Historical Markers
Edward Acheson Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Edward Acheson

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
SW corner of Main and Maiden Sts., Washington

Dedication Date:
August 1953

Behind the Marker

Black and white head and shoulders image of Edward Goodrich Acheson.
Edward Goodrich Acheson, circa 1912.
It must have been a grimy but gratifying job. Still in his twenties, Edward Acheson had been sent by Thomas Edison in 1883 to install and electric lighting system in the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, an opulent theater commissioned by Maria Theresa 105 years earlier. To complete the wiring Acheson had to crawl among the old rafters to thread Edison's system into the building's infrastructure.

The precocious Acheson had brought himself to Edison's attention a few years earlier by presenting the inventor with a new battery cell of his own invention. Edison summoned Acheson to his Menlo Park lab to work under the tutelage of John Kreusi, Edison's top machinist and manager. Soon Acheson became assistant manager of Edison's European interests. He spent two and a half years traveling the continent installing electric dynamos and lighting systems in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, England, and Italy. After wiring La Scala, he returned home in 1884, quit Edison and went to work for one his rivals. 
Color photo carborundum
flip zoom
The Carborundum Company's Niagara Falls plant, Niagara Falls, NY, circa 1903.

Acheson had long been ambitious. Upon his father's death, he had quit school at the age of seventeen to support his family. For seven years he worked at odd jobs on the railroads and in various mining operations, and spent his evenings delving into electrical experiments. At sixteen he filed his first caveat-a document less detailed than a full-fledged patent application-with the U.S. Patent office for a coal-mining auger.

In his mid-twenties Acheson began to work for Edison and rose to the assistant manager of Edison's European interests. Upon arriving back in the States, he married (eventually fathering nine children) and became a supervisor in a New York firm that manufactured lighting equipment. Acheson soon, however, set up his own lab. In 1883 or 1884, Acheson accidently created hard, black crystals while dissolving carbon into molten corundum (a form of aluminum oxide) in an electric furnace. What he had discovered was a compound of carbon and corundum (hence the name carborundum), a gritty substance that proved second only to diamonds in hardness and abrasive quality. It was just the grist, literally, needed for production of the finely ground and machined parts required by American industries. 
Patent image
E. G. Acheson, Production of Artificial Crystalline Carbonaceos Materials,...

With funding from the Mellon National Bank in Pittsburgh, Acheson in 1894 started the Carborundum Company in Monongahela, which produced grindstones, knife sharpeners, and various abrasives. A year later, he relocated the plant to four acres near Niagara Falls, where his became one of the first companies to use the site's cheap hydroelectric power.
Edward Goodrich Acheson in the lab with his omnipresent cigar, testing Aquadag, a colloidal suspension of his artificial graphite.
Edward Goodrich Acheson in the lab with his omnipresent cigar, testing Aquadag,...

After obtaining the patent on carborundum in 1893, Acheson tried superheating it and discovered that when carborundum is brought up to 7,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the silica vaporizes and leaves behind marker artificial graphite. Acheson patented that process in 1896 and after experimenting with colloidal suspensions of graphite, both oil and water based, started to mass-produce industrial lubricants.

He went on to found five other companies, all of which dealt with electro-thermal processes. All soon passed into the hands of more able professional managers, which allowed Acheson to keep doing what he did best: inventing. Active professionally until the age of seventy, he accumulated more than seventy patents in fields ranging from colloidal chemistry and abrasives to mechanics and electrochemistry.

Acheson received many prestigious awards. None were more impressive, however, than the accolade he received from the U.S. Patent Office, which in 1926 credited carborundum as one of twenty-two patents most responsible for the industrial age. Without it, the Office stated, "the mass production manufacturing of precision-ground components, interchangeable metal parts would marker be practically impossible." Five years later, Acheson died in New York at the age of seventy-five.
This portrait of a dark woman's face is created from etching and carborundum mezzotint.
Charlot, by Dox Thrash, c. 1938-39.

Acheson's inventions are still widely used today, including "Aquadag," a colloidal suspension of graphite used to coat television and other CRT screens. Carborundum remains in wide use in furnaces and refractories, rockets, high-tech ceramics, bearings, and brakes. Its thermal conductivity makes it very useful in electronics, as well.

In the 1930s, another innovative Pennsylvanian found yet another use for carborundum. Originally from Georgia, artist Dox Thrash came to Philadelphia in 1926. By that time Thrash was a well-traveled printmaker. While working with the Philadelphia-based Work Progress Administration's Graphic Arts Workshop from 1939 to 1940, Thrash invented a new printmaking technique that he named "Opheliagraphy," after his mother, which used carborundum to burnish copper plates, and thus create a surface that yielded soft, sumptuous neutral tones from palest grey to deepest black.

During World War II, Thrash and other Pennsylvania artists produced work with patriotic themes for the federal government. When Thrash applied for a job painting insignia on military planes in the Philadelphia Naval Yard, he was turned down because he was African American. Thrash found work painting houses for the Philadelphia Housing Authority and remained a vital part of the city's art circles until his death in 1965. Many of the graphics techniques made popular in the 1960s can be traced to his innovations.
Back to Top