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Thomas Edison’s cast concrete house. (via archive photo & fm)

Earlier this year a scientists at the University of Southern California announced that they have developed a 3D printing system of sorts that could potentially build a multi-story house in just under a day. Their system is known as ‘contour crafting’ (additive printing), which makes use of a massive computer-controlled gantry hung from a crane to build structures from the bottom up. The printer actually sits on a pair of rails for movement while the materials are fed from the top of the contraption, which builds the structure layer by layer until its completion. While none of the proposed 3D printing techniques has yet to actually build a 3D printed structure, famed inventor Thomas Edison may have actually accomplished it over a hundred years ago.

Widely known for his development of the incandescent light bulb, phonograph and the first motion picture camera, Edison also had a host of flops that were born out of interesting ideas that didn’t make the grade. Most of those failures are relatively unknown, such as his electrographic vote-recorder (rejected by congress because it would increase the speed of voting), the pneumatic stencil pen (meant to copy documents but was adopted for use as a tattoo gun) and the magnetic iron ore separator, which would lead to single-piece cast concrete house. Considered to be one of his biggest financial failures, Edison’s ore separation machine was designed to use magnets to separate the ore from sand, making it possible to extract more ore from once defunct mines. The motto of the day was ‘waste not, want not’ and all that byproduct sand had to go somewhere, so Edison decided to create a concrete company (Edison Portland Cement Company, located in New Jersey?) with, what he thought, would be an unending supply of raw materials.

What to do with all that concrete was something Edison had pondered - ah-ha, why not use it to build multi-storied houses on the cheap, casting them as a single-piece structure using concrete molds! Why stop there, he thought, we can even use the concrete to build furniture, bathtubs and even picture frames using the material and they will last forever! Edison succeeded in selling the idea to qualified builders and a few concrete abodes were actually constructed and are surprisingly still in use today. Technically, they were constructed using a primitive form of additive printing, using a mold that was comprised of roughly 2,300 separate pieces. Once the mold was erected, the concrete was transported up the side of the structure using an elevator, where it would then be poured by trough into the mold. This process was done on all four sides of the structure until it was completed. Once dry, the mold was then broken down, leaving behind a complete concrete house (not sure how they incorporated the plumbing or wiring). Not surprisingly, those houses were prone to leaks and other problems that were hard to be repaired, which was the beginning of the end for the concrete housing boom.

Not soon after, the great depression hit, to which Edison’s concrete company became one of the many casualties to fall victim to but not before building the original Yankee Stadium. Still, he technically did 3D print his own garage and a few houses, which none have yet to accomplish in this century (yes, casting and pre-casting still exist but not used to build a single structure).


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