Thomas Edison’s Role in Birth of Navy’s Department of Invention and Development

By Naval History and Heritage Command
Communication and Outreach Division

A bust of Thomas Edison at the Naval Research Laboratory  front gate in southwest Washington, D.C., honors his role in founding the laboratory.

A bust of Thomas Edison at the Naval Research Laboratory front gate in southwest Washington, D.C., honors his role in founding the laboratory.

It was 99 years ago today when Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels sat down to type a four page letter to Thomas A. Edison, asking him to chair a consulting board for Navy inventions. Daniels had just read an interview in the New York Times where Edison had proposed “The government should maintain a great research laboratory…. In this could be developed…all the technique of military and naval progression without any vast expense.”

Known for his progressive tendencies to embrace new technology, Daniels had noticed inventions and new devices were already playing a large part in the war raging in Europe, such as tanks, tracer bullets, flame throwers and pilotless drones, hydrophones and depth charges.

Enterprising civilians and commercial entities were already reaching out to the Navy with ideas, but with no single department earmarked to handle them, they were parceled out to individual Navy bureaus that were already overworked fulfilling its routine duties.

Daniels wanted to fix that with a “department of invention and development to which all ideas and suggestions, either from the service or from civilian inventors, can be referred for determination as to whether they contain practical suggestions for us to take up and perfect,” Daniels wrote Edison.

Edison was intrigued, and on July 13, he confirmed his acceptance of chairing such a board. It was determined the Secretary of the Navy would appoint two people to the board, and from there, Daniels requested the presidents of the 11 largest engineering and technology societies to provide two people of their choosing.

With the creation of the Naval Consulting Board of the United States, it was the Navy taking the first step to prepare the country for war. After the board was formed, a request for suggestions on how to improve Navy ships drew more than 110,000 responses.

Eight years later, on July 2, 1923, the Naval Research Laboratory began operating, a continued partnership between dedicated naval researchers with military, defense and private-sector companies.

Most recently, the Washington-based NRL has released information about inventions with a global reach, including:

  • Dr. Brandy White's sorbent-porphyrin materials work for fabrics, and can be coated on hard surfaces or used in sensors.

    Dr. Brandy White’s sorbent-porphyrin materials work for fabrics, and can be coated on hard surfaces or used in sensors.

    Clothes that self-decontaminate.  Today’s filters are carbon – like in your water pitcher at home, or in military suits and gas masks. Carbon is great at capturing and holding contaminants, but they’re still there. An NRL researcher has patented a process that applies a chemical material to fabric that uses light to convert contaminated molecules into something less toxic. Besides helping service members facing chemical warfare, the inventor, Brandy White, Ph.D, has noted her patent may help reduce chemical attacks in buildings through air ducts by putting in filters soaked in her contaminate-zapping chemical material.

  • Defense Threat Reduction Agency.  NRL scientists have been working with DFRA for two years to better predict pending epidemics and regional disease outbreaks. That partnership has created a diagnostic device for bio surveillance and a cloud database that analyzes the incoming data. Along the same lines of disease prevention and control, NRL researchers asked two private-sector companies to develop lateral flow immunoassay (LFI) strips capable of detecting causative agents for malaria, dengue fever, melioidosis and the plague using only a finger-prick blood sample. LRIs are more commonly known as home-pregnancy tests. An LFI reader that can be used over an Android cellphone uses its software to analyze the test strip and upload the data over a cellular network.
  • This Image from the Navy Global Ocean Forecast System portrays sea surface temperature Jan. 15, 2014. The warm tropical waters can be seen to flow through the Gulf of Mexico and northward along the eastern U.S. seaboard where the Gulf Stream separates at Cape Hatteras, off the coast of North Carolina, and flows to the east. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Research Laboratory - Oceanography Division)

    This Image from the Navy Global Ocean Forecast System portrays sea surface temperature Jan. 15, 2014. The warm tropical waters can be seen to flow through the Gulf of Mexico and northward along the eastern U.S. seaboard where the Gulf Stream separates at Cape Hatteras, off the coast of North Carolina, and flows to the east. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Research Laboratory – Oceanography Division)

    Global Ocean Forecast System. A partnership between NRL and the National Center for Environmental Prediction within the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has developed a global ocean forecast model technology to make environmental ocean forecasts for public use. Within NCEP, the observational components from satellite and from NOAA buoys around U.S. coasts are available publicly that allows the NCEP to use software developed by NRL to assimilate data necessary to maintain daily forecast accuracy that enables safe, at-sea operations, hazard mitigation, resource management and emergency response. “This is an example of complementary missions across agencies that, through coordinated application, leads to protecting our service personnel, who ensure the high seas are safe, and protecting our resources and citizens at home,” said Gregg Jacobs, Ph.D., head of the NRL’s Ocean Dynamics and Prediction Branch in a March press release.

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Thomas Edison’s Role in Birth of Navy’s Department of Invention and Development