Iron ore was scarce in the 1870s, especially in the eastern part of the country. The deposits were of poor quality and it was difficult and costly to separate it from rock debris. Edison discovered that beach sand contained deposits of iron ore and believed that extracting it would be a cheaper alternative to the traditional methods.
In his lab he developed a process to extract the iron using a large electromagnet. In 1881, he formed the Edison Ore-Milling Company. William Kennedy Dickson and mining expert John Birkinbine were in charge of refining the process further. Unfortunately, the market for his iron wasn’t sufficient to make a profit and the business was shut down after a few years.
But Edison wasn’t finished. He decided to adapt his process to crushed rocks from the mine. He opened a small plant as a trial in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania near an existing iron mine. Apparently satisfied with the results, in 1889, he completed one of the world’s largest ore-crushing mills. Located in Ogdensberg, New Jersey, it contained three giant electromagnets and was expected to process 1200 tons of iron ore a day. This time he was thwarted by technical difficulties.
Focusing back on electricity, Edison formed the Edison General Electric Company in 1890, but this was just a short foray back into that world. In 1892, he merged his company with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric, and turned his attention back to mining ore. He was determined to make it work, or just fascinated with iron ore, but he said that he was determined to do something so big that “people will forget that my name ever was connected with anything electrical.”
So, in 1892, Edison sold some General Electric stock to raise capital, and closed the plant for upgrades. You may guess how things went since we all associate Edison’s name with electricity. The same technical problems existed as before, and it was difficult to get enough customers to make a profit. He persisted until finally in 1899, he admitted that the venture was a failure and closed the company.
But wait! All wasn’t lost. The milling business had created a large quantity of waste sand that was particularly well suited to making cement. In 1899, once again Edison formed a company, this time the Edison Portland Cement Company. Based in New Village, New Jersey, the company had staying power and in 1922 even supplied the cement for Yankee Stadium.
When asked about the financial losses in the milling business, he famously said, “it’s all gone, but we had a hell of a good time spending it.”