Concrete Homes – The Past and the Future

As a first venture into blogging for BGE, I thought I would take a look at a subject that ties the past to the future, with connections in the Lehigh Valley (where I reside) and to a small town near where I grew up in New Jersey – and it all starts with a patent from over a century ago.

I’ll start with the article that kicked off this series of connections, a posting to Slate’s new history blog on an idea from Thomas Edison.   Specifically, Edison patented a concept of producing concrete buildings using molds.  Edison had some business reasons for the interest in mass production of concrete buildings, as he had earlier patented both a rotary kiln for manufacturing Portland cement, as well as a patent on an improvement of the kiln with an expanded gas chamber (or as I’ve often heard it referred, a “dumbbell design”).  Edison’s rotary kiln was technologically successful – the plant he constructed in Stewartsville, NJ was capable of producing 1100 bbd, compared to a typical production capacity approaching 200 bbd on shaft kilns of the time.   Some of my BGE colleagues would be very happy to hear that the “House that Ruth built” had a little help from Thomas Edison – his plant in Stewartsville supplied the cement for the approximately 20,000 cubic yards of concrete necessary.  Built in 1902, the plant was ultimately too successful, exhausting it’s quarry by 1937 and being dismantled during the early years of World War II.

Anyone reviewing the Slate article might make the connection between the Stewartsville plant and the concrete homes of Phillipsburg, NJ (our eastern neighbor here in the Lehigh Valley) – Phillipsburg is a short 5 mile journey from Stewartsville.  Edison also was involved in this prototype concrete house in Montclair, NJ – a house that I should note that I passed on my way to and from high school.   Montclair is a short 5 mile journey from West Orange, where Thomas Edison’s home and labs are now open as a National Park.

Which brings us to the present, and the continuing efforts of innovators to use new construction techniques to build modern structures using concrete, just as Edison attempted.  This recent article caught my eye due to it’s mention of Contour Crafting and their efforts to utilize 3D printing and CAD/CAM techniques to produce strong, inexpensive structures in a less labor-intensive manner.   Edison was commercially unsuccessful in his endeavor to mass-produce concrete homes despite his technological success as the technology – the large, bulky molds required were simply too expensive and difficult to utilize to justify their usage.  Perhaps the speed of technological innovation will allow for the large scale, rapid production of concrete homes in the future…

Categories: Cement Applications, Cement Industry History, General Business Posts, General Cement

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