Thomas A. Edison Papers (PP)

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The New York Botanical Garden
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Collectors: Edison, Thomas A. (Thomas Alva), 1847-1931.
Title: The Thomas A. Edison Papers (PP)
Dates: 1880-1964
Dates: Bulk, 1927-1930
Quantity: .4 linear feet
Call Phrase: Edison (PP)

Biography of Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) with 1,093 U. S. patents to his credit, is the most prolific American inventor to date. Although he is most commonly associated with the telecommunications industry and the invention of the incandescent lamp, Edison was engaged for two years (1927-1929) in the search for a domestic source of natural rubber. This took place at his winter home “Seminole Lodge” in Fort Myers, Fla.

In 1885, while searching for the perfect filament for his incandescent bulb, Edison and his friend Ezra Gilliland were exploring bamboo groves along the Caloosahatchee River. Both men determined to establish winter quarters in Fort Myers overlooking the river. However, the two had a falling out and it was not until 1906, after Edison had purchased Gilliland’s land that he and his family began to use it on a regular basis.

Edison had become acquainted with Henry Ford while Ford was an employee of the Edison Electric Company of Detroit. Edison encouraged Ford to work on his automobile. They remained friends through Ford’s success and in 1916 Ford bought an estate in Fla., across the road from Edison which he named “Mangoes”. The two men and their friend Harvey Firestone enjoyed going on botanical field trips in the surrounding wilderness led by the naturalist John Burroughs. Undoubtedly this was how Edison first became acquainted with the work of John Kunkel Small whose expertise in Florida flora had been established through the publications of “Flora of the Southeast” (1903; 1913); “Florida Trees”(1913); “Flora of the Florida Keys” (1913) and others.

By 1927 both Ford and Firestone were looking for domestic sources of rubber and for plants that would produce a product superior to the materials then in use. They provided the financing and the Edison Botanic Research Corporation of Fort Myers was formed to investigate sources and production of natural rubber.

Plants were collected in Florida and throughout the Southern United States by field collectors. Plants were grown under controlled conditions in Florida and at Edison’s laboratories in West Orange, N. J. The Edison employee most associated with this research was Bernard Jonas. Eventually over 17,000 plants were tested for quality and quantity of rubber produced. It was determined that the goldenrod was the most likely candidate and after two years of cross-breeding a goldenrod was developed that yielded almost 12% rubber.

John Kunkel Small was engaged both as a collector and to perform the analyses of plant samples for rubber content. This work was done both in Fort Myers and at the New York Botanic Garden. Harold Moldenke recalled that the women’s rest room on the top floor was outfitted as a lounge especially for Edison during his work here. Edison was elected to the Board of Managers in 1930 and served until his death in 1931. Rubber experiments continued for several years after Edison’s death and that of Small in 1938. In July 1936, however, the company was dissolved. Henry Ford moved the goldenrod project to his Savannah, Georgia plantation. During World War II, the U.S.D.A. continued the experiments but with the development of synthetic rubber, the project was concluded.

The Records of the Edison Botanic Research Corporation were moved to the Edison National Historic Site at West Orange, N. J. and microfilmed. In 1963 Mrs. Lilllian Roth of Irvington, N. J. was a volunteer at the site. She transcribed many of the notebooks related to Edison’s rubber studies and one related to trial filaments for the incandescent lamp and presented carbon copies to Harold Moldenke who subsequently sent them to the New York Botanical Garden where they remain today.

Scope and Content

The collection documents the research of the Edison Botanical Corporation in its search for a natural rubber source native to the United States. It contains carbon copies of typewritten transcriptions of 46 of the 53 research notebooks and Experiments 974-1334 towards the invention of the Electric Lightbulb. These were transcribed by Mrs. Lillian Roth of Irvington N. J. in 1963 from the microfilmed versions located at Edison National Historic Site in W. Orange N. J. They were given to Harold Moldenke, then Director of the Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside, N. J. who gave them to the NYBG. Many of notes were authored by a “B.” Jonas who appears to have been Edison’s assistant dedicated to this project. The notebooks contain lists of plants bought and collected and examined for rubber content and the various chemical experiments used to extract rubber from plants growing in the American Southeast and the results. The experiments with solidago, the most successful rubber producing plant discovered by The Edison Botanical Research Corporation are not included. The collection is organized into three series.


The collection is organized into seven series:
Series 1: Transmittal Documents. 1964.
Series 2: Rubber Experiments. 1927. Arranged by subject.
Series 3: Incandescent Lamp Tests. 1880.


Access restrictions

This collection is open for research with permission from Mertz Library staff.


Requests for permission to publish material from the collection should be submitted in writing to the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden.

Indexing Terms

The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
Edison, Thomas A. (Thomas Alva), 1847-1931.
Small, John Kunkel, 1869-1938.
Edison Botanica Research Group.
Incandescent lamps--Technological innovations.
New York Botanical Garden Archives.
Rubber plants--United States--Research.
Rubber plants--Utilization.
Solidago--Industrial applications.

Related Material

Edison National Historic Site, West Orange New Jersey

Herbarium Records of the Edison Botanical Research Corporation, 1925-1963

American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY

The Robert John Henderson DeLoach Collection

Florida State University Archives, Talahassee, Fla.

John Kunkel Small Collection

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Thomas Edison Papers (PP), Archives, The New York Botanical Garden.

Acquisition Information

The transcriptions were made at the Edison National Historic Site by Mrs. Lillian Roth. The collection was donated to the New York Botanical Garden by Harold Moldenke, Director of the Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside, N. J.

Processing Information

Originally processed by Laura Zelasnic, Project Archivist, May 1999, with grant funding from The National Endowment for the Humanities. (NEH-PA 23141-98). Converted to EAD in June 2006 by Kathleene Konkle under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH-PA 50678-04).

Container List


Series 1. Transmittal Documents.

Scope and Content:

This folder contains a letter from Harold Moldenke documenting the collection’s provenance .

Folder Title Date
1.1 Transmittal letter 1964

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Series 2. Rubber Experiments.

Scope and Content:

These folders contain the results obtained from the examination of over 10,000 kinds of plants including solidago. These are listed by number of experiment. Also included are summaries and translations of journal articles on the subject.

Folder Title Date
1.2 Index to Notebooks 1927-1930
1.3 List of Plants Collected in N.J. and Pa. 1927-1929
1.4 List of Plants from Field Man 1927
1.5 Record of Plants Received from other than Field Men 1927
1.6 List of Arnold Arboretum Speciments 1927
1.7 Lists and Descriptions of Plants by B. Jonas 1927
1.8 Lists and Descriptions of Plants by B. Jonas 1927
1.9 Asclepiadaceae List and Descriptions by B. Jonas 1927
1.10 Llewellyn Park Plant Collection 1928
1.11 Notes on Rubber 1927
1.12 Notes on Rubber Plants and Their Care 1927
1.13 Notes on Journal Articles by B. Jonas 1927
1.14 Housebooks 1-2 1927
1.15 Housebooks 3-4 1927
1.16 Laboratory Book 1927
1.17 Extraction Experiments 1927
1.18 Fort Meyers Experiments 1927
1.19 Solvent Experiments 1927
1.20 Rubber Content Analyses by J. K. Small 1927
1.21 Rubber Content Analyses, Experiments 251-386 1927

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Series 3. Incandescent Lamp Tests.

Scope and Content:

This is the transcription of the log of Edison’s experiments with creating a long-lasting filament for his incandescent lamp from plant materials such as bamboo.

Folder Title Date
1.22 Incandescent Lamp Tests 974-1334 1880

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