Architecture enthusiasts were shocked last month when they heard a presentation about the modern poured concrete house. It appears Thomas Edison had a hand in inventing that too.
First things first, the man who gave the presentation has an awesome name: Matt Burgermaster. Love it.
New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Assistant Professor Matt Burgermaster’s presentation at the 64th annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians: “Edison’s ‘Single-Pour System: Inventing Seamless Architecture” explained how in 1917 Thomas Edison invented and patented a new construction method to mass produce prefabricated, seamless concrete houses.
Most people usually link this style of design to the European avant-garde movement of the early 20th century.
There are a lot of people who don’t know that many Edison houses are still standing in towns around West Orange, New Jersey, which is where Edison’s factory was and is now a National Historic Park. Within park grounds there is even a prototype of Edison’s concrete house.
“Edison’s one-of-a-kind system was patented for the purpose of building a single, repeatable structure without any parts, with a single act of construction,” said Burgermaster, “And, remarkably, 100 years later many of these houses remain standing.”
This research paper looked at Edison’s invention of a single-pour system for concrete building as a new application of this material’s dynamic behavior and put forward some ideas on its role in the development process of a type of unified building composition that, maybe unintentionally, also created the thought of a seamless architecture.
This early trial in in mass-production was one of Modernism’s first efforts to make a building with a single material. The advocates of the experimental system were initially motivated by the goal of offering a cost-effective prototype for the working-class home.
Edison’s 1917 patent suggested a building-sized mold that used the naturally dynamic properties of concrete to form itself into an assortment of shapes and sizes, restricted only by the design of its framework. The innovation’s potential efficiencies resided in the distribution of this material as an uninterrupted flow through an entire building instead of being stuck prefabricating all of its component parts.
By actually integrating all interior and exterior building components and their related functions of structure, enclosure, and infrastructure inside a lone, monolithic concrete cast, all facets of assembly were removed. It was in one piece without any parts– a building without joints.
A seamless architecture was a radical proposition, and it was built by Edison before it was conceptualized by the European avant-garde with whom it later became associated.
Its physical seamlessness was not a depiction of architecture as an idealized, machine-made object, but was a result of actual material behavior. Therefore, this technological invention not only brought an innovative construction method, but also a another way of thinking about the material itself.
“I don’t think this research on Edison’s invention offers grounds for anyone to call those European architects copycats. As anyone in a creative field knows, sometimes these things are just in the air and like minds can be said to think alike,” said Burgermaster. “Edison’s approach to invention remains as radical today as it was a century ago. It’s been very interesting finding this body of work and making it visible. My hope is that this ‘lost’ chapter in the early history of concrete construction will demonstrate that Edison not only left a mark on the field of architecture right here in our back-yard, but that his unique approach to design thinking offers a model for how today’s architects and designers can add value to the process of technological problem-solving.”