Edison's prefab, permutable fireproof concrete houses

For months now, the Story Spieler podcast (which features readings of public domain texts from Gutenberg Project as well as some CC licensed works) has been working through a 1910 book called Edison, His Life and Inventions by Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, a glowing biography of Edison. I've always thought of Edison as a kind of jerk and a plagiarist who took credit for his juniors' inventions (a narrative familiar to fans of Tesla), but there's some really remarkable stuff in here. Most recently, the podcast included the chapter on Portland cement, and a remarkable account of a prefab, three-storey concrete house that Edison invented, which could be erected for $1200 (as opposed to $30,000 for a comparable cut-stone house). The house-moulds could be varied and permutated so that each house came out differently, and the houses were intended to form industrial suburbs around factories, so that working people could own their own homes.

Edison's conception of the workingman's ideal house has been a broad one from the very start. He was not content merely to provide a roomy, moderately priced house that should be fireproof, waterproof, and vermin-proof, and practically indestructible, but has been solicitous to get away from the idea of a plain "packing-box" type. He has also provided for ornamentation of a high class in designing the details of the structure. As he expressed it: "We will give the workingman and his family ornamentation in their house. They deserve it, and besides, it costs no more after the pattern is made to give decorative effects than it would to make everything plain." The plans have provided for a type of house that would cost not far from $30,000 if built of cut stone. He gave to Messrs. Mann & McNaillie, architects, New York, his idea of the type of house he wanted. On receiving these plans he changed them considerably, and built a model. After making many more changes in this while in the pattern shop, he produced a house satisfactory to himself.

This one-family house has a floor plan twenty-five by thirty feet, and is three stories high. The first floor is divided off into two large rooms–parlor and living-room–and the upper floors contain four large bedrooms, a roomy bath-room, and wide halls. The front porch extends eight feet, and the back porch three feet. A cellar seven and a half feet high extends under the whole house, and will contain the boiler, wash-tubs, and coal-bunker. It is intended that the house shall be built on lots forty by sixty feet, giving a lawn and a small garden.

It is contemplated that these houses shall be built in industrial communities, where they can be put up in groups of several hundred. If erected in this manner, and by an operator buying his materials in large quantities, Edison believes that these houses can be erected complete, including heating apparatus and plumbing, for $1200 each. This figure would also rest on the basis of using in the mixture the gravel excavated on the site. Comment has been made by persons of artistic taste on the monotony of a cluster of houses exactly alike in appearance, but this criticism has been anticipated, and the molds are so made as to be capable of permutations of arrangement. Thus it will be possible to introduce almost endless changes in the style of house by variation of the same set of molds.


(via Story Spieler podcast)

(Image: The Thomas Edison Papers)