announcing his plan for the Naval Consulting Board and asking Edison to chair it. It is in this letter that Daniels first claimed that press reports of the inventor’s interview led him to create the board. But Jeffrey says two typewritten drafts of this letter in the Library of Congress suggest it was Hutchison working behind the scenes who prompted Daniels.

“Historians have long been aware of these earlier versions,” says Jeffrey, “but they have never been subjected to rigorous historical or textual analysis.” Until now.

Jeffrey believes these two drafts, both dated May 31, were transcriptions of a letter Hutchison composed on a dictating machine.

“They are almost identical,” says Jeffrey, who thinks the slight variations resulted when two different transcribers interpreted certain words on the voice recording differently. Large sections of these original drafts were incorporated into Daniels’ July 7 letter along with portions of a third draft made by Louis Howe, the secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy.

“The Hutchison drafts were made just one day after Edison’s interview appeared in the New York Times,” Jeffrey explains. “May 31 was Memorial Day, and Daniels spent the entire day participating in ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery. So it is unlikely that he or anyone else in the Navy Department had time on that busy day to be writing a letter to Edison.”

Further evidence supporting Jeffrey’s case comes from Daniels himself, who indicated in his diary that he revised what he called the “Howe & Edison letters” on June 30, melding them together and adding a new section of his own about the desirability of a congressional appropriation for the board. In his final letter, he included about 75 percent of Hutchison’s original draft.

Thomas Edison 2

Jeffrey has also uncovered an exchange of letters between Hutchison and Daniels during the 1930s, in which Edison’s former chief engineer explicitly takes credit for coming up with the idea for the Naval Consulting Board. Hutchison claims he commissioned Edward Marshall to interview Edison on May 30 and paid Marshall’s expenses to Washington to bring the interview to Daniels’ attention.

“One might be inclined to dismiss Hutchison’s statements as mere braggadocio,” says Jeffrey, “except that he was making them to the one man who was in a position to contradict him if he was exaggerating. And Daniels never challenged his account. Hutchison was the éminence grise behind every facet of the Naval Consulting Board.”

According to Jeffrey, “the fact that the creation of the Naval Consulting Board coincided with the onset of a massive publicity campaign on behalf of Edison’s new submarine battery was not happenstance. Hutchison believed the best way to gain a competitive edge in the battery business would be to work from inside the Navy.”

Jeffrey notes Hutchison was an active member of the board – participating in its proceedings, serving on its committees, and making periodic reports to Daniels – at the same time that he was trying to do business with the Navy.

“Today we would consider that a huge conflict of interest,” says Jeffrey, “and the fact that Hutchison was getting a five-figure commission on every Edison submarine battery he sold made it an even bigger conflict. But apparently none of the parties involved saw it that way.”

Jeffrey believes Hutchison might have succeeded in his ambition to equip the Navy’s submarine fleet with Edison batteries if the E-2 – the first submarine to be so equipped – had not exploded at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on January 15, 1916, killing five men and severely injuring nine others.

“Daniels himself never lost faith in Edison’s battery, but after that disaster the opposition of the bureau chiefs was too strong for Daniels to overcome.”

“It would be wrong,” Jeffrey adds, “to conclude that Hutchison was manipulating Daniels. Both men knew exactly what they were doing. Daniels was a master politician, and his prime political goal was to make Woodrow Wilson the first Democratic president since Andrew Jackson to win a second consecutive term. Wilson had won the presidency in 1912 only because of a split in the Republican Party, so his re-election in 1916 against a unified opposition was by no means assured. Daniels saw a political alliance with America’s greatest inventor, cemented through the Naval Consulting Board, as a means to achieve his goal. The endorsement of Edison and his friend Henry Ford – both lifelong Republicans – together with the money Ford supplied at a crucial point in the campaign may well have tipped the balance in one of the closest presidential elections in American history.”

The Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University is one of the most ambitious editing projects ever undertaken by an American university.  Since 1978, a team of editors at the project have been poring over more than five million pages of material that chronicle the extraordinary life and achievements of Edison to select the key documents that best tell his story.

The editorial team has been converting this trove of Edisonia into a premier educational resource by publishing these selected documents in the multi-volume book edition as well as in a complimentary online digital edition, which is open to the public free of charge.

The Papers of Thomas A. Edison allows readers from all walks of life to rediscover Thomas Edison, his career, his work habits, his creative strategies, and even the processes of invention and innovation he experienced. The transcriptions, explanatory annotations, chapter headnotes, and detailed index in the book edition are designed as much to satisfy the most demanding scholarly inquiries as to offer new opportunities for lifelong learning.

The Edison Papers Board of Oversight includes Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the National Park Service, the New Jersey Historical Commission, and the Smithsonian Institution.