Friday, December 31, 2010

Thomas Edison and the Dragon's Blood

Happy New Year!

No, this post (Thomas Edison and the Dragon's Blood) is not the newest installment of Harry Potter. As I promised in my previous post, I have tirelessly researched the question that was raised (by me) during my recent visit to Thomas Edison's laboratories - why the heck did Edison have a bottle of Dragon's Blood in his chemistry lab?

I emailed the National Park Service, and was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply. As I noted in my prior post, our tour guide was less than forthcoming about this odd possession of our country's most prolific inventor. I was prepared to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what the Park Service was hiding. Happily I did not need to play hard ball.

Karen Sloat-Olsen, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Edison's labs, was kind enough to pose my question to the lab's Archivist, Sound Recording Curator and Collection Manager. The Archivist reported that he had not run across any references to Dragon's Blood in Edison's lab notebooks. That was not encouraging, because Edison was known to keep very detailed notebooks.

She then checked with the Sound Recording Curator to see if there had been any reference to Dragon's Blood in the production of Edison's phonograph records, as Dragon's Blood can be used to make a resin. No luck there either.

Next, she turned to the Collection Manager. The Collection Manager checked to see if Edison had Dragon's Blood on his desk, since another use for the plant is for stomach ailments. Edison did have Listerine and some Soda Mint pills for his stomach, but no Dragon's Blood. I found this almost as interesting as the Dragon's Blood question - the fact that our government has a record of the contents of Edison's desk the day he passed away. Better be careful what you keep on your desk!

The Listerine is noteworthy - Edison was known to take short catnaps throughout the day, rather than sleeping for a full 8 hours at night. He would probably take a swig of the Listerine to get rid of that morning breath after waking up. And in case you were wondering, Soda Mint is a common name for sodium bicarbonate, the active ingredient in Alka-Seltzer and similar antacids.

Finally, the Collection Manager came through, by locating a reference to Dragon's Blood Gum in the Pattern Shop. The Pattern Shop is essentially a woodworking shop, which was used for making patterns for shaping sheet metal as well as prototype wood cases for Edison's phonographs. Since Dragon's Blood can be used to make varnish and wood stain, it makes sense it would be found in a wood shop (although why someone moved it to the chemistry lab is still a mystery). Believe it or not, this is one of the reasons I had suggested in my prior post for why Edison might have the Dragon's Blood. Boy, I love this stuff! I should have been a curator!

To end your year, here are a couple of photos of Edison's Pattern Shop. Have a great 2011!


  1. It just goes to show you, eh? The next burning question is: why is the plant named Dragon's Blood in the first place? And who named it that?

  2. Good questions, Ellen! Unfortunately I think the answers are lost in antiquity. According to Wikipedia, Dragon's Blood has been mentioned in reference books as far back as the first century AD. Wikipedia also reports that "there appears to have been a tendency to call anything that was bright red 'dragon's blood'", making it even harder to determine who might have been the first to use this name for the red resin from one of several species of plants. Another good question is - why not "ogre's blood" or "troll's blood"?

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