The Vault

When Edison Tried to Make Single-Pour Concrete Houses Happen

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This patent, filed by Thomas Edison on August 13, 1908, proves that even a man famous for world-changing inventions was capable of producing a less-than-impressive brainchild.

Edison’s idea: a house that could be built with one pour of cement. The process could eliminate not only the traditional work of erecting walls and roof but also much of the labor involved in finishing the interiors. Given the right mold, “stairs, mantels, ornamental ceilings, and other interior decorations and fixtures” would all be formed by the same giant piece of concrete.

The inventor’s rationale was apparently civic-minded, as he pointed out that the house was “practically indestructible and perfectly sanitary,” as well as being cheap enough to be available to buyers who would otherwise be unable to afford a house of such size and quality.

That said, the invention would also fit into Edison’s larger business plans. He had a cement plant in Stewartsville, N.J., and had patented several improvements in the cement-making process. (The old Yankee Stadium was made with Edison cement.)

In keeping with the early 20th century’s growing infatuation with efficiency, the concrete house could be mass-produced. Edison wrote in the patent’s descriptive section that the first step in making a series of concrete houses would be to construct a mold—“a complete double-wall house,” constructed of cast iron bolted together. After the process of pouring a house was finished, the mold could be “taken to pieces and removed and used repeatedly for the construction of an indefinite number of houses.”

The historian Adam Goodheart writes that the concrete house suffered as an idea precisely because of its reliance on that mold, which was heavy, complex, and prohibitively expensive: “A builder had to buy at least $175,000 in equipment before pouring a single house.” As a result, only a few model concrete homes were ever built.

Some of those are still standing today. A neighborhood in Phillipsburg, N.J., contains blocks of them, built for workers at the old Ingersoll-Rand plant. Travel blogger Sue Kauffman went inside one in 2011, and reported that the experience was “claustrophobic.” On the other hand, this specimen, in Montclair, N.J., is quite attractive. Writer Christine Adams Beckett interviewed the owner and found that the house stays cool in summer and warm in winter.

Illustration from patent by Thomas A. Edison, “Process of Constructing Concrete Buildings,” Patent Number 1219272, Filed August 13, 1908.