Sitting in his small Crystal City office lined with fading photographs, George E. Stringfellow is miles and years away from West Orange, N.J., where he worked for Thomas Alva Edison during the last eight years of the inventor's life.
The "old man," as his 85-year-old former associate calls him, died in 1931, and today marks the 30th anniversary of Edison's birth. But the years roll back easily for Stringfellow as he recounts the carefully stored stock of anecdotes in the hopes that his stories "will inspire future Edisons."
Gimmers of the man who disdained the title of scientist and called himself a "commercial inventor" show through as Stringfellow, dressed in a blue suit with the diamond pin that identifies him as a past imperial potentate of the Shriners, recalled the first day he met Edison in 1922.
Although Stringfellow had worked in Washington as the manager of the district office of Thomas Edison, Inc., since 1918, he had yet to meet Edison when a call came to report to headquarters in West Orange. "I'd never seen Edison," Stringfellow said. "He was just a name to me."
When he did meet the inventor of the incandescent electric light, Stringfellow recalled, he saw a 73-year-old man "who hadn't shaved in several days, wearing in acid-easten duster and looking at me with those bright blue eyes of his." The inventor of a thousand modern day necessities "took a squint at me," Stringfellow said, "and I stood at attention." It was then that Edison offered him the job of general sales manager of the storeage-battery division.
"I told him I wasn't sure I wanted the position," Stringfellow said. "I said to him, 'Mr. Edison, you fire men quite frequently and at my age (28 at the time) I can't afford to say that I'd been fired by Mr. Edison.'"
Stringfellow thought it over that evening, however, and the next morning, having received assurances of relative job security, he took the position. He remained with Edison, Inc., for 38 years, he said, rising to executive vice president.
Although Stringfellow remembers Edison as having little interest in the financial end of his enterprises, a scrapbook filled with yellowing, handwritten memoranda from the inventor himself testifies to a man who did not keep his mind solely on test tubes and induction coils.
"Stringfellow," reads one of the memos from 1924, "I have not been under any delusions as to our sales force. Every sales manager we have has been a mental moron and I have kicked for years. I am glad you are changing and letting go the dead beats and are forming a well organized sales force."
Another memo followed quickly when Stringfellow made a decision without consulting Edison on a now unremembered matter. "Stringfellow," reads the hastily scrawled note, "I suggest that as I have about $20 million worth of past experience that a proposal be put to me that has been suggested to ascertain if I know any reason why it shouldn't work. Edison."
Stringfellow knew a hint when he saw one. At the bottom of the note there appears this appendage, followed by Edison's initials: "This is a good idea, and will be done in the future."
The bright young assistant is now an old man himself, and earnestly he spins his stories from the comfort of his office in an elegant 11th floor apartment in Arlington. There are tales of a practical joke played on the inventor when he was working around the clock inventing the phonograph. A breakfast of ham and eggs was ordered around 3 a.m., but the inventor fell asleep before it arrived. His associates, Stringfellow said, substituted a dirty but empty plate for the full one in front of him. When Edison awoke, Stringfellow recalled, Edison looked at the plate, rubbed, Edison looked at the plate, rubbed his stomach, and said. "All right, boys, let's go to work."
In 1928, toward the end of Edison's life, Stringfellow recalled, he asked the inventor to write an article for the company's newsletter."I'm feeling so bad that my mind refuses to function," came Edison's written reply. "Write what you think it should say and send it over."
Stringfellow realized then, he said, that it was "time to extract everything I could from his mind" for use after Edison died. Every Saturday, he said, he sent Edison a list of questions to answer for use in future emergencies when the inventor wouldn't be there to answer them in person.
One of the questions Stringfellow asked Edison was to "describe the effects upon the life of the Edison cell (battery) due to the presence of the following impurities." About 40 elements are listed on the sheet still in Stringfellow's possession. The only one to receive the clipped answer of "Don't know" was zirconium.
The answers proved invaluable, Stringfellow recalled, six years after Edison's death. In 1937, the company received a shipment of iron for use in storage batteries that contained a quantity of nickel. There was confusion over what the effect of nickel on the batteries would be. If the iron could not be used, it was certain the plant would have to close and nearly 1,600 workers be laid off temporarily.