WEST ORANGE, NJ -- He's known for the light bulb, recordings, motions pictures and discoveries too numerous to mention. But did Thomas Edison also condone corporate spying on his enemies? Did he help create corporate espionage?
While he may not have invented it, the First History Happy Hour, conducted April 21 by the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, made a great case for at least one of Edison's employees being an exceptional corporate spy. Held at Thom's Saloon on Harrison Avenue, the informal presentation by Karen Sloat-Olsen, Chief of Interpretation and Education for the park, said while there was no direct reference by Edison to anything of the sort, information from one of his employees can certainly be interpreted that way.
That employee was Joseph F. McCoy, who was hired at 20 years of age to work for the Edison Company. Not much is known about him except some basic details, but as Sloat-Olsen told the story of his jobs over the years, McCoy emerges as a shadowy figure, but influential in numerous ways.
"If you were going to make a movie about his life, it might be called 'The Schmoozer,' " said Sloat-Olsen. "Every company he went to, or dealt with, he got to know people who provided him with the information he needed to find out."
During his career, McCoy worked for or had detailed contact with a string of companies, and the list includes many which were competing with, threatening to compete with or had potential lawsuits with Edison....were just an interesting company to acquire by Edison.
In electric light dealings, companies like American Electric, U.S. Electric Company and Westinghouse were all on Edison's radar, so Sloat-Olsen says McCoy was sent to work at each of those companies, without their knowing he was an Edison employee, to find out about their plans or if they could be bought out.
He helped facilitate lawsuits against companies trying to use or cash in on the Edison name, or were selling inferior products similar to Edison's. He even infiltrated the motion picture business in England to find out their plans. Back home in this area, he helped stop towns from having a negative impact on Edison's public reputation or finances through excessive taxation.
Sloat-Olsen says two men Edison ask McCoy to stay in touch with were two of his own sons. Thomas Jr. and William Leslie. Thomas, Jr. tried making a name for himself in lamp production and chemicals using the Edison name against his father’s wishes. William tried many different ventures, but frequently failed and often had to be bailed out. Sloat-Olsen says there's evidence in one case that a deal the with Thomas Edison Jr. had with a company fell apart after McCoy went to the company's legal department and essentially stole the contract from them, so there was no evidence of the deal.
Sloat-Olsen says a lot more will not be learned about McCoy directly because he left little more than some personal notes behind. He admitted in a letter, "I had some peculiar assignments from Mr. Edison regarding personal matters and company work." And on that same note, she says McCoy made it clear that he kept track of anything he did for future reference, but "the above notes are all I recalled from my memory, as I put all my diaries in the furnace."
Members of the audience told Sloat-Olsen they never knew about this intriguing story, which uncovers another facet of the complex man Edison was.
The Next History happy Hour will be in June. Sloat-Olsen says it will be a live vintage phonograph music show and that music will be played on an antique phonograph.
The Edison complex is one of 411 National Parks. To find out more about it, go to:www.nps.gov/edis
The Laboratory Complex is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am - 4 pm.
Glenmont, Edison's home, is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets and a special car pass must be obtained at the Laboratory Complex visitor center prior to going to Glenmont. Tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.